VW Van Adventures

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Note: This 1985 VW van is not fuel efficient. It gets approximately 17 mpg, but it doesn’t go very fast, so most of our trips–especially all of our weekend excursions–have been close to home. While the van is not very green to drive, it is very outdoorsy and has facilitated many wonderful trips and experiences among nature. We are grateful for that and we also know that we need to find a more fuel efficient alternative.

The Adventurers: Matt, Clara and Duke

Hi! This is a trip journal written–and lived–by Matt and Clara. Matt is a Lean Engineer. His expertise focuses on continuous improvement (kaizen) and doing more with less: eliminating waste while incrementing efficiency. He grew up in Bakersfield, CA and studied in Long Beach. Then he moved to San Diego, where he worked in the semiconductor industry for ten years. For the past few years, he has been applying the 5S methodology–sort, set in order, shine, standardize, and sustain–to companies in Las Vegas, our homebase at the moment. I am from Buenos Aires, Argentina. I studied Social Communication in my country and, before graduating, I went on an six-month trip to Europe and the USA, where I met Matt. We started dating and, due to his large student loan debt and other factors, I got stuck in the US. Just kidding, I love it! Through the years, I have worked all kinds of part time jobs and taken several community college courses. Now, I am a translator, a nature lover, and the author of Green Straight Up.

Over the years, the relationship I have with Matt grew with a parallel adoration for the great outdoors: Nature is our heaven on Earth. Since we met, we have gone on many hiking, camping, and backpacking adventures, all in southern California. Before we left San Diego, Matt’s job took us to Singapore, where we started our journey to a meatless and dairy free life. We lived there for six months and got to explore a little bit of South East Asia on short cheap weekend trips (Tiger Airlines was the best!). Our favorite place was Thailand. We always talk about going back some day…After Singapore, I got a seasonal job at a the Wuksachi Lodge in the Sequoia National Park. We bought a 18-foot RV, packed light, and hit the road. The amazing forest, full of redwoods and giant ancient trees, was our home for six months. Amazing!

We now live in Las Vegas, not necessarily an outdoorsy place. Four years ago, and with the full intention of escaping to nature as much as we could, Matt bought this camper van. Making it run again and turning it into a reliable mobile home has been challenging and expensive, but we got there! Duke, a 90-pound caramel colored mutt with marshmallow personality is also a member of this pack. We adopted him soon after we got the van, so he has been in most, if not all, of our Van adventures! You will hear about some of his exciting stories and see him in many photos too.van life

So, traveling and camping with this 1985 VW Westy has been our latest passion! We occasionally stay at established campgrounds or even RV parks, especially when we have no other choice or when we really need a shower and some internet. Most of the times, we camp in remote places: national forests, wilderness areas, and secluded dirt roads. If it gets too late and we haven’t found a place to camp, we sleep on the side of the highway. We have also gone to cities like San Diego or LA and parked on the street, a hotel parking lot, or a friend’s driveway.

Hanging out in different remote areas of forests and deserts, taking explorative evening walks, cooking on the glowing campfire coals, sleeping under powerful starry skies, and sipping on a hot coffee while playful native birds await for the warming sun to come up has been a total blast!

van tripping

In this journal, we share some of our van life experiences and provide useful information for those of you who are also road tripping and want to check out these amazing places. For those who are not able to go on this type of grand outdoor adventures, we hope you enjoy the journey as well!

The Van: Goldie

We have a gold 1985 Volkswagen Vanagon Westfalia Camper. Matt purchased this van around three years ago from a lady who had lived in it while working somewhere in the outskirts of town. The van was pretty much dead, it did not run. We brought it home with the AAA roadside assistant service. Since then, Matt has out fitted the Van with many upgrades and some much needed repairs.

