Overlanders

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!”

hippie family in van

Churpa, Steve, and Tina heading south in Zebu

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.

Steve cooking dinner.

Steve cooking dinner.

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.

Van parked on baja beach.

Camping in Baja in the good old days…

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. 

47 Responses to “Overlanders”

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  1. christine fuller says:

    I love it! I have been remeniscing lately of my childhood as I rummage through pictures and try to memorize every photo of my mom I can find…she just passed away a few weeks ago. We did mostly normal things like boat outings and tennis tournaments, though my kids will not use the word ‘normal’ in any descriptions of their childhood. In one sentence, you wrote “I got used to be stared at” instead of “being”, but that is the only error I saw. Lovely work!

    • Felisa Rogers says:

      Thanks Chris! I’m so sorry for your loss. Those words always sound hollow to me, even though they are true. And agreed–I’m sure your kids will never use the word “normal” to describe their childhoods, unless we hippies finally succeed in becoming the new normal. Also thanks for catching that…I always appreciate people who can spot typos.

  2. Mario Zupan says:

    Keep going Churpa! More!!

  3. Jrae says:

    Instantly Fascinated. I want more please. These are the stories I stay up in bed with a flashlight reading until dawn.
    Thanks for sharing ????Jessirae

  4. Jo Ann says:

    this is all so comforting to me sitting here in my sterile ish office at CSU……………thanks for remembering and for sharing…….

  5. John says:

    Keep going and let me know when and where I can buy the book. Hurry up!

  6. Jay Guettler says:

    Yes, please, more! I wanted to keep reading and exploring with your family. I plan to go to Mexico for the first time next Fall and am looking to do it as simply as I can just to increase the possibility of such an adventure. Thanks for the peek into your adventures.

  7. Bonnie Rollin says:

    I love the part about packing the car. I believe there is someone in charge of that in every family, it takes a person of a certain mind to know where everything goes. I would love to read more!

    • Felisa Rogers says:

      Thank you! And yeah, I am definitely not that person. These days I am under strict instruction from my husband to drop everything off by the trunk.

  8. Laeh Maggie Garfield says:

    You write as well as your mother and with the flair borne of a different generation. You dad was a good writer too so it’ is your inheritance. This will be an interesting book.. Keep the pictures in. They really bring life to the story.

  9. Jo Knight says:

    Always enjoy your writing so looking forward to more keep going.

  10. Chile says:

    Loved it. I’m that way as far as packing goes, pile everything up at the back of the truck and I’ll make it fit.

    • Felisa Rogers says:

      Always wondered how you managed to get that much crap down there. You must be a king among packers.

  11. Chile says:

    The first time that M.A. and I went to Mexico together, I wouldn’t let her take a hairdryer because we had a small pickup. I couldn’t figure out why she would need it.

  12. Ajit Dhillon says:

    I want a signed copy mailed to me! Despite how well you write…my curiosity of your story has been sparked

  13. The Legend says:

    Wonderful. Grammatically, I think you may be working the commas a bit too hard. The strongest parts are when you let you’re mind wander into the multi cultural philosophical cross pollination. Prose approximating verse. Like Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And I mean that. In a good way. I can always enjoy reading his paragraphs but never finished a single book.

    • Felisa Rogers says:

      Thank you. I’ll have a look at the commas. I used to be huge into Marquez when I was younger, but haven’t read one of his books in years. These days I prefer a crisper sentence, but I may have to revisit. Also, your name and your email definitely spark my curiosity. Ha.

  14. Larry Fay says:

    I love it. You are so fortunate to have been born a true hippie and wise enough to carry the best aspects of hippiedom forward, sharing it through your writing and living. Thank you.

  15. Hannah says:

    Ooh, nice! You’re writing the definitive On the Road book. Not two weeks driving from coast to coast, but the real deal. Love it!

  16. Oscar Gibbs says:

    bittersweet memories of growing up as I read. I remember the stares (long haired boy in the late ’60s/early 70’s), rambling across Canada in a vw camper bus, on the cheap. Fun on our way to Santa Fe in ~’70. I look forward to the rest. thank you!

    • Felisa Rogers says:

      Hi Oscar! Thank you…Ah yes, lots of Santa Fe memories. I’ll be getting to those.

