Road trip

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


Once I lastly join with vanlifers Abigail and Natalie Rodriguez after a month of e-mail exchanges and missed calls, they’re posted up close to Todos Santos on the Baja Peninsula. After studying that their rig is caught in moist sand due to a downpour the evening earlier than, I nearly joke that that is the one cause I lastly pinned them down. “We really spent this previous New 12 months’s Eve caught in some sand, so we’re no strangers to it,” says Abigail with amusing. “We’ll get out in some unspecified time in the future—you simply gotta glide.”

The married couple has been doing precisely that for the previous 12 months (early February marked their “Vanniversary”), cruising North America with a pair of pups of their funky blue dwelling on wheels, Towanda, a repurposed prisoner transport car. Previous to their new life on wheels, the Rodriguezes had been dwelling in Charleston, South Carolina, the place photographer Abigail had a studio and taught pole dance health lessons on the aspect, and Natalie plied her craft as knowledgeable chef. When the debilitating hustle of Natalie’s 70-hour workweeks grew to become an excessive amount of, the 2 determined to take a 12 months away from the grind. As soon as they’d socked away sufficient money and outfitted Towanda, the Rodriguezes obtained married, with their marriage ceremony serving as the final word going away celebration.

The final 12 months has been revelatory for the couple. With out the constraints of working from the street, they’ve been in a position to not solely be absolutely current with each other and the world round them, however they’ve additionally discovered find out how to tease out what’s most necessary to them. “I don’t assume we may ever return and dwell to work,” says Abigail. “It’s laborious to place into phrases, actually, how a lot our perspective has modified on what makes life a hit.”

When Abigail was employed to a marriage in Charleston final fall, she landed some further gigs throughout her go to, padding their nest egg sufficient to permit them a bonus six months work-free on wheels. Not that they plan to ditch the life-style anytime quickly; they’re each mulling over the chances for taking their careers cellular. Abigail hopes to search out extra alternatives to coach her lens exterior of Charleston and Natalie goals of paying homage to her Puerto Rican roots as a private chef.

Till then, the Rodriguezes have discovered which means in contributing to neighborhood with Van Life Satisfaction, a social media platform they launched 4 months in the past. Partially impressed by the present #DiversifyVanlife motion, they hope to assist fellow LGBTQ+ vacationers not solely join with each other, but additionally see themselves represented within the vanlife motion. “We type of felt it was our obligation, a calling for us to do it, particularly being a married, feminine, interracial couple,” says Natalie. “It was unreal simply how a lot suggestions we obtained from individuals, like—Thanks. It’s been one of many largest blessings on the street.”

12 months, make, and mannequin?
2004 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter Van

Does the car have a reputation?
Abigail: Towanda. I don’t know should you’re aware of the film Fried Inexperienced Tomatoes? That’s really considered one of Natalie’s favourite films. The principle character brings this circle of ladies collectively; their slogan for after they wish to pump themselves up and really feel empowered is: “Towanda!” Like, “We are able to do it!” 

Years owned?

How did you get it?
Abigail: She’s obtained fairly a historical past—she was once a prisoner transport car. We really discovered her at a towing firm in Charleston, Turky’s Towing, that had a few vans listed on Craigslist. We weren’t caught on a Sprinter; we had been really little mini faculty buses or small vans, like minivans. We had been really at Turky’s a special van and [a salesperson] introduced up this van, however we weren’t even it as a result of it was out of our finances. But it surely seems this man had achieved some work on it for anyone else after which they backed out, and it had been sitting round; he simply wished it gone and off of his fingers. So, we ended up after a couple of week or two putting a deal that was in our worth vary.

Former Jail Transport Van

So, did he inform you about Towanda’s historical past immediately?
Abigail: Yeah. It was just a little bit apparent as a result of there have been three seats after which a lockbox within the again the place they saved instruments out of the prisoners’ attain. Because it was such an previous car and had nearly 200,000 miles on it, what actually offered us was that that they had dropped a model new engine in and solely ran 40,000 miles on it. It was type of a serendipitous factor that occurred. We actually cherished that we may give Towanda a complete new lease on life, you realize, taking her from a prisoner transport car to our private freedom car.

