I've written most of a travel memoir about the camper van road trip I just finished from California to Argentina over the past 3 years. (Yup, we're now quarantined in Argentina!) I don't really like the idea of starting the book with one of those sneak-peek-ahead introductions with an exciting moment, and then going to the chronological story, but also I don't want the beginning to be too slow and lack excitement. I think chapter 1 is good, but then chapter 2 feels slow because I'm explaining the back story (why we decided to do the trip) - let me know what you think! Thank you!
We did it.
We drove away from our home, our friends, our jobs - everything that we knew. After months of preparation, we are moving into this camper van as a permanent home.
I climb up into the passenger seat of the van and click my seat belt. I take a deep breath and look at my husband, John. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. I think I did both.
It is exciting, emotional, and frankly, terrifying. Are we really going to drive 25K miles across 18 countries? Will we make it? What will happen to us along the way? What will we do once we get there? We already know we don’t want to return to this life. What is next?
We bump down our driveway away from our home, memories flooding past my window, as the neighbors wave and cheer us on. Our 6-year-old daughter, Lilly, simply looks out the window and says,
“Let’s drive to Argentina”, like it’s just another day.
On top of the excitement, I also feel relief. Relief to finally be on our way, after years of intense planning and preparation. It’s like I’ve been standing at the top of a cliff, anxiously waiting to jump into a beautiful swimming hole below me, and finally am free to just do it and stop worrying about it. But, it still terrifies me.
At this point, it no longer matters what we forgot to do or pack or research. We are leaving. DRIVING TO SOUTH AMERICA! No turning back!
One mile down the road, I sheepishly turn to John, “I left all our food in the fridge back at the house.”
And thus began our journey of 25,000 miles. With a U-turn.
The real beginning / Why?
It seemed like I had it all. A loving husband and healthy, happy daughter. A nice house and fancy job in a community of great friends. How could I possibly complain?
But there was a nagging voice in the back of my mind telling me this was not how I wanted to spend another decade of my life. Impressive jobs come with a lot of stress, and mine was no exception. My day was spent running from problem to problem, barely finding the time to eat, and frequently ending the day with a headache. In the evenings, I’d try to focus on my daughter, but my brain would still be processing the day’s unresolved issues. My husband and I didn’t get enough quality time together, usually discussing childcare logistics or other life admin in the rare moments we had alone.
The weekends were a wonderful refuge of enjoying each other’s company, catching up on sleep, and going into the mountains for some physical adventures. But, they were too short. Sunday evenings I could feel my chest tightening with stress as my brain started churning through the problems I’d need to solve the following day. I desperately craved more time with these 2 people whom I so adored, as well as more adventure and physical challenge in my life.
We spent hours brainstorming how we could make a significant change in our lives, while still providing a happy childhood for our daughter. Change careers, go back to school, move to a small mountain town - none of it felt big enough. We’d been living and working in California for 15 years and I wanted a total reboot!
I read dozens of books about other people pulling the trigger on a big life change - from the NY exec who quit her job to start an organic farm in Vermont, to the young couple who sailed around the world after one 16-hour sailing class, or the woman who dropped out of grad school to become a teacher in Bhutan - I felt so inspired reading about these real people who’d done such brave & risky things!
Initially we were both drawn to a physical challenge trip. Before our daughter was born, every vacation revolved around rock climbing. Rock climbing was why we lived in the Bay area (proximity to Yosemite) and how we’d met each other (we’d each moved to Yosemite) - it was the most important thing to me after my family. But, at 5 years old, Lilly wasn’t much of a climber yet. Physical challenge idea #2: we’d done some bike touring in the past, and I was really intrigued by the idea of biking to South America. So we did a 2-week test trip, pulling Lilly in a trailer, but decided that she would get too bored sitting for hours a day, plus I didn’t like the idea of her bouncing along behind me on a sketchy one-lane road.
Ultimately, we were so enamored by the South America trip – traveling right from our front door all the way to the bottom of the world without ever getting on an airplane – that we stuck with the idea, but, by van instead of bike.
I created spreadsheets galore to analyze our likely expenses, our savings, whether we should rent or sell our house; generally figuring out how long we could travel before needing to work. Then I tackled homeschooling legalities and invented a curriculum, researched border crossings, insurance for the van in so many countries, health insurance for us, vaccinations... The to-do list was endless, but exciting!
Meanwhile, John spent dozens of hours researching what vehicle we should take and how to build it out. He decided on an E350 Ford diesel van, due to its apparently unbreakable engine. Rather than buy an incredibly tall van that he could stand up inside, we chose to get a van with a roof that goes up and down. When we park for the night, we raise the roof up, providing space for us to comfortably stand up, as well as providing space for an “upstairs” sleeping area (really just two shelves big enough for us to lay on!)
