(first posted 9/2/2012)
In 1979, my good friend Bob Frerck asked me to accompany him on a four-month photography job in Mexico and Guatemala. Although we had worked together earlier, in Spain, he didn’t speak Spanish. I did. He would even pay me this time, and so I signed on as second camera and quit my job at Amtrak, where I was head of the Equipment Design Department. It would be a trip of a lifetime.
Bob and I had spent a similar four-month stint in 1974, in Spain and Morocco. We had picked up a brand new ’74 VW Westfalia camper at the Westfalia works in Germany–an orange one, like many of its ilk at the time. Since its gearshift was refusing 1-2 upshifts, we took it to a German VW dealership, where a technician who drove the vehicle (which of course shifted perfectly) told us we were out of our minds. Apparently, VW dealers in Germany aren’t all that much different than those in the US and Canada. Still, I couldn’t shift the damn thing. I can’t remember how we solved the shifter problem, but eventually we did. Paying homage to Don Quixote’s nag, I dubbed our VW camper Rocinante.
Our steed (and our home) for the Mexico/Guatemala trip was a 1977 Dodge 200 Tradesman van that Bob had bought new. She was dubbed “Rocinante II”. No shifting problems here, thanks to its 318 (about 5200 cc) V8 and Torqueflite automatic. Before the trip, Bob had taken the van to a converter in Huntington, Indiana who installed a pop-up roof, an upper bunk and screened windows. The pop-top was very compact, allowing us to park in garages where most camper vans couldn’t. Bob had also built out the interior, so we had a very comfortable long-term home-away-from-home–and a great hiding place for illegal colonial-era Guatemalan artifacts.
The roads in Mexico were all paved, and posed no challenge for Rocinante. That changed when we got to Central America. The roads we drove on in Belize were paved, but in Guatemala things were a bit different. Guatemala’s monsoon rains and unpaved roads were a mudder’s dream–but not so much for us, with our 6,500 pound (3,000 kg) van. We carefully observed other vehicles traversing the muddy bits before we attempted doing the same.
Working in Guatemala was a dream compared with Mexico. In Mexico the attitude was “Give me a minute to think of a reason why you can’t.” In Guatemala, it’s “I can’t see any reason why not”. We were free to roam where we wanted to in the park-like setting of Tikal.
Our Westfalia experience had taught Bob and me a thing or two about designing a camper van. For example, our Dodge had bi-parting side and rear doors; when open, they offered easy access to storage areas we’d built into them–something the VW’s sliding doors didn’t allow. The rear doors also were bi-parting as well. We chose a camper roof that rose vertically in order to make the upper bunk more pleasant than the Westfalia’s clamshell affair. In addition, the absence of a rear engine provided a tremendous amount of storage space for cameras, film and contraband.
Without sump guards or skid plates, we had no alternative but to drive slowly and carefully.
Bob had asked me for recommendations regarding beefing up the suspension. I specified heavy-duty American Racing wheels, uprated radial tires, front and rear sway bars, and rear Sears air shocks. This shot gives a good view of the monster Quickor front sway bar. As it turned out, the front springs and shocks were woefully inadequate.
The upgrades made the van marginally off-roadable. Unfortunately, Guatemala’s record rainfall had turned Route 3 into craterville. The going was slow: The 90-mile trip from Tikal to the road to Guatemala City took over seven hours. Bob and I each stuck to a strict one-hour stint behind the wheel, not so much for the driver as for the guy riding shotgun. Without a passenger-side grab bar, bracing oneself was a tiring exercise.
Whatever river this was wasn’t very deep. The drivers of the yellow flatbed and the orange van were taking advantage of the flood to wash their vehicles.
Our strategy for getting through these mud wallows was to nibble the vertical wall on the driver’s side while keeping the right tires on the high areas created by other trucks. It worked, but the going was tedious.
The roads in this part of Guatemala were pretty basic–in fact, red dirt. A day or two earlier we couldn’t have made this run.
Contrast the road from hell with 6th Avenue in downtown Guatemala City. I have no idea what the cars in the photo are. I took the shot because I loved the visual cacophony created by the signage. Screw planned urbanization…long live graphic anarchy!
Rocinante allowed us the flexibility to explore downtown Guatemala City, as well as the freedom to camp out in areas that got us morning views such as this.
The Dodge never let us down–remarkable, considering that after we got back to Chicago we found the timing had been set at 15 degrees AFTER top dead center! No wonder it didn’t like to get going in Mexico City’s chilly mornings at 7,500 feet (2280 m) altitude!