How did you modify Towanda?
Abigail: I feel we spent three months simply gutting it—all of the seats, all of the flooring, every part—and there was nonetheless simply layers of grime and mud and unlawful paraphernalia the prisoners had, like cigarettes and little toothpicks. And there have been sure etched into like crevices, like “crack an absence” and “kill a invoice.” These little are nonetheless right here, just a little mark of her previous.

We spent a complete 12 months doing the construct as a result of we had been working full-time, so it was an extended course of. Neither considered one of us had any constructing expertise, in order that meant every part took longer as a result of we additionally needed to learn to do it. Fortunately, we had assist from a good friend we met fairly serendipitously simply earlier than we obtained the van. There have been undoubtedly days the place we simply checked out one another in frustration—you realize, making an attempt to suit or studying electrical and plumbing—and we’re like, What did we get ourselves into?

Former Jail Transport_Van

Natalie: I’ve moved round so much and of all of the flats and locations that I’ve stayed, I can undoubtedly say that Towanda is the nicest. Every part we put in right here was new. Our countertop is a very nice piece of oak that’s dwell edge. I made that very, very lengthy as a result of I wished to have that prep area. The stovetop will not be everlasting as a result of if I’m making dough or one thing, I have to have all that area. We made certain we had sufficient photo voltaic simply in order that I can run the Vitamix. I feel the one factor that I want I had was an oven; we didn’t go along with one as a result of we didn’t wish to have propane within the van. Our range runs off of denatured alcohol, so it’s a clean-burning gasoline. My massive factor is pizza, so I do forged iron pizzas now. I feel it’s really type of cool, as a result of then I’ve to problem myself extra on a number of that I wish to cook dinner. It simply makes the method extra artistic.

Abigail: We additionally didn’t wish to must arrange a mattress each evening—we wished a mattress that was all the time prepared to leap into with out having to surrender a sofa. To make it really feel like a house, we wished a pleasant kitchen, a sofa, and a mattress all the time prepared. The entire cause we went with doing it ourselves is that we wished it to really feel extra like a tiny dwelling and never a lot like an RV; they’re nice, however we wished it to be extra private.

Former Jail_Transport_Van

Natalie: You’re all the time assembly anyone new. My strategy usually could be to be shut off; I used to be fairly reserved. However you then meet these individuals from all around the world out on the street, individuals you perhaps wouldn’t usually strategy, as a result of everyone is doing the identical type of factor. It simply retains opening you up as an individual.

Abigail: It’s wonderful. We’re so open to only what must occur or what may occur.

Natalie: You’re not planning life anymore, per se—life is simply occurring and also you’re going with the circulation versus type of being on this schedule. That’s been a present.

Natalie: We’re caught at camp proper now as a result of it rained all evening, so we’re within the mud. However the reverse of that—the professional—is that we’re trying on the ocean. There are many individuals to get us out if it doesn’t dry up. I’m continually reminding myself that it’s okay. I’ve discovered persistence. I’ve discovered that ready for one thing will not be all the time a foul factor. The professionals undoubtedly outweigh the cons.


What are the most important belongings you’ve discovered or taken away from the final 12 months on the street?
Abigail: On this day, we spend a lot time a display. We’ve been so many locations the place we don’t have a cell sign and it’s a lot extra rewarding than we thought it could be. These occasions are after we can actually sink in and be current. There’s no distraction. While you’re out in nature and never working nine-to-five and anxious with the you could have, you could have different introduced to you which can be actually necessary—like choosing up on all the sweetness that’s in nature and out on the earth.

Natalie: I feel it takes time for anyone to essentially undergo the layers of themselves and work out what it’s that perhaps was holding them again, what they’re frightened of, what they aspire to—all of the that in a standard ambiance, you don’t have the time to determine about your self. So when individuals journey and say, “I’m looking for myself,” individuals could not take that critically, however in a way that’s what you’re doing. I imply, it’s not like I ever misplaced myself, however I didn’t know who I used to be. So, I simply really feel extra relaxed with who I’m. I be ok with each choice that I make from right here, as a result of I do know it comes from a superb place. I simply really feel extra rounded as an individual. I really feel like I belong in my pores and skin. It’s been in all probability the perfect 12 months of my life.


All pictures courtesy Abigail and Natalie Rodriguez

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