It’s was the closest I’ve been to surviving a tornado & I did it in a 69 Ford Super Van in board shorts and pink Havanas next to a girl in a bikini.
On blind faith and a good sense of adventure I once bought a 1969 Ford super van for $1800 with my girlfriend at the time. With the intention of driving it as far as it would go.
Turns out it could make from Calgary Alberta to San Pedro De Atilan Guatemala and
back with not even a flat tyre, well there was also a little issue with some wind and the roof blowing off, nothing major!
After spending a solid 45 minutes researching extensively through the most recent addition of that months auto trader we found exactly 3 vans that fit the criteria. One, they were camperised and two, they cost less then $2000. It’s easy to narrow down choices when you know exactly what you're looking for! The first van was a rough looking Dodge campervan with a 460 dinosaur guzzling engine in it. Plastered exclusively from front to back in a sort of "great depression" dark brown. It would roughly burn enough fossil fuels to get from point A to point B as it would a Civic to get through points A to Z. It seemed what one would buy in the early eighties when they could not afford a motor home, yet wanted to keep up with what the Joneses were buying. I liked it, I could see the girl friend on the verge of digestional regurgitation. Next van call was we received by an answering machine informing us that they would not be waiting around today to show off there van to the next set of mis-guided youth, so I left a message.
Cold call number three led us to a peculiar fellow whom seemed like he was selling his fist born over the phone more then trying to clean out some space in the back yard for a load of wood he had coming. I simply asked "was the van was still available” and I believe I was not allowed to do much more then listen for the next 25 minutes. Finally I broke the speech and told the guy it would be cheaper for me to drive there then pay for the long distance on my cell phone. So after the lengthy and detailed instruction, we made tracks to the sellers abode.
There sat at the long end of a cul-de-sac just passed a grassy green space what appeared to be Fords idea of turning the Canadian flag into a patriotic camper van. We both bust into laughter as we drove down the lane.
Red on white with white on red paint. Dawning a flat Moai statue nose, saucer sized headlights that headed up the front of large awkward body over gnarly road trip tires with a series of doors each leading to two lazy boy inspired captains chairs, a large laid out bed, clearly designed by Americans not Europeans, a well built steel hunk of classic early style camping sink, storage enough for a couple of Blue New Zealand Penguins and two back doors that kicked open to reveal the adventure inside. One of them weighted down by another gnarly spare that dawned a bicycle rack. The soft subtle difference on the outside between this Econolined style van and a typical Econoline styled van was the four hinges that sat near each of the four corners of the roof. By unlatching each of these and then properly positioning ones self on the middle front then middle back. With knees slightly bent, hands firmly on the roof and arms pressing with all there might. One could combine all efforts of the body at one time upwards and an extra eight inches of space was created, this allowing ample walking space to enjoy the luxuries of the vans interior, an interior you learn to love in a space comparable to a prison cell.
After what was a steady three hours of our tour guide showing and explaining the features of the van and a great deal of it’s personal history including a signed thank you letter from Ford Canada in Toronto thanking the buyer personally for purchasing this fine piece of machinery some four decades previous. We were to be the third owners in it's lifetime, try finding that twice!
We were shown each possible secret and feature that was to become our future home. A few included the “dog house”, a spot where the engine is housed between the two captains chairs inside the van. A slightly 0verwhelming feature when you are driving through the Nevada dessert to the Burning Man festival in a steady 40oC heat with a car engine next
to your knee caps. 90-90 A/C, where the van is going 90 KMPH with the windows rolled %90 of the way down. Driving past us was similar to glancing through the view window of a countertop rotisserie oven, where you could watch the skin of your roast chicken brown up as the juices slowly ran down the side. Ummmm crispy hippie skin, my favourite. Ron Popeil would have been impressed!
Another included a swivel captions chair. On nights when one were having company over for dinner and drinks, one could easily swivel the passenger chair around to include extra seating for more engaged and popular parties! As well as some more modern upgrades such as an after market cruise control that was to become the saviour of my right thigh and an automatic pump administered to the line of our water storage then to the sink, thus enabling a more efficient way to do up the dishes. By this time, I’m like a greyhound watching the rabbit before the gate opens, wound up and pawing around waiting to be let go.
