Tell us your name(s), where you’re from and how long you’ve been on the road:
Hi there, my name is Nathan and along with my now 14-year old son Tristan, I hit the road full-time in 2008. It was the stone ages and we rolled around in a massive 199-something Dutchman Class C RV. It caught on fire, the transmission to be specific, about 14 miles down the road on the day we left. A guy in a convertible pulled up beside me and nonchalantly said, “Hey, do you know you’re on fire?”
I did not.
A year later, I got an email from this girl I’d known from college. Some people say I have been in love with her and have had her yanking on my brainstem every single day since we met, even though our lives went separate ways after school. Those people are crazy, there were a few days in my 20s I was so hung over I never woke up, so unless I dreamt about her, I think I missed a few days. I did dream about her a lot though. Anyway, her name is Renée.
In response to her email, I sold the Dutchman and bought a Volkswagen Bus just about the next day. I didn’t know anything about Buses then except that a) I wanted one and b) they were awesome. Turns out that c) they’re money pits and d) they’re extremely awesome. She hopped in to what turned out to be a 1978 Champagne Edition Riviera Campwagen. Which is a fancy way of saying “We don’t roll in no Westie, this here is 100% made in the USA camper van style.” No offense to those people who hate America, of course. 😉
Six months into the three of us traveling in our Bus, which I tried to name “Champ” but Renée said that naming vehicles is not something “we do”, so anyway, six months in and I guess we hit a stork or something because somehow Renée was pregnant. Blah blah blah, long story short, we’ve now got three kids, including Winter and Wylder.
What is the toughest situation you’ve found yourself in on the road thus far?
We deal with breakdowns a lot. They say that kids forget 75% of what they learned over the past year during summer vacation. I forget 110% (I like to give it my all!) every single time we get out of our Bus. So, we lived in an Airstream for 3 years after Wylder was born and Renée’s mom joined us…and I absolutely forgot everything. So that’s some tough shit, just trying to figure everything out again and feeling helpless and then triumphant when you read through the Idiot’s Guide…
But the absolute toughest was before the younger boys were born.
Renée and I, well, we believe in freedom. Freedom to do whatever you want as long as it doesn’t hurt other people. Specifically, I’m referring to smoking green plants such as and exclusively including marijuana. Renée has dreadlocks and I never take out my contacts, so we both look like stoners even if we don’t smoke, so we figure why not, right?
Anyway, one particularly beautiful day in West Texas we were driving the River Road. Our Bus was down to 2 cylinders (which we found out in Arizona but figured Austin, TX would be a better place to try and get a rebuild done…that’s the kind of thinking that gets us into so many breakdown situations), but we were driving the gorgeous River Road along the Rio Grande and given that we were in a 1978 Bus, and adding to that the whole notion that half of our cylinders were gone, we were at best doing about 45 miles per hour down hill. I know this is fact because at one point we came to a slight hill and I had to back up the thing just to make it. So what I’m saying is, the Bus wasn’t in NASCAR condition.
We make that hill, down and up a few more, and then we’re cruising along and I see a state cop on the side of the road. Nothing peculiar. I keep driving.
He pulls out behind me.
I make it up the next hill, just barely, and apparently he’s checking his teeth in the chrome of our bumper. That’s when the lights come on. I know the drill, you pull over, they act all tough, and then we’ll be on our way.
“Why does your vehicle smell like marijuana?” he yells from still 15 or 20 feet back. Maybe it smelled like pot, I don’t know. We didn’t smoke weed or cigarettes or anything else in the Bus back then (or now), considering the child on board. But, we did possess marijuana. But…he was 15 or 20 feet away from our vehicle. We weren’t carrying “copious amounts”, mind you. So I don’t think he could smell anything.
“Get out of the vehicle!” He is yelling, hand on his holster. I get out. He’s a fat man, and quite frankly resembles a pig in a way I find a bit amusing. I assume this will all be over more quickly than apparently he does.
He asks me where we’re going, where we’re from, and when we crossed over from Mexico.
“Austin, Pennsylvania, and never,” are my replies. I have a douche-bag step-dad who’s a state cop back in PA, and I’ve been pulled over enough times to know that you don’t get cocky with cops or anything. Just answer them simply and try and be as polite as possible to a human erection.
“I’m going to need to search your vehicle,” he says.
“You can’t, you don’t have any reason to, it’s my house,” and other such things were said by me.
Handcuffs. Tight, too! He put me back by his car, behind where the cameras could get my good side. Then he went up to the passenger side door and started questioning Renée.