It was a gargantuan task to entirely gut the van and build it out. John made us an electrical system with solar panels and batteries, plumbing with tank and filtration, heating and fan, stove, cabinets. Evenings and weekends for most of a year, he toiled away in our driveway, until he had created the perfect little home for three.
A couple weeks before we were to drive away – we had both quit our jobs, our house was rented out, and we had missed enrollment for the next year of my daughter’s school – I was obsessively reading the news about Mexico, getting more and more concerned.
Highest number of homicides in 20 years! Mass graves discovered next to the road, decapitated heads found in a cooler, tourists poisoned at resorts. Are we completely insane to drive into this country?
So I marked all the dangerous areas on a large map of Mexico and assured myself that we could weave a path around all of them.
But then, along comes an abnormally strong set of hurricanes, hitting Mexico on both sides of the country. I don’t want to imagine hunkering down in our little van by ourselves while a severe hurricane bats us around.
So I convinced myself that hurricanes can be avoided by keeping a close eye on the forecasts.
And then, an 8.0 magnitude earthquake with epicenter in Mexico! It’s the largest earthquake to hit Mexico in a *century*!
Are we completely irresponsible to drive into this chaos with our little daughter? What if Lilly gets seriously hurt, or kidnapped by Mexican bandits, or we have a serious car crash, or the van is stolen?! Or what if we survive the trip but then we can’t find jobs when we return to the US? Or, one of us gets cancer and we can’t get US health insurance? There were 101 reasons not to do this trip, and I started thinking about all of them.
Ultimately, I turned to logic and probabilities – yes, it is possible that any of those things may happen to us and we’ll greatly regret this trip, but it’s far more likely they won’t… The most likely outcome is that we’ll grow old and hope to have lived the lives we wanted.
So we made the uncomfortably exciting choice to leave our safe and traveled path – the secure jobs, house, neighborhood – and go into the unknown.
Surviving the first 24 Hours
If the first night is any indication of the rest of our trip, we should turn around now!
The drive itself is beautiful and nostalgic. Since we left home so late in the day, we end up driving through Yosemite during the magic sunset hour. The alpenglow paints the familiar peaks orange, highlighting every detail on the granite faces in front of me. I savor my memories of standing on top of most of them, typically at this same time of day, rushing to get down before dark. We stop briefly for a photo at the lake where we were married 10 years prior, and I cement my last memories of Yosemite, pushing away the doubts that creep into my mind. Could we ever find a more beautiful place than this?
We camp on the shores of Mono Lake, just outside of Yosemite. We raise up the van roof, set up the camp stove and table outside, and make the beds. It’s a process that soon becomes second nature to us, but at this point is still new and confusing. John & I are exhausted from the intense last few days of packing and preparation, but Lilly is so excited that she keeps leaping back and forth between her bed and our bed. The cold finally draws her into her sleeping bag and we all fall asleep.
It is a freezing night - literally - when I try to drink from my water bottle in the morning I discover it is frozen solid. At some point in the night, Lilly wakes up crying from the cold so we pull her into bed with us. That makes three bodies attempting to sleep in a space only a few inches wider than a single bed. As much as I love being close to my family, I tend to prefer sleeping without a knee denting my spine and my face pressed into a tent window zipper.
A couple hours of fitful sleep later, we are re-awoken by strange scuttling noises. John shines a light down and we both peer over the edge of our bed. Caught by surprise in the sudden beam of light is a cute little white mouse. For a split second, I see his red eyes looking up at us from the depths of our trash can, and then he vanishes under our bed. We start discussing traps or enticements to get the mouse out, but our half-asleep brains can’t process such a tricky problem, so we just take the trash outside and fall back asleep, promising ourselves we’ll solve it in the morning.
What feels like only moments after I fell asleep for the third time, I awake with a start at the sound of an engine approaching. Beams of light shine in through our windshield and bounce eerily around the fabric of our tent. I am not at all used to this idea of sleeping in a public place in the middle of the wilderness, so the arrival of a stranger in the night is intimidating. I push aside thoughts of theft or assault, and unzip my window and peer out. A beaten up old car parks nearby. I wonder if I should go find the can of bear spray that is our only weapon, but I don’t want to take my eyes off the vehicle. There is some movement and a headlight flickering around. I watch as long as my weary eyes let me but eventually fell asleep again.
Dawn comes too soon, and I curse the bright sunlight for waking me up so early. I feel the warm rays of the sun heating up our tent and I reluctantly open my bleary eyes. My groggy brain remembers where I am and turns on in a flash.
Did the mouse eat all our food?
Has the mystery person outside stolen our camp chairs?
Is Lilly frozen to death in her sleeping bag?
