This Former Prison Transport Van Is Now a Roaming Couple’s ‘Freedom Van’

When I finally connect with vanlifers Abigail and Natalie Rodriguez after a month of email exchanges and missed calls, they’re posted up near Todos Santos on the Baja Peninsula. After learning that their rig is stuck in wet sand thanks to a downpour the night before, I almost joke that this is the only reason I finally pinned them down. “We spent this past New Year’s Eve stuck in some sand, so we’re no strangers to it,” says Abigail with a laugh. “We’ll get out at some point—you just gotta go with the flow.”

The married couple has been doing exactly that for the past year (early February marked their “Vanniversary”), cruising North America with a pair of pups in their funky blue home on wheels, Towanda, a repurposed prisoner transport vehicle. Prior to their new life on wheels, the Rodriguezes had been living in Charleston, South Carolina, where photographer Abigail had a studio and taught pole dance fitness classes on the side, and Natalie plied her craft as a professional chef. When the debilitating hustle of Natalie’s 70-hour workweeks became too much, the two decided to take a year away from the grind. Once they’d socked away enough cash and outfitted Towanda, the Rodriguezes got married, with their wedding serving as the ultimate going away party.

I’ve learned that waiting for something is not always a bad thing.

The last year has been revelatory for the couple. Without the constraints of working from the road, they’ve been able to not only be fully present with one another and the world around them, but they’ve also learned how to tease out what’s most important to them. “I don’t think we could ever go back and live to work,” says Abigail. “It’s hard to put into words, really, how much our perspective has changed on what makes life a success.”

When Abigail was hired to photograph a wedding in Charleston last fall, she landed some additional gigs during her visit, padding their nest egg enough to allow them a bonus six months work-free on wheels. Not that they plan to ditch the lifestyle anytime soon; they’re both mulling over the possibilities for taking their careers mobile. Abigail hopes to find more opportunities to train her lens outside of Charleston and Natalie dreams of paying homage to her Puerto Rican roots as a personal chef.

Until then, the Rodriguezes have found meaning in contributing to community with Van Life Pride, a social media platform they launched four months ago. Partially inspired by the existing #DiversifyVanlife movement, they hope to help fellow LGBTQ+ travelers not only connect with one another, but also see themselves represented in the vanlife movement. “We kind of felt it was our duty, a calling for us to do it, especially being a married, female, interracial couple,” says Natalie. “It was unreal just how much feedback we got from people, like—Thank you. It’s been one of the biggest blessings on the road.”

Year, make, and model?
2004 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter Van

Does the vehicle have a name?
Abigail: Towanda. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the movie Fried Green Tomatoes? That is one of Natalie’s favorite movies. The main character brings this circle of women together; their slogan for when they want to pump themselves up and feel empowered is: “Towanda!” Like, “We can do it!” 

Years owned?

How did you get it?
Abigail: She’s got quite a history—she used to be a prisoner transport vehicle. We found her at a towing company in Charleston, Turky’s Towing, that had a couple of vans listed on Craigslist. We weren’t stuck on a Sprinter; we were looking at little mini school buses or small vans, like minivans. We were actually at Turky’s looking at a different van and [a salesperson] brought up this van, but we weren’t even looking at it because it was out of our budget. But it turns out this guy had done some work on it for somebody else and then they backed out, and it had been sitting around; he just wanted it gone and off of his hands. So, we ended up after about a week or two striking a deal that was in our price range.

So, did he tell you about Towanda’s history right away?
Abigail: Yeah. It was a little bit obvious because there were three seats and then a lockbox in the back where they kept tools out of the prisoners’ reach. Since it was such an old vehicle and had almost 200,000 miles on it, what really sold us was that they had dropped a brand new engine in and only ran 40,000 miles on it. It was kind of a serendipitous thing that happened. We really loved that we could give Towanda a whole new lease on life, you know, taking her from a prisoner transport vehicle to our personal freedom vehicle.

How did you modify Towanda?
Abigail: I think we spent three months just gutting it—all the seats, all the flooring, everything—and there was still just layers of grime and dust and illegal paraphernalia the prisoners had, like cigarettes and little toothpicks. And there were certain things etched into like crevices, like “crack a lack” and “kill a bill.” Those little things are still here, a little mark of her past.

We spent a whole year doing the build because we were working full-time, so it was a long process. Neither one of us had any building experience, so that meant everything took longer because we also had to learn how to do it. Luckily, we had help from a friend we met quite serendipitously just before we got the van. There were definitely days where we just looked at each other in frustration—you know, trying to fit things or learning electrical and plumbing—and we’re like, What did we get ourselves into?

Natalie: I’ve moved around a lot and of all the apartments and places that I’ve stayed, I can definitely say that Towanda is the nicest. Everything we put in here was new. Our countertop is a really nice piece of oak that’s live edge. I made that very, very long because I wanted to have that prep space. The stovetop is not permanent because if I’m making dough or something, I need to have all that space. We made sure we had enough solar just so that I can run the Vitamix. I think the one thing that I wish I had was an oven; we didn’t go with one because we didn’t want to have propane in the van. Our stove runs off of denatured alcohol, so it’s a clean-burning fuel. My big thing is pizza, so I do cast iron pizzas now. I think it’s kind of cool, because then I have to challenge myself more on a lot of things that I want to cook. It just makes the process more creative.

Abigail: We also didn’t want to have to set up a bed every night—we wanted a bed that was always ready to jump into without having to give up a couch. To make it feel like a home, we wanted a nice kitchen, a couch, and a bed always ready. The whole reason we went with doing it ourselves is that we wanted it to feel more like a tiny home and not so much like an RV; they’re great, but we wanted it to be more personal.

Natalie: You’re always meeting somebody new. My approach normally would be to be shut off; I was pretty reserved. But then you meet these people from all over the world out on the road, people you maybe wouldn’t normally approach, because everybody is doing the same kind of thing. It just keeps opening you up as a person.

Abigail: It’s amazing. We’re so open to just what needs to happen or what could happen.

Natalie: You’re not planning life anymore, per se—life is just happening and you’re going with the flow as opposed to kind of being on this schedule. That’s been a gift.

Natalie: We are stuck at camp right now because it rained all night, so we’re in the mud. But the opposite of that—the pro—is that we’re looking at the ocean. There are plenty of people to get us out if it doesn’t dry up. I’m constantly reminding myself that it’s okay. I’ve learned patience. I’ve learned that waiting for something is not always a bad thing. The pros definitely outweigh the cons.

What are the biggest things you’ve learned or taken away from the last year on the road?
Abigail: In this day, we spend so much time looking at a screen. We’ve been so many places where we don’t have a cell signal and it’s so much more rewarding than we thought it would be. Those times are when we can really sink in and be present. There’s no distraction. When you’re out in nature and not working nine-to-five and concerned with the things you have, you have other things presented to you that are really important—like picking up on all the beauty that is in nature and out in the world.

Natalie: I think it takes time for somebody to really go through the layers of themselves and figure out what it is that maybe was holding them back, what they’re fearful of, what they aspire to—all the things that in a normal atmosphere, you don’t have the time to figure out about yourself. So when people travel and say, “I’m trying to find myself,” people may not take that seriously, but in a sense that is what you’re doing. I mean, it’s not like I ever lost myself, but I didn’t know who I was. So, I just feel more at ease with who I am. I feel good about every decision that I make from here, because I know it comes from a good place. I just feel more rounded as a person. I feel like I belong in my skin. It’s been probably the best year of my life.


All photos courtesy Abigail and Natalie Rodriguez





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