Mexico City, 1969
While there is still time, take your kids on a long road trip.
Memories are like roadside scenery glimpsed from a car hurtling down the freeway at 78 miles-an-hour. The driver sees the least, preoccupied by the task at hand. The passenger in the front seat sees a little more but not enough given she spends time looking at the driver, searching for signs of distraction or weariness. The passengers in the back have the opportunity to see the most because they are — literally — along for the ride, blissfully out of control and with nothing but time on their hands. The idle backseat passengers can best see what’s really close up, or really far off, and only then like freeze frame glimpses of washed out Kodacolor photos rescued from a dumpster bound shoebox.
It had to have been sometime in 1968 when my father would have come home from his respectible but routine job at McGill University and announced to his family that a paper he had written had been accepted at the IX World Congress of the International Federation of Otorhinolaryngological Societies. It was to be held in Mexico City in August of 1969. I further imagine that as a seven year old that pronouncement would have been a pretty abstract. “Mexico is a city, too?” I might have thought. However, it more likely conjured up thoughts of my father getting dressed up in a suddenly trimmer, surprisingly fashionable suit and my mother arranging his clothes on the bed and eventually into a hard, shiny brown Samsonite suitcase. My father would not have worn a hat though. He was not a hat guy even in the Mad Men era when a lot of guys his age still were.
Shortly after, he would disappear down a stairway to the tarmac at Aeroport Dorval and get smaller, still hatless, as he walked out to the DC-6 and then up and out of sight. Likely my most vivid thought at the time was what exotic and strange thing he would bring back for me from such an exotic and strange land. If he had asked I probably would have given him the answer I thought he wanted to hear: a sombrero or a pancho or a chihuahua. Secretly, I would have really hoped for a Major Matt Mason set, not knowing that wasn’t even vaguely possible. But the Eagle had landed. Armstrong and Aldrin had just walked on the Moon. There was nothing that was impossible and too far fetched for my boyhood imagination and a father of infinite capability. I might even settle for Happ Hazard, Matt Mason’s creepy, bowlegged, knock-off, hick cousin.
But none of that was going to be the case. After some long forgotten, muffled conversations heard late at night by my sister, brother and me just partition walls away, my parents finally announced that we were all going on an utterly-insane-only-in-retrospect adventure: we were going to drive to Mexico City so my father could attend the conference and present his paper. If that wasn’t enough, we would then divert westward from Mexico City and visit aunts, uncles and cousins in Sacramento and Seattle on the long way ‘round to home. We would re-enter Canada near Vancouver. My father had visited there a couple of years before and not-so-secretly fallen in love with the place. It’s clear only now that he was on a mission to convince my mother of a future move to the West Coast, and what better way than to get the backseat passengers excited about sailing and skiing on the same day. At least that’s what he told us we would be able to do. After Vancouver, we would then hightail it back to Montréal via the featureless, endless prairies and even the more featureless Boreal forest of Northern Ontario so we could arrive a couple of days late for the beginning of the new school year.
Five people squeezed into a brand new blue Dodge Dart for nearly 9,000 miles over a scant five weeks. My folks had to be out of their minds.
But the day finally came. And then another day came and went while my father figured out how to squeeze camping gear, clothes and all that kid’s crap into the trunk of a ’69 Dart. “Nothing on the roof, damn it!” was the battle cry as we watched puzzled and a little afraid of the building rage as yet one more ‘essential’ landed by the car. Each one resulted in a Rubik’s Cube-like reshuffle of the contents of the suddenly shrinking trunk. New York fell victim to the process of preparation. We would have to drive straight from Montréal to Washington, DC, non-stop and a day late. There really was no other choice given the merciless Carrera Panamericana schedule which would get us to Mexico City on time. We finally sardine-canned ourselves into the car and drove the 600 miles to arrive at Greenbelt National Park in a deluge of epic, Noah’s Ark movie proportions. The cheerful park ranger who took our money and assigned us our camping spot made us all laugh. My father asked him the forecast to which he answered “slightly cloudy with a chance of showers.” My father laughed for the first time in days. We laughed because he laughed.
That night, we dined like royalty on a can — one of those really big cans I don’t think you can buy any more — of Puritan beef stew. We heated it, right in that can, over an open fire. It had these little tiny round new potatoes which I didn’t recall having had before that night. What I do remember, like it was yesterday, is that meal eaten in the pouring rain in Greenbelt National Park, surrounded by my family at the beginning of an incredible odyssey, was one of the best meals I have ever had in my entire life.