Here are some of the major items:

  • The motor is the stock 1.9L. Matt purchased it from a VW mechanic here in town.
  • The transaxle was rebuilt by RC Trans and reinstalled with new clutch kit, CV joints, wheel bearings, brake cylinders, lines, shoes, and drums.
  • The radiator, water pump, thermostat, reservoirs, sensors, and ALL of the cooling lines/hoses have all been replaced.
  • Rebuilt rack and pinion, power steering pump, tie rod ends, wheel bearings, and calipers.
  • Rebuilt EMC and airflow meter
  • Bilstein shocks and BFGs with plenty of tread all the way around
  • ProSport Dual bank battery charger–charges both batteries when the van is plugged into 110VAC
  • 1100 watt power inverter 12v to 110vac
  • Rebuilt Speedo–odometer was not working when we purchased the van
  • Gowesty gear reduction starter motor
  • Gowesty auxiliary battery kit installed and all dome lights have been replaced with LEDs
  • Gowesty designed tent, which was a tough one to replace
  • Gowesty instrument cluster printed circuit board replacement kit
  • Gowesty audible coolant temp alarm
  • Gowesty hook up boxes
  • Gowesty camper Led panel
  • Gowesty ASB door panels for the two front doors and the rear sliding door
  • Gowesty 1.5″ lift coil springs
  • Fresh batteries and LED light bar
  • Alpine deck with HD radio, blue-tooth, CD, USB
  • JBL 6.5″ component type speakers in the front doors and above back seat
  • Two cupholders mounted to the doors
  • Brand new laminate flooring.

The body is not in perfect condition, there is some superficial body damage to the passenger side of the vehicle. Whatever this old lady hit must have been tall, because it also damaged the fiberglass luggage rack, which was repaired, but is not perfect.

So, bottom line, the van has been very reliable! We go camping with it on a regular basis. We have travelled to many cool places in Nevada, California, Utah, Oregon, and Colorado and, so far, we have never had any issues, only priceless experiences! We would love to take a few months off, maybe a year, and go on a van tripping mega adventure throughout the United States. We are also thought about the possibility of heading south…A road trip through Latin America, all the way down to Argentina! But like Colin Powell once said, “A dream doesn’t become reality through magic; it takes sweat, determination, and hard work.” We will see how far we get!

The Journal

Saturday November 25, 2017

Sequoia National Forest, CA, by Matt 

After Paso Robles, we flew through Bakersfield and out the 178 to the Sequoia National Forest, where we found the Sandy Flats Campground. Sandy Flat is on the Kern River, in a particularly beautiful stretch of it. Here we settled in for the night listening to hooting owls.

Since we were in a national forest, we were able to gather some wood and had a pretty decent fire, where we cooked our dinner. In the morning, we walked the riverbank while drinking our coffees and then loaded up the van and hit the road.

On our way out of the forest, we stopped for breakfast at the Red Rooster Cafe, at Lake Isabella. We pretty much drove straight through after this. We had the intention to stop at Calico or some other desert town to have a final celebrative drink at a local establishment, but there was a line to get into the Calico Ghost Town’s parking lot and we decided to push on. We stopped by the Seven Magic Mountains, in the outskirts of Vegas and we made it home before sunset.

We really enjoyed our time in California. We covered a total of 1200 miles in six nights and seven days. The highlights of the trip were Moonstone Beach, the tempe ruben at Solvang, and the Paso Robles wine tasting experience. Cruising through Big Sur and staying at Los Padres National Forest were also very good times, as was everything else we did. Things that we would rather not do again: stay at a KOA. We hope we get to hit the road again with Goldie sometime soon!

Friday November 24, 2017, 2:17 pm

Paso Robles, CA, by Clara

We are heading out of Paso Robles. I am writing in the back seat while Matt drives. We had a great day so far: coffee and pimped hot shower at the San Simeon campground, breakfast at Cambria Mimosas, and wine testing at Paso Robles. To get to wine country, we took the Santa Rosa Creek Road, a beautiful winding mountain road, not wide enough for two cars at certain spots, but with amazing scenery. Gorgeous vineyards and delicious wines await us in Paso Robles!

