Buenos Vientos, Ballena Blanca

Us with Ballena Blanca in front of the giant rock in California in 2018.

Ballena Blanca is gone. Off to new adventures with a new owner. On May 10 we signed the papers, deposited a check with my phone, and gave Ballena Blanca’s keys to her new companion.

Ballena was our only permanent home for 8 years. Greg and I lived in her longer than any other home we owned together. And besides my childhood home, she was the home I lived in the longest.

She took us as far north as Alaska where we walked on glaciers and encountered Musk Ox and south to Oaxaca, Mexico to a travertine waterfall. She took us to Maine where we saw puffins in the Atlantic Ocean and experienced Acadia National Park. To California where we watched sea lions in the Pacific. To Baja California where we spotted whales in Sea of Cortez and watched newly hatched sea turtles cross the beach to their new home in the ocean. To Texas where we camped along the Gulf Coast, and to Florida where we kayaked in the Everglades looking for vibrant pink Spoonbills.

*** Click on pics to enlarge and see them in a slide show.

Spoonbills take flight in the Everglades, Florida.

Finding Ballena Blanca

We never intended to live in a van. Our journey in Ballena Blanca started with a desire to have a bigger vehicle for our summer house-sits in Cabbagetown when we were still sailing seasonally in our boat, Blue Wing. At the time we had a little green Honda Civic which we’d cram full of all our belongings – clothing, shoes, toiletries, computing devices, and musical instruments. If there were ever any provisions left over from sailing (I almost always way over-provisioned), we loaded those up in the car too. And then there were things like blenders and food processors, kitchen knives, and measuring spoons and cups, because some of our house-sits were way less equipped than others.

Our little green Civic wasn’t cutting it. Originally I was thinking about something like a hatchback SUV. But then somehow the idea of a van got into my head.

In my mind I saw an open, airy, and compact van that both Greg and I could stand up in. It was 2014, van life was just starting to get hot, and old VW Westfalias were the thing. I thought a VW would be just what we needed. We decided to look for a diesel because on the boat we were so used to not spending money on fuel and Greg thought he could convert a diesel to run off of vegetable oil.

We soon found one and named it Great A’Tuin after the slow-traveling space turtle going to an unknown destination in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld Books. It was a disaster. We had problems immediately. We drove ‘Atuin to Florida to register it and broke down on the way back. Then a year later on our way to New Orleans to see my niece, A’tuin broke down again as we were passing through Alabama. This time the fix would cost serious money. So we towed Great A’tuin to Florida, stuck it in Greg’s parents’ garage and decided to go sailing. Then we tried to sail to Mexico and broke the boat.

We now had a broken boat and a broken van, so we motored our broken sailboat back to our marina and returned to Greg’s folks’ house. We had already decided to try to sell our broken van instead of fixing it. In 2016 it wasn’t hard to sell a Westfalia that didn’t run. If you are curious about A’Tuin’s short life with us, here is a summary of all the posts I wrote about A’T, my first Goodbye to a vehicle post.

We had given up on the idea of owning a Westfalia and running it on veggie oil. But we hadn’t given up on the idea of a van. We changed directions and started to look for a cargo van to build-out ourselves. We spent a lot of time driving up and down the Florida Coast looking at vans that were unsuitable, too old, very high mileage, and too beat up. Then we upped our price range and found the one we wanted, a used one-year-old Ford Transit Enterprise rental, with 28,000 miles. We named her Ballena Blanca, white whale in Spanish, because she was white and drove like a slow oversized sea creature lumbering down the highway.

Greg and the salesman look at a Ford Transit Van.

Turning Ballena Blanca into our home

We spent the rest of that winter/spring selling Greg’s parents’ house in Florida and doing a very makeshift build in the van. We went back to Cabbagetown as we did every summer and house-sat. Besides having a lot more space to lug around all of our stuff, Greg now had a vehicle to lug around tools and materials for his house painting business.

In the fall, we didn’t return to our sailboat as usual but instead went to live with Greg’s parents in North Carolina where we started to build out Ballena Blanca. I planned everything and did most of the research, and Greg did most of the carpentry work, plumbing, and electrical work.

Still from a video we made on our inaugural trip in Ballena Blanca.

When we had our walls, floors, ceiling, and electricity in and our bed built we took Bellena Blanca on her maiden voyage, a quick trip north to visit some family and do some sightseeing. When we returned to North Carolina, we added a countertop, sink, and plumbing. After two months, the van still wasn’t finished, but the basics were there and we were more than ready to hit the road. We would build more as we traveled that first year, a cabinet in New Orleans at my niece’s apartment, a toilet in Tucson at my friend’s house, shelves in Quartzite, AZ at the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, and window coverings in Albuquerque in a Walmart parking lot. In subsequent years, among other things, we would add more shelves, cabinet doors, and a new countertop and sink, and rebuild the toilet.

