This Couple Dropped Everything, Got Into Their Old Pickup And Never Looked Back
We’ve been following Richard and Ashley Giordano’s travels at Desk To Glory for some time now, always looking forward to reading about the adventures they’ve been able to have. After selling everything, the pair hit the road in an older-but-upgraded Toyota pickup truck.
We reached out and sent them a few questions and received a number of interesting and thoughtful responses. It’s quite the read, but touches on everything from route planning to safety while traveling through remote areas.
And just to make us look out the window a little more today, the pair has included some of the most astounding photography we’ve seen. Before you ask, that feeling you’re experiencing right now is completely normal, and even has a name: wanderlust.
Petrolicious: When you started planning your escape from “The Desk”, what attracted you to an overlanding trip and to this approximate route (instead of, say, backpacking across Asia)?
Richard and Ashley: Actually, the first plan included a backpacking trip through India and Nepal. Very quickly we realized that we craved something different, but still very simple. Ashley said that she wanted to relax on a beach and not have to worry about hauling around a backpack so we quickly had this vision in our heads of parking on a beach in Baja, setting up camp for a week at a time, and just soaking up the sun until we were recharged and ready for adventure.
I had been following a few blogs from Overlanders who had done similar trips, but had never really thought we would be able to pull it off. Seriously, who can just pack up and leave their jobs for a year at a time? Blasphemy. It had seemed like such a pipe dream until we made the decision to go and set our plan into action. Once we made the actual decision to leave it really was all about making a list and checking off the tasks one by one. We honestly didn’t think too much about the trip we were about to set off on. Even nowadays as we’re driving through Peru we look at each other and say, “This is crazy! I can’t believe we drove here.”
Petrolicious: What is your total expected mileage for this trip (one way and round-trip)?
Richard and Ashley: This keeps on changing as our plans evolve, but right now we expect that a total of 55,000 km will get us from Vancouver, BC south to Ushuaia, Argentina, and then north to Uruguay before shipping the truck to Texas or Mexico and finally driving home via a zig-zag pattern across the western United States.
Our original plan was to drive to Panama and back within 7 months. After only a few weeks on the road the plans had changed to include driving to Argentina. This necessitated a one year “break” in Vancouver to work, so we stored the truck in Costa Rica and went home to recharge the bank account. We eventually returned to the truck in May 2015 and have been driving south ever since.
Petrolicious: How do you even begin to plan for a trip like this? What resources – both expected and unexpected – proved most useful?
Richard and Ashley: Yeah… we kind of just jumped in with both feet and figured it out along the way. Honestly, we made the decision to leave and were driving south only five months later. At home we had to save as much money as possible, quit our jobs, and cancel all of those pesky monthly payments (internet, phone, etc). Once we had a tenant for our apartment all we needed to do was build a truck from the rusted/mouldy 1990 Toyota Pickup that was sitting on flat tires and nearly forgotten in my Dad’s backyard. After those tasks were complete we hit the road.
Ashley dominates (in a good way) the trip planning, at the very max up to a week in advance. When looking more than a week into the future we normally have a vague plan that changes constantly. Between paper maps for each specific country, Maps Me (an Open Street Map navigation software), and an app called iOverlander (for finding campsites worldwide) we have almost everything we need to plan en route. The best planning tips always come from people we meet along the way. Stretching the maps across the hood and discussing must-see points with people who have seen the sights first-hand is something that just can’t be beat.
Petrolicious: What advice did you receive ahead of time that has proven most useful?
Richard and Ashley: I think we ignored a lot of advice that would have been most useful. One piece of advice we hear regularly (and highly recommend) is that you test your rig and your gear plenty of time in advance of your trip. With this you’ll learn very quickly whether your set-up will work for you and if you need to make any changes before you are too far from home.