  17. Maria Lee says:

    What a childhood you had! Idyllic. I loved this post. Maria

  18. -El Codo- says:

    The lifestyle baton has been passed. The thing is Churpa, the rural lifestyle has not changed -that- much down here. But instead of hauling 500 paperbacks to read and trade, I have a NOOK now, with capacity to hold several thousand books, and an ability to visit any WiFi facility and get the latest hot-off-the-press edition. Having a “Glow Light” means no hotel extension cord lamp rigging, being able to read on the midnight express bus to Xalapa. A solar panel to recharge the laptop battery, light-years better insulated coolers, and sweet purified water everywhere. How many hours were robbed standing in line waiting for LA LISTA de CORREOS, or la oficina telefonica de larga distancia, or endless lines in banks exchanging dolares?

    The -early days- were suited to young folks who could endure prison-grade mattresses, trying (fruitlessly) to thwart clouds of no-see-ums with citronella oil, laughing when you found yourself back at the same spot four times trying to navigate through a sign-less pueblo. Dodging potholes like mad, and saying “Damn! I forgot the….” at least a hundred times on a long trip.

    Being (at one time) tall, meant scraping my knees raw on a seatback on a chicken bus that managed fifteen-twenty miles between times that steam rolled out from beneath the hood.

    I remember the breath-taking moments of finding an empty pristine beach, eager fishermen hoping you’ll buy their large lobsters for a dollar, Marina raids at 0200 demanding to know where you are hiding the inevitable horde of seafood gathered illegally.

    “Say, are you coming up from (Puerto Escondido, Ocozocuautla, Tapachula?” A chance meeting of two gringos in a tiny restaurant because the late comer saw the USA plates of the other and swerved off the highway. “How’s the highway, the cops, the weather, camping spots, cheap hotels, taco stands?”

    Today, it’s common in non-rural areas for shoppers to pretend they don’t see the unidentified other gringo standing a foot and a half from them. It gets hilarious.

    A gringo walks up to me while I am trading chisme with one of the residents and waits patiently until the conversation is finished. “Say do you speak English”?

    “Si”

    But the planning that went into packing in those early days got intense to the point of becoming neurotic. Of course it all didn’t fit. ‘Not even close. What to discard? Heaven help me, what to discard or leave behind? I remember when Cutter’s the insect repellent hit the market. But no one in the USA had it in their store. So I drove to Berkeley. Right to the horse’s mouth so to speak. The miracle collapsible oven that did so permanently before I even crossed the Mexican border. Heavy-as-hell genuine olive drab jerry cans for gasoline, a wide-mouth jerry can with a white some sort of coating inside for potable water. KITCHEN MATCHES! Not the pathetic Mexican matches that bent like a twig in a hurricane, and smoldered for a half-minute before finally expiring altogether. But thick, stout DIAMOND matches that Mexicans drooled over. A brushed stainless steel ZIPPO lighter with large can of fluid and extra flints. A brand new model Coleman white gas three-burner stove and a new two burner lantern. Five gallons of white gas wrapped in rags, so rough roads, would not jiggle them and wear a hole through the sides.

    The relief, the excitement of finally getting on the road. The worry about the Grand Plan: Life in Mexico on six dollars a day not counting gasoline. CONASUPO!. The store that sold, masa, flour, tons of sugar, and incredibly pathetic shriveled vegetables and fruit for bargain prices.

    The first night south-of-the-border. “God! I hope it’s warmer than this, further south!”

    “Lessee 12 tamales for forty pesos at 12.49 to the dollar. Will they last 4 days in the ice chest? Oh my God, the ice chest. Three days! Gotta find an ice house right away. Señora – E-YELLO?”

    Mexico for a girl aged eight. Did you -ever- get bored and pout, THIS SUCKS? Or were you running amuck “half-naked” without a care in the world?

    Meanwhile Codo was having a 10-year old shinny up a coconut palm on Playa de Oro with six strings of Christmas tree lights and a long extension cord. Campesinos walked for miles in the evening to see the gringo bien loco and la palma de navidad.

    And can I please plead with everyone to be kind to Felisa? The elusive muse is positively not a figment of the imagination. A muse fled because of criticism and critique will lead to eternidades of avoidable delays waiting for a much anticipated book. Me too Churpa! Put my name down somewhere!

