Meet Jessica and Robbie Lefroy also known as “Here Today Vanagon Tomorrow”. A few months ago they returned from nine months on the road in their Westfalia. They shipped their camper from Canada to England and spend eight months exploring. From there they came back to North America for another month of traveling. Oh, and they did it all with their 4.5 year old girl, Henley.
We had been following Jessica and Robbie’s adventure on Instagram. As serendipity would have it, Jessica reached out to us and are honoured to be able to share their story with you.
We hope this inspires you to find your adventure. It’s out there.
Before you decided to completely change your life. What did you and your husband do for a living?
My husband, Robbie, is a carpenter and sacrificed a lot of time away from his family to work towards our goal. I was able to stay home with Henley and continue my work as a freelance equestrian journalist.
Why did you purchase a van?
We had a depressingly fleeting relationship with a ’78 Baywindow (a misguided and nostalgia-fuelled purchase that I take complete responsibility for), but it was all I needed to spiral into the madness that owning a VW van seems to inspire. We were happy in our lives, but also couldn’t shake the feeling that we had settled into the grind a little bit too comfortably. We started to question whether or not we had to live conventionally or work towards traditional pursuits or markers of success. We would read stories of people who had made radical changes in pursuit of what could be perceived as wildly unconventional lifestyle choices, and decided that the only difference between “them” and “us” was that they had just made it happen. So, we decided to make it happen.
Step one was to get the forever van, and the following three years were a progression of small steps in curtailing our spending habits and consumer patterns. I don’t want to over-simplify, but once we decided that we wanted to do it, everything fell into place because we were willing to do what it took to make it happen.
In the time leading up to the Big Trip we fell in love with van life and became total weekend warriors. We went out on longer trips as often as possible, even if was just to disappear up the forestry roads in our backyard. We spent Christmas on the Oregon coast one year, and just explored the glorious offerings of the Pacific Northwest while we got to know the vehicle and what it was capable of (the answer is everything).
We wanted to slow down, but also we felt like adventure was out there waiting for us.
You have a little one. Traveling with children isn’t the easiest thing. And yet, you packed up everything, rented a storage locker and shipped your Westfalia to Europe. Why?
Kids grow up. They grow up too quickly. In the blink of an eye, your precious baby is going to school and then moving out of the house. I wanted time to stop. I wanted to enjoy my little girl without distraction, which is a luxury not afforded to many in the routine of life. We wanted to cuddle in bed and read stories and explore the world together as a family.
As does any four-year-old, Henley possesses an amazing sense of curiosity, enviable comedic timing and ability to observe the world around her with the delightful insights of a young mind. It was just so much fun to spend the time exploring with her. She proudly told people we met on the road that she lived in a van and sported ‘The Adventure Hat’ at all times. We frequently met up with other travellers with children, which was when we allowed the kids to run wild into the night while we sat around laughing and sharing stories of life on the road. We did it all, because we had the luxury of flexibility in the makeup of our day. If we wanted to keep Henley up to see the sparkling lights on the Eiffel Tower at midnight, we would just spent the morning lounging in bed the next day. If we wanted listen to traditional pub music in Ireland and it was no problem, because kids are allowed in pubs.
We did it all, and it was made all the more enjoyable because we did it with our little girl.
How long did it take you to plan? Any advise or suggestions when it comes to planning an extended trip?
There really wasn’t that much planning. There was lots and lots of waiting; one step forward, two steps back; chipping away and playing the long game. There was so much time to mentally prepare and get excited that at times the waiting game was excruciating. We had to constantly remind ourselves to enjoy the present moments and not just look forward to the journey ahead.
We relied on the advice of locals and travellers once we got on the road, and didn’t really do much planning when it came to specific towns to visit or things to see. We got lost on the backroads of Europe, found the villages and towns that the guidebooks miss, and lived in the Europe that you would never see en route from the airport to a travel blogger’s cultivated top ten list. I feel like this willingness to be a bit unstructured (which doesn’t come naturally to me!) opened us up to a super authentic experience.
How old was your daughter when you made the decision to plan? How old was she when you left?
Henley would have been about 2.5 when we started the process in earnest. We hit the road when she was 4.5, and she turned five just outside of Badminton, England. We were fortunate enough to find an amazing nature reserve to wild camp for the night, and we were befriended by the forest ranger who allowed us to grab fresh goose eggs and chicken eggs for her birthday breakfast. ‘The Big Trip’ had featured prominently in our conversations for years, so when it happened it was a natural progression for her. Because we spent so much time in the van before the trip, and because it was something that she loved, it wasn’t a crazy leap but more just a big adventure.