I turn to face John so I can throw these concerns at him. I see one eye peering out at me from under his sleeping bag. It does not look like a happy, well-rested eye, so I leave it alone and climb out of bed. Lilly is buried so far into her sleeping bag that I can’t see her. In a motion that is to become a regular habit on this trip when we reach colder climates, I poke the pile of fluff to elicit sufficient movement to confirm life. Yes, being a mother makes you weird.
I open the door to check on our various belongings strewn around outside and see a figure wrapped in a sleeping bag laying in the dirt. He sits up and greets me when he hears my door open,
“I think I have frostbite, could you take a look at my foot?”
And that was the first of hundreds of chance meetings that form the true backbone of this story.
71-year-old Joe had been camping up in the mountains by himself. The cold front caught him by surprise, so he’d hiked out in the night to his car, driving only a short way before seeing our van and deciding he was too tired to continue.
“I haven’t slept under a roof since April,” he assures us. (This was late September). Wow, I think, can I be like Joe when I grow up?
He tells me that he hasn’t been able to feel his toes for almost 24 hours. I gingerly peel back a white, cotton sock from a wrinkled, leathery leg. The foot underneath appears almost white in color, and is swollen hard to the touch. I dig out my wilderness medicine notebook from our first aid kit, (didn’t think I’d be using it less than 24 hours into the trip), and try to compare photos and descriptions. If it’s badly frost bitten then you should leave it frozen and get to a hospital. If not, just let it warm up and it’ll be fine. But how to tell the difference? I’m no expert and there’s no cell reception to do more research.
We invite Joe to share our breakfast, glad now that we splurged on four plates instead of only three when we packed the van. Yes, those are the kinds of big decisions you make when you have a tiny home! He is grateful for the scrambled eggs and coffee, but he won’t listen to my advice to go to the hospital. It’s the typical US problem - he doesn’t have insurance so can’t risk getting slapped with a crippling bill. He says he’ll risk it and simply puts his shoe on and drives away. (Ironically, after we cross the border, no one we meet worries about health care costs.)
I think about Joe over the next few days, wondering what became of him. He wrote down our blog website but he didn’t even own a cell phone, so I don’t expect to ever hear from him. It was our first experience of having a somewhat close & personal encounter with someone whom we’d likely never see again.
Welcome to vanlife - this was going to happen to us hundreds more times.
Postscript: Several weeks later I got a mysterious message via our blog’s Contact Us page. It was from a nurse who was treating a patient who’d asked her to contact us. He wanted to let us know that his toes were damaged but he was going to be ok. She assumed we must be his family since we were the only people he was contacting. At that point we were well into Mexico. I responded asking if we could help in any way, but never heard back again.
I like to imagine I’ll be as tough and adventurous as Joe when I am in my 70s.
But I hope not so alone.
We watched Joe drive away down the dirt road back to the highway, then looked around at our new “home” in disbelief. This time yesterday we were normal people in a normal house. Now, just 24 hours later, we are living - sleeping, cooking, doing school - on a wide, sandy beach in front of a glassy still lake, with nobody in sight. It feels surreal.
I sit at our fold-up table outside, guiding Lilly through her reading lessons, while I watch seagulls cruise over the mirror-like water in front of me. John stands barefoot in the sand at our stove, preparing lunch. We explore the limestone tufa formations, noticing osprey nests balanced on top of the larger ones, for a break between reading and Math classes. I could get used to this. Well, except for the not-sleeping-all-night part.
We’ve been looking at the giant island in the middle of the lake all day while homeschooling, so we decide to try to paddle to it. Out comes our inflatable kayak and we set off at the sensibly early hour of 3pm…hmmm. We have been warned that sudden strong afternoon winds can make returning to shore impossible, but decide to give it a go anyway. Responsible parents prioritizing homeschooling over fun in the morning, but irresponsible parents deciding to still go out when we know it’s far too late in the day!
At first, the water looks beautifully enticing and I’m ready to jump in for a swim once we get deep enough. Then I notice millions of tiny white bugs swimming around. Yuck! The water is absolutely infested with them. Mono Lake is three times saltier than the ocean and is devoid of any marine life aside from the billions of brine shrimp (aka sea monkeys) that live there. The alkalinity of the water leaves white scales over our arms and legs as the water splashed over us. Not the most inviting place to swim.
We paddle hard for an hour. The clouds get thicker and the sky gets darker, but we both pretend not to notice, even after Lilly’s repeated wails of,
“I want to go back to the van now”.
We have summit fever, but for the island. Just when we are so close we can see a sandy beach, the wind suddenly picks up, blowing us towards the island at a rapid clip. Getting there would now be easy. Getting back is going to become impossible at some point. A short debate ensues:
“We can still make it! In the worst case, we’ll just get stuck on that island unable to return to the van, but we’d be safe.” - my argument.
“I don’t want to have to drink my own pee.” - John’s retort.
We turn back.