We saw so many amazing things that first season in Ballena Blanca, natural wonders, kitschy art, and ancient ruins. We experienced science and history. We learned how to live life on the road and how to find the best places to stay. Here is a map of our travels from our first year on the road.

How could we ever sell her!

The impetus for selling Ballena Blanca began in Oaxaca, Mexico little over a year ago. We were driving down a highway when all of a sudden Ballena’s transmission went out. This led to 4 months of being stranded in Mexico trying to get the transmission fixed/replaced. During this time we lived in a cabaña at a nice campground where we had been camped before our van troubles. I started to silently suffer with the existential angst of not being able to see a future in which we would ever get BB fixed or leave Mexico. Maybe it was the stagnation of our situation, but driving around looking at stuff just didn’t seem like enough for me anymore. I wanted to accomplish something with my life. I wanted to learn Spanish.

Ballena Blanca at a garage in Oaxaca, Mexico.

I had been teaching myself Spanish for years and Greg had studied in high school and college and been brushing up for a year or two. So even though we knew lots of grammar and words, we knew we’d never be able to communicate with people unless we immersed ourselves.

We took two weeks of lessons while we were trapped in Oaxaca, but they were a little pricy to continue for any length of time. I suggested that once we finally got Ballena Blanca back and returned to the US, we store the van and fly to South America to study the language for 6 months.

At the end of May Ballena finally had a new transmission and we made our way back to the Southeastern US to visit with and check on Greg’s parents. We had been increasingly concerned about Greg’s parents’ advanced age and health. We wanted to hang around the Carolinas and Georgia for a while so we could periodically check on them. We made plans to store the van and set October as our departure date to fly off to Ecuador. In August, Greg’s dad died and our plans completely changed. We didn’t fly off to anywhere in October.

Changing tack

Ballena Blanca parked next to Blue Wing.

Switching gears isn’t new to us. After our inaugural season traveling in Ballena Blanca, we went back to our sailboat. The van was only supposed to help facilitate our house-sitting life, we were still sailors. We had a lot of work to do that fall and spent more time in the boat yard than we had ever before. We parked the Ballena Blanca right next to Blue Wing and lived in her while we worked. We had to replace the forestay and roller fuller which got damaged when we were hit by the white squall in our previous sailing season. We spent time replacing old appliances and other things that mysteriously started to fail.  And, of course, there was the regular boat maintenance like sanding and painting the bottom. Once we put Blue Wing in the water we encountered more problems. Some areas of the boat had filled up with water while it had been sitting on the hard for over a year and the bilge pump wouldn’t stop for several days. Then the boat wouldn’t start and we had to tow it with our dingy to our slip. I began to lose confidence in her and wanted to only sail in Florida for a while before we went anywhere too far from land. Greg wanted to leave the country. During a particularly hard day full of frustrations, just before we were supposed to leave the marina I looked a Greg and pointed to Ballena Blanca parked next to the docks and said, she’s right there and she is easy. The next day we hauled Blue Wing out of the water and within a week drove off in Ballena Blanca.

After Greg’s dad died we lived with Greg’s mom for a while. She needed help with many things. When Greg’s brother would come to stay with her we would do some house-sitting or excursions in Ballena Blanca. In November we moved back into the van and found places to stay close to Greg’s mom. With the increasingly cold weather, we lined up more house-sitting.

Our plan for South America was still in our future but we no longer had a deadline for leaving. I started to worry about leaving Ballena sitting for so long, 6 months or, maybe, more, while we were away. Just like a house, it isn’t good for any vehicle to sit unattended for so long. We wanted to rebuild her living area when we returned from South America anyway. We had been in limbo for so long, two or three more months wouldn’t make that much of a difference, I thought, let’s sell her.

The Plan to find Ballena Blanca a new occupant

The only problem with selling your home is that when you do if you don’t have another home lined up, you immediately become homeless. We could find house-sitting through our Trusted House Sitters app, but where we were in the Southeast there weren’t a lot of sits. We thought we had a better chance of selling the van quickly in the west where more people lived and traveled in vans. After looking at our options of areas with a concentration of house-sitting opportunities, Denver and its surrounding cities looked like our best bet. While we were still in the Carolinas we lined up 6 back-to-back house sits over two months. In February we hit the road for one last time in Ballena Blanca, heading toward Colorado.

Once we got to Colorado we still had lots to do before we could put Ballena on the market. There were small interior repairs, she needed to be cleaned really well, and she needed one last trip to the mechanics. She had been making some odd noises. We had taken her to Ford in North Carolina but they were unable to diagnosis the problem. In Colorado we had luck. The Ford service center in Fort Collins figured it out and got her in tip-top shape. She never ran or sounded better. About 3 weeks later we put her on the market.

