By Sandra Burkholder
As I lay dozing on Smathers Beach in Key West, Florida, on Friday, Jan. 13, I began to realize why so many Canadians migrate south every winter. While the locals look askance at us swimming when it’s only 75 degrees fahrenheit, we Canadians are unapologetic in our delight in escaping some of our Canadian winter drudgery.
The change of temperature, along with the change in cultural temperament, has been a reminder to me of the joys and experiences of travel, something Chris and I haven’t done a lot of in the past 15 years.
For our children, Katie, Stephen and Helen, it has been an eye opener. Suddenly, their Canadian-ness means something when they see signs soliciting business for hospitals, and when they notice the frequency and activity of naval bases and military stations throughout our travels here in our neighbouring country.
When Chris and I converted our 1994 Delica Mitsubishi van to run on waste vegetable oil, the general plan was to drive to Ontario to spend Christmas with his family. The kids did not know at that time that New York City, and Orlando, Florida, were also on the itinerary. (Although many people left in Barriere were in on the secret!)
On December 15 we were madly finishing the last of the van conversion and stuffing the last of our belongings into bags. We left the next day, and as is usual on our cross-Canada trips (this is our third winter venture to spend Christmas in Ontario), spirits were high for the first 36 hours.
Thanks to Barriere A&W we left Darfield with a tankful of French fry oil (about 75 litres) and a cargo basket on the hitch holding another 170 litres.
Chris set up the system with two tanks, meaning we are able to switch over to diesel at any time. Because we had very little testing time when we converted the van, we simply had no idea the kind of mileage we would get. It turned out to be the same as diesel, about 10 kms for every litre of oil burned. The difference is, of course, we didn’t pay for our oil.
I had asked several friends across Canada to collect oil for us so we were able to stop in Lake Louise to fuel up. Our friends there were so enthusiastic we ended up leaving Lake Louise with more oil than when we arrived. In fact we were so loaded down, it looked like the van was ready for take-off!
Fuel stops were easy. We had installed a 12V geared fuel pump in the back of the van and we simply stuck a hose into our containers, filtered the oil to one micron into our oil tank and carried on. Much to our surprise, our oil stocks took us 3,100 kms, from Darfield to Sault Ste. Marie. Although we had many stares when we stopped for our unorthodox fuel-ups, only one person in that whole distance actually stopped to ask what we were doing.
Our next fuel stop was in London, Ontario so we did run on diesel for a short period of time. We managed to hook up with an industrial waste veggie oil collector who was so intrigued by our plans to drive through the continental US, that he gave us a free load of oil .
After Christmas we headed to New York City. We felt it prudent to let the kids in on the plan at this point, in case we had questions at the border. We sailed through the crossing, the US border official didn’t even remark on the right hand drive.
We spent five days in New York City. We had to stay in Queens as our van is overheight and no hotels in Manhattan could supply parking for us. However, this worked out very well as parking was free and we were only one subway stop from the city.
Highlights of the city were definitely the 9/11 memorial, which opened in September, Times Square at night, and the musical Mary Poppins, which we saw on my birthday!
As we left New York we surprised the kids by turning left for Orlando and Harry Potter World. Chris and I are also big fans so this had been on the family “wish” list for the last 18 months. Before leaving Orlando, we spent a day at Disney World as well.
Everyone kept asking us when we were coming home, so Chris and I figured we wouldn’t until we had to, so driving to Key West, the southernmost point of the US, seemed like a good halfway point.
We started camping after leaving Orlando, trying to enjoy the good weather. We were all taken aback after meeting a family in Florida that had been camping with five kids for three weeks in a northern Florida campground. After a few exchanges, we were left with the impression that this family had lost its home due to financial troubles and was living in a tent. Sometimes we simply have no idea how bad things have become for people.
We had run out of oil in North Carolina and a conversation with the manager of a small vegetarian/organic café on Southard Street in Key West, called, “The Café” revealed 10 containers of used oil in his storage room. Thanks to Tanyo, we have driven from Key West to Alabama on oil, with a little left over to get us into Texas. So far we have run about 6,300 of 13,000 kms on oil since we left Darfield, with hopes to pick up more oil before we return.
Our trip has not been without its moments. Traffic coming into and out of NYC was stressful and resulted in some terse words exchanged by driver and navigator. The kids, once the novelty of travelling wore off, returned to their usual petty arguments about who gets the charger on the inverter, and whose turn it is to help Chris unload the van, or filter oil.
In Key West we experienced an overnight windstorm, only to wake up to half the fly detached and whipping about, and a pole broken by the sheer force of the gale. We took the tent down in a panic, trying to deflate our “sail” as quickly as possible, much to the amusement of the “RVers” peering out of their curtained vehicles.
Venice, Florida, dropped to below freezing, driving Katie and me to the warmth of the van, leaving the others to fend as they would in the tent. Common questions from the back? “When can we eat?”, “Where are we going next?”, “Can I sit in the front,” and “Who unplugged my ipod?”
Homeschooling on the road is great and we are following more of the unschooling approach on this trip, allowing each locale and adventure to dictate the kids’ learning opportunities. Every day is school and the kids are in weekly contact with their teacher. Some subjects like math, have taken a back seat, but what great “units” on history, humanities, social studies and the arts and sciences.
As I write this we are in Mobile, Alabama. Oh, how the accents delight us; and our tentative plans are to make our way to Taos, New Mexico, home to Earthship Biotecture, the folks who inspired us to build our own earthship.
Then we may drive into California via Death Valley. We are meeting up with Barriere-ites, Henry and Lee-Ann McKintuck, in the San Francisco Bay area, where they recently bought a sailboat. We hope to spend a few days helping them work on the boat and showing the kids the city, where we lived for a year in 1997/1998.
Then we will be coming home at the end of January…maybe…if we have to!
The Newton/Burkholder family lives in Darfield and is currently building an earthship, a sustainable house made out of tires and pop cans. For more information on their winter adventure and a map of their travels, go to www.darfieldearthship.com or their Facebook page, The Darfield Earthship.