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westfalia

If there ever was a vanlife Romeo and Juliet story (albeit one with a happy ending), it would be that of Shruthi and Peter Lapp—well, and Blitzkrieg, their 1987 Westy.

The couple first became lovestruck as starry-eyed teenagers on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast. In 2006, when Shruthi’s family moved to Chicago, the two were determined to nurture their cosmic connection from afar. Blitz, a leap of faith internet purchase, became their lifeline as Peter, who took a job in Nashville, shuttled the vintage rig back and forth across the Midwest. It also served as a de facto home base long before they considered living from their Westy, since Shruthi’s parents weren’t exactly rolling out the welcome mat for Peter at their place. (Don’t worry—they’ve come around.)

Shruthi moved to Nashville in 2011, Peter proposed shortly thereafter, and the two were married in 2012. Freed from clandestine meet-up duty, Blitz became their trusted adventure buddy. Peter had long harbored dreams of taking the van on long trips, and they tested the waters with a two-week jaunt to Colorado. Shruthi, who admits that she was “not an outside person” before this experience and who packed high heels for the trip, was blown away by the Rockies—and by the experience of living on the road, in tune with nature.

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Back in Nashville, Peter was cruising around in Blitz one day when a guy cut him off and began yelling excitedly (and in a French accent) about vans. That chance encounter led to a lasting friendship with Greg (the French guy) and Katie of Crêpe Attack, and an invite to join the overlanders in Argentina for a few weeks. Peter and Shruthi were so smitten by the experience that during their flight home, they made a pact to return to South America with Blitz.

The couple went full-time in Blitz in 2016, then made good on their promise to one another with a trip along the Pan-American Highway the year after. They returned Stateside in January, and are now decamped at Shruthi’s parents’ home in Chicago, attending to Blitz’s wonky transmission before heading off Mexico to continue the journey.

Along the way, Peter and Shruthi have documented their adventures on Instagram and their website, Holiday at See, named for a C.S. Lewis line about not settling for what’s in front of you, but instead being open to what might lay ahead.

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Year, make, and model?
1987 Volkswagen Vanagon GL Westfalia

Does the vehicle have a name?
The Blitzkrieg (or “Blitz”)

Years owned?
13

How did you get it?
Peter bought a van sight unseen on eBay, which is insane; we would never do that now, knowing what we know about that van and Westies, in general. It came from Nebraska, which was also another risk because there’s a lot of snow there and salt and the potential for rust. He bought the van, basically, because it reminded him of the Mystery Machine—he loved Scooby-Doo as a kid. He thought it was the coolest thing. It was the very first car that he bought for himself. I remember him telling me how he showed it to his dad and his dad was like, “Are you sure you don’t want to just get, like, a Honda Element or something?”

He was living in southern Mississippi at the time; that’s where we both grew up. I had moved to Chicago earlier that year with my family, and he planned on moving to Nashville later on that summer. He bought it and then drove it up to Chicago a little bit after I moved there. At the time my parents were not okay with us being together, so it’s not like he could just come up and stay with us, you know? So, in his mind it was like, okay, it’s the perfect thing. It’s really cool, and I can take it to go visit Shruthi and have a place to stay.

How did you modify it?
For our first time out that first year, the plan was to just drive around the States for eight months-ish, and then we were actually planning to go overseas and backpack in Germany for three months. We were initially planning on [traveling] just a year or so, so we didn’t really do too much; Peter swapped out the engine, I believe. Luckily, we got one that was in really good condition. We kind of moved into the van as-is; we didn’t have to do like a build-out or anything, just little tiny things. It was more like getting ourselves ready that was more work.

Did you have to modify Blitz at all for your Pan-American Highway trip?
There were a lot of upgrades. We put in a Peloquin torque bias in the differential because we don’t have four-wheel drive; we figured that would be a good little helper for the kind of roads and terrain that we were going to be driving. Then we got a lift, we got brand new shocks, a new bumper, a tire carrier to have a spot for our jerry cans for extra gas, and a storage box with a solar panel on top. We didn’t really do too much to the inside of the van, either. Peter put in some new LED lighting, but that’s pretty much it. This time it was really getting ready to be self-sufficient, making sure we had everything, because it’s not like we could just take the van to a shop down there or order all this stuff on Amazon.

What were some of the highlights of your trip along the Pan-American Highway?
The main thing that sticks out in my head is the people that we met, other travelers and locals. It was a completely different kind of trip. Neither of us were Spanish-speakers when we started, so there were a lot of funny, awkward interactions. One time in Peru, I was trying to tell a man that I was sick, but instead of that, I accidentally told him that I had charcuterie because the words are really similar. Now that I think back on it, I’m like—How did we even do that?

