Rolling Homes That Make an R.V. Look Palatial

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What if you went on a road trip, and never came back?

Two couples called the road their home for years, logging hundreds of thousands of adventurous miles. Their refuges? For one couple, a Mitsubishi Delica four-wheel-drive van, small when compared with an R.V. or even other vans, let alone a faddish tiny house. For another, a Ford Festiva, small compared with just about anything on four wheels.

The coronavirus pandemic has idled both couples and their vehicles, for now, as they all wait for their next chapters.

That 1988 two-door Festiva came to be known as the Peace Love Car. It was Sam Salwei’s home for eight years, and Raquel Hernández-Cruz joined him four years in. After a chance meeting and then traveling together for a month in 2012, they reunited in 2013 — and have been together ever since.

“While I was working on my bachelor’s degree, a friend gifted me the car,” said Mr. Salwei, a 39-year-old native of Crystal, N.D., who got his degree in social entrepreneurship at the University of North Dakota. “A free car that was also gas-efficient was a dream. I really didn’t need anything else.”

He started with short road trips, then figured he could stay places longer if he didn’t need to return home. “Little by little I started adapting the car to allow me to sleep in it,” he said, pointing to “a slow five-year conversion.”

As the car rests at Mr. Salwei’s mother’s North Dakota home, the couple have continued their travels. They have spent recent winters in Thailand, but after the coronavirus outbreak early this year, they left to ride out the pandemic with Ms. Hernández-Cruz’s family in Puerto Rico. In September they headed to California, where they, too, bought a Delica and have been outfitting it while living a hermit lifestyle in Long Beach.

For Ms. Hernández-Cruz, who is 40 and grew up in rural Puerto Rico, “my life seemed pretty ordinary as I followed the road previously laid by my parents — school, college, marriage, grad school, maybe have children and work at one job for the rest of your life.”

That was not her path. She started practicing yoga, and wanted something different. She met Mr. Salwei and they were soon traveling the world as the YogaSlackers, teaching “slackline yoga,” on what is basically a tightrope.

Their car was, of course, heavily adapted to the nomadic life. It had over 10 USB charging ports, seven 12-volt power ports and six 110-volt plug-ins. It took two R.V.-type batteries and 400 watts’ worth of solar panels to power the hatchback, a small fridge, various electronics and a ceiling fan.

The windows had screens, the body panels were insulated, and the bed slept two adults (snugly). It has a D.I.Y. rear lift kit, with an upgraded suspension and steering system. Two rooftop boxes functioned as the attic, holding adventure equipment, backpacks, cameras and accessories.

The car’s kitchen consisted of a Craftsman tool bag and “a random combination of camp kitchen and home kitchen items,” Ms. Hernández-Cruz said, everything as small and light as possible. When hunger hit, they pulled over and cooked: free campgrounds, rest stops, gas stations or the side of the road. Empty, the car weighed just over 2,500 pounds, but full it pushed over 3,700 pounds.

Everything in the car “has a place, and usually you can reach it in less than three movements,” Mr. Salwei said. “Parking is a breeze, it’s easy to squeeze into small campsites, and most importantly you can pick it up and move it by hand if necessary.”

The Festiva’s odometer reads 524,000 miles, and since 2008 it has crossed the United States about 20 times. Since 2013, the couple have toured and taught their way through three countries and 49 states (Hawaii the exception). The Festiva got a farewell tour in 2014, and since 2017 they have been trying to find it a new home, seeking “a worthy pilot in need of an adventure,” Mr. Salwei said.

In the slightly bigger quarters (53.8 square feet) of their 1991 Mitsubishi Delica Star Wagon, Pablo Rey and Anna Callau have wound their way through 60 countries.

Their vehicle has a nickname, too: La Cucaracha, and it was home to the couple for 16 years. It was even the guest of honor in their Las Vegas wedding — they said their vows in a drive-through ceremony in 2011.

What started as a four-year-long jaunt, one continent per year, turned into a never-ending journey. “Life outside of our usual boundaries was far more rich and exciting,” said Mr. Rey, 54, who grew up in Buenos Aires.

The couple’s travels with the van are paused, however, and it’s parked near Reno, Nev., awaiting post-pandemic times. Mr. Rey and Ms. Callau, 48, are staying near her family’s home in Europe in the meantime.

The couple paid around $10,500 for the van on Christmas Eve in 1999 in Barcelona, Spain, with about 52,000 miles on the odometer. (They later suspected it had been illegally rolled back considerably.) They have made plenty of adjustments over the years, including an extra 20-gallon fuel tank and a solar panel.

Across their 245,000 miles of journeys, they encountered challenges and breakdowns. In Sudan, “we lost the cover of the air filter and half of the sand from the Sahara Desert went into the engine,” Mr. Rey said. “We were in an area where nobody speaks English, only Arabic.”

The local mechanics fixed only tractors. The couple had no phone, no embassy and no AAA to ask for help. Still, they managed.

In Kenya, bandits with AK-47s attempted a robbery. Mr. Rey and Ms. Callau were attacked by thieves in Trinidad and Tobago, and in Kitum Cave, Kenya, Ebola cases were being diagnosed as they traveled through. The Andes Mountains in Chile posed another threat: The Delica’s engine quit at 15,000 feet and had to be replaced.

The Festiva had its share of troubles, too. In the 400,000-plus miles Mr. Salwei has put on it, bad transmissions were switched out on the side of the road and in grocery store parking lots. Nothing, however, was more challenging than being sick while living in 28 rolling square feet together.

“Our body is the most intrinsic machine we own,” Ms. Hernández-Cruz said. “We have to do our best to keep it going for a long time.”

Adversity or challenges can lead to reward and happiness. “Interesting stories usually come when you go out of your comfort zone,” said Ms. Callau, who is from Barcelona and identifies at Catalan. The couple share their travels online via Viajeros 4x4x4 and related social media channels.

“To live on the road is to live with much more freedom,” Ms. Callau added. The couple have worked in a bar in Chile and a ski resort as “piste” police. They printed and sold T-shirts, postcards and books they wrote about their journey to help fund their travels. They even developed a comic strip with a friend from Boston about living on the road.

One of the most rewarding parts has been “being the owners/masters of our time,” Ms. Callau said. “The magic now is in the unexpected,” Mr. Rey added.

For Kathryn Joyce, a fellow YogaSlackers teacher and postdoctoral researcher at Princeton’s University Center for Human Values, the Peace Love Car was “fun, inviting, unapologetic.” It even symbolized freedom, she said: “Freedom from consumerism, societal standards, burdensome obligations, but also freedom in the sense of self-reliance.”

That Festiva was laden with over 2,000 stickers, which helped lead to countless police stops and border inspections, but relatively few tickets. It was “much more than a car or a house,” Mr. Salwei said. “It is the ultimate smile maker.” He added, “Everyone that sees the car reacts to it, most of the time with a beaming smile.”

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