Jessi And The Bass: Meet The German Couple Traveling North America In A Defender
Photography by Andrew Golseth
A few months ago, I stumbled across this white Defender parked at a rest stop just north of San Diego. After throwing the driver a thumbs-up of approval, I noticed the German plates affixed to the heavily equipped adventure machine. Curiosity got the best of me, and I ended up chatting with the couple that, as it turns out, have been calling this Land Rover home since August of 2016.
They were unfortunately flying out the next day to Central America, leaving their rolling four-wheel drive house in storage until they returned to continue their North American escapade. I handed them a card and insisted they get in touch with me when they rendezvoused back to America’s Finest City, which they thankfully obliged.
Last week, I spent an afternoon with Jessika (Jessi) and Sebastian (a.k.a. The Bass) to hear why these two German English teachers decided to spend their sabbatical traveling North America in Britain’s greatest 4×4.
Andrew Golseth: Okay, first things first: whose idea was this? How did this whole ship-a-Defender-overseas-and-live-in-it-for-a-year idea come about?
The Bass: Well, we’ve always wanted to do this, both of us, even before we met. When we realized this was a serious relationship, it didn’t take us long to figure out that we wanted to spend our sabbatical doing a road trip. We looked at a map of the world and decided it had to be the States—well, really North and Central America.
Jessi: We didn’t want to be stuck in the Defender during the harsh winter though because it doesn’t have the best insulation!
The Bass: Yeah. We wanted to focus on the northern parts because we’ve both already been to South America, but the big question was whether to drive down to Central America or not. In the end we just decided to focus on the States and Canada, and to just spend the two coldest months down in Central America. So we flew down there for the winter months, which is really the only break we’ve taken.
AG: Obviously this rig has been extensively modified—what all have you done to prepare this Landy for such an endeavor?
The Bass: We specifically searched for a Defender that already had a pop-up roof installed. We found this one on the other end of Germany, down South in Bavaria. The mileage wasn’t too high, and it was fairly cheap, but we knew we would have to refurbish it a bit. After a test drive, we decided to buy it, and then we drove it from Bavaria to our home in Hamburg.
It was just a white box to us: we’d never driven anything quite like this before. It’s not like a normal car—it’s loud, it’s bumpy, it’s noisy. You hear every squeak and rattle. We took a pretty big risk jumping into this because it could have been a total mess, but we got lucky. Of course, there were things that needed to be fixed though. At first, we paid to have things repaired but quickly realized that was too expensive, so I ended up picking up the tools. I honestly didn’t know anything about mechanics, but we just didn’t want to spend money paying someone else to do the work so I just figured it out. It’s been very reliable mechanically. It’s never left us stranded, but there are always little things to fix.
AG: I imagine you learned how to turn a wrench pretty quickly owning a Defender?
The Bass: [Laughs] Yeah. The funny thing I realized was when I’d mess up something trying to make a repair, oftentimes buying the additional spare part is still cheaper than taking the car to the garage because it’s just my time—we’re not paying for the labor. I’ve learned a lot. Actually one of the biggest benefits of this project has been all the skills I’ve learned.
I spent a small fortune on tools up front, but then I realized I could do other things with the tools. I can do all sorts of things in the home now and I am able to figure out how things work and fix them myself. We had a garage do it in the beginning, spent quite some money on that. But in the end it turned out to be quite okay.
AG: So, aside from the camper top, you’ve done most of the modifications and repairs yourself?
The Bass: Yes. When we bought it, there was some furniture already installed—there were cabinets, which the previous owners had built, but they were really crap, already falling apart. So, I decided to strip it completely, which led to the realization that the inside of the doors had gotten pretty rotten.
So after repairing that, I set out to build the cabinetry, which took quite a bit of time to fit everything properly. Then I installed a second battery and this automatic relay system that splits the batteries in addition to a 100-watt solar panel, which keeps the batteries charged. This is about the coolest thing in the vehicle because it keeps the added accessories constantly powered without draining the primary battery. This system ensures we’re never left with a dead battery and there’s always power to the accessories and fridge, so we have cold beer all the time!
Jessi: And cheese!
The Bass: Yeah, and cheese, cold beer and cheese.
AG: You’ve gotta prioritize the important stuff. So, the fridge stays on all the time? That’s a pretty trick set up.
