Steamboat Springs You’ve probably seen it — a Volkswagen Bug painted with psychedelic swirls of lime green, hot pink, yellow and lavender and dotted with bright orange stars.
Lisa Schlichtman's "Exploring Steamboat" column appears throughout the year in the Steamboat Today.
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Jean Benton and her art-on-wheels car are a common sight in Steamboat Springs, and as Jean drives down Lincoln Avenue, she gets waves, honks and thumbs-up from the people she passes.
“I can change people’s demeanor just by driving by,” Jean said.
And therein lies the magic, and the message, that Jean hopes her little car represents.
“The car is the star; the car is the story,” Jean said, struggling to find just the right words to describe what the car means to her and what she hopes it symbolizes to others.
On Thursday, Jean will celebrate 15 years of being cancer free. Her VW Bug will also celebrate its 15th birthday, and just this week, the car’s odometer topped 92,000 miles.
Jean bought the VW bug in 1999 and decided to have it painted in recognition of her battle against breast cancer. She said the idea came to her after a friend recommended she read the book, “Ten Fun Things to Do Before You Die.”
“No. 1 was have more fun, so I bought the Bug and had it painted,” Jean said.
Five years later, Jean considered selling the car to close the “cancer chapter” in her life, but when she told oncologist Dr. Allen Cohn her plans, he urged her to reconsider.
“He said, ‘You can’t; the car keeps cancer away.’ And I think he was right. The energy I get from other people who see the car is amazing,” Jean explained.
As Jean has driven her car all around Steamboat and across the country, she has allowed her car to share her story.
“I’ve met so many people because of the car,” Jean said. “And so many of those people are cancer survivors, too.”
Survivor is a “good” word in Jean’s estimation, and she believes you can’t truly understand its powerful meaning until you’ve worked through trauma in your own life and come out on the other side.
“Never a day goes by that someone doesn’t talk to me about my car, and most of the time I get to share my story,” Jean said.
The car even comes with its own autograph book, though Jean had to search a little to find it. Back when her car was new, she asked people to sign the book and share a little of their story with her.
Some of the messages read: “Life is a journey, and you’re both on,” “Enjoy your next 50 years,” “Thanks for decorating our drab roadways,” “ The world needs more people like you” and “Awesome, dude!”
As Jean celebrates 15 years free of cancer, she is thankful she heeded Dr. Cohn’s advice and kept her colorful car — especially now, in light of her husband Larry’s death from Lou Gehrig’s disease 18 months ago.
“The car is a little more important to me now,” Jean said. “It was part of a dream I shared with my husband.”
Jean talks about her VW as if it has a life of its own, and maybe it does. The car always sparks conversations and seems to spread cheerfulness wherever Jean travels.
“It changes the energy as I go by,” Jean says. “People wave or yell out their window at me, and never a day goes by that someone doesn’t take a picture of the car. It really is pretty amazing.”
To reach Lisa Schlichtman, call 970-871-4221, email lschlichtman@SteamboatToday.com or follow her on Twitter @LSchlichtman