How long did you save and pinch pennies for? Any cost saving tips or tricks you learned along the way?
It took us the better part of three years to save up enough money to pay off our debt and be able to afford to take a year off work. A lot of the families that were on our radar who overlanded or lived on the road full-time had decided to sell their house to fund their travels. We weren’t quite ready to cut the cord and decided to hunker down and save money the old fashioned way. It is interesting now to look forward and re-evaluate our decision to keep the house. It is nice to have that comfort of being able to come to our ‘home’ whenever we want to if circumstances on the road would necessitate an end to our wandering ways.
Our decision to travel hugely influenced our spending habits. We stopped shopping, cancelled our cable, brewed our own beer, rarely went out for food and said “no” to more social gatherings than I care to recall. There were periods where we definitely felt that we’d become slight hermits or social outcasts because we often declined invitations knowing that basically just leaving the house would set us back a day in Europe. We started to quantify everything: if I buy this (first, do I really need to buy this?), how many days in Europe will this replace? It was incredible to see how much money we were able to save each month by not going out for coffee or buying snacks here and there (I am a notorious snacker).
When it came time to ship the van over, we had a garage sale to scale down our already fairly streamlined belongings and we stored the remainder of our most sentimental possessions in a storage unit. Now that we are home, the sentimental belongings are just things that we probably could have done without, but that’s perspective and hindsight for ya’, ha!
What’s the process of shipping a vehicle? Any hoops you had to jump through or is the process relatively simple?
Much more simple and cost-effective than I thought it would be. I had to arrange temporary import permits for the van, which regrettably limited us to a six month visit within the EU. We considered exporting the vehicle outside of the EU (to Norway or Switzerland) after that initial six months had expired and then re-importing the vanback into the EU to extend our time overseas, but eventually decided against it. As Canadians we were required to adhere to Schengen Visa restrictions for our long-term stay abroad, which meant we had to be aware of how long we’d been within the Schengen Zone and where we were going next. It was two separate sets of restrictions when it came to our location, so that was the only really complicated thing.
In addition, we had to purchase Green Card insurance, which covered us for third party liability but not comprehensive, and get ourselves International Drivers Licenses.
The Vancouver port does not offer RoRo (roll on, roll off) services for vehicles, which effectively transforms freight ships into ferries. While we considered the alternative of driving across to Halifax to take advantage of the RoRo options on the east coast, we opted to take one step out and just go from Vancouver. We used Just World Cargo, who were extremely knowledgeable and fantastic in answering all of my one million questions quickly.
How long did it take your Westfalia to make it to Europe? Where did you ship it from?
The van was dropped off at the freight company’s warehouse at the beginning of October, where it sat for almost two months. We were waiting on another man (I imagine a Michael Caine type) to secure documents for shipping his classic car (I imagine an Aston Martin type) over to London (he probably wears driving gloves and a scarf). It took a while for him to sort out the paperwork (because, I was told, of the value of the car), so we just tried to play it cool. It was excruciating after all the waiting and buildup to be waiting again, with no real idea when the van would leave, when we would need to book flights to meet it, etc. etc. So much waiting. Generally, I just make things happen by sheer force of will and enthusiasm, so developing patience and accepting that some things are out of my hands is a constant struggle.
Finally tucked into a container aboard a freight vessel, the van set sail and we surrendered stewardship of the van to the high seas. Cue obsessive tracking via Marine Vessels tracking app.
We flew to London mid-December and trotted around the delightful city for five days before we received word that the van had arrived in port and been cleared through customs. On the way to Europe the van shipped from the Vancouver port in a shared container to the Tilbury port in England. On the way home, the van went ro-ro from ZeeBrugges in Belgium, to Halifax, which took about 2 weeks.
Did you have any moments when you thought “no way” we can’t do this?
Any moments that scared you?
Other than Henley’s brush with poisonous caterpillars in Spain, a near miss with bandits on a beach in Portugal, the time we thought we were being hoodwinked by an 85-year-old Galician man who was actually just trying to take us to lunch, and being stopped by the police in every country (mostly out of curiosity) everything went super smoothly. We trusted our gut. We only paid for camping once a week (laundry, internet, showers), which meant that most of our time on the road was spent wild camping. There were times we drove away from the most picturesque spots just because something felt a bit off…and if one of us had even a slight feeling of unease, we listened to that feeling and found somewhere else. We found the people on our trip to be entirely welcoming and kind, no matter the country.
