Jan 2012

Blog, North America

DISCUSSION 24 Comments

Our New Life

In 2006, during the same trip on which I proposed to Sheena, we visited the Greek island of Santorini.  We had heard that the most amazing sunset in the world could be seen from the town of Oia, high on the edge of the caldera of the island’s blown out volcanic center.  We made our way to Oia one evening and took our place on the cliff’s edge.  As the sun plunged slowly into the sea, we kept waiting for the sky to ignite in the most beautiful sunset we’d ever seen.  It never happened, and the sunset from Oia went down in history as the 128th best sunset I’d ever seen.

A couple of days ago when we finally left Arizona, we reached the Mexican border at Sonoyta just as the sun reached the horizon.  We crossed over, and a few minutes later the sky exploded into flames like a cheap polyester suit, creating a rainbow of color that filled the sky.  There’s really nothing like a desert sunset, and hardly a better visual display to welcome us into our new vagabonding life.

In crossing the border so late in the day, we violated our first self-imposed rule of Mexican travel: no driving after dark.  Given the delays in our trip thus far, and the relative safety of the road to Puerto Penasco, we decided that it was okay just this once.  Don’t get me wrong, when I say “safety” I’m not talking about banditos and narcotraficantes with guns.  I’m talking about cows.  As soon as the sun goes down, the country’s livestock takes to the roads.

Sheena napped in the passenger seat, and when she awoke at the outskirts of Puerto Penasco, she was wielding some fierce hunger-induced anger; a term we’ve come to call “hanger”.  We stopped at the first sign of a street side taco stand for fear that she would get any hangrier.

If there were to be an embodiment of heaven on Earth, it would be the Mexican taco stand.  The one we found was fronted by a piece of plywood with the words Tacos al Pastor spray painted on it.  We sat in the ubiquitous plastic lawn furniture that graces every taco stand in Mexico, and ordered several tacos and quesadillas.  From a rotating spit of meat and pineapple and the well practiced hands of the taco guru, our dinner was crafted; fresh flour tortillas filled with roasted pork, cilantro, onions, and fresh guacamole, a plate of limes and grilled and salted green onions, an assortment of salsas, and bowls of radishes and cucumbers.  We washed it down with a bottle of sangria flavored soda called Topo Chico, paid our $10 bill, and were on our way.  The Mexican taco stand.  Pretty much the best thing ever.

Puerto Penasco, or “Rocky Point” to Americans, is a small resort town at the northern end of the Sea of Cortez. As the closest bit of ocean to Arizona, it is quite popular with the college crowd during Spring Break.  January isn’t a hopping time of year here, as evidenced by beachfront resorts all along the water front with empty parking lots.  We drove Nacho northward past all of the resorts along Bahia de la Cholla until the road turned to dirt.  We continued on until we came to Puerto Penasco’s northern outpost; a small bar and restaurant called Wrecked at the Reef.  For $5 per night we could camp on the beach in peace, a good distance from the concrete resort jungle.

Reaching the Sea filled us with an overwhelming sense of joy, and we’ve been riding a wave of endorphins ever since.  When we arrived, I went down to the water’s edge and sat for a while.  This is your new life. No matter how often I remind myself, I still can’t believe that we’re doing this.  We opted to simplify our lives to save money, and our lives got so much better.  Now we’re on this adventure and our lives have gotten magnitudes better.  Can it get any better than this?  I guess time will tell.

Yesterday I put on the snorkeling gear and headed out with the spear gun to see if I could catch us dinner.  My visualizations of being an underwater fish-dominating Rambo went unrealized, as I only spotted a couple of small fish hanging out by the reef.  Next time you dirty rats, next time.  This morning before leaving Puerto Penasco for Baja’s Pacific coast, Sheena headed out on the paddleboard.  After scooting around Bahia de la Cholla, her streak of never having fallen off the thing remains intact.

As I write this, the sound of crashing waves fills Nacho’s interior.  In the morning we’ll wake up without aid of an alarm clock when the sun warms our little home.  We’ll roll out of bed to the sight of enormous waves crashing on the Baja coast.  We’ll sip our coffee and eat breakfast outdoors before going snorkeling.  Or fishing.  Or surfing.  This is your new life.  Holy shit, this is our new life.


