Two Ontario Snowbirds wing south in a VW camper

It is an experience for a couple of mid sixty year olds to climb up to sleep on a shelf, in the pop up, part canvas roof of a VW camper van. Doing it every night on a 6000 km journey between Ontario and Mexico is an adventure.

When we leave Ontario in early November the van is crammed to capacity with stuff we think we might need for the next six months. Our spaniel “Jenna” voluntarily perches on top of the bags where she gazes for hours at the passing scenery. For us the van has many uses. It is a removal truck, an RV and a lunch wagon, where we are in control of our diet. We hurry south, loaded to the roof to set up house in the high central plains of Mexico for the winter months. Less Loaded, we return by an extended scenic route.

We spend about five months, mostly in San Miguel de Allende, central Mexico, enjoying continuous sunshine and flowers beneath a dome of blue. The town exudes four hundred years of history and related human interest stories from the walls containing its narrow cobbled streets. Surrounding this place are countless miles of semi desert. Sandy red soil scattered with cactus of all shapes and sizes and low growing flat topped trees. In the distance untains, always mountains.

While in San Miguel we go exploring to find lovely deserted beaches on the Pacific coast just north of Puerto Vallarta or to see the Monarch butterflies, some of which migrate from Ontario to spend the winter on top of an eleven thousand foot mountain. We visit neighboring towns and even silver mining ghost towns out there in the countryside, or go further afield to Guanajarto, Patzcqcuaro or shopping to The Price Club. Yes, there’s even one of these fifty minutes away.

One day, nestling in the hills with a river meandering below, we found a small cluster of single story dwellings dressed in vibrant potted flowers, built of adobe bricks, with flat roofs, thatched with odds and ends to hopefully repel the elements. A wonderful specimen of bougainvillea over a front porch beneath which a woman was making baskets assisted by her young daughter. A few chickens scratched in the dirt at her feet. A donkey drowsed beneath a nearby tree. A pig wallowed in the dust beneath another. The patch of land showed signs of a recent harvest of beans and corn for tortillas.

On the side of a nearby hillside a boy tended the family’s goats. Dust and more dust — this is the countryside of central Mexico in winter.

When travelling in the van, to placate our aging nervous systems, we follow some simple rules. From Canada through the States and into Mexico we only stop at recognized stopping places. We stop for gas when the tank is half empty and at stations on the interstate preferring not to wander off, for example, into Mississippi. We are members of CAA that automatically reaches over the AAA.

We use detailed maps and find the CAA triptiks helpful. We plan our days journey noting the distance, speed and estimated time of reaching our evening stopping place. We prefer not to drive in the dark. Occasionally, in the States, we might drive on into darkness and stay at places directly adjacent to the highway that are well lit and cater to travellers. We always carry water and food and an emergency telephone.

We do not drive in the dark in Mexico under any circumstance. There are long stretches between towns and recognized stopping places. The sides of the roads are not fenced and quickly merge with the semi desert. Animals tend to gravitate to the warm surface to sleep — and they do not carry warning lights.

We always use the Mexican toll roads. They can be expensive but well worth the smooth ride and the scenery is often spectacular. On the narrow, poorly maintained free roads the truck traffic is a hazard to be avoided if at all possible.

When reaching the border, the Canadian Customs authorities can be disturbing. After explaining that you’ve been some five months-plus away, we were asked, “Did you buy anything?” The American customs staff seem friendly. The Mexicans change the rules from year to year, do not speak English and have no office equipment such as phones or copiers.

If going to Mexico for the first time it might be advisable to check in with “Sambourns” or the “AAA” who can advise you on the latest paper work. They can sell you car insurance for travelling in Mexico as North American car insurance does not extend south of the border. For the dog we carry an ID picture of her and a recent vets’ certificate of her state of health and immunizations. So far, no one has asked for her papers. The only comment has been, “Nice dog”.

Our first night out we’re always a little nervous. My partner usually inquires if we should find a motel. Determined not to give in to cold feet, I politely decline.

Instead, I get out a bottle of wine, and perhaps a barbecued chicken, fresh rolls, salad and fruit for our supper. After a walk with the dog, and an inspection of the bathroom facilities we plug in our extension cord and that miraculous invention the electric blanket. We also have a small electric cube heater for cold nights.

We have slept in the van with temperatures below freezing. Later we “climb” literally with much grunting and giggling up to the shelf and into bed. We seem to sleep through any noise, from the pounding of the Pacific surf on a beach to the roar of interstate traffic.

The van does include a back seat that converts to a bed, but we have no choice as the body of the van is overflowing with stuff.

As there is very little height up there it is advisable to sleep with your head to the “drop off”. This is no problem except one’s pillow tends to fall overboard in the night. Retrieving it at 3 a.m. is not amusing. Avoiding this dilemma becomes a personal challenge.

When my partner descends from the shelf his pants are not usually reachable. He waits until he can smell the coffee then dangles his long skinny shanks over the edge and plaintively requests me to pass up his clothing. These little exercises provide lots of opportunity for “comments”. It seems to take about two hours from waking to actually driving onto the highway. In early April, we began our return via Mazatlan, the Copper Canyon, Arizona, the Grand Canyon and Colorado. Twenty seven days later we reached the Ontario border having spent an average of some $70 per day.

This has been the pattern we have followed for the past three winters. We look forward to spending the winter of 1997/8 in Mexico. We are planning our return adventure via California, Oregon, Washington and Vancouver over a six to eight week period.

We would like to think we can continue doing this for many years. Let’s hope the Van can last as long as our sense of adventure and energy endures.