A Decade on Wheels: One Couple’s Ultimate Pan-American Adventure

Imagine, for a moment, the ultimate road trip.

Perhaps you steal away for a week or two, a few months, maybe even a year, the responsibilities of a homebound life tucked away in the rearview. Could be you’re traveling alone, or with buddies, a lover, or even a furry pal, Steinbeck-style. Are you revving along on a motorcycle? Cruising in an RV? Living out the ultimate #vanlife fantasy?

Chances are that no matter what kind of utopian schemes you conjure up, your road trip dream is nothing like Karen Catchpole and Eric Mohl’s wheel-life reality: the two former New York residents have been bumping along in a retrofitted Chevy Silverado (“The Red Baron”) for ten straight years, exploring 16 countries, crossing 57 borders, and covering approximately 183,000 miles – and counting.

The duo’s “Mother of all American Road Trips” began in part as a response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. At the time, they lived a few blocks away from the World Trade Center. Eric was a corporate lawyer (though he’s since moved on to a life behind the lens), and Karen was well along in an impressive editorial career. They were seasoned travelers in the midst of planning a lengthy overland trip through Africa, but after the attacks, decided to explore – and search for understanding – a little closer to home.

Thus was born the Trans-Americas Journey, an ambitious project that required a four-year planning process, a change of perspective, and some serious guts. Karen and Eric spent the first two and a half years of truck life rolling around North America, which included a music-filled stop in New Orleans less than a year after Hurricane Katrina, a rare opportunity to swim with massive whale sharks off the coast of Mexico, and even a chilly visit to the Arctic Ocean.

The duo went on to wind through Central America, then navigated a very impressive (and very involved) border crossing around the roadless Darién Gap to land in South America, where they’re currently savoring an extended exploration that will eventually take them all the way down to the southern terminus of the Pan American Highway in Tierra de Fuego. Karen and Eric’s freelance life has been extremely successful along the way – their writing and photography has appeared in top magazines and online outlets including Travel+Leisure, The Wall Street Journal, Afar, Outside, Slate, and National Geographic Adventure. Suffice it to say, when it comes to documenting travel and culture, there are few other people who can offer a perspective as unique as theirs.

I caught up with the well-traveled duo while they were decamped in northern Chile, and they were gracious enough to jointly answer some questions about the logistics of spending ten years on wheels, the meaning of “home,” and why their journey won’t end when the pavement runs out.

First of all, happy anniversary! How does it feel to realize you’ve been living out of a truck for an entire decade?
Thanks! Wait? What? A decade? As in ten years? To be honest, the anniversary nearly passed by unnoticed by us despite the fact that we have an automated day counter right on our website. Then we noticed the upcoming anniversary and it felt like a milestone that the rest of the world could understand and appreciate. Though when we tell people we’ve been driving through the Americas for ten years they generally look at us with a combo of disbelief and momentary envy, and then a flash of fear because they think they might be standing next to crazy people.

That about sums up our ten-year “roadaversary” feelings as well: disbelief and a flash of fear.

Before we dig in, where exactly are you in Chile right now, and what have you been up to this week?
We are in Antofagasta, Chile – a place no one but businessmen and miners visits. Why are we here? Classic: our third partner, our Chevy Silverado, needed a spa week. The truck is a workhorse, but even it needs a pro check up every once in a while, especially after we beat the heck out of it driving around the remote and rugged Puna de Atacama in northern Argentina, which includes hundreds of miles over sand, rocks, washboard, more sand, more rocks, more washboard, salt flats, and more rocks (including one that punctured a tire in the middle of a salt flat at over 12,000 feet). We plan to drive that truck for a long time to come. It’s a vital tool and we work it hard. But we also take good care of it. So, our truck is at the Salfa Chevrolet dealership here in Antofagasta for the week getting the TLC it deserves. Sort of like an anniversary present.

Speaking of your rig – why a truck and not a van or RV setup, something you could sleep in?
We considered many different vehicle types during the four years we spent planning our Trans-Americas Journey. An RV is not secure enough (too easy to break into), and too high and wide for many streets in many towns in Latin America. Also, a large part of our work as travel journalists involves writing about hotels, so we did not need the ability to sleep in our rig (though we do haul around a lot of backcountry and car camping gear so we can sleep outside the truck when we want to). So, no RV.

Because we planned to be on the road for years and years and years, and because we knew we’d be working, our need for gear carrying capacity was pretty great. We have SCUBA equipment, external hard drives, extra computers, camera gear, clothing for all conditions and situations (from Andes trekking to weddings and business meetings). You get the picture. Vans simply didn’t offer the gear setup or security we needed. That’s when we started considering a truck with a custom cargo carrying system in the bed.