Your son will go into a foster home, you and your boyfriend will be thrown in jail.
“Your son will go into a foster home, you and your boyfriend will be thrown in jail” I could at least make out that much.
She gets out of the car bawling. No one except for me can open the side sliding door because it’s trickier than Nixon at a magic show, so he comes back and lets me out of the cuffs just long enough to open the door. Then I’m hands behind my back again.
I should note at this point that I’m still refusing to let him search, but I don’t want to make Renée cry any more than she already is. I should also note that we owned a vicious beast of a German Shepherd at the time. He was the type of dog who bit a jogger once, spooked two horses, would not only chase bicycles but pummel into them and nearly cause the bikers to crash, and bit the three of us even on four separate occasions.
His name was Deputy. We got him near Tombstone, Arizona and I had just bought this “Deputy Marshal” badge that I wore on my jacket back then, so I thought that was a good name for him.
What did Deputy do when the cop stood out front of our door, putting me back in handcuffs? Deputy didn’t do shit.
I got rid of him a few months later. I should’ve known though, all cops stick together, canine or otherwise.
So anyway, the guy searches through our Bus. He digs through suitcases, lifts up cushions, tears everything out of our cupboards, the fridge, looks in the engine compartment. I’m back by his cop car again now. Renée’s crying in the desert. Tristan, 8 years old at the time, is sitting in the Bus watching it all go down. Deputy is working on his stomach tan.
I see the cop pull out our weed. It wasn’t really hidden, anyway. He also pulls out our pipe, and some American Spirit tobacco and a pack of papers. He looks at it, looks at me, looks at Renée, and shakes his fat head.
Then things get weird.
He puts the pot, the pipes, and the tobacco back into the the bag we keep it all in. He takes the papers.
He motions for Renée to get back in the Bus, and lets me out of the handcuffs.
“You better get rid of that before you hit Border Patrol,” he told me. “They’ll tear this thing apart.”
He handed me a ticket for paraphernalia. Specifically, for having cigarette papers. Then he told me to take off the Deputy Marshal badge I’d bought back in Tombstone.
We drove away. He checked his combover in our bumper again for about ten miles, but to his credit, there’s only one road down there. Finally he pulled away.
We considered ditching our stash, but instead I put my badge back on and we rolled up to the Border Patrol.
“How’s it going fellas?” They practically knew us, we were in and out of there so much. A wave and we were gone.
That half an eight of weed cost us another $200 in paraphernalia charges but a sweeter doobie I have never smoked than every last one left in that bag.
What is the funniest thing that has happened to you on the road thus far?
Way back when, I believe they refer to them as the “aughts”, in 2009, Renée and I were on a sort of honeymoon/first date/roadtrip from Nederland, Colorado to the Redwoods. Our Bus was new and our love, too, and thus we were all feeling one another out. We covered a state a day, no small task in a vehicle which at best was faltering at the time. But we didn’t know air-cooled VWs back then and quite frankly we didn’t care all that much. It was the perfect vessel to convince us that we should not only continue dating, but continue doing it on a 24/7 full-time basis with a young boy and living in what amounts to an old van.
One particular day, as the sun set over Utah in that particular way that only Utah red and sunset violet can illuminate the world, I was squinting to see through our windshield as we were dead set on making the Nevada border. Our windows are sort of permanently fogged over and my eyes went bad sometime around Mrs. Deetscreek’s kindergarten class, so as soon as we crossed the border, we knew we’d stop.
Turns out there’s a little casino in an even smaller town that lives in the exact moment you cross that border. Nevada tends to get them in as often as possible.
It’s a bit of a rundown place, certainly nothing fancy, but the night had come over the sky and they sold beer and offered a parking lot we could stay the night…so I guess I looked around the joint, back at the woman I was trying to woo and thought, “Well, nothing’s too good for you, baby.”
Just as the night seemed like it would be more or less be an early one, in walk the Three Amigos.
She’s wearing a grey hoodie, seven sizes too large, dark brown hair pulled back in a pony tail and accompanied by two men who looked as out of place as a green checker. The first was just your average sort of punker kid, a little stocky, the kind of guy with a face where you think he might kick a biker’s ass at any moment at first but quickly realize his eyes are betraying a giant stuffed poodle just waiting to be set free.
Now, tattoos and bikers aren’t that uncommon in this neck of the desert, but standing by his friend he truly seemed like the outcast type, a rebel if you will. His friend wore the exact same clothes as the girl they walked in with but with the single addition of a three foot long goatee. The kid couldn’t have been older than twenty but clearly had been working on this thing for what I can only imagine would equate to about half of his life.
