The kangaroo was more interested in Mel’s oatmeal than capturing the moment. Still, Mel managed to snap a few selfies. It was March 3rd, 2019 and by sheer chance, I was also at the Australian Reptile Park. I noticed Mel and her marsupial friend and asked if they wanted me to take a photo for them. Mel laughed and said yes. Roo stole some more oats.
I had only been in Australia for two weeks. The original plan was to move from Massachusetts to California but, at the ripe age of 27, I found myself delaying any notion of settling down. I arrived in San Diego with a suitcase twice my size and hesitation in my heart. One month later, I was booking a spontaneous flight as far away as I could get — Sydney.
Over in Hamburg, Mel felt the same antsiness in her feet. Having lived and worked in Germany for most of her twenties, turning thirty beckoned a change of scenery. When she tried to quit her job, she was graciously offered a year sabbatical to travel the world.
By the time I met Mel, she had already visited Singapore, Japan, Cambodia, Vietnam, South Korea, Thailand, Hong Kong, and the Philippines, all by herself. But she said she had never felt more lonely than this day at the park.
When she arrived in Melbourne, she met two German girls in her hostel. Together, they rented a van and started driving up the east coast of Australia. They intended to make it all the way to Cairns but a series of unfortunate events left Mel unexpectedly alone. She had spent the last two days contemplating whether a month-long road trip would be any fun by herself. She started looking for a travel mate on Facebook but wasn’t having any luck.
“Can we see your van?” I asked, grinning. My friend Kacey clapped her hands in agreement, “Yes, yes! We have to see it!” The three of us left the park early and headed to the parking lot to check out Mel’s ride.
I had always considered buying a van back in the states. I had countless bookmarks on my web browser: Craigslist postings for Volkswagen and Chevy vans that needed a little TLC. I had an entire Pinterest board dedicated to renovations. I even had a section in my closet where I hoarded battery operated twinkle lights, handmade dream catchers, colorful quilts, and throw pillows awaiting their prospective van-life.
I envisioned myself spending six months — hell, maybe even a whole year — camping in all 48 accessible states, while crossing off as many National Parks as possible. I would change my Instagram handle to yet another pun “liv_in_a_van”, deem myself a rubber tramp, and call it a day.
There was just one thing that stopped me. I didn’t have anyone to do it with.
We’ve all got those friends, you know, the ones you love but could never live with. Imagine being stuck in a 16x6 foot space with them. You can’t. And it goes both ways. I didn’t want to succumb any of my friends to my insomnia or strange eating schedule. Traveling in a van with someone seemed like a surefire way to ruin the relationship.
I knew that if it was ever going to happen, I’d have to make it. These things don’t just fall into your lap… at least, that’s what I had thought.
It was this fascination that led me to ask Mel for a tour. “Hey kids, never get inside a stranger’s car.” I’m glad this never sunk in as a child.
The van was from Travellers Autobarn and the exact layout I always imagined. Two benches that converted into a bed, a sink, fridge, stove, microwave, beach chairs for lounging outside. What more could you possibly need?
As Mel showed us the ins and outs of her van, Kacey and I exchanged looks. She knew exactly what I was thinking and she agreed. I belonged in this van.
Kacey is like the first real day of spring, that feeling you get after a long winter, as you shuffle to the back door and are met by an unexpected yet familiar warmth. I’ve stood by and watched her take so many strangers by surprise with her social fearlessness, her tireless vocal cords, and her contagious enthusiasm. So, in true Kacey spirit, she invited Mel back to the house for a steak dinner and a proper shower.
The whole way there, as Mel followed behind us, Kacey amped me up. She was convinced; this was an experience I’d be an idiot to pass up. Looking back, I realize now how right she was.
The entire trajectory of my year seemed to change after I got in a stranger’s van. It gave me the courage I needed to continue traveling. That same year, I managed to visit five continents in a span of nine months.
We had a few beers that night and hung out at the neighbor’s pool. I watched Mel like a hawk, trying to pick out any clues of madness or indicators that she might be a serial killer. I found nothing. She seemed totally normal and incredibly chill. Possibly too chill. When Kacey offered for her to spend the night in the spare room, Mel declined, saying she preferred to sleep in the van. “It’s my home now, I love it.”
So she was nuts, after all. Who would decline a real bed after sleeping in a van for a month? I had no clue that very soon I, too, would feel the same way. When Mel asked if I wanted to join her, I don’t think she could believe the words coming out of her mouth any more than I could. The spontaneity of it gave me butterflies.
So, that was it. The next day, I hopped in a van with a complete stranger. In the following six weeks, that stranger would become a dear friend. During the 2500 mile journey from Sydney to Cairns, we’d share every meal. We would learn each other’s sleep patterns and bowel movements. We’d surf in the turquoise waters of Byron Bay and cry because we lost her drone at Wallaman Falls, the tallest waterfall in Oz. We would embark on a romantic overnight sailing trip in the Whitsundays with six honeymooning couples, and light the wrong end of our cigarettes. Then we’d laugh because, heilige scheisse, we lost her drone to the tallest waterfall in Oz. We would snorkel the Great Barrier Reef. We’d spend a catastrophic amount of money on beer and get drunk off the adventure.
We hugged each other tightly when the trip came to an end, having no clue that, four months later, we would celebrate the Fourth of July together in my hometown.
All because we were both at the same reptile park on the same day at the same time. If that’s not fate, I’m not sure what is.
I couldn’t have hand-picked a better travel mate and to think, the world just handed her to me. So, moral of the story?
No matter how small or fleeting it may feel, every encounter is an opportunity — a catalyst to something greater. All you have to do is say yes.
Or in other words, when life gives you lemons, go on the damn road trip.