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Van vagabond: Woman spends years on the road
Jean Winkler, 87, smiles as she sits in the back of the camper van she lives in during her summers in Wisconsin, splitting time between Browntown and Apache Junction, Ariz. (Times photo: Anthony Wahl)
BROWNTOWN - Jean Winkler said it's her "playhouse," her "bread box," or her "cookie box," and by any other name it's the van she lives in over the summer.

Winkler used to drive to Browntown from Apache Junction, Ariz., where she spends her winters, but as she nears her 88th birthday this Halloween, she said she would much rather fly back and forth and leave the van at her son's house.

Winkler has been on the road since her husband John retired. They started out in an RV but had to switch to a van that Winkler could drive after John became ill. They spent about two to three years in the van until John passed away about nine years ago.

It's a small van that is impeccably clean, with two tiny beds, a closet, a refrigerator, a propane stove and a microwave.

"It reminds me of growing up as a little girl and you would play house. Well, this is my playhouse," she said.

Winkler wore pink lipstick and a red vest over a red shirt Wednesday. She had red shoes and thin black pants. Winlker had rosy red cheeks, and the tiny closet in her van where she keeps about 10 or so outfits all shared a similar red or pink hue. Winkler said if she buys a new outfit, she throws away an old one.

Winkler doesn't tell stories the way a lot of people do, with wild gesticulations to prove a point that their words can't. She tells stories with dialogue interspersed with asides and details, like the time and place the event occurred, and then she pops right back into the story. She doesn't mock the characters of her stories by changing her tone, she just uses her sweet, motherly voice.

"We hosted an AFS student from New Zealand, and he didn't like how strict our house was, but we just treated him like one of our own kids," Winkler said. "So Kiwi - we called him Kiwi because our son-in-law was also named Bill - so Kiwi didn't like that he had to be in at a certain time of night, like midnight or 1 a.m. And he just couldn't get it. He said to us, "I don't understand why can't you just fall asleep, and when I get in, I get in, you don't have to worry?'

"And I told him, I said look, we don't go to sleep until we know you are home and safe".

Winkler said Kiwi didn't like the strict rules, but after his year-long stay with her and John, they kept in contact despite some rough patches.

"When he was here we had to send him off to a neighbor to cool off for a week," she said.

Years later, Winkler and her husband flew to New Zealand for a wedding and stayed with Kiwi. She said Kiwi was stricter with his six children than she and her husband had been with him.

"All six kids were home-schooled with no TV, and they were all great kids. They call me Nanny Jean," she said. "I just love that. While we were there he sent the kids out to chop thistles, and that was the job he hated when we had him on the farm."

Winkler and John have done just about everything, from farming in Orangeville, to owning a cafe in Monroe, to raising nutria - a small animal related to the beaver.

"We ate every speck of meat on those guys ... and their teeth were like ivory that I made into jewelry," she said.

Ever since John passed away, Winkler has spent the winters in Arizona at a small condo and the summers in her van visiting her four children. The children range in ages from 66 to 45, just five years older than Jean was when she had her youngest son. She has one child in Wisconsin, one in Tennessee, one in North Dakota and one in Georgia. But she is a surrogate mother to many, or as Winkler calls them, her "extended sons."

When Winkler isn't socializing or working on the Browntown garden, she works part-time as a gardner at Prairie Star Lodge owned by Laura Mahlkuch and her husband Vern. Winkler gets to be with her friend Mahlkuch, who just so happens to pay her for beautifying the retreat with placements of mums, perennials, phlox and many other brightly colored flowers. Mahlkuch said when they bought the lodge in March and needed help getting it ready for guests, she saw Winkler weeding and planting at the Browntown garden and stopped by to ask if she wanted a job.

"I stopped to chit-chat and planted the seed with her, and she came up the next day and said she'd love to take the job," Mahlkuch said.

Mahlkuch pressed Winkler to come back again next year and continue gardening. Winkler looked up at the sky and said, "Tell the man upstairs, he's in control."

Winkler doesn't flinch from her own mortality. She said she used to own a number of antiques before she and John sold the farm, and she decided to do away with all of her collected antiques.

"You can't take them with you (when you die)," she said.

Winkler has traveled the entire United States, checking off each individual state except New Jersey because John fell ill and had to be hospitalized when they were near it. She crested the Superstition Mountains, east of Phoenix, at age 83; began her annual motorcycle trips at 80, and stays busy at least twice a week meeting with friends, dancing, eating and gardening.

"Raising four kids, you had to have a big garden," Winkler said.

Winkler knows all the names of the flowers and where to plant them, and she has been culminating the garden in Browntown every summer for at least eight years.

Winkler refuses to sleep inside at Mahlkuch's retreat when she does her gardening and decides to spend the night in her van.

"I don't want to dirty the sheets," she said. "I like my house."

Winkler just sets up camp in her van and comes out in the morning to continue gardening. Mahlkuch said Winkler never has an off-day, that she is cheery at all hours and weather.

"It could be 100 degrees or 40 degrees and she would still be out there smiling," Mahlkuch said. "She's never crabby or mean."

Winkler said she never gets frustrated because she has a zest for life and that she, "comes from good stock," though she complained her hands are always cold.

"Well, you know what they say Jeanie - cold hands, warm heart," Mahlkuch said.