I can’t say exactly when it started.
It’s kind of always been there– this subtle, unconscious urge to get out there, away from all of the typical comforts of a mundane and risk-free middle-class American life. I wasn’t even aware of it for quite a long time. Looking back, I can see how it peeked through in various ways throughout high school and early on in college– a love of the outdoors despite any real experience camping or childhood Boy Scout groups, a fascination with foreign travel when I had barely traveled off the East Coast, an insatiable love of running that spurred me through miles of wooded trails even when my best races were competitively mediocre at best– but for the most part, I typified the ‘traditional path’. Straight A’s, college scholarships, clean-cut, never did anything that might be against the rules or risky. In a nutshell: pretty boring. My love of the outdoors led me to pursue a degree in Environmental Science, but it was almost hypocritical, as I had never really been out in what I said I care so much about.
Then one day, during my sophomore year of college, my roommates asked if I wanted to join them on a week long, sixty mile kayaking trip—in foldable kayaks. Someone had a relative at Folbot, who was revamping their traditional wooden folding boats to newer, 21st century materials and designs, and wanted to show the world that the seemly flimsy crafts were actually just as good as a hard-bodied boat. “You’ve been camping before, right?” they asked me. Of course I had! I wasn’t going to tell the truth and miss out on a cool sounding trip like that. How hard could it be?
I spent my first night of my life under the stars on a tiny island on the Intercoastal waterway in South Carolina. Five days later, we paddled into Charleston, SC, greeted by cheering Folbot employees excited to see that their boats had made it through the journey with flying colors. I was smiling too, but for a different reason. I was hooked. Not on kayaking, or camping, or any specific part of the experience, but all of it. I had broken the barrier; I could do all of the things I read about and ogled over in Outside Magazine and National Geographic, and love it.
That trip turned out to be the catalyst. That summer I signed up for a study abroad program and spent months living in a remote corner or Africa’s Rift Valley doing wildlife management research and camping in the Serengeti National Park. The next summer I began doing fish ecology research for NOAA in Seattle, spending the weekends traversing through the Cascade mountains and Olympic national park. The more I traveled and the more I studied, the more I wanted to see—everything.
As my last semester of university drew to a close, I realized that while my passion for both preserving and experience the environment was stronger than ever, I didn’t want to pursue it through research. So instead of applying to graduate school, against professors and advisors pelting me with graduate school and research grant applications, I booked a dirt cheap ticket to Reykjavik, Iceland with and old friend. We spend the next few weeks hiking through the stark, eerie and beautiful backcountry of Þórsmörk, Landmannalaugar, and other areas of the icy volcanic country that I can’t begin to pronounce. I then hopped down to northern Tanzania to link up with a local friend from when I studied there in school, and soon found ourselves standing on the highest point on the continent, the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro. The day after arriving in the states, I packed my belongings into an old Chevy Blazer and took off west. I didn’t exactly have a destination, just that I had had my fill of the east coast and wanted to experience somewhere new. I stopped to visit a friend in Boulder, CO and promptly landed a part-time job at a health food store (one of 10,000 in Boulder, CO…), and decided to hang around for a bit. Why not? The running trails were awesome, the mountains were beautiful, and just about everyone you encountered on the street was some degree of diehard outdoor athlete. Finding training groups was as easy as starting a conversation.
For a few months I followed a pretty simple routine: Run, eat, work, run again, eat, sleep, repeat. And I loved it. I made some great friends out on the trails, spending quality time with some really cool people as we tallied the miles across the mountains and foothills and duked it out on the track. Just about everything revolved around running, hiking, climbing, and generally being a regular Boulder-ite.
And then, in an instant, that was over. An icy run, bad footing, missed step and a few doctor’s visits later, and I was looking at a few months of recovery for a fracture patella. Suddenly I was isolated from everything that had made Colorado so great—the trails, the training groups, the climbing routes, and mostly, the people. It may sound silly, but every athlete that has experienced an injury will understand when I say I essentially became depressed. Most of my socializing revolved around running, and without it, I began interacting with people less and less. I had just began a new job that was location independent, but instead of giving me the freedom I had envisioned, it further isolated me. In short: I was pretty miserable.
One day I was perusing Craigslist, looking at RVs and vans (one of my favorite lazy pastimes) in much the way that the average person shops catalogs of ridiculously expensive clothing or gear, hoping that the eye candy will satisfy their craving for things that are too expensive or irresponsible to actually buy. At the top of one page was a splotchy green VW van for a price that was a fraction of what I usually see the vintage campers going for. I assumed it was probably just the rusted engineless shell, waiting for some rich old mechanic to build into and restore. I had to read the description a couple of times before I believed it: new engine, no mechanical problems, ‘Just have too many VWs and trying to get rid of it’. I was on the phone ten seconds later. Ten hours later, I was the proud owner of a rusty, pallid-green 1977 VW Westfalia. Only stipulation I was given: “It’s name is Turtle”.
And so it begins.