The first time Brad and Sheena Van Orden broke down, their VW Westfalia van, Nacho, busted a wheel bearing in Guatemala.

The married couple stayed with a local family and learned just how frivolous all of their previous life challenges had truly been.

The pair had quit their Flagstaff jobs four months earlier and had taken off on an around-the-world journey.

In the year since then, the Van Ordens have driven Nacho through Central America, criss-crossed South America, and shipped it to Malaysia, where the journey resumed again.

They reached the border of Myanmar and Thailand this week.

Their dream is to drive the ancient Silk Road, a trip that would cost an extra $25,000 due to the high fees of entering China. It's unclear what route they will now take on their long journey back home.

A Kickstarter campaign that they launched to help fund the trip wraps up tomorrow, but the pair is only halfway to their goal.

"Ask any young person what they want to do when they retire, and they will tell you that they'd like to travel the world," Brad said in a recent email interview. "Now ask any retired person what they are actually doing in retirement, and most will tell you something besides traveling the world."

"I find that imagining a conversation with myself on my deathbed is an effective tool for making big decisions," he added.


The Van Ordens' adventurous love story began in high school.

Brad spotted Sheena at a mountain bike race in Prescott as she sat outside her team's racing trailer. He sat down to talk and invited Sheena to a spaghetti dinner with his mom at their house; she said yes.

Weeks later, Brad's prom date ditched him before dinner and he invited Sheena instead.

The pair graduated high school and moved in together as NAU students in Flagstaff, much to the dismay of Sheena's father's.

In their time at university together, they took off on adventure travels, studying abroad so Brad could cycle competitively in Europe and driving their Toyota Corolla across the continent, sleeping wherever they could.

When someone blew the car up with some sort of incendiary device, Brad's father bought them a used Kia so they could keep traveling.

After graduating from NAU, Brad bought an engagement ring in Venice on a five-week trip to Europe and proposed to Sheena on a hike in the Italian Alps. They honeymooned in Costa Rica.

"It really has been a great love story, but in the end I hope that our kids see it as more than that; as a story about how anything is possible, or a story about finding joy in life," Sheena said. "I just hope that when they go out and do whatever it is that they want to do, that they are able to do it with someone that they're really in love with."


The pair is not independently wealthy, although they had high-paying Flagstaff jobs before they left. Instead, they credit a downsized lifestyle and an intense saving campaign for keeping their dream trip afloat.

Sheena, an accountant, tracked every expense (and still does) as they stopped going out for dinner or drinks, rode bikes everywhere and moved out of their downtown rental home and into a glorified shed they called the "dollhouse," where they could grow their own food.

During years of saving, they invested tens of thousands of dollars into renovating Nacho.

They installed a hot water system; sanitation and onboard shower; custom external storage; cabinets and bumpers; and a solar panel system.

They created an exact budget that would last them for their three-year journey, allowing for unexpected expenses -- like flying to the U.S. and smuggling a VW transmission through a Colombian airport in a suitcase.

Brad, an engineer who knew nothing about VW maintenance when the trip started, said that after installing a transmission twice without a jack in Colombia, stitching up a burst tire in Patagonia, and all manner of other repairs, he has mastered on-the-road auto mechanics.

And now that he has, Nacho has stopped breaking down.


Through all the adventures and misadventures, they have never regretted the trip.

Sheena said that her favorite story of the trip came from a near-death experience in the Peruvian Andes after a misunderstanding left them without enough money to afford the four-hour return taxi to Nacho from a national park. Broke, they had to crash on the dirt floor of someone's tack room and managed to score a ride in the back of a rickety produce truck.

The trip that ensued took them over a 16,000-foot-high pass along sheer cliffs on a single-lane dirt road.

And during a recent visit to Flagstaff while Nacho was being shipped to Southeast Asia, the Van Ordens found themselves longing to get back on the road.

"Our tastes change as we get older, and the promise of far-off retirement causes young people to postpone and eventually give up on their dreams," Brad said. "If I ever regret having pushed work aside in order to pursue a dream, then I will have become a real disappointment."

Eric Betz can be reached at 556-2250 or

On the Web: Follow Brad and Sheena's extensive blog at, where there's also a link to their Kickstarter campaign.

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