The man who was forcefully giving up his son/van handed us a file folder as thick as the original Webster’s dictionary with detailed information of every part change, oil change and upgrade his son/van had had since birth. Hand made diagrams, liner notes written in sharpie on the side of the file and documented warranty information. This alone was worth $1800 in either personal value or possibly a niche market collector’s item.
With the arrival of this mans wife it became more clear as to why we were reluctantly being sold this part of the family and she was more then delighted to see our interest and show off his. Parked to the west
of there house in what was originally a complete yard and was now an eye sore flanked on four sides by that seasons overgrowth of grass, was an early nineties Astro van that had some minor modifications made to it so that it to could be used by the avid weekend warrior. This campervan graveyard marked the path to the most recent of projects. Stashed from the general public in an alley garage sat a UPS or Purolator style Mercedes van, narrow with a high back, white like winter clouds. With the grin of a child on Christmas morning he opened the back to revel double bunk beds attached to the left side, ample storage and giant clear bins to the front. Down the right lie the making of a sink and water storage and tucked away with the storage was a Porto-potty. The excitement of his accomplishments was being slightly overshadowed by the wife’s excitement to get rid of one of these vans. I see this as a nice bargaining tool.
Some general story swapping of adventure and a quick outline of our future plans was met with hugs and well wishing as we hit the road. After liquidating our lifestyle and subletting the apartment, we were ready for the road. I remember being in the final few stages of family good byes when my sister in law, a school teacher with Napoleon style organisation, coupled with a history of having 5 and 10 year lifestyle plans, handed us some travel literature there school was finally abandoning. Including a nineties Lonely Planet Mexico addition soft covered travel book, some ten years outdated. This was to become our reference for maps, establishments and price “reference”, ten year out dated price reference!
The van was to become a magnet for police attention, a safe haven for personal refuge, a gathering center for friends, a house of love, and a trusted friend. It was targeted for seizure and search by the U.S. boarder
patrol. Involved in the slowest police since O.J. Simpson, in the city of
Hermosillo. Where we were let off by three officers based on shear amazement that the van was from Canada and not the U.S.
It had a hiding zone for Jill when we were accosted by a group over enthusiastic men reaching in and jumping onto us at the Mexico – Guatemala boarder crossing. Housed enough costumes to outfit a small Halloween party on the beach in Puerto Escondido, though somehow we could not find room for a first aid kit. It even made for a bar whilst camping at a Pemex gas station, where we introduced the locals to a popular Canadian drink, "The Caesar” and befriended the workers. An ex-illegal immigrant of L.A. whom knew great English until his 8th rye and coke then could barely remember his name. A young man whose heritage stems from the Maztec Indian culture who’s seconded
language was Spanish and a short round security guard boasting a loaded shot gun whom initially demanded a “propina” (tip) for us to camp and was after several ryes, acquiring us free Coke from a locked convenience store and demonstrating how to operate a loaded shot gun. He later passed out in the bushes with a younger female companion, gun and all, just another night at the 24 gas bar!
The van also made for a chill out zone in the mid-after noon of a 45oC dessert day,
after coming down from an all night party in the community of Black Rock City in the Nevada dessert. And successfully, without incident made it from the Rocky Mountains of Canada through the California coastline, beach towns of Eastern Mexico and through nineteen hairpin switchbacks of which one could see the evidence of those who did not make the turns scattered down the mountains edge into the beautiful volcanic community of San Pedro De Atitlan Guatemala. At one point we even became the breaks of the 76 Westfalia housing our new travel companions behind us, hitting a guard rail over looking some thousands of feet of un-recovering tumbles below, that's probably the most nervous I've been in my life. Ever see that Simpsons episode where Homer is about to go over the cliff and he does everything to shift the weight of the car, including turning the radio tuner all the way to the right. This is us exactly, though we have a bus coming up the mountain that can't stop and a Westfalia attached to our ass as we need to backup off the guardrail before we become a splattering of the scenery, yikes!
