Feature: 1963 Bleakney family trip travel auto articles car culture
From left to right: Nancy Bleakney, six-year-old Peter and his sister Jill. Click image to enlarge

By Peter Bleakney; photos courtesy the Bleakney family

Photo Gallery:
The Bleakney family’s epic 1963 camping trip

Not long ago, I received a small cardboard tube in the mail from my father in Nova Scotia. It contained a map of North America. On it was a squiggly red line that traced a loop from our hometown of Wolfville, Nova Scotia to Chicago, across Iowa, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Washington, up to Vancouver, and then switching back through the Rockies, the Prairies, over Lake Superior, and finally returning to Wolfville.

A label on the map read “Camping Trip to Vancouver B.C. Herpetology Conference, June 3 – July 25, 1963”. It could have easily read “1963 Experiment On the Limits of Parental Endurance.”

My dad, Sherman, was a young biology professor at Acadia University at the time, and one of Canada’s preeminent herpetologists (the study of frogs, snakes, turtles, salamanders, et al). But wouldn’t you know it, this conference at which he was giving a lecture had to be on the other side of the country.

Feature: 1963 Bleakney family trip travel auto articles car culture
The 1962 Mercury Comet that (barely) got the Bleakney family across the continent in one piece. Click image to enlarge

While lesser men would have hopped on a plane, Dad, who was always up for adventure, saw this as an opportunity to show my mother Nancy, my sister Jill (8) and me (6) a slice of this vast continent. Yes, we would be camping. No, we wouldn’t be enjoying an air-conditioned 28-foot RV with kitchen, fridge, bathroom, TV and shower.

Try a 1962 Mercury Comet station wagon, a WWII era camp stove and a leaky canvas tent. Motels would be a rare and welcomed treat on this 55-day, 13,000 km trek. In retrospect: completely bonkers.

The state of the North American automobile was in another universe some 48 years ago. Our poo-brown compact wagon, which at the time was fairly low on the automotive totem pole, had a wheezy 170 cid straight-six, three-on-the-tree, drum brakes, powered-nothing and skinny bias-ply tires. Air-conditioning and audio were but a dream, and if it had seat belts, I don’t remember wearing them.

Feature: 1963 Bleakney family trip travel auto articles car culture
Picture a young Peter Bleakney losing his lunch at this picturesque roadside stop. Click image to enlarge

According to Motor Trend magazine, the 1962 Comet sedan with this engine got to 60 mph (96.6 km/h) in 22.2 seconds and averaged 16.2 miles per US gallon (14.5 L/100 km). Feel free to laugh. Our wagon, laden as it was like a government mule, would have been considerably slower and thirstier. Gas at the time was around 30 cents a gallon. Feel free to cry.

Adding to the spirit of adventure was this six-year-old’s propensity for launching his lunch at the mere sight of a bend in the road. I’m quite certain my DNA can still be found in some of the more picturesque New England ditches.

But Dad discovered a fascinating antidote, if not outright cure, for this condition that science has yet to explain. In his words: “If it hadn’t been for a preposterous folklore statement, proffered by a sympathetic auto mechanic back in 1960, my family (including Peter) would never have experienced all those exciting years of family travel and camping. “So your kids are chronically car sick? Well that’s an easy fix. Just dangle a chain and stop the pain!”

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