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Jan 2012

Blog, North America

DISCUSSION 13 Comments

Shoving off

Last night, as I stood outside of Nacho changing my shirt, it dawned on me: we’re homeless.

We set off from Cave Creek yesterday on the first real day of our trip with the goal of getting to Puerto Penasco, Mexico.  An hour after leaving the plan was adjusted, and we decided to see a group of my childhood friends in Tucson for dinner.  No problem, we can still be rugged overlanders in Tucson, we’d just camp in Nacho in my friend Shannon’s driveway.  Extreme.  As it turns out, our great around the world Vanagon road trip is turning out to be full of unexpected twists; Sheena and I woke up this morning on an air mattress on Shannon’s floor, and then Shannon made us breakfast and coffee.  After that I tweaked my back while writing on the computer, which prompted our friend Leah, a massage therapist, to give both of us massages.  We are so rugged.

I had envisioned our departure this way: We would wake up from a long night of peaceful sleep, say goodbye to Sheena’s family, and roll out of town.  In reality, the days leading up to our departure were a frantic scramble.  The morning of the departure was a sleep deprived sprint.  We woke up at 6:00 and finished two more projects and packed up Nacho.  After a while the packing of the van became too much, so we just threw everything into boxes and set them on the floor.  We can deal with this later.

We’re readily settling into a routine of relaxation and general laziness, as it’s 11:19 and we still haven’t left.  No matter, we’ll be in Puerto Penasco by the evening.  This also means that we’ll be leaving the easy internet access of the United States.  We have an international mobile internet card, but we’ve never used it before, so there’s a possibility that it may take a couple of days to get it figured out.  If the blog doesn’t update for a couple of days, it probably doesn’t mean we’ve been kidnapped.  Give us a few days, then send in a rescue squad.

As we go, we’ll be updating our live map using a GPS tracker.  This will help someone find and recover Nacho in the event that we manage to get ourselves thrown in the clink.

Time to hit the road.  Adios Estados Unidos!


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Playing Volkswagen Mechanic

Nacho used to make sounds. At first it would be a soft tapping.  We’d turn off the radio and the tapping would turn into smack, smack, smack as if one of the engine hamsters had gotten its foot caught in its hamster wheel and was striking its head repeatedly against a tin heat shield.  I made it my mission in life to figure out what this was.  I would zig and zag all over the road to see if I could make it change tone or frequency, I would drive with the emergency brake on, shift gears, changed the engine oil weight, all to no avail.  I started hypothesizing and replacing parts.  I replaced the rear axles, CV joints, springs, shocks, tires, brake drums, and wheel bearings.  Smack, smack, smack…

In the end it turned out to be something ridiculously hard to find.  The end of the axle that sticks out beyond the CV joint on the outboard driver’s side was ever so slightly too long, which caused it to intermittently tap the back side of the stub axle on every wheel revolution.  Even my replacement axles had this problem, making the solution extra elusive.  One consequence of this ongoing investigation was my having to remove and install all of the CV joints on Nacho about six times.  After the problem was solved, all 24 of Nacho’s CV bolts started continually coming loose while driving.  Great.

After several attempts at getting the bolts to stay tight, I finally pulled out the big guns this week.  I removed and threw away all 24 bolts, cleaned the mating threads with brake cleaner, a metal pipe brush, a nylon pipe brush, and compressed air, and then installed brand new bolts with brand new OEM lock washers, and slathered every bolt with red Locktite.  If these things come loose after this, we’re just going to cancel the whole trip.  I will have lost.

The axle bolts fiasco required me to lay on the ground under Nacho for a full day.  Today I decided to continue the under-van work, so I got down on my bruised hips and spent the better part of the day under there.  It started with an oil change.  Nothing too exciting here.

The next job was to replace all of the bushings in the shift linkage, as well as the ball and socket mechanism on the gear selector from Van-Cafe.  Somewhere along the line the rubber boots that covered the important bits in the shifting mechanism disintegrated, after which time the shifting performance went to hell.  Now Nacho’s shifts are clean and precise.  Like a big ugly 1984 sports car.

