Welcome to a new online series we call ‘Off the Beaten Path’. This web series showcases the many inspirational folks from across the Blue Ridge who have stepped away from the mainstream path of everyday existence to live a more intentional and adventurous life.
From thru-hikers and van-lifers to off-the-grid warriors and tiny house disciples, these are the true stories behind some of the region’s most interesting and inspiring characters.
This time around we’re featuring a man, a woman, and their dog who set out from Asheville, NC to travel the Americas while living in a 1997 Dodge Ram with a Four Wheel Camper Grandby. The Traveling Trio is made up of Yeager St. John, Beth Topper, and their dog Alfredo. [divider]meet the trio[/divider]
BRO: What inspired you to leave home and take up a life on the road?
Yeager: Beth and I had taken separate road trips in our past and upon our return felt like we had missed something, forgotten a part of ourselves out there on the road. This constant draw compounded with our lack of satisfaction in our structured life (wake, work, eat, drink, sleep, repeat) at that time led to us taking the leap.
We were working dead-end jobs and never seemed to be able to jump into new fields or explore our talents or the degrees we had worked so hard to earn. We knew we needed something different and we figured that if this crazy plan didn’t work out, worst case we could always settle down somewhere and start working another dead end job to pay rent, so there really wasn’t anywhere to go except up!
BRO: Tell us about you travel companions.
Yeager: The Traveling Trio is made up of Beth, myself (Yeager) and our dog, Alfredo. We’ve met up with new and old friends along the way, but for the majority of our travels it’s just us in a camper the size of a walk-in closet!
BRO: How has the idea for Traveling Trio evolved since you initially conceived it?
Yeager: Every day it evolves. We started off thinking we’d only do this for a year and then call it quits – find a spot to settle down. Now we’re 10 months in and thinking of adding another year. We started with a TON of gear. We had a giant toolbox on the front hitch, and a motorcycle on the rear. Now we have none of that. As we travel, we’ve found we need less and less, and that the less we have, the more we can do.
This includes money. This is the poorest we’ve been (we grossed a mere $2,000 above the federal poverty line in 2015) yet we feel rich as kings in experience, and we’re still able to take care of ourselves and our bills. We hit the road with no clear intentions, at first this adventure was hedonistic in nature.
But now we’ve made it a mission to inspire others to get out there and follow their own dreams, whatever they may be, all while promoting sustainability and leave-no-trace ethics (As a side note – surprisingly few vandwellers and nomads pick up after themselves, and seem to have little respect for the ever-dwindling free campsites across the USA). We’ve learned to go with the flow, roll with the punches and be more like The Dude from The Big Lebowski.
BRO: Last time we talked to you were headed into Big Sur. Where are you now?
Yeager: Big Sur was incredible, but right now we’re camped out in a driveway, hah! We have had some intermittent issues with our truck and I had put out a plea for help on several online forums to see if anyone would lend us a hand in exchange for odd jobs or housework.
A nice guy in San Luis Obispo reached out to us months ago and we finally met up with him. We’ve been working on Darlene for nearly a week in his driveway. I’ve worked out all the kinks in the transmission, replaced our heater core (yay heat again!) and a few other odds and ends. Our list grows shorter every day. Now I’m repaying my side of the bargain by helping out with a couple projects he had, and he’s also offered to employ me temporarily to help us earn a bit more money for the road.
Once all my karma is paid back we plan to head Westward towards Pismo to camp on the beach, and then down to Joshua Tree and eventually Saline Valley to see about some hot springs. We’ve learned that our plans often adjust and adapt as we roll, but those are the three top destinations we want to reach next.
BRO: Where did your journey begin, and what kind places have you discovered along the way?
Yeager: We left Asheville NC on 20 March 2015. We’ve seen some amazing areas both natural and man-made. We’ve driven hours down bumpy desert roads to soak in hidden hot springs, we’ve climbed mountains just to see wildflowers. We gazed in awe at the giant hole that is Meteor Crater, watched the sun set from the Sandias Mountains in New Mexico, and had our breaths taken away watching planets rise through the dancing lights of the aurora borealis in the cold morning of Northwestern Minnesota.
We’ve stared in wonder at a billion stars above us in the middle of the desert, watched perfect waves break in Santa Cruz, fog waft through ancient towering redwoods, strolled on a beach made of glass, and watched the ocean swallow the moon. Whether cities or countryside we’ve strived to see the beauty in wherever we are and we’ve discovered an inconceivable amount of kindness from strangers who have helped us on our way.
BRO: Where have you been staying while out on the road?
Yeager: Anywhere that we can, as long as it’s free. In an ideal world we’d stay on back roads far from civilization with no worries or cares. But until we figure out how to procure sustainable income and sustenance this way, we find ourselves equally between cities and wilderness.
