“The world isn’t as big as you think it is.”
Easy for Brad and Sheena Van Orden to say.
The Seattle couple just drove a 30-year-old Volkswagen camper van around the globe, logging some 48,000 miles on its aged odometer.
Their 2½-year road trip took them to 34 countries and resulted in two books’ worth of experiences in foreign geography and common humanity. Along the way they built a sizable following on social media and shared much of their adventure in near-real time with people who followed their wheeled trek.
The last stop on the couple’s round-the-world drive, and the place where they decided to park the van for now: Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood.
Part of the motivation for the adventure came from tragedy.
A friend was killed in an avalanche. The loss was a strong reminder of how brief life is and a challenge to get out to see the world. Shortly after the tragedy, Brad, 31, saw an article about a couple who drove to South America, along the Pan-American Highway, in a van.
Brad, who was working as a mechanical engineer, pitched the idea of a round-the-world trip to Sheena, 30, who was working in accounting. They had traveled together before but never enough to satisfy their urge to explore. Previous travels only left them wanting more.
Sheena’s immediate response to Brad’s idea was an enthusiastic yes.
Their plan: To circle the globe, slowly, while discovering culture, food, recreation and emergency roadside Volkswagen maintenance.
Brad and Sheena worked and saved money for two years while living in Flagstaff, Ariz. During that time the couple — harnessing Brad’s engineering background and lots of sweat and patience — transformed an aged VW camper into an enviable, yet low-key, travel machine.
They bought the Westfalia — which they named Nacho — from a children’s songwriter in Hollywood, Calif. It already had 276,000 miles on it.
Working together, they gutted the interior and modeled the body of the van using computer software. A CNC machine was then used to cut new, custom cabinetry, and the interior was updated with many comforts of home. They added solar-electric power and a false floor which covered a sophisticated water purification system Brad designed.
To help with comfort, they built a water system that took heat from the engine coolant and allowed them to take hot showers under the rear hatch of the van.
“I didn’t intend to do all the changes,” said Brad while sipping coffee in Seattle recently. “But I had idle hands and an engineering degree.”
The resulting home on wheels became so much more than one of the vagabond vehicles that VW vans are known as.
Restoring and improving the van also taught them how to turn wrenches and get greasy, skills that were quite useful while on the road. The van carried a roof-top box of spare parts that included everything from spare wheel bearings, CV joints, belts, hoses, an alternator, brake parts and an assortment of other items that would be difficult to find in remote, developing countries.
The van is not one of the four-wheel-drive Syncro models that are so popular – and expensive – in the Northwest. And in some parts of the world the roads they traveled in their two-wheel-drive van resembled hiking trails more than highways.
So Brad and Sheena had to use the skills they learned as competitive mountain bike racers and relied on the momentum of the 6,000-pound vehicle and the line they chose to make it along seemingly impossible roads. They would also let air out of the tires to get increased traction. “It’s amazing what 12 p.s.i. can get you across,” said Brad.
They also completed the journey without air conditioning, crossing some of the world’s great jungles and deserts. Not having chilled air helped them better acclimate to the local environment. “We tried to do what the locals do,” Brad said.
Traveling in the van eliminated many of the things that can make traveling exhausting. “We didn’t have to stay in hotels or use public transportation. We could close our curtains at night and sleep in our home on wheels,” said Sheena.
But traveling in a 93-horsepower, mildly temperamental van still offered challenges.
During their travels, Brad and Sheena accomplished many of their original goals of discovery. They were immersed in local cultures, ate local food, enjoyed the world they discovered and became experts at emergency roadside maintenance.
They also had some harrowing moments, such as when Maoist rebels in Nepal led a general strike.
Their van was one of the few vehicles on the roads in Kathmandu as transportation was shut down and people took to the streets. Eventually, after three hours of driving out of the city, they became part of a military convoy because of attacks along the road by the Maoists.
And after being left by the convoy, they ended up on a cliffside road in the Himalayas, hundreds of feet above a valley. They had to drive the van as if they were on a technical mountain biking trail, using momentum and hoping the tires didn’t leave the path. That terrifying road (shown in the gallery above) prompted Sheena and a friend, who joined them temporarily, to get out and walk as Brad worked to keep the van from sliding down the hillside. But even with the concentration of terrifying moments there, Nepal stood out as a place rich in culture and trekking opportunities.
“All of our safety issues were more about bad roads we ended up on. It was never about the people,” said Sheena. “If you put in your mind that people are out to get you it changes your experience because you are looking for the negatives,” she said.
After their transmission gave out in a remote section of Colombia, Brad asked the village mechanic if he could borrow a jack.
When Brad later returned to his van after making a phone call, the mechanic and a local hotel owner had started removing the engine and transmission, leaving it hanging by the electrical harness. They had also removed parts of the brakes and a wheel. But the situation also showed another side of people as a local farmer recognized the situation Brad and Sheena were in, and helped them take back their broken van from the sketchy mechanic late at night.
The farmer then let them keep the broken van on his property while they figured out how to repair it. It took them two months and a trip back to the United States to get Nacho moving again. Their friendship with the farmer and his family continues.
“It ended up not being so much about the places we went, but more about the people that we met,” said Brad.
As they found Internet access along their route, Brad and Sheena would update a blog and Facebook page. Their writing style and description of their adventures along the way helped them gain thousands of followers.
“There is a community that comes along with these vans,” said Brad.
After shipping the van across the Pacific from South America, they traveled through Asia, where VW vans are quite popular. When they drove into Bangkok they were greeted by about 25 of the vans, arranged like a royal welcome ceremony. While in Thailand, they also had help getting a new engine, swapping out the old 93-horsepower VW turtle for a 165-horsepower Subaru power plant — for a fraction of the cost of the modification in the United States.
They experienced similar guidance and welcomes as they traveled across Turkey and into Europe. They are shy about admitting it, but their trip turned them into celebrities in the overland adventure community.
As they traveled, Brad and Sheena realized that many of the people following their journey were from the Pacific Northwest. The vans are popular in the wet climate as adventurers and families seek to get into the great outdoors. They recognized that Seattle already had a built-in community for them. So upon their return to the U.S., they headed to the Northwest.
As they settle now into a Ballard apartment, they admit they are having some travel withdrawals. Brad is working with a European finance tech company looking to expand into North America. Sheena is searching for work in accounting. Together they are writing the second of two books to come from the adventure. The book should be done in the next few months
You can buy the book about the first half of their journey, from the U.S. to the tip of South America here.
You can learn more about their journey on their website here.
Here are the countries they traveled to in order: Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Argentina, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, India, Nepal, Turkey, Greece, Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Belgium, Germany, Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Canada and the United States.