With only five days left before we leave Phoenix for Mexico, my to do list stands at 12 projects.  Sheena is also starting in on her project list today.  So much for a nice relaxing final week.  Still, you won’t hear me complaining.  In my normal life I’d be going to work today.


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Dec 2011

Blog, North America

DISCUSSION 10 Comments

Leaving Flagstaff

Last summer we found ourselves at the house where our Nepalese friends live to celebrate Naresh having earned his US citizenship.  A few years ago I told his brother Ramesh about the tandoor oven I made in our back yard, so he showed me his tandoor and let me try my hand at making naan in it.  I burned all of the hair off of my arm, but my bread came out great.  Since then my hair has grown back and we’ve become friends with the whole family.  The evening at the Poudels’ house was one of the more memorable evenings in recent memory.  Our faces were sore from laughing, Karan showed us why the Punjab are the best dancers, Ramesh’s daughter Priana danced to the theme song from the only Bollywood film I’ve ever seen, we drank, and somehow Sheena and I were tricked into mimicking Karan’s Punjabi dance moves.  In doing so we made them understand why white people should never ever try to dance to Indian music.

On Thursday night we went to the Himalayan Grill, the restaurant owned and operated by the Poudel family, for the last time.  They’re not an easy bunch to say goodbye to, but their kindness and generosity makes us hell bent on getting to Nepal in Nacho.  Until then, I’ll work on perfecting my Nepalese curry in our Dutch oven.

Last night Sheena and I were up until one in the morning cleaning the Dollhouse and collecting materials to bring with us to Phoenix for all of next week’s van projects.  At the end of the night we sat in the middle of the floor and celebrated our completion by eating leftover cake from my company’s Christmas party.

A couple of nights ago our good friend Nate stopped by the Dollhouse.  You may recognize Nate as the man behind the curtain over at Handlebar Sandwich.  He’s an engineer and avid outdoorsman, but if this guy will be known for one thing 100 years from now, it will be for his unbelievable skill as a beer brewer.  Last year he brewed an Oak Aged Belgian Tripel that knocked my socks off.  A couple of months ago he produced a Coffee Vanilla Stout that still haunts Sheena in her dreams, and makes her voice rise by an octave whenever she talks about it.  On this visit to the Dollhouse he was slinging his latest brew, World Wide Quadrupel.  It’s a special brew just in time for our trip, made in my favorite style, the Belgian Quadrupel. If this guy ever opens up a commercial brewery, do whatever you have to do to get your hands on his stuff.  These will be done bottle conditioning in January, so watch for a review.

He dropped off six 750ml bottles, and six 330ml bottles.  We decided to convert Nacho’s toilet paper storage cabinet into a beer storage cabinet until it’s gone.  Priorities.

This morning we woke up in the guest bedroom at Bret and Brigit’s house.  We cooked a breakfast of pancakes as fuel for the road.  All four of us were leaving on road trips; they were headed to Salt Lake City for Christmas, we would be going a little farther.  It just felt like another day.

After loading up the van and our other car, we hit the road.  As we rolled out of town I hit the button on our GPS tracker and added the first point to our live trip map (link coming soon).  Goodbye to Flagstaff.  It’s not an easy place to leave.

The last task for the day was to sell our car.  Amid the sadness of leaving Flagstaff, we found some solace in knowing that our car would remain in good hands back home.  The buyer was none other than the mayor of Flagstaff.  She promised to use the car only for good and not for evil, and as Nacho’s little sister, decided that a fitting name would be “The Little Enchilada”.  The mayor of Chicago would never say that.  The mayor of San Diego would never say that either.  The people of Flagstaff are a special bunch.

That night last summer at the Poudels’ house, Naresh told us that it’s people like us that make Flagstaff great.  We figured he was drunk or mistook us for some other people, but now that we’ve left town, I’ve been thinking more about his words.  Reflecting on our 10 years in Flagstaff, I’ve come to realize that the quality of our lives is not a result of the place where we live, but of the friends we make while we live there.  Thanks to all of our friends for making our lives so rich.

