For our People of the World series, meet Tessa and Dillon, the awesome duo behind The Bus and Us. I luckily stumbled upon their instagram account and immediately fell in love with what they are doing. A lot of my close friends will tell you that one of my life dreams is to travel around on a VW Bus. So when I saw this couple doing just that, I knew I had to reach out to them and find out more about their story.
- Tell us a little bit about yourselves and your epic journey?
- Why did you guys decide to travel via campervan?
- What is the best and worst thing about your chosen travel style?
- Can you tell us about an unforgettable travel moment?
- Tell us about the remodeling of the bus. How long did it take and how did you guys go about it?
- What’s the best piece of travel advice that you have ever received?
- Out of all the places that you have travelled through with the bus, which is your favourite and why?
- How much longer are you guys planning to travel? What’s next for you?
Tell us a little bit about yourselves and your epic journey?
We are Tessa and Dillon, an Alaskan couple that is driving our 1975 VW Westfalia from Alaska to Argentina. Before our trip we were both pretty settled into our career fields when we decided to buy, restore, and after a longer restoration process than we anticipated, move into our VW bus and point her south. Tessa was a full time special education teacher and Dillon was working for BP, the oil company, doing a desk job. We were true weekend warriors, but didn’t want to just be working for the weekend. Tessa loved her job and career field, but her feet felt a bit too itchy to settle in until retirement, and Dillon was quickly realizing that he wasn’t suited for cubicle life.
After a year on the road we couldn’t be happier with our decision to change our lifestyle to a more nomadic one. Before we embarked on this adventure we decided to save up as much money as we could so we wouldn’t have to rely on working on the road. We left Alaska a year ago and have traveled through Canada, the US, Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Hondouras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina! 25,000 miles later, we are loving our little bus and each other more than ever. (We say that now as we write from the cool temperatures of Argentina…it wasn’t all so dreamy in the hot Central American temperatures without AC).
Why did you guys decide to travel via campervan?
We have both always been lovers of the VW bus. Alaska isn’t the easiest place to pick one up, so when we saw a 1975 rusted out, non running piece of junk that had been sitting in someone’s yard for years, we thought ‘great idea’! When a newer 1980 VW Vanagon for sale, we bought that too so we could compare them side by side. The Vanagon was road ready, but Tessa was heart set on the older style, iconic bus to be their new home. It feels significantly smaller and was a hell of a lot more work (a year pretty much full time of 2 people slaving away) but in the end we are stoked she’s our home!
It's been a while since we've had a good campfire but as the sun went down at 14,000 feet we sure were glad we collected some wood on the way to the lake. The temperatures dropped quickly without the sun, amplified by glacial surroundings. We made some ramen and coca tea with vodka and honey, to fight against the altitude of course, and waited for the stars to show.
Traveling with a campervan allows so much freedom with where to go and what you can see. It is much easier to get off the beaten path or backpacker circuit than the backpacking style travel we were accustomed to. The best part of traveling with a campervan is the freedom it offers. You don’t have to plan ahead or worry about reservations. It offers more flexibility than we could have imagined.
What is the best and worst thing about your chosen travel style?
The most rewarding thing about our travel style is the amount of freedom that comes with it. It sounds crazy but things truly weigh you down. Having our home with us at all times offers the flexibility of going where the wind takes you which has been more liberating than we could have imagined.
The most challenging thing about living this lifestyle is worrying about safety. Traveling through Central and South America have been amazing, but there are also significantly more safety concerns than cruising around the US. While there are worries of petty theft everywhere you travel, larger concerns about physical safety weigh on you much more when you are camping in areas that you can’t always guarantee are the safest, regardless of how much research about an area you do. For example, in El Salvador there were at least two guards with semi automiatc weapons guarding the Burger King. This sort of thing doesn’t necessary ensure a solid night sleep when you are camping not far from there. We occasionally envy backpackers that stay in hostels and take busses places. Before this trip that is how we traveled, and we definitely took for granted not having to worry as much about safety or car troubles and the beauty of having more time in a place because you took the overnight bus.
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Can you tell us about an unforgettable travel moment?
One of our most memorable travel moments occurred in El Salvador, and is a testament to the amazing people that comprise the VW van community; meeting our friend Manuel. Manuel had been following our trip on Instagram, and when he caught wind that we were in his hometown he hopped into his identical VW bus to track us down. We still refer to him as St. Manuel, as his hospitality was like nothing we had ever experienced. Not only did he give us the most amazing painting he had created of his bus, he also offered to accompany us to the hospital to translate to the doctor Tessa’s symptoms and the specifics of her bodily functions a mere 10 minutes after meeting her. It had never been a dream to spend multiple days in a hospital in El Salvador, but Manuel came to check on us and bring provisions multiple times a day. The instant family that connects VW lovers continues to blow our minds.
