Hitting the road: Couple cuts ties to follow their dreams

Oxford residents Ashlee Dark (left) and Derek Kala are about to embark on a lengthy trip across the United States and parts of Canada. They plan to visit 38 national parks in 18 states. Folks can follow their journey on Instagram at campsite1978. Photo by C.J. Carnacchio.

Hitting the road is an American tradition.

In the 19th century, hordes of American pioneers loaded up wagons and headed west seeking everything from farmland to fortunes in timber, fur and precious metals.

In the late 1940s, American writer Jack Kerouac took several cross-country road trips that provided the basis and inspiration for his landmark 1957 novel “On the Road,” the testament of the Beat Generation.

Road trips have even been celebrated on TV and the silver screen with classics such as The Brady Bunch’s visit to the Grand Canyon and the Griswold family’s zany pilgrimage to the fictional theme park Walley World.

Preparing to become part of this grand tradition are Oxford residents Derek Kala and Ashlee Dark.

This month, the couple will follow their dreams by embarking on a lengthy road trip to explore America’s natural beauty and history by visiting 38 national parks spread across 18 states, plus some parts of Canada such as Vancouver Island and Nova Scotia.

“We figured if we’re going to do this dream-come-true trip, it’s pretty much got to be now or never,” said Kala, a 2005 graduate of Oxford High School.

“A lot of people don’t really get to do this until they’re retired,” said Dark, a 2010 graduate of Lapeer West High School. “It’s nice that we’re getting to enjoy it while our bodies are still able to do so. We’re young enough to really enjoy it.”

Kala lamented the fact that road trips were once “a big thing” back in the 1950s through 1970s, but today, they’re “pretty much nonexistent” because of “how strict” companies have become regarding the amount of vacation time they give employees.

“We never have that time to fulfill our dreams,” he said.

For example, having only two or three weeks off each year is just not enough to complete a national park “bucket list” like Kala’s.

“It might take you 10 or 20 years to see them all,” he said.

He believes the “biggest mistake” people make is allowing their job to become the main “restriction” that prevents them from enjoying their life.

“I would hate to tie (the) years I have left here to experience (things) to what I’m doing (to earn a living),” Kala said.

To that end, after 11 years of working in the automotive industry, Kala recently quit his job as a project manager to embark on this American odyssey.

He’s not worried about his future because he said people get “stuck on this idea” that there’s only a few jobs available, “which isn’t true.”

“There’s hundreds, if not thousands, of jobs in the metro Detroit area,” Kala said.

If upon returning from this trip Kala can go back to his former place of employment, he said that would be great. If that doesn’t happen, he’s ready for that, too.

“I’m not that scared,” he said.

Dark, who recently earned her bachelor’s degree in business administration with a focus in management, cut her ties to make this journey as well.

“It was very scary for me to let go of my apartment, let go of my job, all of those things that we’re so accustomed to,” she said.

But Dark figured now is the right time to “do something that really makes us happy.”

Kala and Dark will spend months traveling and living in a 1978 Volkswagen Westfalia camper bus pop-up. It’s fully-equipped with features such as space for sleeping, a two-burner stove, large sink, built-in refrigerator and storage compartments.

Kala got the iconic VW bus in June 2013 and spent seven months restoring it. He later overhauled the engine.

“I know every inch of it,” he said. “I rebuilt everything by myself – literally everything.”

The driving experience itself will be quite the throwback as the VW bus has no power steering, no airbags and no anti-lock brakes.

“It’s pretty bare bones,” Kala said.

Owning VW buses apparently runs in Kala’s family. When his father immigrated to the U.S. from Poland, “that was the first thing he purchased to get around.”

Even though the vintage vehicle has 137,000 miles on it, the couple is confident about its ability to make such a long trip.

They previously drove it from Michigan to the very tip of the Florida Keys and back.

“After that trip, I don’t have any fears,” Dark said. “And if something does happen, I know he would be able to fix it.”

The big issue has been how best to plan and pack for day-to-day life within the confines of an 80-square-foot vehicle.

“We’re really going to have to downsize – bring only what we need,” Kala said.

“Can we live in 80 square feet? I think we can,” Ashlee said.

But she admitted it’s going to take some significant lifestyle adjustments.

“I’m used to waking up in the morning and taking a bath,” Dark said. “That’s not a luxury that I’ll have anymore.”

Kala and Dark see this trip as a good way to test out the concept of minimalism, an approach to life that involves owning fewer things and not defining one’s self by material possessions. Minimalists don’t believe ‘you are what you own.’ For them, it’s more important to focus on personal growth and having experiences such as traveling.

“It seems like a lot of our generation is into living a more minimalist lifestyle and sharing (everything from housing to cars),” Dark said. “Millennials are really starting to (ask the) question, ‘Is this stuff that I truly need?’ This is what we’ve done in the past, but we’re not really living (in) a very sustainable way and we can’t continue on the path that we are.”

Kala believes people should take a “step back,” so they can “really see how much clutter there is around you.”

The couple was deeply inspired by “Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things,” released in 2016.

In it, Derek said it was shown that even though people think they need a “huge, fancy house,” the reality is they use only a fraction of it on a regular basis and pay to heat rooms that constantly sit empty.

“It’s not efficient,” he said.

Although the couple has mapped out a route across the contiguous United States and Canada, Kala referred to it as a “super rough draft.” It’s not a hard-and-fast itinerary. It is subject to change.

“Every day’s going to be a different journey,” Kala said “Are we going to make a left or are we going to make a right at the next exit?”

The only time restriction they have on the whole trip is Kala wants to be back in Michigan before the snow flies.

In addition to exploring the country, the couple is looking forward to learning new things, broadening their horizons and meeting new people.

“I think there will be a lot of life lessons that go along with this,” Dark said.

“Life is a very interesting road because sometimes the people that you meet (become) best friends for the rest of your life,” Kala said.

The couple plans to document their journey and share their experiences with family, friends and strangers on their Instagram account campsite1978. They’re also planning to have either a blog or vlog (a blog that contains video material) about the trip.

Kala and Dark will also use their social media presence to advertise a variety of products they received at discounted prices from 10 sponsors. Each of these products will be used during the trip and promoted via the posting of photos, hashtags, blog or vlog mentions, etc.

For example, from Boundary TEC, a family-operated business in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the couple purchased a product that’s going to prove very valuable for life on the road. It’s called ShowerCoil and it’s a portable water heater and camping shower that delivers temperature-controlled hot water that’s ready in minutes.

Although they’ll be sharing many things on this trip – living space, supplies, experiences, chores, etc. – it appears there’s one thing that Kala might have to handle himself, the driving.

The VW bus has a stick shift.

“I can’t drive a stick, so that could be interesting,” Dark said.

Kala tried teaching her using a 1986 Yugo and she said, “It didn’t go very well.”

“My head’s still shaking from that experience,” Kala said.