The nature—oh my gosh, just the beauty of all kinds of landscapes, all kinds of wildlife. And being in Peru around Christmas. We were hanging out on the beach and then you’d hear Christmas music and there are Christmas decorations out. And location-wise, Patagonia was incredible. It was beyond what I imagined. I could not have asked for a better experience there. We wanted to hike around as much as we could, so we did El Chaltén, which is where Fitz Roy is. We did the glacier in El Calafate and then we did Torres del Paine. We did all the big stuff, but then all this stuff in between, too, because we were driving, which was really special. We went straight down through Patagonia and all the way to the end of the continent in the Tierra del Fuego, and then started back up.


Did you have any wild adventures or mishaps out there?

We shipped our van from Miami, Florida to Cartagena, Colombia, and flew down there to pick it up. After that, we were like—we just want to get the hell out of Cartagena because it was July and it was so hot. We found this sweet spot on the beach and were just walking around, taking it in, when these people show up. They’re like, “Hey, what are you guys doing here?” And then the cops show up. They were like, “Hey, you can’t camp here.” I think it was technically national park territory, but they also were like, “It’s not safe. There isn’t service here.” We did our best to explain in our really broken Spanish that we live in our van and we were just looking for a place to park. The cops were like, “Well, there’s this other spot”—and it was basically this big gravel lot on the side of the main highway, near a toll booth. There was a marsh on the other side, so it was mosquito city and so hot we couldn’t open any of the doors or windows. It was just miserable.

So, it gets dark and we’re settling in, and then we start seeing these flashlights coming towards us. We’re already on edge cause it’s our first night out in Colombia and we made the mistake of watching Narcos the summer before. We hear a knock on the window and we’re like, Oh God, this is not happening. And Peter just gets up and opens the door. It was this little stout Colombian man, yelling excitedly. We found out that they were crab fishermen with their catch for the day in their truck, and their battery had died; they were wondering if we could jump them. It ended up being fine—they were really nice and nothing happened—but it was, like, the exact thing that we did not want that happened.

What do you carry with you from that trip?
Definitely Spanish, because I fell in love with the language. Then, the friendships that we formed. We met people from all over the world who feel like family now. It’s just a different kind of bonding down there, because you’re all so far from home. Everyone is so open and receptive; if you hit it off, it’s like, “Why don’t we just travel together?” or “We’re nervous about doing this route; do you want to do it together?” or “Do you want to do this border crossing together?” We experienced that in the States, too, when we were driving around, but seeing that extended so far from home is like—wow. I mean, yes, the world is big, but it’s also really small and those kinds of bonds can happen everywhere.

So, you went from being “not an outside person” to someone who now lives in a van, travels the world, and spends most of her time outdoors—how did that happen?
The whole like not being an “outdoors” person, I think, was culturally ingrained in me. I was born in South India; my family came to the States in 1995, so I’m first generation. Obviously it varies depending on your family, your culture, where you are geographically, but my family is generally pretty traditional when it comes to gender roles, so women going outside is not a thing. It was very traditional—what you do is go to college and study, get a great job, start a family, buy a house, all that stuff. That’s kind of the parameters I was given—not in a malicious way; that’s just the culture. So, I didn’t really think being outside was anything I enjoyed, just because I was always told, “Don’t go outside. The sun is bad for you, dark skin is bad.” I didn’t really think that was an option for me.

I really enjoyed those two weeks in Colorado, because that was the first time I’d ever camped. And it wasn’t even tent camping—it was just being outside, sleeping outside, and hiking. It was something that I had never really done, and I enjoyed it. Now, it’s like my favorite thing in the whole world. Whenever I don’t see the sunset for a few days, I get really bummed out. Now I know it’s something I need, because it just makes me feel good. It’s that feeling of doing something that you didn’t think you could do, doing it, and then feeling empowered, feeling accomplished. I just have a lot of respect for my body. Before, I was kind of just like, Oh, I’m not athletic, I’m not outdoors-y, I’m not strong in that way. But I’ve learned that I am and I think it’s what being outside shows me about myself. I’m really thankful that I’ve had the time and the experience to figure that out about myself, you know?

So, what are some of the cons of living in a Westy?
I miss having a full kitchen and an oven, and just the conveniences of what we had when we were living in Nashville in a single-family house. Not having the space to just sprawl out and have a place for all your things, because we’re constantly packing up and unpacking and packing up and unpacking. Another one of the really tricky things is, you can’t just go off and do something on your own. We always have to coordinate and work around each other, because we just have one vehicle. It can get a little frustrating to not be able to just go do what you need to, or even just reach for something in the van without having to have them move.

And how about the pros?
Obviously, getting to do something different every day. You’re always somewhere new, you’re always somewhere exciting—well, when you’re not having transmission issues. You get to meet up with friends. If the weather’s bad, you can leave and chase good weather. Just the freedom it brings is a major pro. You can do it your own way, however you want, at your own pace, and in whatever vehicle you want, because everyone does it so differently.

I guess this could also be a con, in a way, but I like using fewer resources. We have to be so careful with water, how much energy we’re using, trash, and all that stuff. I like that it makes you more aware of those things. You learn how little you actually need to live well and be happy. You just learn how simple it can really be. You learn to be grateful for the really small things.

 

All photos courtesy Shruthi and Peter Lapp / Holiday at See