My dad and I were not allowed to touch the van during the packing process. My mother was in charge, and we were the heavy lifters, hauling plastic tubs of spices, boxes of books, boxes of wine, tool boxes. Tina instructed us to set everything by the back doors of the van. She would crawl underneath the plywood bed, on her hands and knees, visible only by the bottoms of her sneakers. It was my job to stand waiting while she huffed and puffed, arranging and rearranging. Eventually she’d bark: “OK, pass me the propane tank,” or “I need something oblong, about a foot wide, not too fragile!”
I’d heave the desired object onto the bumper, and wait while she contorted around to grab it and slide back into the dense puzzle of camping gear. I found the process maddening: life stripped of problem solving or decision making, reduced to brute strength and waiting for orders. And, as an eight-year-old girl, brute strength was not really my forte.
The first van I remember was a white Chevy, which was our traveling home for the first ten years of my life. Zebu (named after the sacred white Indian cow) had a blue dashboard and blue plaid accents. My parents had modified the interior, adding homemade components. My bed was a plywood box along the sidewall. You could lift my foam sleeping pad to access storage compartments where we kept our clothes. My parents’ bed was in the back, separated from the rest of the van by a bookshelf crammed with the winter’s paperbacks.
We lived in this van for part of the summer and five months every winter, driving south into Baja, taking the stinking, listing ferry to Topolobampo, and then arcing through mainland Mexico, hitting a circuit of annual destinations: Mazatlan, Tepic, Tenacatita, San Miguel de Allende, Las Estacas, Oaxaca, San Cristobal de las Casas, and sometimes further east or south, to the Yucatan, or Guatemala.
When we’d stop for the night, my dad could open the back doors and unfold his cook box. The lid of the plywood cube had legs that supported a fold-out cutting board, and the inside contained compartments crammed with spices, cooking oil, canned food, and items, such as peanut butter, that were expensive in Mexico. If we were camping somewhere safe from harassment, we’d pull tables out and set the stove up outside, but if we were sleeping in a rest area or on a city street, Steve would hunch down to cook dinner right out of the back of the van.
My parents didn’t like paying money to camp. Staying at a KOA was about as likely as a shopping spree at Neiman Marcus. Steve gnashed his teeth at National Parks. State Parks provoked mild grumbling about the price. National forests were preferable; rest areas and side streets were the fallback plan. In Mexico, where things were cheaper, my dad did enjoy staying at RV parks, which allowed him to roam about, swapping stories and making instant friends. But we spent much of our time camping on desert side roads, dry river beds, whorehouse parking lots, mechanic’s yards, farm yards, wide spots on the sides of highways, soccer fields, and sometimes even dumps.
All those nights and dawns distill to a handful of memories. Camping on a dirt track in the desert of northern Mexico. Tina standing by the smoking fire pit playing the fiddle, her fur-clad back to us, facing the monstrous mountains, which were black against a lavender skyline. My dad washed the dishes on a rickety card table, and the van glowed faintly white in a desert twilight that stretched flat and empty as far as I could see, the distant highway a grey stripe that roared with the lonely sound of trucks.
I got used to being stared at. Whether it was the bouffant waitress in the Texas truck stop who clucked at me sympathetically as though I were a homeless waif, or the villagers who were seeing an American for the first time, we moved through the world as perpetual outsiders. We often attracted attention. In the U.S. it was cops, but in Mexico more likely a gaggle of curious children, or a farmer, who no doubt wondered what these weird gringos were doing camping in his field. In Mexico, people were rarely unfriendly or unwelcoming, but rather curious. They’d stand and watch us in mute fascination, as though we were an alien ship, descended from the skies.
Working class Mexicans seemed to be generally unconcerned about our dirty van, our ragged camping gear, my dad’s unkempt beard, or my mom’s penchant for going bra-less. Maybe they just expected gringos to be weird in some way or another, and our variety of weird didn’t seem any stranger than, say, middle class tourists from Nebraska. Despite a certain curiosity, people were unflappable. The collective memory of the campesinos, or country people, was a cycle of revolution, civil war, warring fiefdoms, cartoonishly corrupt administrations, and bizarre government whims. They weren’t about to get too worked up by a family of hippies appearing in their cornfield. In fact, as is often the case with rural people, visitors were viewed with some delight. Sometimes my dad would offer a landowner some pesos or a chair, and they’d talk, swapping stories as the sun set over sonorous fields. A woman would emerge, exchange words with her husband, and hand my mother a bundle of tortillas or a bunch of plantains.
Mexico taught me that life can be generous. We lived on the luck of the road and relied on the kindness of strangers. Breakdowns became friendships and idle conversations led us to new destinations: a village of Michoacan Indians who manufactured pornographic pottery or a secret bay where you could camp for free for years.
My parents were addicted to the country. Mexico had a feral wonder, a predictable unpredictability that never ceased to delight them. As hippies, they believed in making things, making things up, and making things work. Mexico was a country of making do, of fixing cars with the available parts instead of the right parts, of turning car hoods into roofs, or tires into soles, or tin cans into flower pots. My parents never tired of pointing out these innovations. And they reveled in the generous and convivial spirit of the country. The Mexican habit of welcoming all visitors, of sharing whatever you had, was a true embodiment of the hippie ethos. But somehow, perhaps through hundreds of years of practice, Mexicans did it better.
This is an excerpt of a book I’m working on. Suggestions and criticism welcome. Copywrite 2015 by Felisa Rogers. All rights reserved. Please do not reprint without permission.