Geologist revels in hearse-turned-camper

Posted: Tuesday, April 02, 2002

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Jeff Rogers, an Ester-area geologist, generally tools around in a mundane red Toyota 4Runner, distinguished only by its rock-minded ''MINEIT'' vanity plates. But far more revealing is the other car sitting down the hill from Rogers' Old Nenana Highway home: the one that only makes it out twice a year.

If ever a vehicle was an expression of an owner's personality, the Cadibago -- in all likelihood, the world's only hearse-cum-camper-van-cum-greenhouse -- is it. The car features a black, white and gold paint job, four funeral urns on the roof and black plywood eagles on the sides, all set off by gold art-deco trim.

Rogers is only partially responsible for the bizarre transformation of the 1955 Cadillac Miller Meteor. The first conversion job was done by longtime area gold miner Don May.

''He used to be a mortician, and when he didn't want to do that anymore and became a gold miner, he took his hearse from his funeral business, cut off the beautiful part -- the hearse part -- and built the camper,'' Rogers said. ''He and his wife and six kids were living in that thing when they were out gold mining.''

Rogers first spotted the then ''big, white and ugly'' vehicle while doing gold survey work by helicopter off the Richardson Highway in the summer of 1999.

In addition to the oddball nature of the vehicle, Rogers admits there was another reason he was drawn to the Cadibago: a love of ''gargantuan, ridiculously huge, grotesque American hell-bent for leather'' vehicles. He now possesses three vintage Cadillacs -- the Cadibago, another hearse and a limousine -- that make the average SUV look compact and fuel-efficient in comparison.

It's a somewhat inexplicable passion, because Rogers is not given to excess. His home off the old Nenana Highway has no indoor plumbing and is powered mostly by solar panels and a windmill. ''Here we are, living off the grid like hippies, and buying gas-guzzling monsters,'' he said.

Of course, Rogers noted, fuel efficiency isn't exactly an issue. He doesn't drive the cars much. Plus, as his wife Margaret pointed out, he's saving cars on their last legs. ''He's recycling, and we're very into conservation and recycling,'' she said.

While the 'why' of the Cadibago may be a complex question, the 'how' proved surprisingly easy. Rogers was able to track down Don May and buy it from him for ''a couple hundred bucks.''

With no plan in mind, Rogers came back the next summer to the overgrown gold camp where the vehicle had been resting in peace since 1967. With help from friends, he towed the hearse to Ester. It took a few hours' work and ''$100 in beer and parts'' to get the long-dormant engine going again.

Rogers then faced the question of what to actually do with the thing, finally settling on the greenhouse idea, though that proved to be just a jumping-off point. ''Once I decided to make a greenhouse out of it,'' he noted, ''I thought, well, why not just go all out and make an art car out of it?''

After researching a few ideas, he concluded an art deco scheme would look good on the car. ''So I kind of mixed it all up -- greenhouse art deco hearse.''

It took one winter and about $1,000 to finish the project. Rogers used mostly scrap wood and windows recycled from a burnt-down home.

And while the Cadibago may have salved Rogers' nerves that winter, Margaret jokingly suggested the acquisition has fractured, rather than saved, his sanity. What began as a fixation on one outlandish vehicle has since turned Rogers into something of a junker junkie. ''I guess I've just got the bug now,'' he said. ''I'm like this predatory abandoned-car vulture.''

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