Dan and Marlene, along with their three children, Ava, Mila, and Luka, travel the world in their 170 Mercedes Sprinter van. The journey began 16 years ago when the couple chose to bundle up 10-month-old Ava and hit the road, towing a 25-foot Airstream as their first casa on wheels.
Epiphanies came in waves on the initial three-month trip (not yet ending) that was never intended to segue into a full-on lifestyle change. The couple remembers when baby Ava had a major respiratory infection on their first adventure from California to Tucson, and they came to the realization that if they could camp in a hospital parking lot, they could camp anywhere.
When it came time to wrap up the trip, the biggest reveal came in realizing that their old life left much to be desired and that what they wanted most was to spend the time they had together—together. Having clued into the benefits of working remotely early on, a no-holds-barred philosophy ushered in a new type of life where everything could be experienced as a unit. They would raise their children and be present for it all, providing opportunities for their kids that many only dream of.
As the family increased in number, in what may seem on the surface like a paradoxical about-face, Mali Mish outgrew their Airstream, graduating to a smaller vehicle, paring down their wants and needs to fit into more diminutive modes of transport whose streamlined efficiency improved with each iteration. However, comfort remained paramount—just smarter comfort, such as permanent beds that became a must in their builds. Then there are the small things that make life easier, like collapsible do-it-all buckets and the funnel that fits everything you need it to. Something doesn’t have to be expensive or elaborate to make a big difference in simplifying your daily life, whether on the road or off.
After journeying to 49 US states, all of the Canadian provinces, and 47 countries (and counting), one of Mali Mish’s favorite places is Joshua Tree, a mere one hour away from their former stationary home, but a destination they never ventured to until they turned nomads. They muse that life has a way of coming full circle in unexpected ways.
Words of wisdom drip off Dan and Marlene’s tongues in a perpetual stream, but these tips are some of our favorites, offering insight to experienced and new overlanders alike.
- Maintain stability when starting out. Make marginal moves in downsizing, such as transitioning from an apartment to an RV. You will adjust and make modifications as you go.
- Be flexible. Let uncertainty and fear occur, and as you move past those feelings, your reaction to them will become normalized. Flexibility will take you everywhere, as well as the understanding that there are no perfect adventures.
- There is no set formula for success when it comes to making money on the road. Choose the method or job that brings you closer to your goal, and not necessarily the choice that brings you more dollars; it will bring you to a happier, easier-to-maintain place.
- When it comes to living on the road, it’s not about lasting as long as you can. When it’s not fun anymore, stop, knowing you can start up again at any time.
- Go before it’s gone. Nothing lasts forever.
Meet Mali Mish, Expedition Portal’s 2023 Overlander(s) of the Year.
Marlene, how did a nickname given to you by your grandma end up as the family handle?
Mali Mish means little mouse in Croatian. We had our first baby in early 2007 and were looking for a domain name to blog about our experience as new parents. Since we were living away from both of our parents and had no other family in the city we were living in, it was a good way for us to keep them updated. Ava was the first grandchild on both sides of our families. Becoming parents was also a major driver for us to want to travel and live on the road together so we could show her everything there is to see. We never intended for this to be such a long endeavor, but we wouldn’t do it any differently.
It all began in a 25-foot Airstream, and after switching rigs a few times, you landed in a Mercedes 170 Sprinter van in 2018. Is there a different vehicle in your near future?
We were pretty naive to the nomadic lifestyle and had no idea what kind of traveling we wanted to do and where these journeys would eventually take us. The Airstream was the biggest model we could fit on the driveway of our Spanish-style cottage built in 1928. In 2008, the housing crisis caused a major downturn in the RV industry, so we were fortunate to find great deals on everything we needed.
In the summer of 2015, during our seventh year on the road after visiting all of the lower 48 states and most of Canada, we [headed to] the final continent state of Alaska. We went farther than we could have imagined but realized our vehicle was holding us back. That fall, we downsized to a Ford F-250 4×4 with a Four Wheel Camper Grandby and began the international phase of our life on the road.
After two years of seeing a large part of Mexico and back across to the maritime provinces of Canada, Newfoundland/Labrador, we decided to ship across the Atlantic. The F-250 was not a great choice for that journey because of its size and availability of parts. We decided to build out a 4×4 Sprinter van. It also gave us a bit more room and hard sides for the colder climates we would encounter.