Finally success

By the time we listed her we only had about a month left of house sitting so we added another 3 1/2 week sit. I posted Ballena for sale on Facebook Marketplace, Vancamper, and Craigslist. I joined every Facebook group for selling campers and RVs that I could and made posts about Ballena Blanca. I messaged with a few people extensively about the van, but that messaging never led to a sale. We showed the van 3 times and did 2 test drives but no sale. It was getting down to the wire. Once we arrived at our last house sit we decided to look for a different market to sell Ballena. We made a plan to drive to the Portland/Seattle area after the completion of the sit. Then with about a week and a half of our house left, the van started getting interest again. There were two different people who wanted to see it. One wanted to see her on the weekend. The other guy was driving from Missouri and wanted to see her as soon as he arrived in Colorado. He messaged me the next day to say he had arrived. We met Ryan in the parking lot of Home Depot close to our house sit. He took a test drive and made an offer. I countered, he countered, and we accepted. Ryan made an appointment to take Ballena to a garage 2 days later to have her checked out. I started looking for car rentals and let the other guy know that we might have a buyer.

I was a little nervous about our trip to the garage, but I had confidence in Ballena Blanca. We met Ryan there in the morning. He went off for breakfast and we waited in a tiny little office chatting with the manager while one of the mechanics did his diagnostic on Ballena. It didn’t take long before the mechanic came into the office and started gushing. She was in amazingly good shape for her age and miles. I felt proud. The deal was on.

Ryan, like us, is a full-time nomad. He had been living in his SUV. With the permission of the owners of the house where we were staying, he spent a couple of nights in the van in the house’s driveway while he moved all of his stuff from his car. We borrowed Ryan’s new van to drive to the airport and get a rental car. Ryan’s current vehicle was on its last legs so he spent some time searching for a way to dispose of it. When Ryan found someone who would pay a few hundred dollars for his vehicle, Greg, in our rental car, followed Ryan into the city where Ryan’s car was towed away.

On May 12 Ryan drove away in his new home.

Our life with Ballena Blanca

Living in a van isn’t for everyone. And honestly, sometimes it was hard. We drove down bad roads and had to turn around several times. We got stuck a few times on the beach and once while driving to the Lava Church in Mexico. We broke down in a National Forest in Florida. We got “the knock” a few times at night and were told to move by the police. Once we left our campsite voluntarily after dark when we heard a four-wheeler driving around outside, heard it stop, and then heard someone pull on the van’s door handle. We had noisy nights on the beach in Mexico with people partying outside Ballena’s walls. We’ve been too hot and too cold. The wind has shaken her and we have been trapped in her with rain pouring down.

But the good things about traveling in Ballena Blanca have been too numerous to count.

Just driving around in her was a joy. We saw so many amazing sights just driving down.

We camped in some of the most amazing places. Often in places where people hardly ever go, usually for free. With Ballena Blanca we had the freedom to go almost anywhere.

We visited friends and family all over the country. We made new friends along the way. And best of all we got to invite friends to our home.

We visited some of the most amazing natural areas in her. And learned so much about the history, culture, and science as we traveled through the US, Mexico, and Canada.  But most of all, I think I loved just hanging out in her, enjoying the view out of her windows and doors.

14 thoughts on “Buenos Vientos, Ballena Blanca

  1. What a wonderful tribute to a life well lived and loved in Ballena Blanca. Loved the story from Bob’s viewpoint and the fabulous photos from all over North America. What’s coming up next for you? Is is still on to Ecuador for Spanish lessons or have you now planned something else? Whatever it is, I wish you great and safe times ahead.

    1. Thank you Annie! I have so many Bob pictures! We are currently in Colombia taking Spanish lessons. So we finally made it! From here we go to Ecuador and then probably Peru. Who knows after that.

  2. What an amazing journey you’ve had with Ballena Blanca. This is the perfect tribute to your home on wheels for so long. I’m so happy we could play a (relatively big) part of your North American adventures. Some of the photos seem so old and we look so young! 🙂

    Enjoy South America and we hope to see you in a few months!

    1. I’ve loved running into you and traveling with you all over North America. One of our favorite times was hanging out with you, Mark, Maya, and Scamper Squad in the desert.

      And yes, we looked so young. I can’t believe how young I looked in the pic from our inaugural trip in Ballena Blanca.

      Yes, we are Medellin! And we are looking forward to seeing a bit more of Colombia. Espero que nos veamos soon. Hope to see you soon!

  3. Wow, what a summation of an incredible life chapter — more like an encyclopedia. I’m grateful to Ballena Blanca for the adventures she afforded you and, through your fantastic writing, all of us. May she ride on for many years!

    1. Thank you Rick! Glad we got to visit you in her! And yes, I hope she is on new adventures with her new person.

  4. Wow, what an incredible journey you and Ballena Blanca have had! It’s truly inspiring to read about all the amazing places you’ve visited and the adventures you’ve experienced. From glaciers in Alaska to waterfalls in Mexico, it sounds like Ballena Blanca has been the perfect companion for your nomadic lifestyle. Your story is a testament to the joys and challenges of van life, and it’s clear that Ballena Blanca will always hold a special place in your hearts. Best of luck to her new owner, and cheers to your next adventure!

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