Sitting in an office, we dream of adventures. But when we’re living an adventure, it’s suddenly a lot less dreamy. So how can we “live our dreams” in a sober reality full of real issues? We can’t. But maybe we don’t have to.

Just three more screws, then we’re done. I lay under the car and twist the screwdriver until the metal cover plate is back in place and nicely secured. “Okay,” I say, “let’s try it”. We’ve just spent three hours changing out our alternator. The old one was giving up and we decided to play it safe and get a new unit instead of having some local mechanic do a hack-job that could last us only 200 miles. I reconnect the battery and wait for Emma to read the voltmeter. “What does it say?” I ask. “Nothing,” she replies. “It’s staying at zero.”
Alternator talk

Maybe, if I listen hard enough it’ll tell me what’s wrong with it?

What? That can’t be. I’m about to tell her to look closer when I notice this smoke coming from the new alternator. Shit! I quickly disconnect the battery. So much for playing it safe. The smoke fades and only the smell of burnt plastic stays behind. We take the alternator back out and inspect the damage. The wiring is fried, the insulation of the cables has melted, and who knows what our brand new alternator looks like on the inside. We’re not going anywhere anytime soon.

I’m feeling the frustration take over my senses. We’re living the dream, they said. Pure adventure, such a great way to live your life. Sure doesn’t feel like it right now. My dreams never contained this feeling of despair, this utter frustration of just having fucked something up because I wasn’t careful enough somehow…

The Yolo business

“Live your Dream”. This idea is popular these days. It has been around for ages, but we millennials have raised it from its humble existence as a distant desire and have made it our flagship motto.
Don’t wait until you wake up dead one day.
Go out there and live your dream.
Yolo!
Naturally, the business of selling dreams is equally prospering. Instagram, travel magazines, blogs of happy and healthy people traveling the world, all of them show us what we could be if, yes, if only we would go and live our dreams. But…can we really?

The magic disappears on this side of reality

The short and sobering answer is: no. We can’t. Sorry to disappoint you, but living the dream is, per the definition of the words “life” and “dream”, impossible. As soon as we manage to make a dream cross the border into reality and become real life, a disillusion happens. The dream is somehow disenchanted when it crosses over, the magical spirit gets sucked out of it, it can’t exist in reality and has to stay behind. On this side of reality, our dream suddenly seems to have harsher edges than we remember. An empty shell of a dream. It is similar in shape, but the magic is missing.
ocean sunset

The dreamier side of our Panamerican adventure: Ocean sunsets

Whatever we do in life, it always comes with all the little caveats and problems, all the annoying mosquitoes and the food poisoning after that delicious steak. Road trips come with breakdowns, beach vacations come with sand your butt crack. The most exciting dream can lose all its appeal when it is drowned by all those small annoyances of daily life. None of the issues are important enough to kill the dream on their own, but just like mosquitoes, it’s their sheer mass and persistence that makes them so hard to stand.

The fuel of my travel dreams

In the months leading up to our departure from Germany to go on this trip, I spent a lot of time dreaming. How it would be to drive Big Emma through the Americas, what would happen to us along the way, and how exciting it would all be. The most influential fuel for my dreams were the tales of a fellow traveler, Ben, and his Youtube video project HastaAlaska.
But it wasn’t his videos that fascinated me, it was the hardships of his trip: his breakdowns. Ben had bought a VW bus in Chile and had, on a hunch, decided to drive it all the way to Alaska. He had been driving north for maybe a year when the engine of his bus gave up in Panama. Following the advice of a helpful stranger, he joined the online forum TheSamba, a discussion platform for enthusiasts of vintage Volkswagens.
His first post starts like this:

“I have broken down in Panama on my Chile to Alaska trip and I am rebuilding the top end due to a blown piston and some other stuff.”

I was electrified. The Panamerican in a bus – just what we were planning to do! The first answer to Ben is from a user called busdaddy. “If this is the same Ben that was rebuilding the engine of your Brazilian bus under a tree in Panama the other day…” it starts. It then continues to give advice on how to seal his engine heads properly. Sitting in front of my screen at my work desk, I was shaking with excitement. I could see it perfectly in my mind’s eye. A white bus, parked under a tropical tree in a tropical country by the side of a dirt road. Colorful birds sing in exotic voices, while Ben is wrenching on his engine. Pure adventure.

VW Repair Thread

The beginning of Ben’s epic repair thread on TheSamba. Notice the number of pages on the top.

Over the next 20 pages or so of the thread, Ben gets his bus running again, only to break down again in Costa Rica, then in Nicaragua, then in Guatemala. Each time, the resources available to him are not enough for a proper repair. Each time he fixes it with whatever is at hand to make it over the next hill, the next border. Reading about Ben’s adventures, his failures, fuck-ups, and solutions, was exhilarating. For me, it was like being there with him. A VW mechanics forum became the best adventure novel I had ever read.

