“So that’s how I lost the wheel to my car while driving it,” Cassey laughs, as if she’s relating a story about some trivial, everyday mishap, rather than recounting a road accident that could easily have killed her.
She’s giggly and light-hearted on the phone. We could be two friends catching up on the latest gossip. Except that Cassey’s gossip is filled with stories of being pepper-sprayed at riots in Honduras, or her car breaking on hills in rural Guatemala.
At the start of last year, US Naval Officer Cassey Hauser (The Cassey Excursion) found herself out of the military and unemployed after ten years of service. In response, she bought a van, named it Nancy Mulligan (after the Ed Sheeran song), and set out on a solo journey from Pennsylvania to Uraguay. It was a journey that would see her face countless challenges, but which ultimately helped her grow as a person, gain new perspectives, and overcome the sense of failure surrounding the loss of her job.
I followed the whole thing on her Instagram channel, and couldn’t wait to catch up with her once Cassey arrived back home in the States. Here’s all the gossip from our Skype call about life, travel, and exactly what it takes to drive across South America solo…
The Switch to Van-Life
“I got out [of the military] in March last year and I decided to do a trip like this… for my own sanity,” Cassey explains. “I don’t know if I can pinpoint it back to an exact moment, but basically I found a 1990 Volkswagen Westphalia on Craigslist up in Sonoma.”
Cassey bought the van just before she was transferred to Hawaii for the last six months of her service. “But that’s when I really started to think ‘I’m gonna do something crazy, like drive to South America’…
“Deep down, I do think it was a whim. It was so random that I had bought the car not knowing and then I found out I was leaving the military, so it all came together.”
Preparation for the Solo Van Trip
Leaving the military might have been the catalyst for this trip, but her time in the Navy gave Cassey all the tools and skills she needed to take on a solo van trip in the first place.
“I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t learned all the things I’ve learned in the Navy, like how to be really independent. But also, there’s this element of… I don’t want to say every day I wake up like ‘I’m a badass‘ but without that mentality, you wouldn’t be able to do something like this!”
It was actually a fellow ex-naval officer who gave Cassey the final push she needed across the border into Mexico. She was staying in Corpus Christi, Texas with her friend’s father Manny, a retired submariner who’d spent over thirty years in the military.
On Manny’s advice, Cassey loaded up her van with the kind of equipment I’d never dream of taking across a border. “I had dive knives, I had a taser, I had flare guns. I was really ready in case someone came at me!”
But Manny’s help in prepping the van and loading up on scary-sounding weaponry was only a small part of it.
“The day before I crossed into Mexico, I had a small panic attack. And then it was Manny who said ‘Cassey, I don’t know you that well, but you need to get it the fuck together. Get out of your head.’ He said: ‘you have one more day here and you have to leave’. He was so mean – but I needed that. I do better when someone does not have fear for me, and has no sympathy!”
A day later, she left for Mexico.
Solo travel and epic overland journeys never fail to excite me, but there’s something so enticing about the freedom of a van-life trip like Cassey’s. Living out of a van, following your own whims across continents, stopping whenever and wherever you want to… it does sound like the ultimate adventure.
“When you go backpacking by bus, you’re at the whim of where the hostels are and where everyone’s travelling to, which is great when you’re solo, because you meet a lot of people.
“But some of the highlights of being in a van, and living on your own, are that you get a much more local view. There’s this app called iOverlander, where you can find places that other overlanders have stayed. A lot of times it’s ‘this person owns a restaurant and if you eat dinner there you can camp out for free’.. Very random things like that. But then you spend time with the family that owns the restaurant and you see their children or play with them and you learn more Spanish… you just get like a much more local feel of travel.”
Challenges on the Road
Adventure, freedom, unique local experiences… an overland van trip has a lot of draws. But a trip like this will never be without mishaps. And Cassey faced her fair share, many of which I followed, fascinated, on social media from the other side of the world.
“One of the biggest challenges was definitely a brake issue that I had in Guatemala” Cassey begins, cheerfully.
Nancy Mulligan’s brake pads ran out, and needed replacing. But no one in Guatemala could get Cassey the Volkswagen parts she needed. Luckily, she was planning to meet a friend in Costa Rica, so the friend brought the parts with her. Cassey flew to Costa Rica and back to get the parts, and then decided to change the brakes herself.
“I was in Antigua Guatemala, staying at the police station because they allow overlanders living in vehicles to park at the police station for five days. For free! So I decided to change the brakes by myself, and of course every police officer came out of the woodwork to show me how brawny they are and how amazing. So they’re all helping me do this.
“And they were filming a local movie in Guatemala with a chase scene, and they were doing it there the day I was changing my brakes.”
So Cassey, surrounded by film crew, policemen, and speeding cars filming a chase scene, changed her brakes. But she didn’t realise that the jack had sunk into the softer ground on the left side of her van, so that when she put the wheel back on it was at an angle.
“So that’s how I lost the wheel to my car while driving it,” she says, pausing for well-deserved dramatic effect. “Not even an hour on the road, we were going up a hill and my tire just rolled right off the car and rolled down the road.”