The Bass: All the time, right. And it’s a good one. I mean we could use it to make ice if we wanted to. We keep it just above freezing to have really cold drinks all the time.
We had two years with the truck in Germany before we set off. We didn’t do too much work on it during the first year, because we were just getting to know it and busy meeting people who could help us with it. So the year before the trip was really intense in preparing the vehicle.
Jessi: I never saw him, because he was always gone working on it.
The Bass: Yeah. Luckily we found a place where we could stow it in a garage so we could work on it. I spent every free minute I had working on the truck during the year before the trip. I spent so much time working on the truck, getting everything ready. I’m a little bit of a perfectionist, so we didn’t see much of each other in the last six months before the trip.
Jessi: We kind of got to meet each other all over again, you know.
The Bass: Yeah, plus she was busy with work and doing all the planning for the trip. She read all the guidebooks and figured out what roads and paths to take. I had nothing to do with that, that was all her.
AG: So you were in charge of preparing the vehicle, and, Jessi, you were in charge of sort of mapping out the whole trip?
Jessi: That’s right. I was in charge of the logistics of shipping the Defender and mapping out the trip—sort of the tour guide.
AG: You were tasked with shipping the Defender from Germany to the states? Is that a challenging process to get the one-year EPA and FMVSS exemption?
Jessi: It’s not too complicated. I mean, yeah, it was a lot of research figuring out how insurance works and that sort of thing. But in the end, it was fairly easy. There’s this company called Seabridge, they took care of all the shipping logistics. It’s a pretty easy process actually.
AG: So, after you’d prepped and shipped the vehicle—when, where, and how did you two begin this adventure?
The Bass: Well, the vessel first stops in Canada, at Halifax to be exact. That took two weeks, and then a week later it arrived in Baltimore.
Jessi: It only took 19 days for it to arrive to there.
The Bass: We flew to New York first, spent some time there, then went and picked up the car at the Baltimore port. As an English teacher who’d never been to the states before, it was a little bit overwhelming. Of course, I knew a great deal about the United States, but to really see it in person finally is just awesome. We began in July when New York was stifling hot, so we were happy to get on the road.
Jessi: Our first big stop was in Cincinnati, where I had lived for two years when I was younger, so I had some friends there I had kept in touch with.
The Bass: We met some nice people there. After Ohio, we were just anxious to get west of the Rockies. It was an awful long drive through the Midwest.
Jessi: We pretty much went straight across from Ohio to Colorado.
The Bass: One funny thing: we visited a German town called Hermann, which is featured in one of our English textbooks. Generations of students have known about Hermann and it was just funny to see it on a map.
Jessi: Funny because we didn’t even know if it really existed, so we went to go find out.
The Bass: And it’s exactly how its portrayed in this textbook we teach English from!
Jessi: We spent some time there and by the end of our stay, we were known throughout the whole town. You know, we were “those German English teachers carrying textbooks around” because we wanted to take the same pictures that were featured in the book, which we did.
AG: So you could take them back to your students later and show them that Hermann, Missouri, is a real thing?
Jessi: Exactly. So we did and we became a bit of a sensation in the town. We were even invited to stay at the Hermann Hill Vineyard and Spa for free, which is a very nice place.
The Bass: They gave us a $300 night stay for free!
AG: I take it German English teachers showing up in Hermann, Missouri, probably doesn’t happen too often? So, you guys were like rock stars there?
Jessi: [Laughs] Exactly. And they didn’t even know they were in this book, which they found intriguing. So we gave them a copy of our textbook.
The Bass: After making it across the meat of the midwest, we spent some time in Boulder and got to know some very nice people there. Then, we moved onto some national parks. The first being the Dinosaur National Monument in Utah, which was really cool. Then Yellowstone, which was a little crowded. You go there and you’re just one more tourist taking photos. I liked the public lands and the national forests much more than the national parks. Often they are just as beautiful as the parks, but you can find some solitude.
Jessi: Then we went to Glacier National Park, so all the way north until the Canadian border, which was great. Then south through Idaho, Utah, and Arizona, and basically all the national parks there. It was just beautiful. I believe that was in October.
