Our Journey: Light at the End of the Tunnel

Our Journey: Light at the End of the Tunnel

I’m still not entirely certain how long 2020 lasted. How does a year drag on forever while simultaneously passing in the blink of an eye? 

As it was for many others, it was a challenging year for us. Not only was COVID a top concern which hamstrung our entire business and lifestyle, I also faced a separate health crisis that absorbed most of our energy the entire year.  

But there were some good things last year too. We spent significant time with a small group of people we love (plus some great dogs and a pig). And with the tireless help from a team of medical professionals, I was properly diagnosed and my health started to turn back around.

And now. Whew. 2021 is off to an incredible start. For one, millions of vaccines! The pandemic isn’t quite over yet, but the end is closer than it ever has been. GIANT shout-out to the incredible Katalin Karikó, who understood the power of mRNA to fight disease long ago and persevered through countless rejections.

A cold, snowy morning in Colorado

Once it is safe, we are absolutely pumped for the return of the travel industry. Can you sense it? We can. And let me tell you, when the travel industry is your passion and your livelihood, it feels electric right now. 

Good things are ahead. Not only for us, but for the cubicle-jockey who’s been stuck at home behind a Zoom meeting screen and desperately needs a weekend away. For the family of five who have missed out on the bonding that comes with vacationing together. For the retirees who worked so hard for decades, just to have their travel plans wiped out. For the B&B owners who have been hosting empty houses, slowing losing their minds. For the tour agencies who just want to help everyone get out and have some fun. And for everyone between.

And guess what! This year happened to drop something else into our lap as well: a sprinter van! That’s right. By the skin of our teeth and the grace of the almighty gods, we’re stepping up our travel rig. Pretty excited about this change, but we have a lot of work to finish up on it before it’s ready for the road.

Mountain views

Is This What Getting Old Feels Like?

At the start of 2020, Kristina and I were exploring Mexico’s Baja Peninsula. A few months after that, we tucked tail and turned back toward home to wait out the pandemic. And we’ve been waiting ever since.

There’s a bit more to this story than we’ve told you about. To be honest, it’s tough for me to share this because I know other people had it much worse last year. My issues seem so trivial when placed next to the tragedy that others have experienced. But you’re here, so I’ll just get on with it.

I was suffering. What started off as a dull lower back and hip pain, evolved into sciatic nerve pain so intense I couldn’t get out of bed. Inflammation took over my body and it seemed like there was nothing I could do to stop it. 

And the brain fog. Oh, the brain fog. Wide awake and well-rested, but still felt half-asleep and unable to think clearly. Stringing a sentence together became a nearly insurmountable task. 

Finally, the inflammation went to my throat. It was the final straw and the clue my doctor needed. This was not simply a case of sciatica that wouldn’t go away, something else was going on and we needed to find out what.

A beautiful sunset in Colorado

And we did, along with the help from three other specialists and their teams. After vials and vials of blood, and biopsies on multiple organs, I received a diagnosis.

I have celiac disease. 

My body was attacking itself with an immune response to gluten, causing widespread inflammation and serious damage to my small intestines. The walls should have been covered in as many as 25,000 villi per share inch (small finger-like projections), but mine were just a smooth surface, severely struggling to do their job of absorbing food and nutrients. You can read more about celiac disease here.

Good thing is that I have a diagnosis! Other good news is that most people can stop the immune response by sticking to a gluten free diet. No drugs or procedures to deal with. 

The bad news is that it is a lifetime of gluten free food, and even microscopic amounts can trigger the immune response in some people with celiac disease. I have to take extreme care to avoid poisoning myself, for the rest of my life. 

But you know what I do have? My health. I was diagnosed about 4.5 months ago and I can tell you that I am finally starting to feel significantly more like myself. Many symptoms, including the debilitating sciatica and brain fog, have all but disappeared. 

I consider myself extremely lucky. Celiac disease is severely under-diagnosed in the United States. Experts estimate that about 1 in 133 people have celiac disease in the US. Of those people, about 97% have not been diagnosed! Literally millions of people in the United States alone are living with a disease that is likely destroying a vital organ , and they’re oblivious to it.

