Vernan Kee is a busy guy. When I finally catch up with him after a bit of back and forth, he’s already chopped, by his count, a million pieces of wood and had started fashioning a weatherproof rooster coop from repurposed pallets. These are just a few of the tasks he hoped to complete before winter’s fury hit Sanostee, New Mexico, a small town settled in the shadow of the Chuska Mountains on the Navajo Nation, located about a half hour south of its more storied neighbor, Shiprock.
His punch list is endless, but Kee, a Marine Corps veteran and graphic designer, doesn’t mind the work. He’s been here for the past two months with his girlfriend Chantal Wadsworth, helping her family—especially grandma—with odds and ends. Camped out with their three dogs (Bruce, Harley, and Koba) in a 2018 Ford Transit, the couple has become quite the spectacle around Sanostee. “When you’re in a small town like this, everybody knows everything,” says Kee. He tells me that Chantal’s grandmother started receiving calls from people who saw the van parked outside her home, asking if they could catch a ride from the “ambulance” when it left. “‘Vanlife’ hasn’t hit the reservation,” he laughs.
Kee and Wadsworth are both Navajo, and they both grew up within Dinétah, the Navajo homeland. Wadsworth was raised in Sanostee, and Kee grew up just over the mountains in Arizona, living with his grandmother between semesters at boarding school. After a long stint in San Diego, where they settled after Kee left the Marines, the two grew tired of city life and longed to reconnect with their homelands, their people, and their culture.
They launched an Instagram account, RezRoads, in August, with the intention of documenting cultural knowledge, historical facts, and personal reflections from their experiences traveling through the greater Four Corners area. “We’ve been all over the reservation, going to all these random places we’ve never seen before,” says Kee. “Our dogs are loving it, because I keep them off-leash now. Out here on the reservation, they’re free.”
For the most part, Kee takes the photos and Wadsworth, who works remotely for a precision parts company back in San Diego, handles the writing and social interactions. For Kee, who dreams of one day guiding on his homelands, the hope is that people not only enjoy the visuals, but also understand the deeper message. “These lands are sacred to us Native Americans, so when you come out to the Navajo Reservation, just be respectful,” he says. “There’s history behind these places. When you read these posts or see these images, there’s stories to them, too.”
Year, make, and model?
2018 Ford Transit
Does the vehicle have a name?
I was digging Van Halen for a bit, and then [laughs]—no, I’m not going for that. My dog’s getting pretty old now, and I like calling him Big Bruce. I wanted to keep my dog’s name with me somehow. There’ll be many ways he’ll be remembered, but I wanted my van to be [called] something that I’ll think of all the time. So right now, the van’s name is Big Bruce.
How did you get it?
We were living in San Diego for about 8 or 9 years. When I got out of the military, I just stayed in California. I was kind of still running from my problems, and I didn’t want to come back. My problems were just growing and growing and growing and I was tired of that life, that me. So, I would go out every weekend—an hour out of San Diego is the Cleveland National Forest. I kept feeling great after every weekend, but when I would come back to the city, I would just go back into that mood.
One day, I just had enough. I was about to snap. I was like, we gotta get out of here; I’m tired of this city life, and I’m not getting any better. And I just had this experience with the Sierra Club, going down to Big Bend National Park, where I was involved with ten outdoor industry professionals and ten veterans. The whole concept of the trip was to get veterans in the outdoor industry. I was nominated to go from Native Outdoors’ Len Necefer. I had this amazing life-changing experience on the river and being in that canyon, and I decided that this is what I want to do. I want to be outdoors, I want to live this experience every day.
I came back to the city. The dealership called the next day, I believe it was, and said Hey, your lease is almost up on your car, would you like to turn it in early to get another car? And I go, No, no—I don’t want to lease again. Could I actually get a van? We drove it around San Diego for a month, and finally, our lease was up, as well. We decided, let’s just live in the van and see how it is.
How did you modify it?
Before I left [San Diego], I had some guy build me walls and put in a fan. I thought we were going to be there until December, so I just figured I would wait on the insulation. We were sleeping on cots for a while until we came back here to New Mexico and I started making a little bit more money again. I’m not paying $1,800 in rent anymore, so I was in budget to buy some lumber. I took carpentry in college and high school, and I’m pretty good with building something out of thin air, so I built a bed, some drawers, and some space underneath. I plan to redo the whole thing next year and get it insulated.
Two weeks ago, I bought $50 worth of lumber and added to it, and also got a Goal Zero [Yeti 400 Portable Power Station] and a solar panel. For water, it’s a little pump, like the kind you see at Walmart, where you push down and the water comes out. We got a RTIC cooler, and for heat, we have one of those little propane heater things. And three dogs—that’s our heater! They keep us nice and toasty.
Why did you decide to travel back home to the Navajo Nation?
I went through a bad phase of drugs and alcohol and running away from my problems, especially running away from my culture and my heritage. I forgot a lot of my language. I grew up just speaking Navajo; I didn’t grow up speaking English. It’s very heartbreaking a lot of the times when I can’t speak to my elders. I wanted to reconnect with my roots and come back, and Chantal had the same feeling. She wants to relearn her culture again, so that’s what we’ve been doing, and it’s been great so far
I realize I was running from the wrong things and now I found the path that I’m supposed to follow. Chantal is the same way; she’s been going through some things, too, and finally found her happiness in this lifestyle. It doesn’t even feel like “vanlife,” either, just because we grew up that way—no electricity, no running water. We grew up on the Navajo reservation, where her grandmother finally got electricity and running water, I don’t know, a few years ago. Living in the outdoors—it wasn’t the “outdoors,” it was our playground, and for miles, I knew where to go, I knew what was what. So I don’t see it as “vanlife;” it’s just the lifestyle I guess I was meant to be living.
Is there any place you’ve visited so far that’s really left an impression?
Oh yeah, definitely. When I came back, I had this vision of hiking our Four Sacred Mountains and having that as my re-entry into the Navajo Nation. I don’t know why I thought that, but I felt like it was something that I needed to do. So I took on Blanca Peak in Southern Colorado and that was probably one of the best experiences that I’ve had.
It just kind of came about to have it filmed and hopefully spread the awareness of what I had envisioned, to tell a story, but it all fell apart. But the experience I had that day on that mountain was something I’ll think about for a long time, just because I was able to do it with five of my Native American brothers. We’re all Navajo, and we went up there, we said our prayers, we said our offerings to the mountain. Just being up there with them was something I think about often, actually, and it just reminds me again why I’m doing this and who I’m doing it for.
What is the most meaningful experience you’ve had so far in the van?
I have not missed a sunrise or a sunset. I’m an early bird already thanks to the military, and being up with the sun is one of those cultural things I’m getting back to. Running, too—running is a big thing with Navajo culture. We’re supposed to be running with the sun in the morning, and I’ve been practicing that since I’ve been on this healing path. It’s been amazing waking up with the sun every morning and seeing it set every day. It’s really hard to explain the feeling, but you just feel recharged for the next day. You’re not stuck in an apartment, you’re not in a box anymore. You found this path that you’re meant to be walking, and you’re not lost anymore. It feels great.