A couple spent 15k driving a $500 Volkswagen bus from Alaska to Argentina

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Tessa Ely and Dillon Vought with Rita, their Volkswagen bus.Courtesy The Bus and Us

Tessa Ely and Dillon Vought spent a year and a half driving from Alaska to Argentina in a 1975 Volkswagen bus they bought for $500. After a break, they’re now making their way through the US, sharing their journey on Instagram and their blog, The Bus and Us.

Ely was working as a special education teacher, Dylan in a corporate cubicle job, when they decided they weren’t ready to settle down.

"We both were just ready for some sort of long-term travel," Ely said.

The Alaska natives acquired their trusty Volkswagen bus, lovingly dubbed "Rita," in 2014, and spent a year restoring it. They saved up and budgeted $15,000 for the whole trip, but made no itinerary.

"Even in the year and a half that we spent driving down, we felt that it wasn't really enough time to really experience everything we wanted," Vought said. "Time is the biggest resource. There's never enough of it."

For Ely and Vought, both longtime lovers of Volkswagen buses, no other vehicle would do.

“It opens a lot of doors, because you see that vehicle and you just kind of assume there are fun-loving people driving it,” Vought said.

“It's really kind of a third person on the trip. It kind of has its own personality, its own aura about it that attracts people.”

They started their blog The Bus and Us to share their story, from restoring Rita to their adventures driving her across the world.

As their first out-of-country experience, they caravanned down to Baja, Mexico, and spent time “off the grid,” catching halibut and making ceviche, a popular seafood dish. “It's just so easy to get off the beaten path there,” Ely said.

They named Colombia one of their favorite destinations for its beautiful scenery and friendly locals.

“It really blew our minds, the combination of every type of scenery in the country. And the people are just so welcoming, and so excited that you want to come visit their homeland, and proud of their country,” Ely said.

They ran into some technical difficulties in Patagonia, South America, when rocks kicked up from a dirt road hit Rita’s exhaust and timing belt.

“We had maybe 30 miles to go to our next station,” Vought said. “Luckily, our engine was still driveable, but pretty damaged. We spent two days fixing the timing and trying to repair all the damage we could." They managed to make it to Buenos Aires without any further problems.

Patagonia reminded them of home when they began to miss Alaska.

"That area felt similar to Alaska in the sense that you could freestyle camp anywhere, not a ton of regulations and stuff. It was really conducive to bus living," Ely said, adding that they did a lot of hiking and backpacking there.

So far, the US has proven less accommodating to the bus. “We've been pushing the minimum speed limit every once in a while as we're driving from Florida up into the mountains of North Carolina,” Ely said.

“You see a lot more RVs and RV parks charging $40 a night,” Vought said. “You're kind of forced to boondock, which is fine because that's what we like to do anyway.”

However, Ely and Vought recently found themselves reevaluating their nomadic travel style. They spent a few months working in Alaska between their two trips, and enjoyed the feeling of being settled.

“I catch myself thinking, 'Okay, I need to go home and get a job so that we can save for a down payment for a house,' and then wondering, ‘Is this societal norms telling me that this is what I need to be doing, or is it okay that it really does sound pretty good to be grounded for a while and have a space that's not on wheels?’” Ely said.

For now, they intend to drive across the US and be in California by January, where they’ll store the bus and take a break until driving through Canada to the top of Alaska next summer. “We still don't really have a final plan,” Vought said.

Whether they decide to buy a house and settle down in Alaska or see more of the world, Ely said there’s one thing they know for sure.

“Wherever we go, Rita will definitely end up with us.”

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Alexandra Rinder

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