We stopped at two places. First, the Donati Family Vineyard, where we enjoyed a flight of reds and whites with some complimentary nuts and fancy cheeses. We are not wine connoisseurs, but we really liked the Donati wines, besides the great prices, the staff was super friendly. They actually had some “black Friday deals,” so we bought five bottles of wine for a great price! We will get to enjoy them at home and give some away to friends and family…Wait, five bottles is all? Not very many if I have to start giving some away…Oh well, we might share…Our second stop was at the Four Lanterns Winery, which has an inviting outdoor patio, great wine, and very friendly staff as well. Visiting the wineries was definitely a lot of fun. Wine testing was $10-$15 and included 5-6 different wines. The first place waved the testing fees because we bought more than three bottles of wine. Super worth it. We highly recommend doing Paso Robles if you are in this area.

So far, we have had an amazing time and we are heading back home. Tonight, we might try to camp somewhere at the tip of the Sequoia National Forest. It looks like by Lake Isabella there are a few campsites. Otherwise, it will be dirt road or that OHV area by Barstow. I miss National Forest unestablished camping, but I guess that if you want to be by the beach, you gotta be civilized. We will be home tomorrow and I will be posting this wild tales soon! Until then!

Thursday November 23, 2017 (Thanksgiving day)

San Simeon Creek Campground, CA, by Matt

With our coffee in hand we took a walk across the San Simeon Creek boardwalk to the beach. After that, we packed up, checked out of the campground, and headed out for the day. The goal was to drive up the rest of highway 1; it was shut down in the Big Sur area due to some mudslides. On the way, we stopped to enjoy the amazing views, take a few pictures and appreciate the wildlife–a few coyotes and plenty of elephant seals.

We decided to stick around in this area one more night, so we stopped by the same campground to reserve a spot. This time, we got campsite number 13, a little higher in elevation and with a nice view to the ocean. We were lucky to find a spot at this time of the afternoon on a holiday. We had gathered some firewood during our drive and once we returned to the campgrounds a ranger promptly advised me that this was not allowed in sate parks in California and that we should only purchase firewood from the camp hosts. Oops. However, he also told us to have a happy Thanksgiving and allowed us to keep the firewood this time. Then we headed back to Moonstone Beach, parked in front of the beach again, and enjoy some local brews. We accompanied the cold beers with Spanish olives, roasted almonds, and kettle potato chips while we watched the dolphins and whales jump and splash around. This is glamping! We finally took a walk on the beach, saw the sun go down, and headed back to San Simeon Creek campground.

Once we got back to camp, we started the fire, which was a rager thanks to all that free wood. We cooked our Thanksgiving dinner in the coals of it. Our dinner consisted of–kind of old–vegetables, beans and quinoa, but it was delicious: sautéed onions, yellow pepper, celery, eggplant and broccoli with fire cooked quinoa loaded with garbanzo beans and cubed tomatoes. A filling hearty meal that we accompanied with a red local wine.

Wednesday November 22, 2017

Los Padres to Cambria, CA, by Matt

After we left the Los Padres National Forest, we stopped in Santa Barbara for a few pictures and then moved on. We didn’t stop again until Gaviota State Beach, where we thought we would be able to let Duke run and drink some mates, but just like every other beach, dogs were not allowed. The beach wasn’t very nice anyway, so we moved on. We were both pretty hungry and cranky when we got to Fitzpatricks Tavern in Solvang, where we drank a beer and ate the best Tempe Ruben I have ever had in my life. At Santa Maria, we made a sharp left and headed into Guadalupe, which had what appeared to be a very historic and unpopulated Main Street.

The Dunes in Pismo Beach is where were we looking to camp, but when we arrived, we were disappointed to find out that the campground was full. Garet, Katina and Ethan, my brother and his family, are also in a road trip in California. They were staying at a KOA by Avila beach for a few nights so we ended up joining them for the night. This KOA was expensive ($53/night) and looked like an RV storage facility, but at least we got to hang out with the family, take a hot shower and get some shuteye.

