Eastward Ho, at Last

They’re on the road again.

Bruce Barrett and Judy Forrest, the Whitehorse couple whose van was torched by an arsonist in British Columbia last month, are rebounding from the major setback in their retirement travel plan.

Barrett retired last December after 30 years as a heritage sites project officer with Tourism Yukon. Forrest’s last day on the job in the education field came at the end of June.

They had planned a leisurely trip across Canada, including a stint on an island in Ontario’s Georgian Bay to be with Barrett’s elderly mother, who has mobility issues.

All that changed suddenly early on the morning of July 6, with a loud banging on the door of their cabin on Shack Island, just off Nanaimo.

“In that semi-comatose state, we simply couldn’t imagine what was going on, so we got up and one of our neighbours informed us that there was a fire in the parking lot where Shack Island people keep their vehicles,” Barrett says.

He and the neighbour quickly rowed across to the landing, first seeing the flashing lights of numerous fire engines and police vehicles, then clouds of steam and smoke rising from three vehicles that had been engulfed.

One of them was the cobalt-blue 1990 Volkswagen Vanagon Westphalia he and Forrest had bought just three weeks earlier for their long-planned trip. Their home on wheels had been completely destroyed by a blaze so intense that two-thirds of the licence plate had melted away.

“If there had been a wind, a south-easter, there’s a row of houses there, and it could have been a horrible neighbourhood disaster,” Forrest says. “But there was no wind, thank God.”

Several days after the fact, Barrett clearly recalled his initial reaction.

“It didn’t sink in right away until literally I got over there and saw the smouldering remains of what had been our vehicle. It’s kind of just an internal, mental expletive, because the consequences of it take a little while to dawn on you.”

Forrest, meanwhile, was still on Shack Island, watching through binoculars from a nearby cabin. It wasn’t until Barrett returned and they were having tea and toast that they started assessing their situation.

“It was an absolutely beautiful morning, and we were looking at this spectacular sunrise and thinking, ‘Now what do we do?'” Barrett says.

“We sort of had a pretty good idea of what was ahead of us, because we’d spent a good part of the late spring preparing for our journey across the country, and we thought, ‘Okay. Now we get to do that all over again.'”

The pair are long-time Westphalia owners. Bruce bought his first one in 1974 and drove to Panama in it.

“We have been Volkswagen junkies since we’ve been together, which is coming on 40 years,” Forrest says.

“I’m not saying we’re cultists, but there’s definitely some kind of attachment that runs pretty deep,” Barrett adds.

Much of what they lost in the fire had been acquired over the years specifically because it fit a VW’s compact layout, but they also lost camping equipment and some of Forrest’s expensive orthopedic footwear, as well as her $200 ergonomically-correct walking stick.

Not to mention several items of more sentimental than monetary value.

“Our perfect little plastic egg cups,” Barrett offers.

“And our crib board,” Forrest chimes in.

“Yes, we had a Mister 29 original crib board that Judy’s father had given her, which you can’t get anymore. They are collector’s items. And there was a simple little chrome-covered stool that had gone through at least four Westphalias with us. So it was kind of a sentimental item.”

Although the van was insured, they haven’t received a settlement yet, but are confident it will meet much of the replacement cost. The contents are another matter. The deductible on their household insurance is high enough that they may forego making a claim.

Fortunately, Forrest’s nephew, George Maratos, immediately started a GoFundMe campaign to help defray their expenses. Within a few days, it had exceeded the $5,000 goal.

Barrett says the response from friends and family, and even many Yukoners and others they don’t know, has been fantastic.

“As well as the contributions they made, so many people have made really supportive comments and just kind of encouragement to carry on. And, really, it’s with that encouragement we said, ‘Okay, we can’t drop this ball.'”

After six days of combing Vancouver Island for a replacement vehicle, even considering switching to something other than a VW, they located just what they wanted at a small dealership in Cobble Hill, north of Victoria.

“It is a 1995 Volkswagen Eurovan that’s been camperized by Winnebago. It’s a sweet little vehicle, I’ve gotta say,” Barrett reports.

After some fancy logistics to get insurance and registration papers, and a licence plate, from Yukon to Nanaimo, Barrett says they were set to close the deal, then indulge in some “retail therapy at thrift stores” to outfit the new vehicle.

Just 16 days after their dreams appeared shattered, he and Forrest were ready to roll again.

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