So of course we ignored this advice, mostly since we had limited time due to a self-imposed departure date. We only had 500 km (310 miles) of break-in kilometers and the first oil change on the motor before we started south. The first night on the trip was the first time we had slept in our rooftop tent. We had (still have?) no idea what we were doing, but figured out as much as possible along the way. We’re not saying this way doesn’t work, as it obviously has for us, you just have to be able to adapt to situations and make changes along the way if needed.
Ironically, it’s a case of “Do as I say, not as I do”. We strongly recommend saving more money than we did and spending more time testing your rig. Saying that, we are happy we didn’t get bogged down in the details. Maybe somewhere in between is the best option.
Petrolicious: Fairly or not, parts of Central America have a reputation for being dangerous. How have you found the region? What has surprised you most about the region – particular places – during your travels?
Richard and Ashley: As we approached the Mexican border more and more people from the US questioned our mental state of wanting to drive through that country. Once we crossed the border the Mexicans asked if our drive through the US was dangerous since there are so many guns there. Then when we approached the border to Belize the Mexicans told us to be careful because it’s very dangerous there. After crossing into Belize they asked us if we felt safe in Mexico. Everyone seems to be afraid of their neighbours.
There are certainly dangerous parts of every country. While travelling we are told by locals and other travellers which specific places to avoid and we take that advice to heart. We also do our best to avoid sticky situations by driving during the day and by setting up camp in safe locations well before the sun goes down. That way if a place has a weird or dangerous feel to it we’ll just continue down the road until we feel comfortable. We would do the same in North America if we took a wrong turn and ended up on the wrong side of town.
Overall the people of Latin American have been one of best parts of our trip. When you walk down the street and every person makes eye contact and says hello, it’s hard not to feel welcome.
In a specific instance, we were in Colombia and heading towards El Cocuy National Park and out of nowhere, a police officer ran out at us from a side road with his arms waving and out of breath. He spoke English fairly well, so we understood that his motorcycle broke down and he needed a ride to the next town. No problem! We squished into the cab and chatted with him about how dangerous this road used to be (guerrilla territory), but he assured us that it was now safe to drive. That is, until he said, “STOP! STOP!” and jumped out of the truck while it was still moving, his hand on his gun.
Looking in the sideview mirror we could see him looking for something in the trees on the side of the road. What the hell did he see?
“I SAW A SNAKE! I LOVE SNAKES! I THINK IT IS A BLACK MAMBA!”
After returning to the truck, hopping back in, and closing the door he said, “I like wildlife, but I’m afraid of snakes.”
Right. This kind police officer offered us a place to stay and a supply of potable water from the police station in Onzanga. He was really insistent that we should stay for a few nights since there was a big party happening on the weekend. Unfortunately, we had to decline as we had many more hours to conquer before we reached the town El Cocuy. We waved goodbye to our newly made POPO friend and put the pedal to the metal (in first or second gear only, of course) to the high altitude mountain town of El Cocuy.
Another time, in a town called Dos De Mayo in Peru it was getting dark and we needed a place to set up camp. We found a soccer field, and asked a couple of ladies watching their children play if it was okay to stay there for the night. They said, “Of course,” and within an hour we were playing volleyball with all of the kids from the neighbourhood.
Petrolicious: What have been your favourite roads/vistas/places along the way? Do you have a “top three” list for any of those categories?
Richard and Ashley: Top 3 Places in no particular order:
The one thing all of these places have in common are epic mountain views and scenic dirt roads. Our truck is the perfect basecamp at a trailhead where we can then don our boots and packs and head farther into the mountains.
Cotopaxi/Chimborazo Volcanos in Ecuador
Cordillera Blanca, Peru
El Cocuy, Colombia
But then there is Baja, California. Baja is in a category all it’s own. After crossing the border at San Diego into Tijuana, we immediately felt like the trip started for us. The epic beach camping, fish tacos, and Baja 1000 is something we’ll never forget. Luckily for us, Baja is close enough to home where we can most likely make our way back again.
Petrolicious: What awaits you at the other end of this trip when you return to BC (as I presume you will)?