Eric spent weeks designing the basics, then days finding a metalworker who could improve on the design and create the thing. The result is a custom tri-level aluminum cargo carrying system that is bolted to the chassis. It is weatherproof and is secured with six really secure hockey puck style locks. You could break into it, but you’d need a lot of tools and a lot of time. It provides the cargo capacity, organization, and security we need – like an enormous, rolling Fort Knox closet. The truck itself was the right choice because it gives us the clearance and the power we need. It’s 4X4 of course, and diesel because diesel engines are tough as hell, and because diesel is often cheaper in Latin America and gasoline can be dirty, which can completely gum up a gas engine. Also, our Silverado is comfortable. We’ve spent almost 5,800 hours in the cab of that truck, so comfort counts. We’re overlanders, not ascetics.

 We have only slept in the cab on one occasion: that time El Salvador wouldn’t let us in and we had to spend the night on the border.

Are there any specific lessons you’ve learned over the years about traveling overland by truck?
Just accept that every day you’re going to wake up and face a new issue that you wish you had a lesson for. That’s why you’re out there. If you can’t accept that (or at least mostly accept that), then plan a different kind of trip with fewer moving parts. This sort of life is not for everyone and that’s okay.

You both work from the road – and obviously, you’ve figured it out, because you are both successful freelancers. What are your tricks for working on the road?
There are no tricks and there is no sexy part about working on the road. Those pictures you see of “digital nomads” (cringe) with their laptops in a hammock or by a pool (we’ve published both types of shots) are a sick inside joke meant to make other roaming pros belly laugh. The truth is that we work more hours now than we did when we had full-time jobs in New York City editing major magazines. Eighty-hour weeks are common, with many, many hours spent in crappy, cheap rooms with our laptops literally on our laps while mentally begging crappy, cheap wi-fi to keep working as a creaky ceiling fan makes a mockery of air flow. If that sounds good to you, keep reading.

If you want to work from the road be ready to have at least six jobs, usually simultaneously:

  1. Planning and researching upcoming travel
  2. Doing the actual travel and having the actual experiences (don’t forget this part)
  3. Reporting about and photographing those experiences
  4. Crafting those experiences into plausible stories and pitching them to your editors (who hopefully haven’t completely forgotten about you because you are no longer in NYC or wherever to ensure face time)
  5. Editing photos, cataloging photos and research, backing up photos and research, and other “bookkeeping” duties
  6. Completing assigned stories and accomplishing any edits to meet deadlines and keep editors coming back for more

Even after ten years working on the road, we still haven’t figured out how to turn a “four-hour work week” into a “six-figure income,” but maybe that’s just us. Then again, the Trans-Americas Journey was never meant to be the world’s longest vacation. We have always described it as a “working road trip.”

How do you stay connected?
Staying connected is a lot easier now than it was when we started this little boondoggle because Wi-Fi access and quality continues to improve. Honestly, you have to work hard to find yourself without at least a bad connection, so email and Skype (we have an annual plan that gives us a dedicated US number that never changes and includes all calls to the US and Canada) keep us connected. We travel with an unlocked ZTE Axon phone (which we consider the best value for money for our needs at the moment), and we buy a SIM chip and get a local cell number and data plan in each country we enter (that’s often easier said than done). WhatsApp is also a great tool. And free.

The biggest challenge is replacing electronics when needed. Most countries in Latin America impose wicked duties on imported electronics like camera gear, laptops, drives, etc., so it’s much cheaper to purchase those items in the US. However, getting those items sent from the US to wherever we are in Latin America is a pricey exercise with the risk that duties will be imposed if/when the package arrives. It’s honestly cheaper to fly home, purchase what’s needed, and return with the items.

On your website, you mention that you originally set about on this journey partially inspired to “better understand where we live and where we fit into the wider world.” Well, you’ve had ten years – do you understand the United States any better? Do you have a different understanding of our – your – place in the world?
The 10th Anniversary post on our Trans-Americas Journey travel blog explores this issue. The short answer is that after the attacks of September 11 (we lived in NYC three blocks from the Twin Towers), we dropped plans to explore Africa and decided to focus on getting to know our home and our other American neighbors a bit better. Note the “s” after the word America in our project name. The truth is that everyone from any country in the Americas is American, not just those from the US. Some argue that’s pedantry, but we believe that understanding that detail creates a crucial shift in perspective.