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Dec 2011

Blog, North America


Nacho’s Dark Past

We’ve owned Nacho for two years.  Sometimes we forget that he was manufactured in 1984; the same year Sheena was manufactured.  The odometer reads 276,000 miles.  We were responsible for a few of those, but what about all the rest?  Our Nacho plied the roads for a quarter of a million miles before he joined us.  It got me thinking about Nacho’s past, so I did some digging.  By digging, I mean I looked at all of the previous titles that were in the glove box when we purchased the van in Hollywood two years ago.  As it turns out, we had some pretty big shoes to fill.

The earliest owner that we could track down was a gentleman named The Song Wizard.  Mr. Wizard is a Hollywood-based children’s songwriter and performer.  You may recognize him from such timeless hits as Dunce Cap Kelley, Daring Dewey, and Fun-A-Rooey.  While ripping out Nacho’s cabinets we found a copy of one of the Wizard’s CDs, so I listened to it.  Entertainment Weekly gave the album two stars out of five, but I would have easily given it two and a half.  If I hadn’t misplaced the damned thing we might have jammed to it as we roam the globe.  Maybe slip it to a border guard to grease the skids as we pass into China.  Sometimes when the mechanical issues seem too much to tackle, I imagine Nacho in his youth pulling up to a gig, engine ticking away like a nicely oiled hamster wheel, and I happily get back to the work at hand.

Soon enough, The Song Wizard tired of Nacho and put him up for sale.  Before long, another gentleman named Lucky Star picked up the reins.  Yes, the name on the title was actually “Lucky Star”.  Mr. Star is a self-proclaimed world renowned astrologer and spiritual scientist, and has been called “The Nostradamus of our time”.  We tried to contact Lucky for an astrological reading to find out if Nacho would stand up to the rigors of a trip around the world, but were unsuccessful in reaching the “dedicated seeker of truth”.  Well hell.  I’ve never been a gambling man.

Despite what I’m sure were several years of dedicated service, Lucky Star eventually found a new mode of transport and rid himself of Nacho.  The next branch of the family tree sprouted when Nacho was purchased by a guy named Michael (sorry, no fancy name).  Michael, despite his modest name, assured that Nacho would remain among the ranks of Hollywood A-Listers.  Michael was the Production Assistant for the Pamela Anderson film Barb Wire.  He later moved into location scouting, and was the Location Scout for Ally McBeal and the timeless classic Couples Retreat.  Yeah Vince Vaughn, that hippy bus you saw driving around Bora Bora has a name.  And it’s Nacho.

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Therapy and Nacho Arson

The other day I went to lunch with my company’s CEO.  “I think you should see a shrink.”  It was obvious what he thought of our idea to drive Nacho around the world.  “I’ll even pay for it.  Just lie on the couch for an hour, and let’s see what happens.”  We receive a wide variety of responses, but this one was unique.  It suggested that, as my friend Gabe put it, our desire to live means that we must be crazy.

The response from Sheena’s coworkers fell to the opposite extreme.  She told them all at the same time as one big group, which resulted in the entire accounting department breaking into tears.  The following day one of her coworkers wrote her a poem about our trip and laminated it.  I guess accountants are more emotional than CEOs.

I enjoy observing the responses people have to the news of our trip; a person’s reaction is telling of their experiences and outlook on life.  If they’ve never traveled, they tend not to see the point in our decision.  The young and well traveled tend to be enthusiastic and encouraging.  Those who have done something like this before become nostalgic and evangelistic in their encouragement for us to get underway.  Members of my grandfather’s generation have the most predictable and consistent response; their eyes relax and seem to focus on some distant object, they nod their head, and say something to the tune of “Do it now before it’s too late.”  My actual grandfather had this same response, but then followed it up with, “But you’ll never make it through the Middle East because they’ll set your car on fire.”  Thanks Grandpa.

So far our biggest detractor has been a woman named Donalie from Florida.  We’ve never met her, but she made the following assessment;

“…considering all the people who don’t have a car of any age to live in or the gas to go from one town/state to another, I don’t give a hoot.  I guess you just don’t get it, Brad…There are much more important things to do than to go traveling for years. The one good thing is that they quit their jobs, hopefully opening up jobs for people who need and want to work. I wish them well but I don’t admire them.”

