By Randy Jackson
When I was in the second grade, my family moved to a small tourist town in British Columbia in 1964. The welcome sign to the town proclaimed “55 Businesses to Serve You”; the running joke was that 50 of them were motels. Such places in those days only saw tourists in the summer months, and most motels sat empty for five or six months each year. The owners were rumoured to be in Mexico for the winter. One of the motels was named “La Siesta” and the sign out front showed a man sleeping up against a cactus with a large sombrero pulled down over his face. When the snow had piled up sufficiently, the only thing showing was the cactus, like a green middle finger, flippin’ the bird at winter.
Growing up, I was aware of a number of people from our little mountain town who ventured to Mexico. These were all overland journeys, seemingly packed with daily adventures. More than the escape from winter, Mexico represented a wildly exotic place. It seemed incongruous that such a different place could be driven to. And in keeping with the 1970’s, what my friends and I came to see as something we had to do in life, was to explore Mexico in a campervan. While still teenagers, some of my friends had already done just that. It took me a bit longer.
Of course this urge of young adults seeking adventure and exploration beyond their own familiar world was not new. The “Grand Tour” of Europe taken by young aristocrats dates back to the 17th century. By the 1970s this luxury became available to the burgeoning group of middle-class youth, the Baby Boomers. They took up independent budget travel in large numbers. In Europe this overland youth exploration route came to be called “The Hippy Trail,” which ran from Europe through Turkey, Iran, and Afghanistan to India. The comparable route in North America became known as “The Gringo Trail.” Although this “trail” stretches all the way to the tip of South America, for a lot of us wistful youth of the 70s, the destination was Mexico.
While my Mexico dreams were still formulating in the snows of British Columbia, Carl Franz and Lorena Havens had been exploring Mexico on the cheap since the 60s. Their meeting in San Miguel with John Muir (no, not THAT John Muir), who had successfully published the book How to keep your Volkswagen Alive in 1969 (various editions had co-authors), convinced Frans and Havens to publish The People’s Guide to Mexico. The first edition came out in 1972.
My copy is the 13th edition – 2006 (as I said, it took me a bit longer). This book certainly fueled my notion of an exotic land crying out for exploration. But it meant more. By the time I got to it, the book was a cultural reference to a time and place, a quintessential expression of the youth of the baby boomer years that still resides in the neurological stalactites of my personality cave. To quote the authors directly:
One of the main purposes of this book is to show the traveler how to accept, as calmly as possible, the sights and experiences of a strange place.
This “strange place” is probably intended to mean any place that is unfamiliar. But Mexico is the unique tableau on which such a laid-back, hippy-dippy, humorous expression of time and place shines through. Mexico’s cultural strengths and quirkiness enable this guide book to stand up against the passing decades. Where else, for example, would a story of policemen stopping someone to syphon gas from their vehicle so they could get to a gas station (and offer to pay for it), resonate – besides in Mexico? Or the advice to clear out a bug stuck in your ear by adding a little tequila.
More than a guide to Mexico, this book captures the energy of the coming-of-age youth of the 60s and 70s who travelled to Mexico on the cheap, seeking their own versions of freedom and independence. That energy wave echoed along a far-away valley in British Columbia, where I heard it rattle the windows of those closed motels. Of course, this group of travellers that I so desired to join back then, were but one of many different groups of migrants and tourists over the ages seeking something in Mexico. Independent travel in Mexico still requires that attitude of calm acceptance of things that come your way. Mexico, then as now, isn’t as easily anticipated as, say, Singapore or Denmark. For good or bad, Mexico leaves a mark.
I’m still connected to this little mountain town my family moved to in the 1960s. Needless to say things have changed. Motels now receive tourists throughout the year. This modern and charming village has its own library, and their catalogue will soon include The People’s Guide to Mexico. I will donate my copy in the hopes that it will fuel the aspirations of future visitors to Mexico.