The ultimate vacation inspiration

Colleen O’Neil

Rachel Nettles, a native of the Roaring Fork Valley (Basalt High School) and her husband, George Nettles, met at Colorado State University. Both avid travelers, George and Rachel had discussed buying a 1982 Westfalia Vanagon. But they decided they didn’t have the cash to put into such a total money pit. The next day, Rachel found George parked outside of her workplace in “Dolores,” the exact Vanagon they didn’t have the money to buy, packed and ready for an adventure. That night, he proposed to her, and they got married a year and a half later in Sayulita, Mexico.

Sound exotic? It’s nothing compared to the trip they just finished.

The Nettleses just finished driving Dolores on the most epic road trip in the Northern (and Southern) Hemisphere — the Pan-American Highway. This route is a network of roads measuring about 30,000 miles in total length. Except for a rainforest break of approximately 60 miles in Panama, the road links almost all of the mainland nations of the Americas in a connected highway system.

“One day we’re sitting outside daydreaming about a trip down the Pan Am,” said Rachel. “And our van was sitting there staring back at us. We looked at each other and said ‘Do you think she could make it?’”

They both agreed that she wouldn’t, and immediately started making plans to get Dolores ready for the long haul.

The trip took about two years total, since they had to return back home twice to work. All told, they drove Dolores for 15 months. Hundreds of hours and a few breakdowns later, they’re back in the States. We caught up with Rachel and George to get some intel on their trip.

Q: What did you have to do to get Dolores adventure-ready?

A: It was quite an undertaking. We put a new Subaru engine in her, replaced the transaxle and added a solar panel and a battery.

Q: How did you fund it all?

A: We moved into a small house and saved for three years, which included things like no cable and only eating out twice a month. The list is long, but it was inspiring to see it all add up.

Q: How did your family react when you told them your plans?

A: We had the whole gamut of reactions. Some people were really excited that we were doing this now — others were convinced that they were never going to see us again or that we were certainly going to die.

Q: But you’re obviously not dead.

A: In all our time on the road we never had anything stolen and never paid a bribe to an official. A million to one our interactions with locals were positive and welcoming.

Q: Did you try out any other roads other than the Pan American Highway?

A: We did find ourselves on and off the Pan Am. One of the biggest surprises was the amount of time this sort of trip takes. When we pulled away we thought we’d be on our way home in six months. Two years and some change later we’re just now wrapping up. It’s hard to imagine even now having been through it how slow roads can be and how huge the places we were going were.

Q: What was the biggest cultural difference you noticed between North and South America?

A: There were nuances from country to country and town to town, but the biggest difference is in Mexico, Central and South America everyone acknowledges each other. Everywhere we went everyone greets each other passing on the street with “Hola” and/or “Buenos Dias/Tardes/Noches.” Those greetings were small but impactful.

Q: What was your favorite place?

A: There were so many and each for its own reason. The list we walked away with is more like — favorite color of water, favorite waterfall, favorite jungle hike, favorite meal, etc. As the trip progressed it was interesting to notice what would make us like or dislike a place. We could fall in love with a place, like I did in Cartagena, only because a little old man tipped his hat to me. It made us look at the place through a different lens because of that interaction.

Q: How did it feel to finally arrive at the southernmost point of South America?

A: Amazing and stunning. For us the real kicker was Ushuaia, since that had been the goal all along and it took us literally years to get there is was a pretty gratifying moment.

Q: What do you think was the most important thing you learned from the experience?

A: That “can’t” shouldn’t exist in our vocabulary. It’s not always easy nor without sacrifice, but if you really want something bad enough you’ll figure out a way to make the pieces fit together and make it happen. The other big take away for us, which was a pleasant surprise — we love where we live. Don’t get me wrong, we saw beautiful places, stunning sights and amazing communities, but for us, Colorado has the whole package.

Rachel and George also kept a blog along the way,, which they still update regularly as they continue their adventures.

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