That’s why I feel lucky. I have a confirmed diagnosis and I am already well on my way toward healing. Good stuff.

Michael taking Bartley out for an adventure!

Fall in Colorado (Ever Live with a Pig?)

You know what was really nice during this whole time of dealing with medical issues and diagnosis? We stayed with some awesome people in a great part of Colorado, surrounded by people and things that made me feel loved and at home. I woke up grateful for that every single day. 

It wasn’t all fun and games though. Kristina and I are still choosing the severely limit our travel and interaction with other people due to COVID. In fact, as difficult as it was, we did not see a lot of close family members the entire time we were in Colorado. It was and still is a difficult time.

We made the best of it anyway. Christmas was a bit strange, but also quite nice. Which reminds me… We babysat a pig!

Kristina hanging out with Bartley the pig by the fire

Yes, you read that right. We took care of an awesome Vietnamese pot-bellied pig named Bartley! Spent over a month with him altogether, including a nice quiet Christmas with Bartley, Kristina, and me. And it was a lot of fun. He was more of a companion than we expected and we grew to love him quite a bit. 

In case you don’t know, pigs are intelligent animals who can express themselves quite well. They are on a never-ending quest for food (like a lot of creatures), but they also can love attention, play games, and be trained. The Joy of Pigs documentary on PBS is worth checking out if you’ve never understood what amazing animals pigs can be.

Eventually, I wrapped up the medical attention I needed in Colorado and we had a new focus: the van! 

Our new van!

Back West and Time to Step it Up

We love traveling in the Trusty Tahoe with all of its 4WD capability, but it takes significant time and energy to get daily tasks done. We’ve realized that we needed something else. Something that will allow us to live on the road in more comfort. A better place to go through our many photos, write/edit our content, and do everything else we do behind the scenes to share more information with you. 

At first, we hit a wall. After searching for months, it seemed that buying the rig we wanted (in our price range) was impossible. Too many people with the same idea and not enough vans out there to keep the price reasonable. It looked like we’d have to settle for something which didn’t seem quite right to us. 

But we had an idea: What if we head back to California? Maybe the increased population and vanlife presence would make things a bit easier?

And they did! We went back to California, bought a Sprinter van for a decent price, and are building it out ourselves!

Kristina and Michael enjoying the new sprinter van.

We are now the proud owners of a 2004 Dodge Sprinter (T1N model) powered by a 2.7l turbo-diesel. Weird fact about this van? It was made in Düsseldorf, Germany by Mercedes Benz! It was partially disassembled and re-badged in the US to avoid 25% tax (the infamous chicken tax).

This model of van has a big following due to its reliable powertrain and simplistic engine design which is relatively easier to work on and less expensive than newer sprinter vans.

Unfortunately, these vans often suffer from rust and electrical problems. We’re dealing with both. 

Slowly, this van is coming back to life. Lots of rust repair on the roof and body. Some electrical work, sensor replacements, and all the fun stuff that come with a nearly 20-year-old van. But this van is simple, I have done most of the work on it myself, and they are known to go for many hundreds of thousands of miles if properly maintained.

We’ve also started to build out the inside of the van and have some pretty big plans. We’re planning on throwing in as many home comforts as we can, including a bed, stove, fridge, sink, and even a toilet! It should be a pretty sweet setup for us once complete.

If you want to see more build pics and information, stay tuned here and follow us on Instagram @offpathtravels.  

The snow-packed roads on our drive back west to California

With 2020’s many challenges in the rear-view mirror, we see bright times ahead. Can you feel it? The electricity is building. People are ready to get out and see each other again. Experience a sunset in a new place. Eat a meal they’ve never had. Talk to someone with a completely different life experience.

We’re ready. My health is coming back, our van is going to be ready to hit the road soon, and eventually, when travel is safe again, we’ll be back on the road, doing everything we can to help you travel. 

Well, I guess that wraps up this Our Journey update. As always, thanks for being here and we can’t wait to see you on the road.

Kristina and Michael

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