The three of them rolled in like a posse in one of those movies where these slow kind of nerdy white kids rolling into a hip hop club in slow motion. It’s meant to be funny, but it never is. Until you see it in real life.
They play a few slot machines, apparently kill it at Cruis’n World, and get halfway through a game of pool before I find Renée talking to Biker Punk as she makes her way back from the bathroom.
We get into a whole thing about who they are, who we are, small talk, they’re drunk, I sort of want to be, you can smoke cigarettes in a place like this so it’s a cloud of ringing slot machines and exuberant new young friends giggling into the night.
And they’re all giggling. The Girl, Renée, Biker Punk and Goatee are just cracking up. It’s a genuinely good time in a completely unexpected place and conversations just roll in and out as though we were all drinking from the perpetual motion machine. Turns out they work in the gift shop of the casino. It’s not really that big of a gift shop, I remember thinking.
“We have three goats,” Goatee tells me.
I try and be enlightened, an eco-minded progressive who doesn’t make judgements except to assume everyone is trying to be an enlightened, eco-minded progressive, so I ask him, “Do you make goat cheese?” and “How long do you let your compost rejuvenate?” type questions.
“They mostly just keep our lawn mowed,” is his response.
Outside the sound of an owl is probably shattering glasses in the silence we left at that moment in that barren desert.
Sure, not all gay guys are boyfriends.
After an hour or six they revealed to us that they were gay. Later, Renée would tell me that she knew all along, that is was obvious. Personally, I’m not the type to recognize a person as being gay unless they tell me or wear a shirt or something. Then again, I’ve been hit on by a lot of gay guys and neither Goatee nor Biker Punk hit on me that night, so I don’t know. Maybe they weren’t gay. It’s kind of beside the point except that the conversation went on to reveal that they weren’t together.
“Sure, not all gay guys are boyfriends,” Goatee sort of laughs at me. We’re all best friends this many drinks in, but I knew he was making fun of me.
“I guess…” I probably started, and then stopped. Renée got the clue that I was embarrassed and we said goodnight and went to shake hands but then did that, “Nah, we’re gonna hug!” type of thing that people who are drinking often do at the end of the night.
“I guess I just feel bad for the world, you know,” I tried to explain to Renée. “That in a town of maybe 50 people, two of them just happen to be gay, but God can’t even find it in his heart to shoot them with that arrow Cupid gave him.” Or something similarly nonsensical at whatever time they still haven’t closed the bars in Nevada.
We’re nearly asleep and now, without our new friends, realizing we’re in a rather The Hills Have Eyes part of the Great Basin and so we’re practicing closing our eyelids as tightly as possible in hopes we can fall asleep and just head out in the morning, when a knock comes to the door.
This is our first knock. No one had ever knocked on the Bus and they wouldn’t ever again, for as long as we’ve had her now I believe.
It was the Three Amigos.
They’d brought us a box full of gifts; snow globes and Nevada maps and one of those “On the Year You Were Born…” pamphlets, from 1972. All of it was from the gift shop.
I guess working at a casino has it’s perks.
If you were to become stationary right now, where would you settle down and why?
Nathan: We talk about this all the time, really since we ever got into the Bus it’s been about finding the perfect place. Problem is, the more you travel, the higher your standards become. You get more interests. You find you love the desert and the snow forested mountains. You love solitude and the towns. I believe it’s a fool’s errand to go traveling so you can find a place to live, because who would ever want to pick one when you have figured out how to pick them all?
Renée: I love Colorado and Oregon. I also want to be near our family and they live in Pennsylvania and Florida and Michigan. But I don’t want to live there. And I don’t ever want to stop traveling.
Nathan: Tristan wants to go to high school. He’ll be a sophomore this coming September. We already pushed it back a year with this Mexico for a year idea…
So relatively soon our life is going to change. I guess we won’t be full-time anymore. We’ll be something else. He’s been on the road since 2007 and has complained very little about it all. He’s learned to make friends quickly and say goodbye often, and honestly is the most mild-mannered, easy going of us all. So I guess he’s earned it. He gets to be the only kid who wants to go to school. 🙂
But we’ll never stop. I’d pick Rollinsville, Colorado right now, though, or Glacier, Washington.
Winter: Oregon. (He was born there.)
Wylder: Radiator Springs.