The Bass: We spent more time in Idaho than we had initially planned because one of the wheel bearings had worn out, which actually turned out to be a good thing. Through trying to replace the wheel bearing, we met some of the coolest people on the trip yet. Not only the wheel bearing, but the prop shaft too. The front prop shaft, the U-joints, the double cordons, they had all gone. So I figured it was just easier to get a new prop shaft, which is luckily shared with the Discovery 2 that they sold here in the states. So that was one part that was easy to get. We met a lot of great people who helped us source the other parts.
AG: You’ve gotta love the car community’s camaraderie, as you two were almost entirely dependent on this rugged machine reliably operating—have you had any major mechanical setbacks?
The Bass: Not really, it’s been pretty sturdy so far. It hasn’t left us stranded anywhere—even with the bad wheel bearing we still drove 200 miles without it giving out.
AG: From San Diego, what’s next on the horizon?
The Bass: We’re going to do the Anza-Borrego Desert, Joshua Tree, and some of the Lost Coast Trail in Northern California, then on through Oregon and Washington before taking on Canada.
AG: You’re going to see more of the United States than 99% of Americans. Do you ever give in and stay at a hotel or are you really committed to living in the Defender?
Jessi: We’ve barely gone to any hotels. For the first four months or so, apart from briefly visiting with some friends, we slept every night in the Defender.
AG: You two are more hardcore than I am. What’s life like living in a Defender? Is it tough on your relationship?
The Bass: We manage really well. We’ve really got no issues with each other, the only thing is that she’s a very light sleeper, so I’ve got to move around quietly because she wakes up at the slightest movement. I sleep like a stone. [Laughs] So for me it’s been great!
Jessi: Yeah, but it’s pretty comfortable. It’s certainly better than a tent. I wouldn’t want to sleep in a tent on the ground. We have a mattress in the top, so it’s not too bad. We’ve gotten used to it.
The Bass: If we need more space, we’ve also got a cot we can put outside when the weather’s nice enough to sleep under the stars.
AG: How often do you move? Is it every couple days, once a week?
The Bass: Probably every three days or so. Once we see enough of a location, we move on.
Jessi: I think the longest we’ve stayed in one area was five days. By then, we usually have to resupply food because we try to do real cooking. When we run out of real groceries, it’s on to stuff like pasta and rice.
AG: How off-the-grid have you gone?
The Bass: I think the furthest we’ve gone out, remote-wise, was in Wyoming. We went way out in the Killpecker Sand Dunes, which is in the Red Desert. We had this atlas and guessed our way through all the back roads. I just wanted to take a look at those dunes, and then we drove right into it because we had taken a wrong turn somewhere.
Jessi: I said, “Maybe we should stop here and go back.”
The Bass: And I said, “No just a bit closer, just a bit closer to the sand.” Gravel road turned into dirt road, and the dirt road turned into pure sand. We went down this steep sloping sand dune and when I tried to reverse, I realized there was no way we were getting out of there. We were stuck going down, so we pressed on down the hill. Once we were at the bottom, we got stuck in the sand for real, down to the axle.
Jessi: With absolutely nobody else around!
The Bass: This was the only time we’ve had to use the sand boards. After checking the vehicle out, we dug a lot with the shovel, put the sand boards underneath, and we had to repeat this whole procedure ten times, all to get maybe 50 yards further to the next gravel road—because we could only go two to three yards at a time through the sand. Once we were finally on the gravel road and we found it on the map, we realized it was just about 12 miles due north from the nearest highway, so we took the gravel road and just half a mile before the highway there was a creek. It was pretty dried out but it was still around three yards deep and there was no way of going through it. There used to be a bridge, but of course it had collapsed.
Jessi: And it was getting dark and we really wanted to get out of the desert that day, but it just wasn’t going to happen. We ended up staying there.
AG: You just camped there for the night?
The Bass: Yeah. The next day, we tried another path and after ten minutes we were out of there. So, we got pretty lucky. It’s odd. You get a little bit stressed in these type of situations but at the same time it’s kind of cool to be stuck there.
Jessi: It’s easier to accept being stuck somewhere because you know you don’t have any problems you have to fix right then. We had water for three or four days and plenty of food.
AG: I can see how that’d be pretty fun. What’s been your favorite aspect of this trip?
The Bass: We are all surface simulation addicts, so it’s been great to get away from computers, cell phones, etcetera. It’s good to get away from it.
Jessi: Yeah, it’s great. I’ve never read so many books in my life. I’m reading all the time now. We’re both reading so much. It’s such a great thing to have free time, for reading, writing journals, and just taking time for other things.