Richard and Ashley: Yes, the plan is to return to BC once we are done. What awaits us? No idea. We constantly discuss (especially on long driving days) what our plans should be, where we should live, what we should do for work. Right now the “other end” is a blank slate and we are leaving ourselves open to all opportunities. A little exciting and a little scary at the same time, but all good.
Truck & Gear
Petrolicious: Did you choose this truck, or a Toyota in general, for a specific reason?
Richard: At the time of our trip prep, I owned a 2000 Chevrolet Silverado 4×4. Even though that truck had never let us down I still had more faith that a 1990 Toyota Pickup with a 22RE would take us far off the beaten track and back with fewer issues and have the parts availability throughout Central/South America when issues did crop up. Luckily, I happened to have a project truck sitting in the weeds in my Dad’s backyard.
Petrolicious: You’ve obviously modified the truck to suit your purposes. How did you balance the specialty mods with the potential need to replace parts in some remote corners of Latin America? Have you had cause for any major repairs along the way?
Richard: Essentially, I tried to leave the truck as stock as possible. I replaced the springs and shocks with beefy Old Man Emu parts, but shied away from a custom SAS. The little 2.4L 22RE was rebuilt instead of swapping in something more powerful. Bumpers and rock sliders were added for off-road protection and also to protect from the crazy (or so they seem to me) Latin American drivers.
The specialty mods were reserved to improve our camp life. We added a second battery (an Optima Yellowtop), a Samlex America 85W solar panel, and a 12V ARB fridge. That combined with our CVT rooftop tent round out the major additions. We tried to keep everything as simple as possible to avoid unnecessary problems on the road. The K.I.S.S., Keep It Simple Stupid, ideology was the main thought for the build because I really wanted to enjoy the trip instead of constantly fixing the truck.
Thankfully there haven’t been any major issues that left us stranded, but after 30,000 km (18,650 mi) of hard driving, plenty of parts of been replaced before significant damage occurred. We had a pinion seal replaced in Panama, clutch kit and brakes in Colombia, and tie-rod ends replaced in Peru. All of these parts were in stock in each of the respective towns. I am picky when it comes to who touches the truck if it isn’t me, but you learn pretty quickly which mechanics to trust and which ones honestly want to help, but who you wouldn’t necessarily want touching your rig.
I started off in the automotive hobby as a muscle car guy. As a 16-year-old, my 1967 Mustang Coupe (which I have now owned for 16 years) had a 351 bellowing out of a couple of glasspacks and skinny tires up front with big BFG Radial TAs meats out back. Most of that was all about looks, profiling on the street, and being able to do stupid big burnouts in the high school parking lot. The Toyota, on the other hand, was the complete opposite. This is a function over form build. Everything on the truck was done for a purpose, to get us as far away from home as possible with as much comfort as necessary, and then be able to safely return us back to where we started.
Petrolicious: What gear has proven most indispensable, and what did you buy that you’ve discovered you can live without?
Richard: We rarely use any of our 4×4 recovery gear on our own truck, but it has come in handy to extract other vehicles and we would never leave home without it just in case. It seems like we drive on dirt roads all of the time, but 99% of these roads just require a little bit of clearance and airing down of the tires to smooth the ride. We would never do without that gear, but have been happy that it doesn’t need to be used very often.
A tire plug kit and air compressor have come in handy more times than anything else. Plugging and airing up a tire is much quicker and easier that having to swap on the full size spare when you run over a nail or a ½” diameter 6” bolt (it happened in Guatemala). A full toolkit tailored to the truck is used constantly as well. With thousands of dirt roads under our tires, there is always something to maintain. Sometimes it’s tightening our shackle bolts, sometimes it’s a basic oil change, and sometimes we just need to add a couple of LED lights when we realize we had no way to see at night in camp.
Since our truck really isn’t that big, there haven’t been many things that we brought that we don’t need. There just wasn’t the space to bring extra junk. In reality, we learned very quickly that overall, we can live without anything that doesn’t fit in the bed of our pickup.
Photography by Desk to Glory