Next time you find yourself fantasizing about hitting the road, consider all of the excuses we make to ourselves for not just going for it. We at Roadtrippers believe that there’s no excuse you can’t work around, if you set your mind to it. But, nomad photographer Alex Duffner‘s story is a first for us: He’s traveling the world, including a recent, epic van life road trip across the West… and he doesn’t have a driver’s license. Mighway (a sweet new service that lets you rent out personal RVs and campervans, Airbnb-style) sent Alex on the road to celebrate their US launch in California. (Yes, this means that not owning an RV is no longer a valid excuse for not traveling, guys!) We asked Alex a few questions about what it was like adjusting to van life, who his co-pilots were, and what he got to cross off his bucket list.
I hear you don’t drive and you don’t like to fly. What inspired you to hit the road, and how do you normally like to get around?
I am actually on a trip around the world without flying and have mainly been using public transport, the occasional hitchhike and cargo ships to get around. The only thing that bugs me with this sort of traveling is that you don’t have much freedom to stop anywhere you like, especially if you’re in the middle of the Tibetan Plateau and want to take a photo and the stunning landscapes, people and yaks are zipping right by you every moment of the ride.
To go on a proper road trip was always a dream of mine, especially one in the US. I liked the idea that you could drive anywhere you wanted (roads permitting, of course) and have room to carry all the camera gear needed to document the adventure. And, there is the element of having your friends around and doing a trip together, which wouldn’t be the same on a bus or a train. It’s hard enough to find people who can make time to join your travels, and on top of that, not everyone is comfortable taking long bus rides like the ones I take. A road trip, however, is a completely different thing, and now having done it with my friends as drivers, I have set myself the goal of getting a drivers license so that I can drive myself in the future.
Tell us about your RV road trip for Mighway. Who came with you? What was your goal?
I actually did three trips over a span of 2.5 months because I couldn’t find anyone who could take off more than a month at a time to join me for the whole trip. As mentioned before, I do not have a driver’s license, and had to find someone to join me who is crazy enough to come all the way to San Francisco and drive the RV. Luckily, my good friend Fanny from Italy took the bait and flew over here to join the road trip.
The funny thing about this whole thing was that she originally thought that RV meant ‘rental vehicle’ and she didn’t realize what she agreed to drive until I sent her a photo of the 28 feet ‘motor home’ a day before her flight. I still remember her freaking out, mainly because she was excited to be traveling in a proper motor home. Both of us didn’t really plan the trip out in detail but we wanted to see certain places, like Lake Tahoe, the Grand Canyon and other smaller places we found online. In the end, we just wanted to see more of the US and doing it on the road was the best way to go about it. Later on, we had her boyfriend fly in to join us as well, so we headed back to San Francisco to pick him up. After a month, it was time for them to leave and I had to find other friends to join. Sadly a friend canceled at the last minute, and I was left to find someone in San Francisco. After countless posts on Facebook, I got two strangers turned friends to join me: Jarno from Germany and Meidan from Israel.
What were your routes? Why did you choose to visit these spots?
I split up the road trip into three smaller ones. Well, they weren’t *technically* small, but it was more manageable that way. We first headed south towards LA from San Francisco to follow the legendary Pacific Coast Highway. Big Sur was high on the list, even though we only manage to see the northern part as there was construction south of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. Fanny wanted to see Malibu and we made stops on the way there. There wasn’t much planning involved; we made it up as we went. I was very realistic about the time we had for our first trip so we only stayed in LA for a day, then headed south to San Diego.
Then we drove east to Arizona. Fanny had never seen a sand dune before, and the Imperial Sand Dunes were the perfect spot to visit. It turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip, especially because we got to camp right on the top of the dunes and wake up to the most stunning sunrise any of us had seen. We headed further east to visit a friend in Phoenix before heading north to visit the Grand Canyon, which blew both of us away. We made a quick stop in Page, AZ and headed back west via the Valley of Fire, skipping Vegas and visiting Sequoia National Park instead. And that was it for our first trip.
The second one, now with Fanny’s boyfriend Eugenio, brought us north along the coast from San Francisco, passing the giant trees in Humboldt Redwoods State Park and up the Oregon coast all the way to Portland, Olympic National Park and Seattle.
We spent a couple of days in Seattle before heading south again inland via Mount St Helens, Columbia River Gorge, and the Painted Hills. Crater Lake was high on our list but we couldn’t see much of it because of the many forest fires in the region. We decided to head straight for Lake Tahoe instead where we spent the last day together before Fanny and Eugenio had to take their flights back, which they already had extended to stay a while longer.