Like most full-time travelers, we are always looking at what might be a better rig based on where we go and how we live. For now, the van still works, but as the kids are becoming older, we are bursting at the seams. Next year, our baby girl, who inspired us to take to the road back in 2008, will be a senior in high school. We wouldn’t mind switching over to something smaller and more capable as each of the kids flies the nest. It will likely be 2025 before we make any serious decisions.
The success of continuous overlanding is dependent on the string of decisions one is constantly making. Do you ever find yourself stressed out from the demands, even if they end in joy realized?
Living on the road is always more stressful than a stationary life. Even living in the camper versus staying at an Airbnb adds more complexity. People take for granted all of the conveniences modern life gives you. Add foreign travel on top of that with language barriers, a lack of camping infrastructure, limited drinking water access, and border crossing issues, and it can certainly make for some excitement on the road.
However, these situations become less and less stressful as we build on our experiences. Every border we cross helps us to normalize the issues that arise. With so much information to research on the internet, there is such a thing as being too prepared. It can sometimes create unnecessary stress that makes for less pleasant experiences on the road. We have learned to filter out all of the information available, learn just what we need to know, and let our instincts deal with the rest.
Photo courtesy of @boundfornowhere
The two of you clued into remote work early on, even before you started your journey. What brings home the bacon now?
Our careers [Dan/web developer, Marlene/data analyst] enabled us to find remote work on the road. Because of a series of choices we made and the lower cost of living from the road, we have been able to build up some more streams of passive income, which has allowed us to work less in the last few years. Creating content for brands, dividends from investments, and owning income-producing real estate are a few of the ways we are able to continue this lifestyle. As the kids are older, our involvement in their homeschooling has also increased. Prioritizing our time to work with them to help them succeed in their education has taken on a much bigger role in our day-to-day lives.
Tell me about the one-on-one coaching sessions you offer.
Our coaching sessions stem from the overwhelming requests from people who want to find their way to embark on their own journey like ours. We started a second YouTube channel with educational content called Freely Roaming to post some of the most frequently asked questions. But for a few people, a personalized solution was the only way. Especially when someone shifts from the dream phase and into having their changes becoming reality. We help with specific questions that can be hard to answer generally. Often people just want someone experienced to let them know that the decisions they are about to make are not going to be detrimental. We don’t do a lot of these, but it is fulfilling for us as well to know that we have helped someone move forward with a big decision in their life.
You took a three-month “summer vacation” this year, avoiding the sweltering heat of Mexico and Central America. Did it feel like a vacation?
During the first eight years of our travels in North America, we always felt like we could see family if we wanted to. A cross-country drive was not more than a commitment of a couple of days. Since 2016, we have spent a large majority of our time abroad. For nearly four years in Europe, we never made it back stateside. So this past summer, deciding to fly home from Central America was definitely something unusual for us.
Flying with our cats and dealing with quarantine restrictions the farther south we go added more complications. Coming back to fly from Mexico after being in Guatemala was an obvious choice to simplify that. However, because of vehicle import permits, visitor visas, and other variables, we were not able to re-enter Guatemala for 90 days after leaving. Couple that with the start of the rainy season, and we saw an opportunity to spend the summer at home, which indeed felt like a vacation to us. To some people, it might seem counterintuitive as they often think of our lives on the road as a permanent vacation, but it is quite the opposite. Being back in the US was a nice break from life on the road—even though we made this past summer another adventure (we could not help ourselves) on the road across the Western states thanks to our friends at Four Wheel Camper, who lent us a shop truck.
You can always go to your favorite places, but you’ll never find a new favorite if you do not continue to explore. –Mali Mish
Where are you now, and what is a current favorite in your present locale?
We are staying in the parking lot of a beachside restaurant in El Salvador. Of the places we have visited in the past year, from Baja California to where we are now, we have added a couple of new favorites to that list. A week ago, we revisited Antigua, Guatemala. [We love] its charming colonial architecture and friendly people. It also happens to have amazing year-round 75-degree weather, which we desperately miss as we sit in the sweltering heat here on the Pacific Coast of El Salvador. Because this is a lifestyle for us rather than a trip, we always try to find places that let us explore more easily on foot to give us a sense of belonging. It lets us become more immersed in the community instead of always being in remote locations and having to drive to interact with locals.