Today, we started our day at the dog beach in Avila. It was a beautiful day and Duke ran all over the beach chasing dogs and rescuing a Kong tennis ball from the waves. Ethan was swimming and enjoying himself too. After a few hours of that, we left and went to ship a few items in Pismo, which ended up leading us to a cool location in Shell Beach, where we stopped, made lunch and drank a few local beers, all from the van. Clara called and found that there were a few spots left in the Hearst San Simeon State Park campgrounds, so we started heading in that direction.

We made it to Cambria before sunset. After securing spot 67 at the San Simeon Creek campground, which was $35/night, we went to have a few drinks and watch the sunset at a place called Centrally Grown. The place was really nice and a complete mess at the same time. Amazing views, good beer, and cool patios. Not very good food, small 3-5 menu, and service was polite but seemed lost or confused. The Moonstone Beach Bar and Grill, however, was a completely different story. Amazing food and solid service, and right on the beach. We really enjoyed that place! After that stop, we headed to camp. It wasn’t super late, but we had no energy for a bonfire. The campground was dark and quiet and we went to bed.

Tuesday November 21, 2017, 6:55 am

Los Padres National Forest, CA, by Clara

We left Vegas on Sunday afternoon. We had some important things we had to take care of before leaving. We also installed the new laminate floors and cup holders, which we have been enjoying a lot already. On Sunday night, we made it to the outskirts of Barstow and camp in a place called Stoddard Wells OHV Area. There was nothing there besides sandy ground, a few desert bushes, and a couple of other overnighters. It was pretty cold at night, but it was a great quiet–and free–spot to camp last minute in a dark night.

Right now, I’m having coffee and writing in bed. We are in a gorgeous campsite in the center of the Los Padres National Forest, on the Ojai Ranger District. The place is surrounded by deciduous trees and covered with a yellow and brown carpet of leaves. There is a creek running through the middle of the campground. Matt sleeps next to me and Duke has already had breakfast. He is watching closely at a bee that just came in through the door and is trying to find its way out. A Steller’s Jay just stopped by and checked us out. I love these bully blue birds!

We made it to the coast yesterday. Unfortunately, we drove through LA’s chaos, smog and nature deprived essence. We took Malibu’s picturesque scenic drive, got a nice glimpse-and a good whiff–of the ocean, and then drove to Ventura, where we turned right towards the Los Padres National Forest. We had never been at this forest before, but we were hoping to find a dirt road and some free fire wood, and relax in the forest for a while. It was already 4pm when we found this campground, called Wheeler Gorge Campground. The camp host told us that there was no dirt road or unestablished camp ahead, so we decided to call it a day and made this place our camp for the night.

Dinner was spicy eggplant stew, to call it a name: jalapeño, red onions, green peppers, Chinese eggplant, tomato sauce, a bit of TVP, and pasta shells. Not bad. We also cooked a large potato on the fire, in the Dutch oven; the plan is to cut it up, fry it with some tofu, onions and peppers, and eat it for breakfast today with some avocado. I have purple corn tortillas and Cholula hot sauce too. It’s going to be delicious and filling! We will head north today, on the beach. Maybe, we’ll end somewhere around Pismo Beach or Big Sur. The weather is amazing. Day looks promising!

