With the kids out of school and the summer vacation season upon us, it seems like everybody’s heading somewhere to take a break from their 9-5 lives.
But for Oxford’s nomads, Derek Kala and Ashlee Dark, there is no daily grind to leave behind because right now, their life is one big vacation.
The pair checked in with the Leader as they continue their extensive cross-country odyssey in a fully-restored 1978 Volkswagen Westfalia camper bus. It’s pulling double duty as both transportation and daily living quarters.
“The trip has been going great,” wrote Dark in an email interview. “Visiting so many beautiful places has been extremely rewarding. We have realized (from) taking the time to slow down, and explore, there is a vast amount of beauty all around us,” she noted.
On April 20, the couple embarked on a lengthy road trip to explore America’s natural beauty and rich history by visiting 38 national parks spread across 18 states, plus some parts of Canada.
As of June 16, they had travelled 7,516 miles and visited nine states – Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada and California.
“We are on the coast of Big Sur watching a Hollywood (television show) being (made),” Kala wrote. “We did not see any big celebrities, but (we) did see the crew setting up. We asked if they needed any extras, but had no luck.”
So far, they’ve visited 17 national parks, including Mammoth Cave, Great Smoky Mountains, Hot Springs, Guadalupe Mountains, Carlsbad Caverns, Saguro, Grand Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce, Zion, Joshua Tree, Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Pinnacles and Yosemite.
They’ve also visited the Lake Mead National Recreation Area located in Arizona and Nevada, and the White Sands National Monument in New Mexico.
Of the places they’ve seen so far, Kala’s favorites have been Big Sur and Sequoia National Park in California.
“Big Sur . . . reminds me of driving through the coastlines (of the Keweenaw Peninsula) in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula,” he said. “The natural beauty was breathtaking thanks to the green valleys, rocky coast, and ocean views.
“Sequoia (National Park) was enjoyable because there were so many giant trees surrounding us,” Kala continued. “The trees located in the park are the largest in the world when analyzing the overall volume. It’s crazy to think the bark layer can be nearly 30 inches thick.”
The park is famous for its giant sequoia trees, including the General Sherman tree, which is “the world’s largest tree, measured by volume,” according to the National Park Service website. The tree is 275 feet tall and more than 36 feet in diameter at the base. Sixty feet above the base, the General Sherman tree is 17.5 feet in diameter.
One of Dark’s favorite places has been Marfa, Texas.
“Marfa is a small ranch town that has been transformed by artists,” she wrote. “The small town is now filled with art galleries and unique shopping and dining experiences.”
Located at the junction of U.S. Highways 90 and 67, Marfa was established in 1883 as a water stop and freight headquarters for a railway. It’s famous for being the film location of actor James Dean’s last movie “Giant,” released in 1956, and for the mysterious Ghost Lights – strange, unexplained glowing orbs of various colors that have been spotted moving across the desert sky outside the West Texas town since the early 1880s.
Kala and Dark have definitely had some memorable moments along the way such as having to switch out the VW’s alternator on the side of the road in Phoenix while sweating in 105-degree weather.
They’ve also met some interesting folks. Kala will never forget “the homeless man who told us we were beautiful, then kissed the windshield of our bus” while visiting Nashville, Tennessee.
There have been challenges along the way.
Two weeks into the trip, Dark got the flu.
“Living out of the bus was extremely challenging during this time,” she wrote. “We were in the desert, so the temperature was extremely hot. We had to make lots of stops to ensure I remained hydrated.”
In addition to seeing the country, Kala and Dark are using this grand road trip as a way to test out the practicality of minimalism, an approach to life that involves owning fewer things and not defining one’s self by material possessions.
“The few items we have packed all have a purpose, as do the items we buy (along the way),” Dark wrote. “A focus has been placed on quality over quantity.”
An Instagram account, campsite1978, is being used by the couple to document their journey and share their experiences with the world.
“We are averaging 100 new followers per week,” Kala wrote. “People in the vanlife community reach out often with questions and tips on things to do and places to visit.”
“Instagram is a great tool to update and keep in touch with friends and family,” wrote Dark, who noted they’re also “amazed” to see how many people they’ve met along the way have “connected with us.”
According to Kala, so far, the trip has taught them “that patience is necessary for this type of lifestyle.”
“Our pace can be slower at times, but that’s necessary to enjoy the simpler things in life,” he wrote.