Basically there was nothing this van didn’t see, conquer and enjoy on this cross-Americas road trip of a life time. Well there was this one little set back that made for an interesting afternoon, by little I mean, “Jesus that was scary” and by set back I mean “we almost lost all of our worldly possessions and quite possibly our lives!”.
There’s a stretch of road on the 200 Interamericana highway a little ways past Salina Cruz in the state of Oaxaca southern Mexico. It’s roughly 250kms from Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean with a narrow stretch where the rocky mountains that run from the tips of North America to the depths of South America come to a sombre flattened lay out. This natural path of geographical layout combined with barometric pressure and seasonal fluxes in air current makes for a steady air flow, producing an ideal year round wind farm. Or a seasonal obstacle course for truckers with big rigs and unseasoned road trippers driving sheets of plywood with a 302 under the hood, us being the latter.
Upon first crossing through here with our Quebec caravaners the first time we took it quite cautiously as we had read the wind could get quite crazy and there had been reports of cars blowing off the road in the past. “What cars blowing off the freaking road! Crikey!!!” Well it wasn’t that bad and we scooted right along into Guatemala via one of the most bazaar boarder crossings I’d ever been part of.
Welllllllllllllll......... this warning became a touch more relevant on the way back.
………………………Skip ahead 6 weeks……………………………………
Ahhhhhh driving back through into Mexico. We are presented with the same road, same situation, same van, same people. We are driving this nice stretch of highway North back to Canada. Nice sunny day, steady flow of highway traffic speckled with cars, trucks & tractor trailers. The scenery laden with endless miles of fields, dotted by post after post of fence line with the vast wind turbines encompassing the skyline. Just as before, the road signs post warnings to maintain a slow speed as "winds may gust". Traffic is unusually slower then the previous crossing more then a month ago. There is a mild tension in the air as I notice a line of tractor trailers snugging up on one another like a row of circus elephants. Ignoring all exterior warnings we just cruise along in the Supervan. As the wheels roll on we are passing more and more autos on the highway, I can’t understand it, so I just keep pressing along. Jill notices a draft in the van and inspects where it is coming from. We check the windows in the front and back, the vents, the doors… nothing.
I start to notice my hands pull the wheel more to the right to keep the Supervan straight on the road way. By now traffic is steadying to 30kmph with the big rigs getting tighter to each other clocking in closer to 15kmph, aside from a number of new pick ups we are the only ones whizzing by traffic.
Jill again notices the draft in the cab getting greater, I’m to concentrated on the highway to notice much more then the odd looks we are getting as we whiz by cars. We cant for the life of us sort out where this hefty draft has been arising from.
Now I’m getting a tad bemused by all that is taking place and I just want to get the hell through this stretch of the road, so I keep whizzing along. Now traffic is going roughly 20kmph and the rigs are nose to end plodding along around 5kmph, almost a stand still. The wheel in my hand is holding a tough battle to the right just to keep the sheet of plywood I’m driving in a straight line.
Off to the west like a tumble weed through a wild west town there are love seats and chunks of furniture rolling through the field from out of an over turned furniture rig, actually blowing through the field!!!
By now the traffic has all slowed, the wheel of the van has been held a hefty right angle, the draft inside has increased dramatically the tension is at visible breaking point. Then at that moment in the middle of the highway, headed home from the road trip of a lifetime, in the midst of unimaginable wind, tension gives way to the breaking point. SNAP, SNAP!!! The hinges holding the passenger side of the van roof give way from there holding point and the roof lets loose from it’s holsters. It’s ripped open like flesh of prey that has been trounced by the overpowering predator, in this case wind.
Papers! Curtains! and the roof paneling are sent to meet the tumbling of the furniture in the field!!! We are now stopped in the dead center of the highway, two early twenties Canadians, dawning board shorts and a bikini at the mercy of mother nature and no idea what the hell to do...