Have you gotten any advice or had a conversation that served to change or cause you to reassess a long held perspective? If so, what and how?
We didn’t tell many people that we were going to Mexico. Our parents are pretty cool people, and our friends are all absolutely amazing, but in general, people have an idea about Mexico that’s kind of mind blowing once you get down here. I’ll admit that, to be fair, I was wary and even a little intimidated about heading south of the US Border at first too. I guess that’s why it took us six or seven years to do it.
But here’s my answer to your question.
I’m walking down the street, lets just say any street in Mexico, it’s getting dark, I’m looking for some specific pizza place. The family is back at the Bus waiting for me to return with a grande pepperoni and whatever else I can imagine. So there’s this guy sitting on the side of the road. He’s pretty rough around the edges looking, his shirt is kind of dirty, like he was working on a car all day and then came home and showered and put on a shirt that he’d worked on a car in all day yesterday. He’s staring at the ground and smoking and his face is as serious as a driveby.
But, I’ve been told that you’re always supposed to greet someone in Mexico when you walk by them. “Buenos dias,” if it’s the morning, “buenas tardes” after noon and “buenas noches” after dark. So I do.
He immediately looks up from the ground, his eyes go alight, and he returns the favor, “Buenas noches.”
I love the accent. I love the acceptance. I love the soldiers who help push start us and the grandmas watching the niños in the back while the rest of the family makes all of the food, and I absolutely love that everyone says “good afternoon” to one another all the day long.
“Hi, I’m a human being, you’re a human being, we’ve now acknowledged that!”
It’s a beautiful thing.
If you had an animal companion that could speak, what kind of animal would it be and why? What is the first question you’d ask said animal companion?
Renée: A jaguar. I would want it to just hang around our space and keep an eye on things. And go into the jungle everyday and come back with stories about the macaws and whatever it met that day.
Winter: An eagle.
Wylder: A tiger.
Nathan: I’m glad Renée picked jaguar, because I have always been torn between cougar and a Golden Eagle. So…Golden Eagle. I guess because I assume I would be able to see through his eyes and feel his emotions and it’s not that I want to control him, but I assume he’d be at his happiest when I was living through him for an hour or two a day.
Tristan: A wolf, because it would be badass, and because winter is coming.
As to what we’d ask them first we all sort of just said something like, “Hey, what’s your name?” or “Whoa! Hello!” because the consensus was that it would be sort of rude and possibly racist to say, “You can talk?”
Tristan also mentioned that by the time the animal was your “companion”, you would have asked him too many things to know what you first asked him.
I think in all reality we’d probably run away first. I’m glad that these are the types of companions that will work at least hard enough for our friendship to go beyond one or two initial encounters.
What’s your favorite color and why? What does your favorite color smell like?
My favorite color is the stain of a butterfly that lives in Renée’s left eye. Her eyes are the color of the world, a mottled swath of green and blue that change depending on the day and they’ve spread throughout our entire family.
I only know three smells though. My fingers smell like tobacco, my house smells like gasoline and everything else is feet.
As road lifers ourselves, we often get asked where we go #2. As kindred road spirits, we want to know, where has your most scenic poo happened?
Renée: Marathon Motel.
Nathan: Pooping is no joke for me. I’m not generally looking around at the beauty before me when I’m doing it, I’m on the clock.
Tell us about your rig:
It’s a 1978 Champagne Edition Volkswagen Bus Riviera Campwagen.
That means it’s one year older than me, is of a particular “special edition” which was sort of a hurrah to the end of Buses and the coming of Vanagons, and isn’t a Westfalia camper conversion, but instead done by a company out of Beaverton, Oregon.
She breaks down more than I’d like to admit…
She breaks down more than I’d like to admit, and I bang on her endlessly trying to get her going again. I love our Bus in a way that is hard to describe except to say that when we recently realized our starter was completely burned up in Belize a few weeks ago, and that we had no home, and no way of really getting back to anywhere we could call home, my thoughts were not toward my young children, our financial aptitude to evade such a problem, or the reality that we just had nowhere to go without her…but instead solely revolving around the idea that I might lose this beautiful piece of machinery to a country two too many borders away from my homeland.
That said, she’s very rusty (but not the bad kind), rough around the edges inside, and requires a ridiculous amount of care just to keep her ears from drooping. The day that I got her I stood back, took a nice long look, and realized she was exactly like a pair of old, worn in, trusty boots.
I would never let her go, even if it meant renouncing my American citizenship to live in whatever country she finally, forever broke down in.