I haven’t been able to figure out what must have been so bad about her life to give her this kind of outlook.  We tend to find the advice of people who have been in our shoes more motivating and relevant.  The letter we received from Todd on The Samba was more encouraging.

“I will definitely be following your blog, so keep at it! Reminds me of the trip I took in a different mode of transport. After college I fitted out my 26ft sloop and headed over the horizon to points south from Morro Bay, CA. I was gone for the better part of the year, cruising the coast all the way down to Zihuatanejo and back, solo. Of course I had my mask, fins, and sling, not to mention a quiver of boards. Otherwise, I didn’t have a clue. Literally. See, I had not sailed at all before this, and had acquired my knowledge from books. Oh the horror I put my mother through… Sorry mom, I love you

What I got was an adventure of the grandest sorts; what 23 year old wouldn’t? I loved Baja – my favorite place by far. So many good right hand point breaks, lobster, and amazing sunset/sunrises. Eventually warmer water called, and I ended up posting up at an anchorage in Puerto Vallarta. It was heaven. Good anchorage, good wave, little town… Of course the people are super kind and friendly as well – something you’ve come to find out already. You will have more of the same.

One thing I found out was that exploring and riding waves from a boat is a very romantic idea, but very difficult. A boat can get you into some places where a car cannot, but for the most part, all of the good breaks down the coast are reachable by 4 wheels. And guess what? There is no rocking or creaking when the swell is up. No worry of dragging anchor into the impact zone or out to sea. No wondering if you’re going to find that sandbar that shifts with the rain and tide.

Sorry for the ramble/reliving the past, but I’ve done what you’ve done. Pinched the pennies, scrapped and saved. Gone against the flow of the norm to do something that leaves most people with more questions, even after you’ve answered them all. I told my then girlfriend and now wife (I can’t believe she married me after this story I am about to tell) that I couldn’t take her out to a nice dinner, because that meant another week in Mexico. Mind you, this is one of the last times I would see her before jumping over the border.   The family pressure and guilt can be heavy at times, and seems strange and misplaced because in the end, you’re fulfilling and living out your dreams. Just keep telling them you love them! And hey, with Skype, wireless, Facetime, etc, the world is a lot smaller in many regards.

Finally, I met so many older couples who reveled in what I was doing. I specifically remember Peter from Canada who said, “You’ve got it figured out Todd. Take off now while you can. While your body is still young, while your mind and perspective are still fresh. While you’re open to everything.” While I still don’t think I have it figured out (I mean, I bought a Vanagon…) my trip, my experiences – the people and places I visited and met – will be with me for a lifetime. In the end, that’s what it’s all about.”

I prefer to think that our experience will be more in line with Todd’s.  I hope that our trip helps us to understand people better by appreciating their culture and sociopolitical situations.  I doubt that any shrink could provide this kind of insight, so I think we’ll stick with the original plan.


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Dec 2011

Blog, North America

DISCUSSION 26 Comments

The Great Nacho Trip Savings Plan

When I was a kid, the purse strings were tight.  I recall often eating one of my mom’s signature dishes: “Tuna and Crackers”; spread saltine crackers out on your plate, cover them with a creamy tuna concoction, and then eat it.  If my mom taught me one thing, it was that you never breathe with your mouth open when it’s freezing cold out.  If she taught me one thing relevant to this discussion, it was how to be frugal.

Throughout this process, people have asked us how we’re able to afford to pick up and drive around the world when we’re so young.  Trust fund?  Ponzi scheme?  Nope, just good old fashioned penny pinching.  It’s actually not so hard; the toughest part is making the “all or nothing” decision to actually do it.

We decided to do this trip right before leaving on vacation to Spain.  We scribbled out our savings plan before we left, but perfected it on a long hike in the Alpujarras By this time we realized that we were in the midst of a vacation on which we were wasting money that should have been going into the Nacho Fund.  By the end of our hike we had outlined our plan.  We identified the expensive aspects of our life, and created an attack plan to kill (or severely maim) each one.  I bequeath to you our savings plan so that we may get this out of the way once and for all…

Nacho Fund Expedient Growth Scheme Step 1: Move into someone’s pantry.

