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VW Camper Van Ghost Story Part One

Traveling film-maker Elliott Bristow was no stranger to the hazards of driving across America. Since 1969 he had criss-crossed the United States many times, first taking the 'Groove Tube' review on early videotape to college audiences, and later showing his own four-screen movie presentation 'Road Dreams', with footage taken on his travels through all four time zones of the USA.

It had all started in New York, where, on April 5, 1968, he had arrived from England for a two week holiday. A bizarre event led to him staying longer than expected. In his second week in New York, he was held at gunpoint by an armed and strangely polite robber, who was later apprehended. So Elliott could act as a witness, his visa was extended, and he ended up staying a year, by which time he'd decided he wished to remain in the States.

He had got a job with Channel One based in New York's Lower East side. They were a groundbreaking media company who recorded comedy reviews on early videotape, and showed it under the title 'The Groove Tube' at college venues across the States

Elliott volunteered for the job of 'video roadie', i.e. driving with the bulky tape player and black and white tv set across the country, showing the review at colleges and universities. Mode of transportation was Channel One's early 60's split screen VW bus, which was used for carrying the equipment, and to provide on the road accommodation. Encouraged by a friend, he began to use a Super 8 movie camera to record the sights he saw along the way, and started to build up an archive.

During this period Elliott was involved in a road accident, in which he would discover the true meaning of that familiar warning sign, the one with the deer jumping into the air. It happened at night on Interstate 80 between Columbus, Ohio and Muskingum.

He was driving east along the Interstate at the van's maximum speed of around 70 mph, when, without any warning, a large deer - described later by the policeman as a 9 point buck - bounded over the edge of the highway and directly into the path of the VW van. There was no possibility of taking evasive action. The animal had simply jumped into the air on a trajectory which put it directly in the path of the vehicle, and in an instant, thousands of pounds of animal flesh slammed into the front of the split screen van. The impact was dampened by the spare tire on the front, but the van toppled over onto one side, skidding across the lanes of the highway and into the central strip.

Elliott was inside, unsecured - few people wore seatbelts in those days. He hit his head on the windshield and was knocked unconscious.

Slowly coming to, he remembers piecing together what had happened, like assembling bits of a mosaic. He heard the dripping of gasoline from the rear of the van, and was able to make a swift exit. Miraculously, he was unharmed, and the van didn't blow. It had skidded off the main highway, out of the path of passing trucks.

Elliott hitched a ride, phoned the college where he was due to show the film, and explained what had happened. They came, unloaded the video equipment, took it to the venue and within two hours of the accident, he was showing the presentation to another audience. Only later did the reality of the accident sink in, and Elliott began to suffer from delayed shock. The van, with its crumpled front end, was a write-off. And Elliott was lucky to be alive.

Using a succession of cars provided by Channel One, he was able to continue taking the show to colleges around the country, but by 1970, video technology had improved, making it unnecessary to carry equipment to the venue - a video cassette could be sent and played on one of the new video players instead.

But Elliott wanted to continue life on the road and so he decided to put together a presentation of his own. He would display his Super 8 footage on four projectors with four screens, one for each of the four time zones of mainland USA. It was a unique cinematic experience that never failed to impress audiences.

Fees gained for showing the film would be used to finance further trips, on which he would gather more Super 8 footage, to be incorporated into the show, and so it went on.

Now with a show of his own, but very little money, he wrote in desperation to Volkswagen of America, hoping they might be able to loan him a van. They were so impressed with Elliott's show and with the publicity opportunities it offered, they gave him one, a brand new shiny VW Bay camper van.

He used this VW bus to take his show to all corners of the States, gathering ever more Super 8 footage as he went along.

Life on the road was exciting but not always carefree. Operating on a tight budget, and there could be no stays in expensive motels. On a long drive to a gig, Elliott would often pull over and sleep in the van, either for a few hours, or for the whole night.

Parked by isolated highways in the middle of nowhere, in the early hours, with the engine switched off, lights extinguished, and no sound but the wind or a lone bird or animal, it often felt threatening.

But what could happen? Many things. Some crazed individual could come along, smash the windows, break into the van and threaten you with a knife or gun. Luckily it never did happen in all of Elliott Bristow's travels across the United States.

But he had a couple of brushes in the middle of the night when he felt decidedly vulnerable.

One of them was at Four Corners, the spot where the four states of Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico meet. Tourists can stand on all fours with feet and hands in all four states. A plaque marks the spot. Four Corners is not far from the Navajo Indian Reservation in New Mexico.

During the night, in a nearby car park, Elliott was asleep in the vehicle. Outside he heard the sound of men, laughing, cajoling, fighting, and driving a car around recklessly. Evidently they were from the reservation. The effects of alcohol on its young male population were well documented. Outside, the shouting continued. He lay tense inside, expecting the worst at any moment.

Luckily they went away, but if anything had happened, who would have known? There was no-one else around, the area was in the middle of nowhere, completely deserted.

Another incident happened in Washington state, near a full scale reconstruction of Stonehenge. Elliott had driven up to it and parked nearby for the night, around 200 yards away. At around 2am, he heard the sound of people outside. They weren't shouting, or raucous, but quiet and measured. It was as if they were taking part in some kind of ceremony.

If it had been in the middle of the day, he might have got out of the van and asked them what they were doing, but at 2 in the morning, different rules seem to apply. He waited with bated breath for something to happen. It didn't. At least not on that occasion. The sounds receded and he drifted back into sleep.

When parking overnight, the main priority would be to get out of the line of the headlamps of passing cars. An isolated vehicle parked next to the road would attract attention, particularly from the police.

Away from the road, it was possible to stay out of sight, with all lights switched off, in the black of night, miles from any town, you could be unseen, and get some sleep.

It was in an isolated location like this that Elliott was to get the shock of his life, an experience he has never since repeated, nor would he ever want to repeat it.

VW Camper Van Ghost Story continues on the next page...

Written by Aidan O'Rourke
Posted/Updated 2006-06-27

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