We (Robbie) had to replace three CV’s and one leaky heater valve on the road, the horn didn’t work the whole time we were in Europe, and the heater fan basically only worked when the radio is tuned to the AM dial on Thursday morning at 9am. Otherwise, I always felt safe, and I never doubted that the van would get us where we needed to go. We were prepared to deal with things, had anything gone wrong, but we also trusted that we’d done everything to prepare ourselves for the best chance of success when it came to preventative maintenance and just knowing the vehicle. It’s a slippery slope: if you start worrying about all that could go wrong you can drive yourself crazy, so I try to arm us both with the knowledge and tools and then drive more, worry less.
Do you have a favourite moment?
There are so many moments that stand still: camping on a deserted beach in Spain and forcing ourselves to go for a dip in the Mediterranean; walking on the D Day beaches of France; the rainstorms that forced us inside the van on a riverbank in Belgium; the magic of a deserted Stonehenge at sunrise; Portugal’s seafood and sunsets; the Lipizzaner stallions in Vienna; eating pasta in Venice; gelatto; Henley learning to ride a pedal bike among the wild New Forest ponies in England; Paris (parrrisssssssss); the so picture perfect it was comical Lake Bled in Slovenia; managing to feel like Metro masters after learning the public transit systems in every major city without incident; revisiting sites we visited on our honeymoon but now with our little one; our search for the best baguette and croissants in Europe; movie nights; Mcdonald’s wifi stops; Easter in Austria; the soul-scorching heat of Death Valley, and Disney, where I was prepared to be cynical about the full-blown commercialism of the self-appointed ‘happiest place on earth and was instead where I was transported to a land of wonder and imagination and remain floating on a cloud of pixie dust and happiness.
It was just normal life, so we took pleasure in the same moments: being silly with your kid, finding a treasure at a gas station, amazing street food, fresh laundry, hot showers, sleeping in, eating everything in sight, finding comfort in being bored…I can still feel the moments of total ease and contentment, of not wanting more or less. When we were in it, it was so languid and blissfully slow. The truth is that is was an incredible adventure but just real life for us, so the beauty of it was really the everyday moments. Spending time in the local markets and exploring the small town bistros and cafes was a huge part of the trip.
Something we really connected with was the value that most European countries place on the enjoyment of the good life: an emphasis on the quality of life; enjoyment of the simple pleasures; generations of people relaxing in the park; sitting down for coffee and cake; lounging in the sun. Life felt less frantic.
What key items did you take with you that you’re glad you did?
Nothing that we couldn’t have purchased over there, I don’t think.
Anything you wish you would have taken?
How long were you gone for?
We were in our van for about nine blissful months.
Would travel for an extended period of time again? Where would you go?
Yes. We love this van, our time in the van, and the time that it allows for us to be together. This was more than just a ‘trip of a lifetime’. This trip changed us forever in really profound ways. While it may take a few years of small trips around the Pacific Northwest while we save up for another big one, it’s all a life to look forward to. We live in a really beautiful area of the world and there are no shortage of places to explore, get lost, and appreciate. At the moment my heart is in Europe, so while I get a bit melodramatic I am conscious of the need to look up at the mountains and breath the air up here and be thankful we live in such a beautiful place surrounded by nature, tons of vans, friends and family, and like-minded people to share beers with around the campfire.
Do you have any advice you would give another family who is thinking of doing something similar?
Adventure is out there! It took us almost three years to save for this trip-almost three years where we inevitably questioned whether the money would be better spent going towards the mortgage, the kitchen renovation, etc. etc. The memories are priceless. For sure not every family can take a year off and travel the world, but maybe travelling the world in a van isn’t your thing. It was a big goal, but it was our goal. We worked hard and we saw it through, and I think that’s applicable in almost every aspect of life.
How are you adjusting to life now you’re back?
We are slowly settling back into life in Squamish. As happy as we are to see our family and friends, we miss the open road and it still feels like the van is home, so right now we are homesick for the road and the comfort and closeness of life in the van. Being sedentary is difficult, but it gives us a chance to refresh and recharge our bank accounts, our laundry, and the van.
One of the things I miss most about our time on the road is the closeness. Being in the van as a family was an exceptional opportunity to savouring the simple pleasure in each other’s company, food, a good book, and a deck of cards. We had the luxury of time, and without the distractions of the real world you just become so comfortable in that space together. The hardest part for me has been reminding myself to apply what we learned on the road about slowing down and being present and appreciating the simple values, to our daily life and try to avoid settling back into the grind.
We love the balance of road: being so dirty but feeling so fresh, teetering between adventure and breakdown. Always moving, always excited about the unknown of the days ahead.