You mention many catalysts for your vanlife beginning, among them your dog’s passing. How did you then end up traveling with cats?
Our pet of nearly 10 years passed away when Ava was just nine months old. We had already been preparing to take our big cross-country trip, which would have included her. Her sudden illness and passing took a toll on us, as most pet owners might imagine. The event made us feel even more strongly that time is fleeting and we should not take anything for granted. To this day, we have her ashes with us across all four continents and 44 countries. We also started our life on the road with a cat. She was already an adult and lived indoors exclusively. She passed away in 2018 on our second day in Europe while waiting for our vehicle to arrive. To be honest, between 2018 and 2020, before we took on these two stray kittens, life was easier without a pet onboard. When we were locked down during Covid-19 in Morocco, we found a box of puppies that were abandoned in the desert. Had it been possible for us to bring them back to Europe with us, we would probably have a traveling pup today. But life has a way of creating twists and turns. We were able to return to Europe to spend the remainder of our lockdown in Croatia, and that is where these cats came into our lives. They were part of a litter of five that we were caring for. Their siblings unfortunately contracted a common feline virus and passed away. But these two made their way into our hearts, and we decided that they had to stay.
I love that as your family got bigger, your ambitions got bigger rather than smaller. Perhaps it’s time to add another cat. What’s the next big thing?
Mila is 14 an Luka is 11. So they can only claim those years on the road since they were born. We are hoping to get down to the Patagonia region of Argentina a year from now. That will take us to the middle of Ava’s senior year in high school. We are currently learning all about the college application process and discussing where she might want to go. It will be very weird for her to not be with us every day on the road for the first time. I am sure this is a feeling that all parents share at this phase of life. We are not looking that far beyond that at the moment. The only exception is if she takes a gap year to travel; we are contemplating perhaps backpacking through southeastern Asia. It would be much easier to get to see more without the burden of a vehicle in that part of the world, but we will have to see how the cats fit into the picture if that becomes a reality.
Dan, you are Taiwanese, and Marlene, you have dual citizenship in the US and Croatia. That has given you a tremendous advantage for traveling Europe, exempting you from the Schengen Shuffle, helping to make it one of your preferred destinations. Are there any plans percolating to go to Taiwan? What is the most logistically tricky sticky wicket with that one, or would you leave the van behind on the mainland?
The current geopolitical situation surrounding Taiwan is something we are keeping a close eye on. One of the options is to find and keep a temporary home base in Taiwan while we explore the surrounding countries. Assuming the fear of a regional conflict is kept at bay, the only other consideration is how to take the cats with us. A lot of decisions will still need to be made in our current travels and life choices; we are just keeping these as rough ideas in the back of our minds for now.
It sounds like Starlink has been a real game-changer for you, allowing Mila to connect with her online high school and allowing for constant connectivity. Do you ever long for the days when it wasn’t so easy to connect?
We long to be able to unplug as much as anyone who needs to be connected for work and attends school. Being self-employed and needing to homeschool our kids, being able to stay connected makes this life on the road possible for us. Starlink is merely a tool that makes it less complicated. Two years ago, we would just have to find local SIM cards and be confined to areas with cell service. Here in the heat of Central America, we find ourselves going back to those ways of staying minimally connected as we prioritize shade and comfort, which makes satellite connections impossible.
I’ve heard you say that you only get pushback from the kids when you wildcamp with no hookups. How often do you check in as a family to ensure everyone is down with the larger game plan to keep vanlifing?
In many ways, our kids are just like other kids in the United States. They want to stay in touch with their friends, watch videos online, and plug their computers in to play video games. But because they grew up knowing what it takes to make those things happen, they appreciate those opportunities instead of expecting them. As they get older, we try to provide them with more options and let them be more involved with the choices we make as a family. At least every year, we discuss as a family if everyone is still on board with living this lifestyle. The frequency of those conversations has increased as we get closer to bigger life decisions they have ahead of them, like going to college.
For your 16th birthday, everybody gets a used van. – Dan
Do the kids have the makes and models picked out for when the time comes? The dream van?
Ava is already 16, and the first step is for us to find a way for her to get her driver’s license. Unfortunately, it is difficult to do as we travel south on the Pan-American Highway. For now, their focus has been moved to imagining themselves living away from us and being on their own. The real question now is whether or not we will be camped outside of their college dorm room or apartment.
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