Sunny Eaton and Karin Balsley own one of the coolest and most capable Land Cruisers you’ll ever see. They’ve built it up themselves to, well, cruise the land. Just like Toyota intended. They live, sort of, in Nashville, Tennessee, but decided a couple years ago to sell their house, leave their successful white collar jobs, and travel the world by truck. They took off and rumbled down the Pan-American Highway, soaking up experiences, learning all they could about offroad vehicle maintenance while having one hell of a time. You can follow their adventures on their website Vagabroads. We recently chatted with Sunny, drooling over their fantastic off-road rig the whole time.
Year, Make, Model?
1997 Toyota Landcruiser FZJ80
Does the vehicle have a name?
El Tejón (“The Badger”).
How did you get it?
We searched high and low for the perfect vehicle—though we had no idea what that actually meant at the time. We flew to Orlando to pick it up and drove it back to Nashville. She was born in Colorado and previously owned by a family who had planned a long-term overland adventure but had life happenings that forced them to choose a different course.
How have you modified El Tejón?
Most of our modifications have addressed the big four needs: keeping the car cool, keeping the car safe and our belongings secure, having enough storage, and having enough power. The Badger actually overheated on the drive back to Nashville from Orlando after we bought her. We almost turned around to give her back but Karin, as usual, had some ideas about how to fix the issue.
For the cooling, we added a snorkel, as much for the added airflow to the engine as the potential water crossings in Central America. Karin also did a blue fan clutch modification and wrapped the headers because they were putting off a lot of heat. Since the trip, we had the headers ceramic coated and wrapped them again. For added power and reliability, we bolted a custom exhaust to the headers and had the top end of the engine rebuilt in Colorado.
The cruiser has an OME 2.5″ lift and 33” tires. We have a Baja roof rack and IPF lights on the rack and bumper, front and rear. Of course, it has the ARB front bumper with a 10,000-lb winch and the Slee rear bumper with attachments for a spare tire, gas and water cans, and propane tank attachments. We also added a VIIAR air compressor and an additional tank underneath the car in the space where the spare tire was. I would highly recommend taking a good air compressor/tank for these kinds of trips.
We have an ARB refrigerator and an IBS dual-battery management system with an Overland Solar 120 watt bugout kit. One of the most useful mods was adding a custom swing-out countertop to the rear door that doubled our counter space.
You do all that work yourselves?
As much as possible. I’d say it’s about a 50/50 split of us doing the work versus the pros.
How many states/countries has your rig visited?
11 countries and 21 states.
What are some of the craziest or most complicated off-road repairs you’ve had to make?
Haha. Well, in Guatemala while driving through mountains from Antigua to Guatemala City the brakes completely went out (fun) on a very steep road. The bolts that held the y-pipe to the headers came undone, which made a gap right beside the brake line and it melted the line so we lost all the brake fluid. We were miraculously able to throw the car into neutral and get to a shop that took a random piece of scrap metal and tied it with a coat hanger to the y-pipe so it blocked the airflow from the gap between the two pipes. This quick fix was dangerous but allowed us to get back to Antigua and we got a new brake line and the exhaust fixed the next day.
Did you make any special security mods for international travel?
For safety, we had removable custom steel mesh window screens made for all the windows and put v-cool window film on all the windows and windshield. This also blocked more UV than the regular tint, which helped keep the inside cool. We added a large, steel, locking metal box where the backseats were and a Tuffy security box for the center console. We have a Viper alarm system and added a hidden kill switch. Added a custom cargo barrier too with shelves in the back that attach to the ARB drawer system.
We also got external locks made in Mexico so when we put it in a shipping container we can lock it both inside and out. It was nice to have that extra security when we parked in cities too. The external locks blocked the keyhole so no one could punch out the locks, which is one of the most common ways cars are broken into. And last we spot-welded everything external that could be removed by a turn of the bolts. That was more to make sure things didn’t rattle off on the bumpy roads as opposed to a security concern. (Here is a link with pics to most of these mods).
Any negative cultural issues to deal with being two women traveling in Central America?
There weren’t really any negative issues, just curiosity, surprise, and occasionally concern. There was only one country that was an issue for us—Belize. I’m not big on judging an entire country for the actions of just a few people and Belize was gorgeous and I’m glad we went. But with that said, Belize was the only place where, as two women, we didn’t feel entirely safe. Our first night camping on the Caribbean side of Belize a man tried to climb up our tent and the very next morning another came beside the tent and started to masturbate. The rest of my experience there was very much biased by the events of our first night. Also, as a lesbian couple, Belize made us nervous because it was the only Central American country that still has anti-gay laws on the books. In fact, the same day we left Belize their supreme court struck down those laws. I should also note that as far as safety, the more inland we went in Belize, the safer we felt.
At home, I live my life honestly and openly. I would say that on the road, we lived honestly but not as openly. We generally didn’t make any active effort to hide who we are or our relationship with each other but at the same time, safety comes first. Full stop.
What about in rural America? Prejudices or issues while overlanding here at home?
You know, the US is the US and it always will be. But we are from the South and we are no strangers to ignorance and prejudice. Despite our many encounters with that ignorance, I’d still say people are generally pretty open-minded, even more open-minded than they realize themselves. And even people that “don’t approve” tend to err on the side of politeness. But here is the thing about our travels and way of life: Our relationship isn’t the focus. It’s generally the last thing I think people we meet on the road consider or are concerned with. They want to know about where we have been, about the car, why we decided to do this crazy thing, if we felt safe, and what we are doing next. People almost always ask us if we took a gun (we didn’t).
In total, we traveled through the US from Nashville to California to Mexico where we traveled for six months, then Belize for six weeks, Guatemala for five months, El Salvador for eight weeks, Honduras for three days, Nicaragua for two-and-a-half weeks, Costa Rica three months, Panama, two weeks, and then we turned around and did it all again. Then we did a small part of Canada and more of the US until we got home to Nashville. During that time, we published a book about women overlanders called, I Can. I Will: Women Overlanding the World.
At this very moment, we’re back in Costa Rica, scouting our next adventure, which is building a company called “Women Overlanding the World” where we, along with Taylor Pawley and Ashley Giordano (of Desk to Glory) are going to lead 10-day overland retreats for women. We have partnered with a company for fully equipped adventure rigs, we will be exploring the country, camping, staying in other unique places, and giving a taste of our journey to women that might want to try this out without selling everything or uprooting their lives. We want to show women that they are capable of so much more than they realize and that the world isn’t nearly as scary as the media portrays. We want to show them that overlanding is about the journey itself, not the destination.
Follow Sunny and Karin’s adventures on their website and their Instagram page.