I spent a week in San Francisco to take a break from all the road tripping and find some new travel mates. The main goal of the third and last trip was to make it all the way to the Grand Tetons in time for the solar eclipse and then head north to visit Yellowstone. We started by stopping over in Tahoe once again before paying the ghost town of Bodie a visit. Then it was off east across Nevada, where we purposely tried to stay on smaller roads to see places that one wouldn’t usually come across. We had no plan and just stopped when we felt like it or when it was time to camp. We wound up at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, where we took the RV for a spin on the racetrack.
Then we headed north via Salt Lake City, all the way up to the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone. On the way back, we followed the same route south until we got to Salt Lake City (where we dropped off Meidan to catch a bus and flight back home.)
Jarno and I continued down to Arches National Park, Monument Valley and Page once again, to catch a glimpse of Horseshoe Bend, which I missed on the first trip. Jarno wanted to see the Grand Canyon, so we headed there, to the North Rim this time. The way back to California led us through Zion National Park, and we spent a night in Las Vegas and also enjoyed a well-deserved lazy day at the pool in Palm Springs. Finally, it was time to head out again, along the coast back to San Francisco.
What was the most unexpectedly awesome thing you did or saw while on the trip?
For us, camping out in the wild must have been the best part about RVing across the US. The West has so many open areas that it is very easy to find a free spot to camp in the middle of nowhere. One night whilst camping out in the Olympic National Park, we saw a massive green fireball rolling across the sky right above us. Everyone was looking at each other; we couldn’t believe what we saw. Another great thing about camping is that you will, at some point, run into other people, and we made friends at this really beautiful spot on the Rockefeller Memorial Parkway. At first, they tried to keep the spot to themselves, but we managed to talk them into letting us squeeze, offering to cook them dinner in return. Jarno and I are decent cooks, and our spaghetti won everyone over. Just sitting around the campfire and talking about everything you can think of is one of the things that stays with you. There wasn’t just one thing, but a lot of beautiful little events, like watching the stunning sunrises day after day, hiking up a mountain or just sitting there watching the waves crash against the rocks along the coast.
Tell us about your ride/RV. What amenities did it have?
None of us had traveled in an RV before, so we were pretty much blown away by what it had to offer. Our RV was a Class C Motorhome, so it’s considered to be a smaller- to medium-sized rig. For us, however, it was huge and Fanny aptly named it ‘THE BEAST’. Having our own fully-equipped kitchen and a shower was a godsend; it meant we could always cook freshly prepared meals every day without having to rely on restaurants or takeout. There was so much space in the RV that it could fit at least 5-6 people but we never had more than 4.
What was the hardest part about living on the road? What was the best part?
Believe it or not, even your best friends can annoy you when you travel together in a confined space. Personal space is virtually nonexistent, and you have to compromise a lot. We had a couple of rough patches, but we always made it through. One thing that always proved to be the most stressful finding places to park or camp. Especially in cities, this can become very tricky and leads to long frustrating loops around the same block to find a spot that is big enough and legal if we want to leave the RV somewhere while we explore. Having to do work on the side meant that I had to be connected to the Internet, which proved to be near impossible outside of any major city. When we paid for an RV Park with full hookups, the Internet always turned out to be way too slow and there would be days on end where I don’t get a cell signal at all.
However, every problem pales in comparison to the rewards you get from being on the road. Especially when you are the only people in the entire landscape, sitting in your camping chair and watching the Milky Way above you nearly every night. Or when you can’t keep your eyes on the road because there are too many beautiful things to look at outside, or simply singing along to the radio with your friends passing by all the places the mentioned in those songs.
Any tips or advice for people looking to van life?
Learn from our mistakes!
– Plan a bit more than we did so you don’t miss interesting places. On an earlier trip, we drove pass Zion National Park, and only realized it was on the route when it was too late – luckily I got a second chance to go back!
– If you can fill up gas or propane, just do it. There were too many times when we nearly ran out of gas, or spent hours trying to find a place that would sell propane. Dumping wastewater (which can smell up the RV) or filling up fresh water when you can is also recommended.
– Prioritise what you want to see, and spend more time in one place. I was exhausted after each trip because we had seen far too many places a human mind can handle in such a short timeframe.
– Don’t be afraid to ask rangers for advice, they know their way and which spots are the best to see.
Where are you right now? Where are you headed next?
I am currently in Ensenada a small seaside town along the Pacific Coast of Baja California, Mexico. Funnily enough, I met a friend who plans to travel all the way to South America in his van and I will join him for parts of the journey, as I planned to follow the same route as well. However, I want to take it much slower now and spend at least a year to make it all the way to Argentina, making up plans as I go.
Feeling inspired to hit the road, too? Check out Mighway’s California RV Rentals and make it happen!
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