Friday September 30, 2016

Moab, Utah, by Clara

We came to Moab, Utah to visit Matt’s cousin, Ryon. He is a fire fighter, a smoke jumper to be exact. We hadn’t seen Ryon in about a year, so we were excited about spending some time with him. These past two days have been very interesting and fun! On Wednesday night, we camped at the RV park in Ouray and checked out a few cool bars. The next morning, we went for a cool hike with amazing views, explore the area a little bit, and had a quick lunch on Ouray’s main road, Oak Street. Then we hit the road. While heading north on Hwy 550, we stopped at the Orvis Hot Springs, “clothing optional.” This was an amazing treat! We paid for one hour in the springs, a very relaxing and recharging hour. There were many different pools and baths, a lot of old nude hippies, and a spectacular thriving green garden! We obviously weren’t allowed to takes photos, but I can say that the place looked like some sort of heaven, with naked free-spirited old butts. Lol! After the hot springs, we took route 62 and headed west. On the way to Moab, we encountered two lost dogs on the side of the road, a solid couple. They had name tags with phone numbers and the name of a local town: Nucla. We called the number on their tags, but nobody answered. We invited the dogs into the van and headed to Nucla to try to find their home. We ended up driving into a small neighborhood a few miles away from the road around Naturita. We spotted a man in his front yard, stopped the van, and asked him if he knew the dogs or the name on their tags. He said he did. Eureka! I guess the doggies had walked almost 10 miles away from their town and were still going the wrong direction when we found them. The guy called the owner of the dogs at his work place and verified that the dogs were his; then he tried to explain to us how to get to the guys house, open his front door, and leave the dogs inside the house. We didn’t feel very comfortable with his plan and we were running out of day light, so we asked this good samaritan to please take the dogs from us and take care of the rest. He ended up accepting. Yay! Done with the dogs. After that unexpected event, we re-routed and continued our trip. We drove through amazing places with breathtaking views. Mountains, snow, yellowing aspens, fresh air…While looking for the right place to spend the night, we covered a lot of ground. In the outskirts of Moab, we stopped at the “world famous” Hole N’ The Rock store. They had some cool old stuff, like vintage neon signs and ads, antique tools and mining equipment and metal art. The battery died in the parking lot though; we had to jump started with our small backup camping battery. This was the second or third time the battery had died on us that day. As crazy as it might sound, after all of the work we have done to the van for the past few years, we had never gotten a new battery. It was time! After that stop, we tried to find a place to camp, but nothing was good enough. Typical. Considering the circumstances, going deep into the woods trying to find the perfect secluded magical spot wasn’t a great idea, so we looked for a quiet, safe looking area on the side of the route and found the classic savior, an untraveled dirt road! We made dinner, spent the night, and the next morning–yesterday–we made it to Moab. As soon as we got to civilization, we got a new battery. The van has been starting and running great since then! We met with Ryon and his wife, had breakfast at a local joint, and headed to his place. We had a great time with them, catching up and shooting the shit, and closed the night with a campfire and some beers. I also made dinner for everybody, a fresh green salad and a huge pasta dish with all kinds of vegetables and pesto. Now, it is time to straighten up the van and start heading home.

Wednesday September 28, 2016

Ouray, Colorado, by Clara

This morning, we woke up in another unestablished camp at the Grand Mesa National Forest. The view was pretty amazing. We saw the sun setting last night and I woke up early enough to see the sunrise! We had some coffee and started the van…luckily, it started right up 🙂 We went for a down hill walk and got to the river…What a beautiful secret spot we found! Duke immediately got in the water and started running around like crazy. Matt and I had brought a towel and some biodegradable soap, so we helped each other to wash our hair and some other parts. The water was so cold! I also washed my bra and Matt washed his hiking shirt–he had been wearing that shirt since we left! The morning hike was refreshing and fun and recharged our batteries for another awesome day! We had some food and cleaned up while listening to some relaxing Native American high spirit flute music, and then hit the road. While driving through Delta, Matt saw a cool VW mechanic shop and stopped to ask about the spindle part he has been wanting. The guy, Bob, did not have that part at that moment, but they still talked for a while about vans and life. Bob was super cool and we exchanged phone numbers. Five minutes later, we stopped on the side of the road to take a photo at this crazy bunker house with a bunch of hateful Obama and Hillary messages–it was pretty spooky actually! We hurried to leave and on our way up the ramp, the van died again! Nooooooo! Not here! Some crazy old country man is going to come out and shoot us both, or at least me, I am dark skinned. Since Bob, the VW expert, was down the road, Matt called him and he came to the rescue! In 20 minutes we had the van running and he also explained what the problem was: some fluid in some cables, nothing! What a lucky break! It took us the rest of the day, but we made it to Ouray. After all, we are trying to relax! On our way here, we stopped at a few breweries and parks in Montrose, we even bought a growler of red ale at Rascals. Ouray is a gorgeous little town. I am glad Matt had read about it and spending a night there was part of his plans. Despite our late arrival, we were able to get a spot in an RV park, right next to the creek and three blocks from all of the action. Everything in town was booked solid, or at least all of the hotels we walked by said “No Vacancy.” We will be able to shower in the morning, after five days of road tripping, and I will also be able to do my homework 🙂 This place is magical! We are in a valley, surrounded by mountains, evergreens and autumn colored trees. There are a few little restaurants, saloons and breweries, souvenir shops, friendly people, and the most picturesque scenery!