The Bass: And there is time so I can finally do things I’ve always wanted to do. Like doing archery. Two weeks into the trip, I bought a bow, arrows, and a target cube. Just to set it up, shoot a few dozen arrows, it’s very relaxing.
Jessi: And I’m learning how to play the guitar. I bought a six-string in Boulder and I’m trying to teach myself. I’ve still got a lot of work ahead. [Laughs] But I’ve been trying to practice as often as possible.
The Bass: Finding a purpose, a hobby, something you are working towards, it’s freeing because it’s not just about driving around and seeing the country. During the first two months we did nothing else, but then we realized we have all this time to workout, which we needed to do because the food here in the states… it’s very tasty, but not always healthy! It’s just been amazing to realize how little you actually need to live a fulfilling life.
AG: You mentioned meeting a lot of great people—I imagine, like when I walked up to you to chat about the Defender, you probably get a lot of attention in this thing?
The Bass: I was surprised that people are so attracted to the car. I mean it’s in your culture to pay people compliments, and in Europe that doesn’t happen as much. Every single parking lot we’ve been in, when we get groceries or at gas stations or whatever, somebody walks up and at least gives us a thumbs-up, or says, “Cool rig, man.” Very often we get into conversations with these people. It happens so often we call it, “The Talk.” We’ll see someone walking towards us and we’ll tell each other, “Okay here comes someone. You do the talking this time.”
AG: Unavoidable, right?
Jessi: It’s funny. We can see very quickly who’s really interested in the car versus who is just going to give us a thumbs-up. We can tell the difference by the way they’re approaching the truck. There are just so many people who are sincerely interested. It’s great.
The Bass: So many open-minded people, very friendly and helpful.
Jessi: That’s true. That’s how we get to meet people—we’ve met such great people on the road. It’s a wonderful way of connecting with really good people. It’s one big surprise I didn’t think would happen that much.
AG: What other unexpected positive things have emerged from this trip?
Jessi: I think spending so much time together. I didn’t think we would enjoy it as much as we are. Because I think being with someone 24/7 for a whole year could be quite a challenge for anybody. We already had our strategies beforehand, before we left Germany. We said, “You know we have to give ourselves some space. Every once in a while, we’ll need to go our own ways.” But we don’t need that as much as we assumed we would. If anything, I think we’re getting to know each other even better.
AG: That clearly takes some special chemistry. Being confined within such a small space with someone for so long would pose challenges on any relationship, but you guys are obviously very compatible. What about food? I noticed the rear hatch mounted grill.
Jessi: Yes, we cook almost all our meals on the grill.
The Bass: We have a little charcoal grill we use every once in a while, but we mostly use the gas Coleman stove. We barbecue a lot because it’s just so easy to use, plus having chilled beer always ready—it’s so tempting to have a cold beer out there in the wilderness!
AG: Hard to beat a brew in the great outdoors. If somebody was inspired by what you’re doing and they wanted to do something similar, what advice would you give them?
Jessi: Do it. Simply do it. Don’t think about what could happen. What might be difficult about it, because as long as you can afford it and can afford to leave for a year, do it. Don’t be intimidated by it. Yes, there are obstacles, of course, but there are obstacles in everyday life too.
The Bass: Things seem difficult at first, but everything is difficult at first. With a little research and talking to the right people, you can sort anything out. I mean, obviously you know about cars, but if you start out like we did, knowing nothing about cars, have somebody test-drive a Defender—someone who really knows Defenders. That’s probably the most important piece of advice because you could really end up overpaying for a pretty rough truck.
AG: So, you’re about 2/3 done with your trip—are you guys eager to get back?
Jessi: No. In the beginning I could not picture myself ever going back, going back to the routines of life. But after having been on the road for four to five months, I finally had the first moment where I imagined myself back to normality.
For the first months, it was just, “No, I’m just never going back.” Even though our life is great back in Germany. We have good jobs and a nice home. We were happy with friends and everything around, but city life routines are just tiring. This is freedom. This is complete freedom. Every day we can decide what we want to do and we do it or we don’t. That for me is the most important thing. Seeing new things, having real experiences. Each day being able to decide what you want to do, that’s pure freedom. For us, that’s been the best part about traveling.