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Van Life in the Southwest: Taking the Road Less Traveled

Written by Morgan Miller Category: Adventures Issue: August 2018
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Blogger-at-large Morgan Miller hits the road in her trusty converted Ford Ecoline to give PHOENIX fans a taste of the Southwestern #vanlife.

One year ago, I made my daily commute home from my full-time marketing job in downtown Phoenix. As I sat in traffic, I started daydreaming about other places I wanted to be. It was time to make a drastic change. I felt stuck - you might call it a quarter-life crisis. In some ways I found comfort and stability in my salaried job and warm home. But in my gut, I knew I would be haunted by those “what if’s” that already kept me up at night.Vanlife Blog Back of van with crew

Like many, I am inspired by the wild places I see when I scroll through Instagram, the simplicity of living minimally, and yes, admittedly the cliché #vanlife photos popping up on social media. I felt like I’d already checked a lot of the boxes: school (check), college (check), “adult” employment (check). But I didn’t feel like I was living an intentional life that fulfilled and challenged me.

So, on that day, bumper to bumper, I made a goal for myself – find a van, make it a home, and live on the road.

For months I searched for my mobile tiny home. I finally stumbled upon the van I now call “Al." I found Al through Craigslist, and he’s a 2005 Ford Econoline with a high-top roof. In his previous life, Al worked for the government transporting handicap people. He’s no fancy Sprinter, but he’s got character. All of the rust, dents, cracks and dust he came with turned out to be quite the match for my next-to-nil building experience.

Not going to lie, the process of building out my van was overwhelming. There were set-backs, extra costs, and many times I had to resist the urge to throw a hammer through the windshield and give up. But with every small hurdle and accomplishment, I could see my vision more clearly. I’ve learned that it’s one thing to be inspired by other people’s stories, but taking the risk yourself is a whole new inspiration.

Vanlife Blog Inside Van

I really had to decide what necessities I needed from my van, and what comforts I didn’t want to lose. Thanks to blogs, YouTube, and a lot of trial and error, I was able to pimp out Al with a queen-ish sized bed, small kitchen, pump-sink, and plenty of storage. Along with the build I have a small roof fan, mini-fridge, and LED lights, all powered by my 100-watt solar panel.

So here I am with the van, I’ve made it my home, and now I’m at the beginning of my journey on the road (with my canine sidekick Penny). And guess what -- sometimes #vanlife isn’t something to brag about. It’s not always a girl in a bikini, lounging out the back with a beach-front view. Sometimes it looks more like waking up in a parking lot with food poisoning, trying not to draw attention as you hurl out the window. There are sacrifices to living on the road, but for me, the benefits far outweigh them.

The Launch

My first “official” van trip was a place that had been on my list for a while. Baja, Mexico was both exciting and a little nerve-racking. Stories of drug cartels and corruption made me apprehensive. But the power of my new obsession with surfing (and the security of Al) made my journey to Baja Norte possible.

I wasn’t disappointed. In fact, I’m already planning my next trip back. Driving through Baja California Norte is diverse. The mix of slums, glamourous hotels, and abandoned buildings can be uncomfortable for an American who just passed through San Diego luxury an hour earlier. But unlike strictly tourist-oriented spots, this portion of the state reveals a glimpse into the authenticity of Mexican culture and the beautiful people who make the community what it is.

And I haven’t even mentioned the landscape! Open beaches and cheap campsites allowed my partner, Corey, and I to park each night overlooking the beach. While we passed through numerous sites and surf spots, the two we spent the most time at were La Fonda and Cuatro Casas.

La Fonda (Alisitos)

Just south of Rosarito is the small town of Alisitos. The town is primarily made up of small restaurants and homes including a campground marked by a giant “K-58” sign. The cliff-side campsite is about $7 per night and includes bathrooms and make-shift showers. Amenities are rudimentary, but the proximity to the beach and surf was well worth it for us.

Cuatro Casas Hostel

Baja Norte Cuatro Casas 4

We liked La Fonda, but we really fell in love with Cuatro Casas. Near San Telmo, this remote spot is accessible by a dirt road that eventually spits you out on the coast. Cuatro Casas has a strong history among the surfing community and has been written about in many outlets, including The Surfer’s Journal. Abandoned boats and small farms are just a few features that make this spot unique. The hostel and campground are among these and are located on a mesa that sits directly above the coast. We camped for $15 per night, which included access to a bathroom with a hot shower, but you can stay for just $5 a night and use the outhouse instead. A room at the hostel goes for around $40 per night.

Not bad for my first vanlife trip. Even though I’m an Arizona native, I’m now able to experience the Southwest like never before. I’m able to take my time wandering down dirt roads and small-town streets without a strict timeline. I can to work and play outdoors, meet people from all walks of life, immerse myself in diverse cultures, and grow in the challenges and unpredictability that this way of living entails.

Follow along with me and Penny as we live the #vanlife and share what hidden treasures the Southwest can offer to both full-time travelers and weekend warriors.Baja Norte Cuatro Casas 1