Never mind later that night we discovered that the particular camping spot we had been assigned was a formerly dry creekbed. The biblical rain turned the floor of our tent into a waterbed long before there was such a thing. We didn’t care. Well us three kids didn’t care as the practicality of getting things dried out and re-assembled into the car was really more our parents problem than it was ours. We were thrilled at the prospect of another, eventually dreadful day in the car, our parents swapping driving duties once an hour, on the hour. We made our way steadily south. My brother and I blew all the money we had saved for the trip on Major Matt Mason sets before we made it through the Carolinas. Good thing that cheeseburgers were only 21 cents at a neat, new place called McDonalds in Montgomery, Alabama.
My parents, on the other hand, were quietly disgusted at the stinking residue of segregation which still lingered in the South. My brother, sister and I simply didn’t get it — growing up in the suburbs of Montréal does not equip you to comprehend separate water fountains for ‘white’ and ‘coloured’ people. “What are we?” we might have asked, naively.
We crossed into Mexico from Texas after a border guard took our passports and demanded a seemingly made up ‘fee’ based on what a doctor from Montréal might have in his pocket at that particular moment — specifically US dollars, of course. The guard walked away — our passports in hand — as if to drive home the point that there was a ‘fee’ going to be paid one way or another. It was really just a question of how much and when. My father must have paid something that satisfied the guard, as we eventually were driving down roads just like the ones we left behind in Texas, except marked in these weird things called kilometres instead of miles. Boy, they sure seemed to go by fast as compared to back home. What a strange place this was.
I don’t remember much about Monterey, but the pool at the hotel in San Luis Potosí was lovely. Desert eventually turned to sub-tropical jungle as we rose into the mountains that surround Mexico City. Rest stops in the middle of nowhere would suddenly become populated by shoeless hawkers selling everything from tacky souvenir marionettes to exotic birds. I’m assuming they were simply captured in the nearby rainforest and domesticated only by putting them in pathetic, tiny cages. We didn’t know enough to be dismayed or frightened.
Our eventual arrival in Mexico City was just odd. What struck me most was that the vaqueros had already adopted American-style cowboy hats instead of the World Book Encyclopedia sombreros I was expecting. And they were as likely to be driving a Volkswagen Beetle as they were to be riding a mesteño. After all the thoughts of this exotic, remote place we were anticipating, it seemed ordinary compared to what we had imagined. Except the National Museum of Anthropology with its magnificent floating roof supported by a single, pre-hispanic column. That was spectacular.
We stayed at the Del Prado Hotel. I was terrified by Diego Rivera’s legendary, mysterious and perhaps opiate-fuelled mural “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park” which was in the lobby. Of course, I didn’t realize it was a Diego Rivera or for that matter, had any idea who Rivera was back then. Although something did make me think the painting was important because it warranted a guided tour which our parents made us sit through. It was led by a very knowledgeable docent whose collapsable, telescoping, chrome pointer was much more intriguing to me than the Rivera. Perhaps it was out of a desire to look away. The mural depicts a joyful summer afternoon in the park. But it also included an appalling image of the flogging — to bloody broken ribbons of torn flesh — of half naked victims wearing what seemed like dunce caps. To an eight year old, it was deeply disturbing. A little bit of Rivera’s tortured soul has tortured my soul ever since. Life can be both beautiful and hideous, often at the same time.
After my father delivered his paper, we turned northwest and found our way to Guadalajara and then the not-quite-yet-discovered Mazatlán. There we beat the unbearable summer heat by swimming in the Pacific surf at night, only to be told the next day we were lucky not to have been bitten by deadly sea snakes. I still wonder if that was true or just something made up to discourage the tourist hoard gathering just over the horizon. Thence to Guaymas and finally back into the United States. At the KOA campgound in Tucson the gravel was so hot it burned our feet. At the Hoover Dam the door lock knobs on the Dart turned to taffy and the air conditioner dripped so much condensation it soaked the floor of the car. We visited the cousins in Sacramento, where modern West Coast liberalism had already arrived, and then with the cousins in Seattle where it hadn’t.
Perhaps it was simply exhaustion from being on the road so long, but the trip after Vancouver is a black void from which I cannot divine a single memory. I think we were just anxious to get home. If part of the mission of that trip was to convince the family of a move to Vancouver, it worked. We were back there, via Sweden and Europe, in a little less than a year, this time for good.
I still marvel at the daring of my parents for taking that trip. Today, I wouldn’t make the same journey on a bet. So much has changed since back then. Those five weeks in the ’69 Dart both bound up and yet began to tear away at the fabric of our family. My older sister was reaching the age when spending time with parents and younger brothers was not cool any more. We would take other long vacations together but over time they became progressively more tense as we all grabbed the wheels of our own cars, and started the journeys that would take us in very different directions later in life. Journeys we are still on today.
But for that brief wild summer of 1969, in that blue Dodge Dart, the five of us were all travelling down the same road together, freeze framing precious moments in Kodacolor, creating a vivid past for our then distant future. Life was good and for a fleeting moment filled with madness and unlimited possibility.
©2017 Terence C. Gannon