When we first got ourselves into this mess, we were renting a house in downtown Flagstaff.  We had 1,800 square feet with a sizeable yard, and it was pretty expensive.  We set out to find something smaller.  What we found was something MUCH smaller.  Meet “The Dollhouse”.

The Dollhouse is roughly 420 square feet, and is half the price of our old place.  It used to be a Mormon family’s food pantry.  Seriously.

The Dollhouse is 10 minutes from downtown on a shared property with two other young couples. It has a garden, chickens, horseshoe pit, outdoor dining area in an aspen grove, and a bonfire pit.  Its small size forced us to spend a lot more time outside.  You know, playing horseshoes, lighting fires, and doing flips off of the roof.

Nacho Fund Expedient Growth Scheme Step 2: Ride more bike.

It’s pretty easy to spend a couple hundred dollars per month on gas if you’re not careful.  We decided to ride bikes to work instead of driving whenever possible.  Like so many aspects of this plan, we liked to make a game out of it; “Okay, we’re only allowed to fill up once this month.  You in?”

I know, sometimes you just don’t feel like riding bikes.  “It’s freezing and my kidneys ache!”  Okay, crybaby.  For those days we have our Vespa, Cicilia.  She’s a 1963 VBB 150, and gets somewhere around 75mpg.  If you fart within 10 feet of this thing it’ll take you to the store.  So efficient.  So sensible.  So…feminine?

Nacho Fund Expedient Growth Scheme Step 3: Stop eating like Donald Trump.  Or some other rich guy.

As a present to ourselves when we graduated and got good jobs, we allowed ourselves to spend freely on groceries.  It’s important to eat well.  Turns out spending freely doesn’t necessarily equate to eating well.  It just equates to spending freely.

We had these little dinosaur-like beasts running all over the place, so we let them pull their weight by feeding us.  We ate one of them early on, but decided that eating their eggs was a better investment.

We also inherited a nice organic garden with the property.  Sheena took to the garden like Batman to rogue justice, seasonally eliminating our produce bill.

When the garden wasn’t producing, we joined a co-op called Bountiful Baskets.  For $15 every two weeks we took home two laundry baskets full of fresh fruits and vegetables.  If we were vegetarians we’d be home free, if not a little chronically tired.

Last, but not least, Sheena started making bread.  Now, instead of paying $4/loaf for the good stuff, we paid $0.25/loaf for the great stuff.  Little things.  They add up.

Nacho Fund Expedient Growth Scheme Step 4: Stop paying people to make dinner for us.

Like every American, we were spending a large proportion of our income on eating out.  We started by cutting back to once per week.  By the end we were down to once every two weeks.  Now our restaurant bills are down around $100/month.  Thanks to our friends at the Himalayan Grill for feeding us just about every week for the last two and a half years!

Nacho Fund Expedient Growth Scheme Step 5: Stop buying so much crap.

As consumers we get a lot of stuff pushed our way, and start to believe that we need it; cars, clothes, electronics, toilet paper.  Well, one of those things is important.  How else are you supposed to play video games with your friends?

We started by saying that we could each spend $300/month on anything that wasn’t rent, food, or gas.  It sounds easy, but I challenge you to try it.  Not easy.  After a while we got used to it, so we continually reduced it until we got it to $100, which is where it’s been for almost two years.  Strangely we don’t even notice any more.  It doesn’t feel like we’re sacrificing.

One way we minimized our spending was by entertaining ourselves in ways that didn’t cost money.  We used Netflix and consciously spent more time with friends at home rather than going out.  We started a dinner club, where four couples would take turns hosting dinner, and started a beer tasting group with a bunch of friends.

The verdict

We were ultimately able to reduce our spending by more than half.  This allowed us to put all of my (Brad’s) paychecks into savings while we lived off of Sheena’s.  In the end it only took us about two and a half years to reach our goal.

The other interesting outcome of this ordeal is that we found ourselves enjoying life much more at the end than we did when we started.  Everything we did to save money made our life immediately better in some way.  We ate better, spent more time in the sun and with good friends, and distanced ourselves from the consumerism cycle.  Simplify.

By the way, as of press time the Dollhouse is available to rent.  Any takers?


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