Breakdowns aren’t fun, but they are fun to read about

What I was reading and dreaming about was, of course, a romanticized version of Ben’s troubles. I had this faint feeling of how intense his life must be, an intensity my own life was direly missing at that point. I spent my days sitting at a desk in an air-conditioned office with blue carpet, white walls, and fireproof doors with safety glass. Ben’s adventure contained a promise for me. The promise that life could be so much more, that I only had to get out of here and onto the road. Then everything would be interesting, intriguing, and my life would become a great adventure.
Ben broken down

One of Ben’s many breakdowns. Photo by Ben Jamin, KombiLife

And it did. A year into my own trip down the same road (albeit in the other direction), I’ve been in many similar situations. But I’ve also learned an inevitable lesson. Dreams are only dreams as long as they stay in my head. Reality has its way of throwing rocks in your path; tiny rocks, but enough of them to get you stuck in the sand. Being broken down by the side of the road sucks, no matter how beautiful the colorful birds can sing.

“We made it, right?”

In 10 years, I might read my own thread on TheSamba, glance over my darkest and most desperate moments and think, “Man, that wasn’t so bad. I mean, we made it, right?” Dreams are wonderful while we’re dreaming them. They also work great as memories. Our brain lets us remember the past in the same way we imagine our dreams. We idealize them, remember the beautiful parts, and recall the shitty parts with fondness. Nearly a year later, watching our wheel fall off on the Dalton Highway can already be laughed at with chagrin. But remembering the exciting parts doesn’t make the current situation any more dreamy. If I remember correctly, looking at that wheel was terrifying.
Reality is always just this: real life. It comes with a few side dishes and not eating them isn’t an option. There’s no escaping the bites, the molten wires, the sprained ankles, a butt crack full of sand, a lost wheel.

Dreams might be dreamy, but real life is intense

So, are dreams a guarantee for disappointment? Well, no. Because we get something in return. Real life gives us what dreams never could: Intensity. Doing something I’ve dreamed of, going on an adventure like driving the Panamericana means full-frontal exposure for all my senses. This is not the life that passes me by, this is not the automated office job where the days blend together like a watercolor painting in the rain. This life requires my attention, every minute of the day. That’s why it’s so exciting, and that’s also why it can be so incredibly tiring.
Maybe – without really knowing it – that was what I was dreaming of all along when I was devouring Ben’s repair thread during my lunch breaks. It wasn’t the adventure I was after, it was a more intense experience of life. Maybe this hunger for intensity is the reason we travel and don’t stay at home. It’s why other countries can be so much more interesting for us than Germany or the USA. Because living in these foreign countries feels more intense.
Living intensely doesn’t necessarily mean that life is always fun. Sometimes, it can be intensely shitty. That is especially the case for living on the road. Breaking down without any idea what’s wrong is intense, but mostly not in a fun way.

The big picture

But it’s important to take a step back sometimes, to pull ourselves out of the detailed layer of small tasks and problems, and so look at the big picture. We’ve set out to drive all across the Americas in a 40-year-old car. We prepared ourselves for a mass of inevitable breakdowns and troubles. Now that we’re here, it’s sometimes hard not get caught up in those small troubles. We’re not living the dream, because in my dream all these small problems were fun challenges. But we’re living an intense, demanding life, a life with new twists and turns every day, a life that we’re not likely to ever forget.
I’m looking at the empty spot in the engine compartment where the alternator is supposed to go. The molten wire hangs there, waiting to be repaired and connected to something. Breakdowns aren’t fun. But they are challenges, and overcoming challenges is what this whole adventure is about. So let’s figure this out and get the Old Girl back on the road.

Camping on a beautiful beach in Baja California.. stuck in the sand. Sometimes, the good and the bad parts aren’t far apart.

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About Author

Sven
Sven is a writer, software engineer, and roadside mechanic. He's currently driving in Big Emma from Alaska to Argentina. He's big on cheese and strongly believes that fruit and chocolate shouldn't be mixed.

4 Comments

  1. Michael Lee Amanuel on

    Incredible tenacity and intestinal fortitude (figuratively and literally) is what separates Sven and li’l Emma from the “average” adventurer. Life requires Balance. It is my hope that your have considerably more Open road than Bumps in the road on your journey…too many bumps tips that precarious scale and tarnishes the memory.

    • Sven

      This need for balance is exactly the point that I was trying to bring across. It can’t all just be peaches and pink balloons, there also have to be a few nails in the road as well. But that’s what we’re doing it for. I’m glad you liked the post!

  2. So well written. You are so right.. the reality isn’t all unicorns and rainbows, but the reason we continue to thrive while living a nomadic life is because we feel more ALIVE than we ever did in our day to day, 9-5, existence of the past. Good luck with the repairs and keep posting inspiration to all of us on the road, as well as though still dreaming about their own chance at it.

    • Sven

      Thank you so much for your kind words, Rhonda! I’m glad you liked the post. Yes, living on the road isn’t always easy, but that’s why we chose it, right? If we had wanted to always do the easiest thing, we would have stayed in our cozy homes instead of venturing out into the world. 🙂

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