1972 USA/Canada family road trip, VW Camper van for 8 weeks

Authors experiences Canada Travel USA

My wanderlust seed was firmly planted when I was 15 years old (1972) and my parents took us on an 8 week long road trip across the USA and Canada in our new red VW campervan, with all 6 of us. This blurry image from a family slide shows our home-made rooftop pop-up like the VW Westfalia that was our home on the road for the 8 weeks. My dad rarely took his vacation, so had accumulated enough that his boss finally encouraged him to use them or loose them. I am glad he decided to use them 🙂


The route we took was from Nova Scotia, Canada, down the east coast of the USA to Virginia, across to California, then up the West coast to British Columbia, then up to Northern Alberta, and back home again. Mom’s notes show it was about 15,000Km (9,000 miles).

Although it was a lot of driving, we were able to stop and smell the roses at many places along the way. In New Jersey, we were able to re-connect with some of my high school band friends from a band exchange trip when I was there in grade 9. Then to visit some relatives in the mountains of West Virginia who we had never met before. In California, we stayed for a few days with a family we knew from dads work in Nova Scotia, that moved there. The pool was very refreshing after all the driving. Northern Alberta was built around my dad’s brother who was living in the Peace River District living a traditional rural farming lifestyle.

The hot desert

Crossing the hot desert before California was challenging in an air cooled engine VW without air conditioning. I remember it was cooler with the windows up, rather than the hot blast furnace air. We also had an ingenious Styrofoam freezer chest which was filled with ice cubes, and had a communal plastic hose we could sip the cold water from. One memorable stop in Needles California where the day time temperature was 50C (130F), we went swimming in a small creek to cool off, but when you came out of the water, you felt a sudden cold chill from the water evaporating so quickly (like the feeling that happens when you rub alcohol on your skin). At one stage we drove through the cool of the night, and slept during the day.

Rand McNally road atlas 1972


My mom did the navigation using the ever faithful Rand McNally road atlas. You can see where she coloured in dark marker on the route that we actually took. I still have that book, but it is well worn in tatters. No GPS, just reading road signs.

Interesting stops

It was also a time where there were a variety of interesting roadside attractions, similar to the heyday of Route 66. Some of the ones that stand out in my memory include:

  • The Mystery Crater, New Brunswick – Essentially a small building built on the slanted slope of a sink hole crater. When you were inside it created the illusion that you could walk on a 45 degree angle.
  • Santa’s Village and Dino’s village which had a bunch of car sized dinosaur models made out of concrete.
  • Indigenous people reservations which sold actual stone arrowheads, and had a live bear chained to the front of the place.
  • Drive through the trunk of a GIANT sequoia tree in your car, and collect some HUGE pine cones on the ground nearby.
  • Painted Sands desert
  • Petrified Forest, a whole forest of trees that fell on the ground and turned to solid rock.

Camping experiences

Since we were self contained nomads with no power required, sometimes we camped at random un-official camping places, called boondocking nowadays. I remember the police checking on us when we were camped back behind an old service station, but he let us be. The interior of the van was custom built to accommodate comfortable day or night use. In the night it was essentially one big flat area. Two adults up top, the four kids down below, smallest one across the back. The “kitchen” was designed as a removable box that sat above the engine in the rear, but was usable from the back when stopped for lunch and could even be used during rain since the back door lifted up.

Rob 1972

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