Meet our new best friend Manuel. Manuel had been following us on Instagram and when he caught wind that we were in his hometown he hopped in his twin bus @fotobuselsalvador and tracked us down. We talk about the instant VW family being strong but with Manuel, his hospitality was like nothing we have ever experienced. Not only did he give us this incredible painting he created upon meeting us, he offered to accompany us to the hospital to translate to the doctor Tessa's symptoms and specifics of her bodily functions 10 minutes after meeting her. It has never been a dream of ours to spend multiple nights in a hospital in El Salvador but Saint Manuel came to visit every day and made sure our needs were met. He is planning a trip to Canada and Alaska in his twin Kombi and we can't wait to host him, and hopefully have some adventures outside of the hospital up north! Gracias para todo Manuel!
Tell us about the remodeling of the bus. How long did it take and how did you guys go about it?
When we decided to do the trip we were planning on leaving May of 2014. We had NO clue how much work went into fully restoring a vehicle. We bought it for $500 from someone’s yard in the small seaside town of Hope, Alaska. At first glance it didn’t look to bad, but we were completely clueless and should have done a real inspection. Once we removed the cabinets to refinish them we realized we would be replacing all of the floor under where the cabinets had sat, further inspection revealed we would need new body panels across the entire bottom 10 inches of the body, and pieces of the frame!
We already planned on putting a Subaru motor in so the engine not running didn’t bother us, but we soon realized we would be replacing literally every moving part. Think you can reuse any bolt after a car has been sitting next to the ocean for 10 years? We were at The Home Depot and Napa daily buying bolts and random pieces. After all was said and done, we ended up putting about $30k into the restoration, including the Subaru engine Dillon installed and all of the parts for the conversion (which hadn’t successfully been done by more than a handful of people so there was a lot of trial and error involved). I would say that the restoration process and doing all of the work ourselves (learning to weld, paint a vehicle, become a mechanic essentially, etc.) was as much of the adventure as the actual trip. It also wouldn’t have been possible without the support of our families who let us use their driveway, one friend who let us borrow his welder for a few months, and another who let us take parts off of his bus which was recently totaled.
What’s the best piece of travel advice that you have ever received?
I wrote an acquaintance who had driven the Americas for a year for her honeymoon, and she offered me the best piece of travel advice I have received: The first mile is the hardest. When planning to embark on such a long (time and distance) trip, it can become really overwhelming when trying to research everything, and looking into all of the ‘what ifs’ can be scary. But once you’re on the road, you can figure out everything you need to. Just making the leap and not being swayed by societal norms and the fear of doing something different was the hardest part.
Out of all the places that you have travelled through with the bus, which is your favourite and why?
It’s too hard to choose! We have fallen in love with many places along the way, but for different reasons our top three places we have travelled with the bus, Baja, Colombia, and Patagonia have been our favorite spots. The desolation we found in Baja has been unmatched. We were camped out with two other Westfalias surfing, fishing, eating, drinking, and being merry for the first part of our time out of the US and it was an amazing introduction to the freedom that van life offers. Camping out on the ocean for a week and not seeing another person is pretty hard to beat. As far as the whole package deal of diverse scenery, kindness of the locals and richness in culture, Colombia definitely stole our hearts. Last but not least we can’t seems to soak up the magic of Patagonia fast enough. The mountains and glaciers protrude right from the ocean, it’s full of amazingly colored lakes river with trophy trout fishing, and the vistas seemingly everywhere here are truly unmatched. We are stoked that we allotted endless months to explore the area.
End of the road. Where one of our favorite authors, Allan Weisbecker found his paradise at the longest left wave in the world. We found it to be a paradise as well, wishing there was a way we could extend our vehicle import permit so we could stay for more time. If you make it here you will understand why there has been so much drama over this beautiful land.
How much longer are you guys planning to travel? What’s next for you?
We have been on the road for year and are nearing our ‘end goal’ of Ushuaia, the southernmost town in the world. That being said, we aren’t really anywhere close to being ready to give up this lifestyle. We still plan on going to Buenos Aires, Uruguay, and Brazil. The current plan is to ship the bus from Buenos Aires to Florida, and during the 5 week shipping period we will explore Brazil by backpack.
With gas around $4 a gallon in Peru we've resorted to spreading Christmas cheer in exchange for gas money. We haven't quite mastered the Peruvian flute but the smooth twang coming from Tessa's ukulele evens us out. Happy holidays from the Andes, keep an eye out for our album dropping at a mall kiosk near you.
The reality 0f our career fields looms, but as tempting as it is to start working again and settle down, the other half of us knows this will likely be the only point until retirement when we truly don’t have anything holding us down so to speak, so why not take our time traveling through the states? The question of whether or not we aim to be back in Alaska next fall for the start of the school year or to extend our vanlife further is an often discussed topic on our endless drives and remains unanswered.
Camping in a hidden cove in Baja. This campsite was one of our favorites as it was not only free but no one else was here. Every other campground in the area was packed. As we played the Ukulele into the night we stayed busy discussing topics such as if this is where they film corona commercials and when would Ben adopt a dog. It was a stressful stay. We have a new blog post up from our travels through lower Baja, better late than never. Check it out by following the link in our profile. #vanlife #dashboarddiaries @enohammocks @yakimaracks @goalzero @hydroflask
There you have it folks! I hope you loved this interview as much as I did and left feeling more inspired about all the possibilities of travel! Wishing Tessa and Dillon many more adventures in their awesome van! Follow their adventures on their blog: The Bus and Us and on their Instagram account: @thebusandus
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