  19. Nan says:

    I like it indeed, it is just the sort of thing I enjoy. And being an old hippie and a ‘perpetual outsider’ myself,it resonated.
    The practical details given really make it come to life, although having an equally peripatetic and ‘weird’ travelling existence (still ongoing, by the way) I can relate so easily.It’s nice to see someone else writing about it.
    i like the idea of putting a chapter out for comments! I have a novel underway, and sometimes wonder how it will seem to others.

  20. Shoshanna says:

    You continue to be one of my favorite writers–please finish the book sooner than later.

  21. Deadwood Michelle says:

    Thanks for recreating/distilling the vibe, Little Sister. Flipping brilliant. I’m really feeing it…

  22. Dobie says:

    One year when you and Tina didn’t come to Mexico because you were in high school (sleeping in a closet) and it was up to Steve to pack the van for the trip home from Tenacatita, he tried so hard, on his hands and knees, butt in the air, sweeping out the van with a too small whisk broom, carefully placing all his true finds (“what do you think the folks back home will think of THIS?”) and as he stood back admiring his work, the west wind gusted and immediately filled the van with dust and sand. Steve stroked his beard, in that way he had, and shrugged, remarking, “sure wish Tina was here right now.” Looking forward to the book and the memories….

  23. Libby says:

    I love this so far! It makes me want to read more & more of it, keep it coming! You are a talented writer with such interesting experiences. Thanks for sharing!

  24. Tiger says:

    You are such a good writer, Churpa! That was the most vivid description I’ve ever read of the family travels in Mexico. Really brought it to life, and I can just see you all! I’ll look forward to the next chapters.

  25. -El Codo- says:

    “The Ride Down The Mountain” in the latest People’s Guide, had me laughing so hard I almost fell out of bed! The “ending” was classic Steve.

  26. John Wm Logue says:

    This is great. I can hardly wait to read more and more… and thanks for posting those pix. It’s so fun to look through them all.

  27. Bob and Cynthia says:

    Great writing! We have had a copy of People’s Guide since 1986. It inspired our travels in Mexico beginning in in 1979. We live in San Pancho Nayarit 6months of the year..

  28. Sara Fasy says:

    Hi Churpa-
    This was a delight to read on so many levels, not least because it describes why I love Mexico too. There’s no condescension or fear, on either side, which informs so many people’s reaction to what is strange and new to them. So glad I realized this was a link (Tina pointed that out!). You have a wonderful perspective to write from.

  29. Lorena says:

    At Last! So very glad your are writing this.

  30. Fred Shumate says:

    Churpa/Peoples Guide, Reading “Overlanders” this morning really made my day! Having seen Tina, Steve and Churpa pass by, a time or two, along the Gringo Trail, I love every detail she provides; of the journey, the time and place. I also have camped in many of the same spots Churpa and the Overlander’s frequented, and once watched the small aluminum boat attached to the top of the van (see camping in Baja photo) capsize – but that’s another story. So, I look for all the details (fender dents, camp stove, sunset, familial quotations, etc.) in these stories and always revel in the fact, Churpa’s stories are so delightfully real.

    Please write for us a book length version… soon… and then after your finished, be sure to start on another one. As all the surfers and cool cats on Pacific Coast were once prone to say, “Si mon, Camaron”! Su socio, Federico

  31. Tchanan says:

    Oh yes, it’s inevitable, it had/ has to be done with you as the author. And the pictures so far that I’ve seen are excellent, smiling Tina, beautiful, your precious sweet papa, and you in your colorful garb, dressed by who? You words bring back, and from a different angle, the awesome trips we neighbors saw you embark on, from year to year, as you grew up and in to this amazing (legendary) lifestyle and hippistory. Keep it coming, I love your writing!

  32. Jason and Ananda Souch says:

    Wow brought me back to our early travelling days! Great writing I was hooked and eager for more. Good to see your doing so much writing and all your envolvement with The Peoples Guide

    We were looking it up as are planning a trip down this winter and has been a long time for us. And there is Churpa’s name and everything we wanted to hear about our favourite place Tenecatita! The Guide has again guided us back to old friends and favorite places

    Well hope to read more of your book soon and see you at the beach January 2016…we will be bringing the next generation with us to keep up tradition!