Travel

After buying a van and making a plan, this couple has launched a yearlong trip from Mexico up to Alaska

“We’ve always loved to travel,” said my friend Robin Sullivan.

I know that to be true about Robin. Although she and I grew up in Oregon, we stayed in touch as she made her way around Alaska. That included a lengthy teaching career in Fairbanks.

“I was up in Arctic Village when I applied to the Peace Corps,” she said. “I actually was accepted, but then my sister convinced me to travel to Bend, Oregon.”

So instead of a Peace Corps assignment, she opted for a remote teaching job in the middle of the South Pacific in the Marshall Islands.

Robin’s new sweetheart, Bruce Sullivan, decided he wanted to go along. After a two-year assignment in the South Pacific, Robin and Bruce got married and moved back to Bend.

But Robin still had the travel bug. So she and Bruce decided on a strategy to accommodate what Robin calls “slow travel.”

The first two things on the list were to buy a van and make a plan.

“We bought a Mercedes Sprinter van in 2017,” Bruce said. “That required me to work for three more years to build it out.”

[Traveling during the pandemic has many variables. Here’s how Alaskans are navigating the rules to reach their destinations.]

Bruce was an energy consultant in Bend, convincing people to be more energy-efficient in their housing. He and Robin built a home in downtown Bend that is super-efficient. So he wanted to replicate that efficiency with the van.

“It took about two years to build out the van and another year to pay it off,” said Bruce. “It’s essentially a dry cabin on wheels. We’ve got a porta-potty, a boat pump for water and a deep sink so we can do laundry.”

Bruce used recycled wood from their home for the counter tops, “We wanted more a little more insulation, though,” he said. “So we used solid cork and wool.”

There are solar panels on top of the van, along with two large lithium batteries. “This gives us about three days’ worth of power,” he said.

Of course, the van has a name: “Rufous.”

Bruce and Robin both are avid birders and “rufous” refers to a certain color of bird. There’s a rufous hummingbird, sparrow and robin. The paint job on their van is very rufous-esque, but Robin likes that it connotes a “roof over us.” “We love it,” she said.

Once they had the van fixed up, it was time to make the plan.

In keeping with their “slow travel” directive, Robin and Bruce started planning out their yearlong journey.

“Our starting point was on Vancouver Island in Nanaimo,” said Robin. Nanaimo is about 70 miles north of Victoria, where the ferries land from Vancouver.

“From there, we stopped in Seattle to visit family and then went to Utah,” said Robin. “We went to Canyonlands National Park, Bryce Canyon and the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. I think we covered every trail in Bryce!”

Robin and Bruce left their bikes at home, even though Utah is known as a mountain-bike mecca. “We love our bodies and the last thing we want to do is hurt ourselves,” said Robin. “We keep it simple and just walk.”

Once they find a place to camp, the Sullivans move in for a while. “We try and stay four, five or six days,” said Robin.

After about six weeks in Utah, they made their way to the Tucson area after a stop at the Grand Canyon.

When I caught up with Robin and Bruce on the phone last week, they had their sights set for Patagonia Lake State Park south of Tucson.

Although they left their bikes at home, they did pack a foldable kayak on the top of Rufous. Their plan right now is to stay in the area for about a month.

Bruce still does some consulting work. He outfitted Rufous with a signal booster so he can use his cellphone to get online for the occasional Zoom call.

The Sullivans have plans to go west and south into Mexico. Just south of the border is a popular beach town, Puerto Peñasco. “We’ll take the one-hour drive south of the border and stay for a week,” said Robin. “And we’ll put our boat in the water!”

There’s another detour east to Texas to see Big Bend National Park.

“But we like to go to wilderness areas that are not so well-known,” said Robin. So, they’ll probably set up camp in nearby Big Bend Ranch State Park, which is just northwest of the national park. Robin’s son Marshall lives in Texas and plans to join them in Big Bend with his new kayak.

Although they haven’t mapped out a route yet, the Sullivans’ winter plan is to spend three months at the southern tip of Baja California.

Starting May 1, they plan to point Rufous north and head up the Alaska Highway for a summer sojourn throughout Alaska.

“Fairbanks became my home,” said Robin. “That’s where my roots are.”

Even now, Robin is mapping out some state park cabin rentals across Kachemak Bay. They’re making plans to visit Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in McCarthy.

The Sullivans promised they would honk when they’re passing through Anchorage. It will be fun to catch up with my friends “in real life.”

After next summer, Robin and Bruce plan to drive back to Bend via the Cassiar Highway in Canada. Tentatively, they’re set to arrive back home at the end of August.

“We might decide to keep going, though,” muses Robin. “I’d sure like to see Newfoundland.”

It’s impressive how far you can go with a van, a plan and a love of travel, even if you’re committed to slow travel like Bruce and Robin.

Although Bruce spent two years tricking out the van to his energy-saving specifications, there’s one big change he’d like to make: “I wish Rufous was electric,” he said.

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