Imagine cutting all the ties that bind you to one place, packing your belongings in a vintage vehicle, then spending the next six months on a road trip centered around experiencing natural wonders spread across two vast countries.
Derek Kala and Ashlee Dark don’t have to imagine it because they did it and now, they’re back.
From mid-April through mid-October, the couple traveled through 26 states, plus eight provinces in Canada, in a fully-restored 1978 Volkswagen (VW) Westfalia camper bus that served as both transportation and living quarters.
They drove just over 22,500 miles on their adventure.
Along the way, they visited 31 U.S. National Parks, 10 U.S. National Monuments, Preserves, Lakeshores and Recreational Areas, and 11 Canadian National Parks.
“There’s just so many beautiful places that are so close to us,” Dark said. “You see online all of these amazing places . . . and it seems like ‘wow, they’re so far away,’ but truly, they’re not. They’re really just in our backyard. You just have to take the time to get out and explore.”
One of the places that seemed to make the biggest impression of them was the island of Newfoundland in Canada.
Kala said it was like “stepping back 100 years ago” as people there fish for cod, hunt moose and sell the socks and gloves they knit by displaying them on fences outside their homes.
“That was probably the most eye-opening (experience) for both of us because their pace is very slow and life is very simple,” Dark said. “It really makes you question (if) we really need the things that we have in life right now? They’re living very simply and they’re very happy. And they’re living in a beautiful place, too.”
Kala was amazed by the abundance of wildlife in Newfoundland.
“Bald eagles (there), they were just like robins here. They’re just everywhere,” he said.
According to Newfoundland/Labrador’s Department of Fisheries and Land Resources, with an estimated 300 to 600 pairs in the province, Newfoundland has one of the largest populations of bald eagles in northeastern North America.
From seeing a moose standing on the side of the road to being awakened by a noisy porcupine just outside their bus, interesting encounters with wildlife were a recurring theme throughout the couple’s journey.
Their most intense encounter was with a bear just outside Lassen Volcanic National Park in northern California.
According to Dark, they were awakened around midnight by a “really loud bang.”
“It actually sounded like someone was running into the side of a vehicle. It was that loud,” she said.
When they looked outside, Dark said they saw a bear “tearing apart all of the garbage cans,” while “coming closer and closer and closer to us.”
After the bear finished with the last can, Kala said it started “walking right at us.”
“It was scary,” he said “This thing was easily over 250 pounds.”
Fortunately, they had an air horn, the sound of which prompted the bear to leave.
“He jumped and ran away,” Dark said. “At that point, we’re shaking.”
They found a new place to sleep that night. The next day, they shared the story with a park ranger who explained to them they had nothing to fear because the bears around there had become accustomed to feeding on what visitors leave behind. “We felt kind of silly for being so scared,” Dark said.
After that, bears didn’t seem to bother them much.
At Waterton Glacier International Peace Park in Alberta, Canada, they went to sleep with a bear about 100 feet from the bus. It was busy licking a wastewater dumping area and didn’t bother them a bit.
They’ll be comin’ round the mountain
During the trip, Kala and Dark took their VW bus to some places one wouldn’t ordinarily think of driving a 40-year-old vehicle.
One of those places was Mount Washington. At 6,288 feet, it’s the highest mountain in northeastern North America and part of the White Mountains in New Hampshire.
At the summit, five states and Canada are visible on a clear day.
Mount Washington is well-known for its extreme weather. On April 12, 1934, the observatory there recorded a 231-mile-per-hour surface wind speed, the highest ever observed by man.
“We actually drove on top of (it),” Kala said. “Nobody believes us until we show them pictures.”
Trekking up the mountain wasn’t easy. At one point, Kala said his foot was “all the way down” on the accelerator and the bus was only going 10 miles per hour.
When vehicles began to stack up behind them, the couple pulled to the side to let them pass. But when they tried to resume their upward climb, they discovered the incline was so steep that the bus started rolling backward. They had to make a U-turn, go back a ways and start again.
“It was terrifying,” Dark said.
Keeping the wheels on the bus going round and round
As a result of all their constant driving – an average of four to six hours per day – Kala and Dark said the bus experienced a breakdown or maintenance issue about once a month.
“The breakdowns were really frustrating for me,” said Dark, because she had nothing to keep her occupied.
“They were fun for me,” Kala said.
“He enjoys fixing things,” Dark added.
Their breakdowns were usually accompanied by some bit of good fortune.
For example, when the alternator died in Texas, they were able to keep going because the Southwest’s abundant sunshine supplied enough electricity to keep the bus rolling.
“We made it through Texas, New Mexico (and) all the way into Arizona running on solar panels,” Kala said.
When the original transmission finally gave out in mid-August after 158,000 miles, it happened in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. They were able to get the bus towed to a place near the Mackinac Bridge, then a friend transported it to Oxford.
Two-and-a-half weeks later, Kala had a new transmission installed and the couple was back on the road, headed into Canada.
Striking a balance
Living together day after day in such tight quarters was a challenge for Kala and Dark as it would be for any couple.
To maintain their sanity, it was crucial for each to have some alone time. Dark found hers shopping for groceries, while Kala got his working on the bus.
Overall, they believe the trip was good for their relationship.
“I would say it definitely made us stronger,” Dark said. “Being back home, it’s a big change now because we’re not together 24-7. We’ll have to learn how to rebalance our relationship because we’re used to being together all the time.”
Next time, more time
Kala and Dark plan to take another big cross-country trip at some point in the future, but next time, they want to give themselves a whole year.
“As much time as we took, there’s still so much to see,” Dark said. “We just didn’t have enough time to do everything that we really wanted to do.”
Kala and Dark wish more people would take lengthy trips like this before they start college or careers.
“Doing it while you’re young is really important,” Dark said.
For those who are serious about following in their tire tracks, she encouraged them to “buckle down” and take a couple years to save for it.
“Set up your life so you can do something like this,” Dark said.
There’s no place like home
Despite all of the awe-inspiring places they visited, Kala and Dark still like Michigan best and plan to build their life together here.
To Kala, Michigan is fortunate to have the Great Lakes, sand dunes, mountains and all four seasons.
“We pretty much have every piece of the puzzle here,” he said.