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‘Heavy in the Holler’ celebrates the American van and the people who love them

Photo by Richard Rourk • Sean Thomas stands with his “Vanther,” a van named for a color scheme reminiscent of the Pink Panther cartoon.

By Richard Rourk

Nolichucky Gorge Campground & Cabins recently hosted an American tradition more than 50 years in the making. The local attraction held its annual Heavy in the Holler Vanning event on Friday-Sunday, June 4-6. 

“We look forward to this each year, “ said Nolichucky Gorge Campground & Cabins owner Rick Murray. “It’s a friendly group.”

Vanners from all over the United States came to show off their unique rides and to bond along the Nolichucky River. 

Vanners are dedicated owners of vans, which quite often display customized designs.

“My wife and I came down from Beaver Dam, Wisconsin,” said one vanner by the name of Shannon McGilvra.

Vanning isn’t just about the love of vans, but it is a subculture that all started as a counterculture collision born out of the shadows of surfing, the Vietnam War and the spirit of those who came of age in the 1960s and early 1970s.

According to McGilvra, vanning events like the Heavy in the Holler are a way for old friends to connect across the United States. 

Photo by Richard Rourk • In Erwin for the Heavy in the Holler event hosted by Nolichucky Gorge Campgrounds & Cabins, vanner Zach Byron explained that his Bud Light van is an exceptional rarity. Budwiser, in partnership with the automobile manufacturer Chevrolet, created three of these fans to give away in a 1986 contest. Byron said that, as far as he knows, his van is the only one of the three still on the road.

“This is what we do,” McGilvra said. “We come from all over, like this guy that owns the Electric Boogaloo. He’s from Orlando, but I met him at a vanning show several years ago in Massachusetts.”

“Vanther” owner Sean Thomas brought his 1977 Dodge van all the way from Hiawassee, Georgia, to attend Heavy in the Holler. 

“I named her Vanther because of the panther pink paint scheme,” Thomas said. “This van build took roughly three and a half years.”

Vanner Zach Byron explained just how rare his Bud Light van is. “In 1986, Budweiser in partnership with Chevy, created three of these vans to give away in a contest,” Byron said. “I got this van about this time last year and as far as I know it’s the only one out of the three still on the road.”

According to McGilvra, vanning never really went away. 

“It’s never died; in fact, it’s growing,” McGilvra said. 

A recurring theme of the vans on display during the event was a sticker that read simply “2 percenter.” 

McGilvra explained what it means to be a 2 percenter and the origin of the title. 

Photo by Richard Rourk • The owner of the Electric Boogaloo van drove from Florida to attend the “Heavy in the Holler” event.

“It all depends on who you talk to,” McGilvra said. “The two percenter thing started when corporations started to run van shows in the seventies and tried to alienate a section of vanners by claiming that only ‘two percent of vanners were ruining it for everybody else.’ Being a two percenter means you have fun, do what you want to do as long as you aren’t bothering anybody else.”