The first two-and-a-half years of our road trip were spent in the US and Canada. We found a slowly dawning notion in much of the US that, despite our brand new fears of terrorism (fears much of the rest of the world had been living with for decades), we couldn’t (or shouldn’t) disengage from the world. There seemed to be an effort on the part of citizens and the government to find a sweet spot that provided security without fearing everything and everyone – like a pendulum slowly becoming less and less polarized as it slows down.

Our vision of our personal place in the world didn’t necessarily change much. We’ve been traveling long enough (more than four years backpacking full-time in Southeast Asia before the Trans-Americas Journey was even a twinkle in our eye), that we’ve felt comfortable in the world for a very long time. But it was nice to sense our less-traveled fellow citizens opening up a bit. But the pendulum analogy holds true and, unfortunately, the thing seems to be swinging wildly again at the moment.  Goggles on.

There’s a line in your post about how the events of September 11 factored into your trip: “And what’s home all about now anyway?” – and later on: “Unable to return home (that word again)…” What does “home” mean now that you’ve been mobile for ten years?
People ask us all the time: “Where are you from?” (ie, where is “home”?). We always say: “We’re from our truck,” since that’s the closest thing to a physical home that we have. But that often puzzles people and leads to awkward questions about whether we sleep in the truck. If we want to address the more esoteric question of “home,” we say that we live in the world. Most people seem to get that, which makes us happy. We do have family and friends back in the US, which constitutes a more traditional kind of home. But the Trans-Americas Journey is not a vacation or even a trip. It’s our odd lifestyle. So it’s healthiest to think as if we’ve moved away from our home in the US to a different home – as an expat would. Only our physical home keeps moving.

Has there been any downside to choosing such an extremely mobile lifestyle?
People often say they wish they could do what we’re doing. We know that’s a lie. If they really wanted to do what we’re doing they would be busy making the necessary sacrifices. For example, we will probably never own a home or any other major asset/investment. And it’s not really a joke when we say that our retirement will probably be sustained by creating a roaming vaudeville act that goes from nursing home to nursing home where we earn a few nights of accommodation and food by regaling residents with travel stories using one of those slide show carousels and an old cane as a pointer. That’s fine with us because what we’ve gained is worth what we’ve given up. But very few others would honestly feel the same way.

Is it difficult to maintain close relationships with friends and family?
It is a challenge to maintain close relationships with friends and family. We miss a lot of milestones (weddings, new babies, etc.). For example, Karen’s sister just moved into an awesome new apartment and we would have loved to have been there to help. However, we always have space in the truck for friends and family, and we return to the US periodically to see everyone in person. Somehow we are still able to connect and catch up with folks even though their lives and our lives no longer have much in common. We also make terrific friends while traveling, both among other travelers from around the world and among locals.

What do you miss about living in the United States – or do you miss it at all?
Our most diplomatic response, right now, is that we are grateful to be on the outside looking in.

Are there any specific places you’ve visited that you’d consider living in for a longer stint?
Karen was (and, frankly still is) tempted by the charro culture in Lagos de Moreno in the central highlands of Mexico after a local horse whisperer opened up the possibility of working with him. It was so early in the journey, however, that putting down roots at that point didn’t make sense. But on the way back up, if the offer still stands, who knows…

Eric has a chronic case of itchy feet and is not interested in a cure.

You’re in Chile now, the 16th of the 23 total countries you planned to visit – at that rate, you’ll need another five years to get to Tierra del Fuego! I won’t ask you how long you think it will really take, but I will ask: Will it really be the end of the Trans-Americas Journey when you finally do arrive in Tierra del Fuego?
Well, when we reach Tierra del Fuego the plan is to head back up the eastern side of South America. So Tierra del Fuego is not the end, just the furthest south we can go because the road literally ends there. And who knows where the “end” will be. Could be back in the US or, perhaps, we’ll end up settling in Latin America – at least until the next trip calls.

On that note – why will you get back in the truck tomorrow…or the next day…or the next day? Do you really want to continue?
Here’s an example: After our truck was done at the Chevy dealership here in Antofagasta, we climbed back in and visited the nearby Paranal Observatory and its very large array of telescopes, then we drove back to San Pedro de Atacama to celebrate our ten-year anniversary (and report for a story) from the just re-opened explora Atacama lodge. After that, we’ve got to head north through Chile to the border with Peru. We spent six months in Peru in 2016, but that’s not nearly enough (we average 12 -18 months in each country we visit). However, Peruvian visa regulations meant we had to leave the country for six months before we were allowed to enter again. So, in April we can re-enter Peru for an additional six months in the country. Then it’s time for Bolivia. Then back into Chile and Argentina.

So, yeah, we really want to continue.

To follow along with Karen and Eric’s continued overland exploits, visit their website, Twitter, or Facebook page. All photos by Eric Mohl.

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