Tuesday September 27, 2016

Grand Mesa National Forest, Colorado, by Matt

Yesterday morning we woke up with deer in our campsite at Dixie National Forest. We restarted our fire and later on, took a short hike down to a nearby creek. After that, we packed up and moved on. The drive was beautiful and the van handled the mountains like a champ. I really need to replace that spindle, the wheel bearing is singing the entire time. We stopped at a bunch of vista points on the way and also went into a cool flute shop–a local guy that has been making and selling Native American flutes for a few decades runs the store. At the flute shop, we bought some pinion pine salve and a flute CD that we listened to for the rest of the day. Capitol Reef National Park was beautiful, but these little mormon towns in between are kind of dull and uninteresting. We stopped at Gooseneck Point and Fruita…Well, we only slowed down for Fruita. From then on, there was nothing to look at until Colorado. What a desolate stretch of desert! We did get a veggie burger in Hanksville and took a look in the store that is in a hollow rock. After that, we drove all the way to Grand Junction, where we intended to shop and camp. We drove through downtown Grand Junction and then moved on to a city market on Hwy 50, bought some provisions (water, beer and food), and started looking for a place to sleep. We were in need of a shower and some Wi-Fi, so we went to look at a KOA. The KOA was very small, parking lot like, and full $100K rigs, so we left in search of our favorite home away from home, a national forest. The one we found was just south of Grand Junction and is called Grand Mesa. We drove up the mountain until I became uncomfortable and had to turn around–the van doesn’t like stopping at the moment. We crept down the hill back to a campsite that we had seen earlier, parked the van and looked around. After we started the fire and drank a beer, the van decided that it liked where it was and that it was done running for the day. (This worries me a bit, because it is inconsistent). We relaxed, ate, drank, and went to bed.

Monday September 25, 2016

Dixie National Forest, Utah, by Clara

We are at an awesome camp. We drove by Dixie National Forest, passed Escalante and then Burr trail road. We also drove by this beautiful rustic coffee house in the mountains. The view from their 180-degree windows was outstanding and the place was gorgeous! We bought pinion pine oil and a coffee. We would have had a seat and hung out for a while, but the whole area’s water and electricity were shut down and they were closing shop. We camped at this place right at the end of the way, next to Pleasant Creek and right after the Oak Creek campsite. There are many cows around us, pine trees, views of some yellow aspen tress (or at least we can see them if we take a little walk), and tons of firewood available. This place is awesome! Fall is here, so the scene is colorful and exquisite. Before we got here, we made it to the summit, over 9K elevation feet. Now, we are making a super large dinner with some potatoes we cooked in yesterday’s bonfire, some onions, garlic, tomatoes, black bean soup and TVP. We also just had some delicious roasted onion and olive oil crackers with fresh herbs and garlic salt (also, an onion we cooked in yesterday’s fire).  Duke is chasing a cow family! I have to go…bye!!!