After years of working window as a line cook in hot kitchens with a questionable work force whom are typically hung over or strung out with large knifes in there hands, I’d developed a reputation to maintain a cool head in almost any situation. Jill by nature is laid back, yet easily excitable. Well she’d become over the top exited and began to lose it a touch, becoming unwound out about what to do. I had also managed to loose my cool and I believe for the first time in my life told her matter of factly to “CALM THE FUCK DOWN AND GRAB THE GOD DAMN HANDLES SO WE CAN KEEP THE FUCKING ROOF ON THIS FUCKING VAN”, we were both a tad out of our element.
This worked for roughly ten seconds until the handles came off in her hands and the roof went blasting back up into the air.
I find that it’s at that last possible moment when all hope seems lost and there are but no other options then to succumb to the world, if you pause for just a moment the solution presents itself. In this case the solution was the largest, oldest black tow truck, stacked with three Mexican angles.
I for one am not to keen on religion, Angels, or acts of God. Though in that moment I had been part of an act of god, announced my new faith and prayed on it and seen three of the Seven Spanish Angels Willie Nelson had been singin about and am more then welcoming when miracles present themselves. This tow truck stopped, the three locals then proceeded to asses the situation further then offer assistance. I’d now completely forgot all Spanish I’d learned and could not communicate a word. So naturally they took over the situation.
Now we’d been living in this van for roughly four months by this point and I’m fairly confident I could tell you where each and every item and cranny of this home away from home was located, as well we had cleansed the place of any items not completely necessary.
Like I’d mentioned earlier I’m quite happy when miracles present themselves.
Well, this one Mexican angle reached into a cubby hole that I’d been in and out of a hundred times before and well he pulled out roughly 40 feet of television cable, friggin television cable. Not rope, or chain or even something that might make sense. FORTY FRIGGIN FEET OF TELIVISON CABLE! I’d never seen nor had any reason to have television cable in this van for any reason at all whatsoever prior to this.
Like trained navy seals the next 3 minutes were a flurry of rescue activity. One jumped in the van, helping to pull the roof down, finally we slammed it back down and the other two began to lasso the roof to the mirrors and around the van. Through the blasting wind and all the activity I could hear this man and Jill both yelling. Finally I realise we had closed his fingers in the roof and we had to untie then reseal the roof once he was free, woops!
Finally the other two had wrapped the cable around the window, over the roof, under the van, around the spare tyre, round the roof a few more times and synched in place, fewf! Well almost, until we realised the poor guy who had his fingers smashed was now our prisoner in the van. They had to untie a few loops and let the guy out, prior to tying us back in. We explained in very clear English that we’d meet them in the next town. Yet like all angles they appeared when we needed them and we never saw them again.
A number of Spanglish enquiries and some solid leads from this bartender and that waiter, we landed a mechanic who’d fix the roof the following day. His shop lay behind chain linked fence with the opening heavily guarded by a number of loosely chained pit bulls. After narrowly being taken as lunch he stopped the dogs, spent the next 6 hours hand drilling then riveting our roof shut and the bargaining began.
I knew I was heavily at his mercy as we had not cleared up the price first and he had the van in his shop behind three hungry pit bulls. We set forth the negotiations in Spanish and I was not prepared to pay more the $200 US. What ever his first offer was, I planned to blow it off and offer half what he was asking. So in my Canadian Spanish I asked him the price. There was a long pause of about a minute while he calculated his time, the shop supplies, the fact that’d we’d been bumped to the front of the line, we were obviously Americans and had enough $$$ to travel around the countryside. I could see the numbers adding up. Finally he hit me “doscientos”. Damn, $200 that was my max, I was about to hit him back with $100, then Jill stopped me. Pulling me to the side she explains that she’s sure he means Pesos, not Dollars. I think she’s kidding. So I ask him, Pesos or Dollars? “Pesos Senor”. Holy door crusher deal, that’s only $20US. I drop $20 in his hand like it's the offering plate at the church of "You just saved my ass" and were headed North to Canada.
Tripule Adoro Mexico!