Dillon Vought and Tessa Ely didn't know each other when they attended Service High School at the same time. Big school, different classes, different crowds. You know how it goes.
But they're plenty familiar with each other now. For the past year, they have traveled 26,000 miles throughout the Western Hemisphere in a Volkswagen Westfalia pop-top camper bus.
"We just got the idea that we wanted to do some long-term travel," said Vought. "We did a few road trips around Alaska and it sort of evolved into this."
The Alaska Dispatch News contacted the couple in Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost part of South America. Ely said the place felt a little like Alaska.
"There's free camping everywhere," she said. "It's very safe. And everyone's very friendly."
In fact, she said, people have been "open and kind and welcoming" everywhere they've gone on this odyssey. "You hear bad things in the news, but overall people are willing to help. They'll drop everything they're doing and invite you in."
Vought was quick to ascribe their cordial reception to the vehicle. "It's the bus," he said. "People in all countries seem to love the VW bus. They're already kind of looking at you anyway, and when they see the bus, it's like instant smiles and instant friends."
Vought, 29, got a degree in marketing at a college in Reno, Nevada, before moving back to Anchorage, where he has worked in logistical support for the oil industry. Ely, 27, studied at UAA and became a special-education teacher with the Anchorage School District. Of course, for the last 13 months they've been on what can only be described as an extended leave of absence.
"It's more like two years," Vought said. But during the first year of the adventure, the bus didn't go anywhere as they rebuilt it.
They bought the broken-down 1975 Westfalia for $500. "It was the only one for sale two years ago," he said. They found it slowly weathering away in Hope. It took a year of busted knuckles and "a lot of duct tape" before the thing was ready to roll. In the process they added insulation, an RV furnace and changed the horrible orange paint to a classic green and white two-tone.
Most important, they replaced the old air-cooled engine, a 1960s design, with a modern Subaru Boxer 2.2 water-cooled engine. The original could churn up 66 horsepower and was famously underpowered, particularly on hills. The Boxer produces 100 horsepower or better and is more fuel efficient than the vintage technology.
It was time well spent, Vought said. "It's really a blessing that we rebuilt the entire thing, because now we know what's going on with it. We can do most of the fixes ourselves. You don't need to worry about finding a good mechanic."
They had considered taking a year to drive around Asia, but decided South America would be easier, more right-in-the-neighborhood. "Tessa knew some Spanish," Vought said. "It was a more reachable trip."
The journey began with a long drive down the West Coast. "We were hoping to ski quite a bit," Vought said. "But it was a bad year for skiing all over. We didn't actually get out and do anything until we got to Vancouver Island. And then it was surfing. In February."
They did manage to find snow in Montana. Then they joined a couple of other VW buses for a mini-caravan drive down the Baja Peninsula, where they spent a month. From there, the couple ferried the bus to the mainland, headed down the west coast of Mexico, cut over to the Yucatan and proceeded through Central America, surfing and camping on beaches as they went.
The Panama Canal brought a gap in road travel. The bus was shipped to Colombia and the travelers followed by sail. After another month in Colombia, they continued into the Andes, traveling through Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Chile.
The southern terminus of the trip came at the end of the Pan American Highway, just past Ushuaia, Argentina, latitude 54 degrees and change. It's sometimes referred to as "the end of the world."
"We considered going further by boat to Antarctica," Vought said. But "the cheapest tour would still have been $5,000."
Though the trip has been decidedly frugal, it hasn't been free. The travelers are already contemplating their return to home and jobs.
"We'll cruise around Patagonia for a few months, then ship the bus to Florida from Buenos Aires," Ely said. While the bus is on the boat she'll come back to Alaska to work and Vought will backpack. They'll reconnect with their trusty transport in mid-June and drive through the U.S. and Canada "and see how long we can make our money last," she said.
The last logical leg will come after they return to Alaska, a run up the Dalton Highway to Prudhoe Bay.
"I think we're going to do a photo book," Vought said. "But we probably won't actually complete it until we're back in Anchorage."
They'll come home with a log-book of white-knuckle experiences. "Bolivia has the worst roads," Vought said. "We came out there with suspension issues. I've had to replace the shocks and replace the clutch cable five times now."
"And we've gotten a few bouts of stomach illness," he continued. "Times when you have to hole up in a hotel for a while and just pray you're going to get better."
"I was getting pretty sick in El Salvador," Ely said. "Dealing with hospitals and the language barrier is something I don't want to relive again."
"The good part is that the local medical care people know how to treat the common ailments in the area," said Vought. "They can help you get well, even if it seems like the most horrible thing."
The payoff has been the people, Vought said. That goal was at the top of their reasons for making the trip.
"We wanted to get more engulfed into the culture, go places that the tourists don't go, talk to the locals," he said. "It's been great. Every time we have a question or a loss, you don't hesitate to ask anyone because everyone is so willing to help. You ask someone for directions and they ask you to stay at their place."
One question they get asked a lot is whether they want to sell the bus. The answer is always no. "It's our baby!" said Ely.
"Besides, if we have kids, they're going to see pictures of this trip and pictures of the bus," said Vought. "And if we don't still have it, they'll kill us."
BLOG Follow the travels of Dillon Vought, Tessa Ely and their 1975 VW camper bus at thebusandus.com.