I had an awful lot of, mostly junk, for sale in the back of my rusted pickup truck. I had no idea how, or even if, anyone was going to want to buy any of it. I needn’t have worried, because at my very first stop in Mexico, I pulled into the town square, lowered the back tailgate, and started putting things out. I was almost instantly mobbed with towns people wanting to know what this strange long-hared gringo was selling.
After several hundred dollars in sales I was beginning to get nervous. The crowd was getting larger by the minute, and now a local policeman was making serious inquiries as to how much a broken can opener cost! He really wanted that can opener! With great difficulty, I closed up shop, and moved on to the next small pueblo.
This time I was more careful. I did not bring everything out at the same time. It worked, and in no time at all I had made another few hundred dollars. Getting more bold, I went to a local machine shop to see if they were interested in any of the broken tools that I had brought. To my surprise the owner wanted to buy the whole lot. Once again, I only sold him a few items, and then moved on. You see, at this point I really had no idea what anything was worth so my idea was to move slowly until I had a better feel.
Soon I had almost everything sold, but, because of laws, I could not sell the pickup in Mexico. For that last sale, I had to go down to Guatemala where the restrictions were much, well, non existent. I met a nice family, whose daughter I briefly dated. Then another family approached me with an offer to buy the pickup. The price was much less than I was hoping for, but they were so sweet that I made the cash deal anyway.
With over $3500 in cash I took a bus north to Guadalajara, Mexico. With my new found wealth I now had to decide just what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. You guessed it. I now need another PLAN!
On the weekend I went to pick up the truck. I thought that we would have to tow it over to Wayne’s, but once we put in a newly charged battery and some fresh gas it started right up. We used Wayne’s 4-wheel drive Ramcharger to tow it the rest of the way out of the snow bank. I actually drove the damn thing home! Tom was right, it was covered in rust and it was ugly a hell.
In the week that followed I called around to junk yards trying to find a camper shell. I was lucky enough to find one. It was under a pile of old car parts. It had split at the four corners, I guessed from the weight, and was flattened out like it was an life-size cardboard cutout of a camper top. I asked the guy what he wanted for it, and he said $25. Wow, I thought now we’re on a role. Once my Dad and I pulled it free we found that remarkably 3 out of the 4 windows were not even broken!
Back at my Dad’s place we put it back together as best we could and then mounted it on the back of the truck. We both said that we felt that it was a good match for the truck. Although I got the feeling that Dad was being more facetious than happy for me. The rust spots were really starting to show now. There were even some pretty good sized holes starting to form. We decided to try to cover them up with nice neat horizontal rows of gray duct tape. We stood back to admire our handy work. It was staring to come along.
My brother is a kind of genius with stereos, and in no time at all he had hooked one up. We built small wooden boxes to house the speakers and bolted them to the inside of the door panels. As an afterthought, we added a piece of metal mesh so that I wouldn’t put my foot through the speakers.
In the prior weeks I had raided every neighbor of their unused, unwanted items. I now had a pretty nice pile of dishes and games and radios and toys and such. In addition, I had the ever growing pile of junk tools that I had been bringing home from Blackhawk Molding. I built a bed in the back of the camper, and one day when I was at work, my Dad built a floor to roof cabinet, complete with shelves and a door.
I spent the last few evenings at Wayne’s making tape recording of any record that he thought I might like. Everything was now complete. My plan was now a reality and I was ready to go. No one really believed it would be possible for me to leave after being back in the states for as little as a month and a half, maybe I didn’t even believe it, but with the help of family and friends this was really going to happen.
Finally the day came and I said my good-byes. I didn’t really begin to be excited until I left the Expressways of Chicago behind and hit the open highway. I pulled over to survey the situation and I saw the huge pile of cassette tapes on the floor. I randomly picked one. Iit was Elton John’s “Good-bye Yellow Brick Road.”
When are you gonna come down? When are you going to land? I should have stayed on the farm. I should have listened to my old man.
The first night I stopped at a road side park in Missouri. As I crawled in the back of the camper shell it started to snow. I got under some old wool army blankets. I was cold as hell, but hell I knew that I had a big grin on my face, but the smile was short lived as the realization of the situation hit me. Here I was in the middle of Bumfuck, USA with so much junk that not even the garbage man would take it. I had no friends, very little money and I’m in a truck that just a few weeks ago was a frozen popsicle! Oh my god, what have I done? Stay focused I thought. If you can make it to Mexico before the truck breaks down you will be all right. Then you can trade stuff for repairs. But what if it breaks down before I get there? Then what am I going to do for money. $360 does not go to far when you have over 1500 miles to go.
That night Elton John lulled me to sleep as I chanted, “Just get me to Mexico! Just get me to Mexico!”
In the morning there was a good inch of snow on the ground. Fortunately the truck started right up, and it had a good heater to boot. I drove south like the dickens all the next day. Every little sound that the truck made sent me into another fit of paranoia. I finally just turned up the stereo real loud just so I wouldn’t have to listen.
Remember that at the border was where my trouble had started. Did you think that I had forgotten? It was with great apprehension that I approached the border patrol. In the end every thing went OK. Oh, I did have a little trouble crossing into Mexico with all this “stuff.” I had tried to hide as much as I could, but there was only so much that I could do. Any fool could see that mix masters, bread pans and toys were not what the average young male tourist carried, and my boarder officer was no exception. “Para que llavas tantos cosas?” (Why are you carrying so much stuff?) he suspiciously asked me.
“Porque soy puro gringo y me necasitas muchas cosas,” (Because I am a Gringo and I need a lot of stuff.) I said giving him a wink and a hand shake filled with 5 one dollar bills.
