We’re the Overlanders of the Year!

Arriving back in Arizona after 927 days on the road - Copy

Expedition Portal recently awarded us the 2015 Overlanders of the Year! We are honored and humbled by this recognition, and hope that our story inspires more to get out on the open road, doing what makes you happy. We’ve reprinted the story from ExPo below, written by Christophe Noel.

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Jan 2012

Blog, North America

DISCUSSION 15 Comments

When it Rains it Pours

As we pulled up to the bay at San Quintin, it was as if we’d entered a military ambush. We passed an armored vehicle loaded with troops. As we made our way into the dirt parking lot we noticed several of these around the place. The dock leading from the restaurant to the water front had several troops with machine guns, waiting as if they were expecting the bad guys to show up at any time. Nope just us. We quickly circled around the parking lot and headed for the exit. A soldier gave us a piece sign as we passed by. On our way out we noticed that a seemingly important meeting was underway in the restaurant. Whatever it was, I think they were safe. We pulled a few hundred yards down the road and found a camp spot.

When we parked we turned on the water system, only to hear water spraying the back of the cabinets. It seemed my repair of the Sure-Flo check valve while we were in Phoenix didn’t hold. All right, no water. Next, I flipped the switch for the inverter. I heard a sizzling sound, and then our Samlex inverter went into overload mode. The same thing had happened before we left Flagstaff, and I had to get it replaced under warranty. Not so easy now. And all of a sudden we had no water and no A/C electricity.  When it rains, it pours.

No inverter means we can’t charge our computer battery. I knew we should have gotten a 12v power cord before we left. If we don’t update for a couple of days, it means our computer is dead. We hope to find a new inverter in Cabo San Lucas.

We made our way the next day down to Bahia de los Angeles, where I started the evening by repairing the water system. Once we get to Cabo, we’ll be replacing all of the crappy Sure-Flo valves with something a little more robust.

On the way to Bahia de los Angeles we stopped near Catavina and hiked around the rocks. The deserts of Baja are beautiful, and have unique flora not found in the Southwestern USA.

Unfortunately, due to our battery situation, I can’t spend too much time on this update. We’re off to Bahia Concepcion, which has fantastic snorkeling and paddleboarding potential. We’ll do some fishing as well. I hope to get the inverter fixed soon and be back to normal updates.

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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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Dec 2011

Blog, North America

DISCUSSION 14 Comments

Nacho the Driving Fortress

When Sheena and I lived in Wales during college, we didn’t really trouble ourselves much over vehicular security.  Everyone had one of those club things that goes on the steering wheel, so we bought one for our 1992 Toyota Corolla.  We’d bought the car for $700 from a young Nigerian man and named it Gershwin.  A few short months after buying it, while eating spaghetti in our townhouse, we were interrupted by a frantic knock at our front door.  Our neighbor was standing there at our doorstep with an ominous orange halo emanating from behind him.

“Is that your car on fire?”  The Welsh sound cheerful even when asking rhetorical questions about your burning car.  “Yeah.  Yes, that is our car.  Thanks for the heads up.”  It just wasn’t a situation I’d thought to rehearse for.  As luck would have it, we were chosen for a seemingly random car bombing.  I can’t prove that it was a bomb, but it was powerful enough to blow the rear doors open, knock the license plate off, and incinerate our car in a blast of ten foot flames.  Poor Gershwin burned to the ground with his government-mandated fire extinguisher sitting on the back seat.  Irony.

While we didn’t take it personally, and certainly don’t ever expect it to happen to us again, we figured adding a few security features to Nacho wouldn’t hurt.  By the time we thought of this, it was too late to make the van fire proof.  We opted instead to cut our would-be enemies off at the knees by adding these state of the art Home Depot locks to the doors.  This way we can lock the doors from the outside so thieves and other ill-doers will have to crawl through a broken window to gain entry.  If they’re going to take us down, we’ll make sure they get several minor cuts in doing so.

The next step in Nacho’s home security makeover was to make sure nobody could steal our roof box.  If a thief were to make off with it, he would be very disappointed as it’s just full of spare parts.  However, this would be a big setback for us, as we’ll probably end up needing a lot of spare parts out there.  I secured the box by taking the front luggage compartment off of the roof and bolting the box into it from underneath.  Would-be roof box thieves will now succeed only in looking foolish by trying to outsmart our homemade security system.

The final security enhancement on yesterday’s list was the coolest and most technologically advanced.  However, telling you what it is would defeat the whole purpose of having it, so you’ll have to use your imagination.  I promise, when the trip is over in three years, I will tell you what it was.

Yesterday’s success of transforming Nacho into a heavily guarded fortress was not to be repeated today.  I split the first half of the day between buying fittings at Lowe’s and plumbing in our espresso machine for Sheena’s parents.  Finally after lunch I attempted to install a new battery and a battery separator for the auxiliary battery, but ended the night not having completed anything.  At least we’ll have good espresso in the morning.