We prefer to dry camp on BLM land, National & State Forests, and similar areas when the opportunity presents itself, but it is surprisingly hard to do until you make it far enough West. Sometimes we stealth camp in neighborhoods if we’re trying to stay close to a city or town, and only once have we paid for a single night at a “traditional” campground with amenities – it was a gift to ourselves for our anniversary/Christmas. We didn’t travel across the country to sleep in Walmart parking lots, but on rare occasions they have proved to be valuable resources.
BRO: Tell us about your adventure rig.
Yeager: We have a 1997 Dodge Ram 2500 4×4 with a Cummins turbo diesel we affectionately call “Darlene”. We bought her because we needed the carrying capacity (GVWR) to safely haul a pop-up camper and all our gear, and having a diesel meant we could run alternative fuels and get decent fuel economy for our size.
On top of this, the Cummins engines are known for their incredible durability – everything around the engine however….well by the time we end our trip we’ll have an almost new truck! We’ve kept Darlene mostly stock, but have made a few upgrades here and there to help us on our journey.
Our camper is a Four Wheel Pop-up Camper – they’re made in Woodland CA and we had the opportunity to tour their production plant recently. We chose this camper because it is lightweight (only 600lbs before we filled it!) and durable for off-road or back-road applications. Since the top pops up and down we have low center of gravity, low wind resistance and are not worried about low-clearance areas while driving. However, we gain TONS of space when we’re fully set up.
We customized an empty Grandby shell model to best suit our needs and keep our costs down. We are fully self contained with food and clothing for three, water storage, solar power, propane, and a toilet. Both the camper and truck hold their resale value and are easy to work on, which has really helped us while on the road when we need to fix or modify something. We love our rig, although to be honest we’ve had van-envy at times. Popping the top can get old after 300+ nights on the road, but the space we gain is incredible and we know we made the right choice.
BRO: Of all your extensive traveling, was there one place you’ve enjoyed the most?
Yeager: Ya know, we’ve been asked this a lot, and it’s honestly one of the hardest questions. How can you answer when just around the corner lies another adventure?! Would you ask someone in an ice cream parlor what their favorite flavor is when they had only tasted a few? There are specific areas that we’ve enjoyed, but it is incredibly daunting to put a finger on just one place.
The Southwest has always been a favorite of ours, but so has Northern California and the West coast in general. The Midwest was surprisingly fun and the warmth of the people made up for the frozen nights and has left us yearning for more. Ya know, if I had to give you one moment off the top of my head, it would be an evening we spent watching a thunderstorm roll towards us during monsoon season, sitting on the edge of the Mogollon Rim in Northern Arizona, sipping cold beers, eating burritos and watching bolts of lightning snap in the distance with no sound. That was pretty magical.
BRO: What is the most challenging or trying thing that has happened along the way?
Yeager: Two things instantly pop to mind. The truck, and the dog. We never expected to have as many small issues with our truck as we have. We’ve found ourselves low on money repeatedly from having to fix small issue after small issue. Because of this we have had to find work more often than we planned, and that has affected where we travel and when. There are times when we want to visit a remote area (like the upcoming trip to Saline Valley) but in the back of my mind I wonder if Darlene will get us there and back. So far she’s never let us down, but she sure has kept us on our toes.
Having the dog is a blessing and a curse – Alfredo is a great watchdog, he keeps us safe in the camper and he’s a constant companion, big lover and cuddler. He should probably be the mascot for us – EVERYBODY wants to pet and love on him and he’s always a conversation starter! But traveling with a dog is incredibly difficult – we can’t always go where we want with him.
We can’t hike in any National Parks, we can’t go places where the heat might get to him, and we can’t do independent dog-free activities a lot of times because we don’t like leaving him in the truck and don’t want someone to “liberate” him if they think he’s been left to die in the truck.
Even when we are in the woods, he can add a bit of stress – imagine a small child who can run really really fast, usually straight into trouble. He’s been attacked by another dog, skunked, killed several small rodents, and come limping back to the truck covered in mud after a night where he broke his leash and went missing. Even with all the stress and limitations, we couldn’t imagine doing it without him.
BRO: What advice would you give other people that want to follow in your footsteps and take up the mobile, travel-based lifestyle?
Yeager: Do it! Most people let fear hold them back, saying that maybe someday later they’ll go have fun when they are retired, have money saved, or some other excuse. What’s stopping you now? The longer you wait the more stuff will get in the way – work, health problems, kids, bills, mortgage, family issues. By the time you’re old and retired you won’t be able to hike those trails and you probably won’t want to sleep in a small camper that can go anywhere. Not one person who we’ve met on our travels has thought we should have waited, and every retired couple we’ve met wishes they had done it sooner. You’ll figure out the finer details (like jobs) for yourself once you’re following your heart.
BRO: What’s next for you after this journey?
Yeager: Who knows, we can barely decide what to eat for dinner! We’ll be on the road for another year, but by this time next year we might be saying the same thing. You’ll just have to follow along with us on Instagram (@traveling.trio) or our website to find out!
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