When I finally entered Mexico it was time for a cervesa, and then another round of singing, and then another cervesa, and then–well, you get the idea, until I had a whole row of cans and bottles lined up along the dashboard. I had begun to sing louder, and drive slower.
Now I was driving so very slowly, weaving from lane to lane, that I turned off the road, I think I bumped a small tree, because I was now stopped. As I laid down on the front seat, thinking about how warm it was in the Mexican sunshine, and how beautiful it was to be alive and well and free again. I thought to myself that now might be a good time to play back that jail house horror movie. In the background I heard voices singing.
So goodbye yellow brick road, Where the dogs of society howl. You can’t plant me in your penthouse, I’m going back to my plough
Before I passed out, I thought that I didn’t really need to repeat that movie, now or ever. The smile on my face was big, and it lasted through the night and on into the many happy months that followed.
Back to Chicago to work out some kinks in our NEW life’s plan. I once again got a job as a head designer working for a classy architect’s office in St. Charles, IL. We got an apartment, now for the third time, in Four Lakes Village, which we decorated with furniture that we moved out of the pickup truck camper. We were on the ground floor, because we now had a new member of our family, our German Shepard-Doberman dog who we named Nevada, and he needed to be let out on a regular basis. Rainy hung colored sheets on the large windows to give us some privacy. She tied them back, I guess to give the apartment the look of some class? It was pretty empty, but very spacious!
We worked and plotted, dreamed and schemed and saved until by Christmas it was once again time to leave. This time we traded in our pickup truck camper on a Jeep CJ-7 and a used 17-foot travel trailer. We were sure that now we had exactly the right travel vehicle that would make it all the way down to Tierra del Fuego or bust. We drove, with big grins on our faces to Brownsville, Texas in just a few days, but before we could make it into Mexico a huge storm came up and blew our trailer over on its side, and wiped that smirk right off our faces. The repairs set us back a few days. And by January we had entered Mexico with our dream setup. We had the intention of driving south forever, but after spending several months in Mexico, we found ourselves in Lago de Atitlan, Guatemala.
Truly one of the most picturesque places in the world. A crystal-clear blue lake surrounded by 3 volcanoes. Some pretty primitive villages dotted the lake, and were filled with colorfully dressed and friendly indigos. We immediately fell in love, especially when we found out that we could rent 3 houses right on the water’s edge, complete with a family of servants for just $35 per month. So, we happily stayed there for a year and a half. To read a day in the life short story that I wrote about our Guatemala lake adventure click on this link.
After enjoying our exotic living arrangement, we began to feel that all of our “stuff”, including the jeep and trailer, and all of the contents, were holding us back from the true adventure that we had been dreaming of. So, we put up signs all over town, “Gringo Se Vende Todo.” Gringos sell it all. We were almost immediately mobbed by Guatemaltecos who indeed wanted it all, and so in a few short weeks we were each left with only a small day pack filled with our most precious item—travelers checks.
We three then walked off down the street, and caught a bus to the next country — Honduras.
John, Mary, Rainy and I travelled for a few months together. A whole new world of traveling and living opened up to us. Our first adventure was down a mud puddle of a road that was supposed to take us the beach where there was a hacienda named La Pesca. John had met a Mexican friend in Brownsville who said his family had a huge hacienda right on the beach, just 100 miles into Mexico. The road was little more than a track. It took us 3 days, a bumper, 2 tail lights and a lot of blue paint to go just 10 miles. When we got there, not only was there no “hacienda” which John repeatedly referred to el big-o house-o when asking for help in directions. He knew not one word of Spanish, but I believe he was trying to mimic it with the sense that the additional “-o” would make it seem more like Spanish. None of the Spanish speaking people ever corrected him. They were too polite.
The road stopped short of the beach, and was separated by a large, what appeared to be, a crocodile infested lagoon. All of our work, no plantation, no sipping pina coladas on our private veranda, and no beach! Still, I had to admit that we were having a great time. The adventure of just seeing a 50-passenger bus hung up as it tried to cross a riverbed, was impressive. The front end was resting on one bank while the patio end was resting on the other bank. The rear wheels were suspended about 2 feet about the rushing water. It gave me a good laugh until it became our turn to cross. We got only a few feet in to water until we became solidly stuck. None of this fazed John. He just got a sly smirk, pulled out the shovels, jacks and other tools, and we all got to work. From this disaster I learned that it is not always about the destination. Sometimes it was just about the path.
That path continued to lead us to even more great adventures. I have no idea what John saw in us. He was an experienced outdoorsman, while we were just about a citified as you could get. He taught us to love the outdoors and to have fun with its challenges. We raced around in the woods on his motorcycle, canoed across the lagoon, and used it, none too successfully, to surf in the oceans waves. We built the biggest bonfire on the beach that I have ever seen. It burned for 3 days!
After a few weeks it was time to leave and I was much more relaxed about any disasters that might befall us. We travelled down the coastal beach through Tampico and Veracruz until we hit the Yucatan peninsula. Back then there was no one guarding the Mayan ruins except maybe an occasional campesino who was all too willing to let us spend the days and sometimes the nights among the ancient buildings. We played in and on them like they were our own private theme park. What fun we all had! Tulum was the definitive highlight. Miles of beautiful beach with no one on it, all of the coconuts and lobster that you could eat while surrounded by ancient Mayan ruins.
By June we were running low on funds, but we knew that this was what we wanted our lives to be like so we hatched a plan and went back to Chicago to get it going.