We decided that Nacho should have a quick-drying shower curtain, so Sheena went to work creating one out of rip stop nylon.  The white vinyl one that we currently have has two problems; it doesn’t dry quickly, so it’ll turn into a ball of fuzzy mold in no time, and it looks like (and is) a regular home shower curtain, so we’ll be pegged as W.T.  Because, you know, living in a van won’t already accomplish that.

And so here we are, one day closer to departure, a few more projects ticked off the list.  Given the depth and breadth of our preparations, I can’t wait to see what irony has in store for us this time.

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How to Win Friends & Influence People: Custom Vanagon Bumpers

Nacho’s engine is a 2.1 liter power factory, capable of transmitting 112 horsepower to its 14 inch rock crushing wheels.  With the turn of a key its internal combustion engine roars to life like a sewing machine.  But not just a regular sewing machine, an industrial one.  It breathes terror into the deepest depths of your soul with every tick-tick-tick of its industrial sewing machine-like engine.

With an engine like this running the show, you leave it alone.  There are more important fish to fry.  Like creating custom bumpers.

Our initial idea was to buy a rear bumper from the fine folks at GoWesty. They have a swing away bumper attachment that holds a spare tire and a few gas cans.  However, after bouncing some ideas off of my dad, we decided to build our own.  See, my dad is a life long Jeep tinkerer.  He’s built more than a couple of custom Jeeps from the ground up and is no stranger to bumper fabrication.  This, coupled with the high price tag of the GoWesty model, prompted us to go the custom route.

The requirements of the bumper were that it should hold a spare tire and four jerrycans.  This would allow us to bring a second spare, 10 extra gallons of gas, and 10 extra gallons of water.  We also wanted it to keep the jerrycans protected and out of sight.  Finally, we wanted the bumper to have two arms that would swing away to 90 degrees and stay open so we could use them as sides to our shower stall.

We chose box-section steel tubing for the construction.  The main bumper is made of a tall rectangular tube, while the arms are square sections.

The swing away arms need to hold a lot of weight, so we bought two trailer axles and welded them into the main body of the bumper.  We pressed the bearings into the arms and attached them with castle nuts.  If these puppies can handle the weight of a fully loaded trailer, they can certainly handle 20 gallons of gas and water.

The nearly finished product ended up costing around $300 in materials, and looked a lot like a futuristic weapon.  You may not get that from the picture, but trust me, it looked like a weapon.  It closes with a lever-actuated twisting latch (behind the jerrycan mast), and the two arms can be locked together in the center.

Getting the arms to open to 90 degrees was easy.  Fortunately for us, Sheena was T-boned in our Toyota Camry just prior to this project.  The car was totaled.  Before the tow truck had time to come pick it up and haul it to the dump, I snagged the gas struts that held the hood open.  We used these on the bumper arms, so now the bumper opens on its own when the latch is actuated and stays open at 90 degrees.

The jerrycan box has a hinged lid, so our cans stay out of the sun and out of sight.  The bottom of the box is perforated so any spilled fluids will drain out the bottom.

As with any project, the design considerations in order of importance were fashion, function, and safety.  We had number two down, so it was time to tackle number one.  We made this pig pretty by covering the top with sheets of polished diamond plate, and coated the rest of the steel with a few coats of bedliner.

Alas, the rear bumper was finished.  However, no overland expedition vehicle would be complete without a front receiver hitch.  Volkswagen Vanagons didn’t come with a receiver in the front or the rear, so we added one.

Now when we get stuck we can hook onto this thing and pull ourselves out.  The picture below shows us being pulled out of some really deep sand by a couple of friendly Mexicans while we were in Baja on our test trip in May.  It was great, except the road was too sandy for us so they towed us onto a beach.  Because, you know, beaches aren’t really sandy.

The final step was to create some front bumper storage space.  To do this I went to Peace Surplus and bought two army surplus ammo cans.  Using a couple of tractor pins and a drill press I made some lock assemblies for the cans, and then mounted them to the bumper.  I mounted them by bolting through the bottoms of the boxes to the bumper, which means a malicious thief would have to remove the entire bumper to get them off.

Fashion: check.  Function: check.  Safety: Who cares?

As a sign of our continued effort to obliterate any shred of a chance at a healthy social life, we now have two custom bumpers on our van.  Two bumpers that, in a couple of short days, will glide happily through the wind as our sewing machine engine propels us South out of the snowy mountains, toward the equator and beyond.

More on Nacho’s Renovations page >

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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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Installing Custom Cabinets in Nacho Vanagon

When I was 13 I got a job at a vineyard in my hometown.  My job was to go around and pick the small elm trees that were starting to grow under the vines.  In theory this would be simple, like pulling weeds.  In reality it was a twisted Alighierian version of hell on Earth.  Elm trees are like the icebergs of the land; their root systems are extensive and deep.  Landbergs.  I was an illegal child laborer, so I was only getting paid $20/day.  What they needed was a tractor, not a schoolboy.  I quit that job after one day.

My naiveté when it comes to perceived work required versus actual work required extends to this very day, as evidenced by our decision to design and build our own cabinets for Nacho.

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