Cassey was travelling at the time with a French girl she’d met climbing the Acatenango volcano, who fortunately spoke fluent Spanish.
“Thank God she was with me! We were stuck on this hill and there was no shoulder. So I immediately stopped, obviously, and I ran down the hill, but I couldn’t find the wheel.
“Then this guy stopped on a motorbike and was so nice. And he helped, he held traffic for us, and randomly a tow truck drove by two minutes later, so he stopped and towed me off the road, all in less than 10 minutes.
“And then the police came up the hill and had the tyre in the back of their truck and gave it back to me!
It had rolled down the hill onto the other side and into a ditch and they saw it and picked it up for me and gave it back to me. So nice!”
Not only could the whole ordeal have gone a lot worse, but it could have ended up costing Cassey a fortune – especially needing the rotors resurfaced after smashing the van into the ground. But in total, she spent $40 on being towed, getting the rotors resurfaced, and having everything repaired. And the Nancy Mulligan was back on the road to El Salvador by the end of the day!
Tear Gas in Honduras
Perhaps Cassey recalls the dramas of her brakes and lost wheel so cheerfully, because they seem so much more light-hearted compared with some of the challenges she faced later on her trip. Like when she drove into a demonstration at the border in Honduras and was hit with tear gas.
“We literally drove up the second everything went down” she says, explaining how her small convoy of overlanders found themselves surrounded by chaos. “The groups all started running and screaming and the cloud of smoke started going up and I was like, ‘oh shit, it’s tear gas’.
“My eyes were burning but I was far enough back and my windows were up. And there were people running up and banging on my windows screaming in Spanish, ‘the gas, the gas’. They couldn’t even open their eyes. And I had my flare gun, literally loaded sitting on my right side just in case I had to shoot someone in the face. I would have.”
More Brake Challenges
There’s one more story I want to ask Cassey before we stop talking about disasters. I followed her trip on social media and had seen her post about this moment. But now I want to hear the details.
WThis was the most traumatising moment of my trip. And it is my fault,” she begins.
“I was driving from Bogota to Cali [in Colombia]. And I started winding up and down all these mountains – I did not realise how mountainous this area was. In addition, all of these trucks were travelling because it was nearly Christmas.”
Tackling the hills slowly, in first gear, stuck behind trucks that couldn’t go faster than 10mph, Cassey ran into problems.
“So my car was stalling out, and I started using the brakes a lot more… and I crested one of the hills and I lost the brakes.
“The brakes hit the floor as I came up over it, and I basically just went into military mode: I drove up on an embankment, I came back down onto the road, and I was able to get it into first gear and stop before it went down the next slope.”
Her encounter in Guatemala had made her more trusting, so when two guys on motorbikes stopped and offered their help, she took it.
“This makes my blood boil, but I think I was very vulnerable, right then, as a human, as a woman. And at this point it was 4pm, so it was going to get dark and the fog was coming in. So I accepted their help and I asked how much it was gonna cost and they kept not telling me.
“But then they told me I had to pay them $1,000…
“In the end, I paid $250 because I called Manny, the guy in Corpus Christi. They were trying to give me this hard time, but then as soon as he got on the phone and spoke Spanish to him, they were like, ‘okay, fine’.”
You can still hear the anger in Cassey’s voice as she recalls screaming at the two men, wanting to hurt them. Scared, vulnerable, and livid that these two strangers were trying to exploit that vulnerability, she threw a lot of pretty impressive curses and threats their way.
“It was hard because I also trusted them a little bit more in the beginning because in Guatemala, that experience was so vastly different and everyone was so helpful. But in this scenario, now it’s 10pm and dark and they’re trying to get $1,000 so, yeah… basically choke on your blood and die, I hate you!”
Don’t Give Into Fear
These three dramatic stories seem terrifying, and I remember being terrified for Cassey when I saw her post about them during the journey. But I know exactly what she means when she reminds me that these are only three moments during a six-month trip that was otherwise a complete success.
When it comes to travel, it’s easy to focus on the potential disasters. Cassey recalls how friends and family basically told her “you are gonna die” when she announced her trip. Those fears and negativity fed into that initial panic attack in Corpus Christi, the day before she crossed into Mexico.
“But I’m glad that as far as advice goes, I listened to my own. Because I could have been stopped and I definitely did panic and think, ‘what am I doing? How dare I? What am I thinking?’ But then I went anyway, I just put all the fears aside, and said ‘no, this is for me, and this is what I want to do. And I’m gonna go do it’.”
And of course, she’s now so glad she did. I’ve never faced down an adventure quite as epic as Cassey’s, but I remember the feeling of terror the night before I stepped on board the plane for my first solo backpacking trip. I could easily have given in to those fears and stopped myself from taking what turned out to be one of the best – and most spiritually important – trips of my life.
“This trip definitely was about my own personal growth and overcoming what I believed to be failures, even if it wasn’t an all-out failure,” Cassey explains. “There was something that I had to do within my soul, to repair it after being kicked out of the Navy, you know?
“I’m really happy where my life has taken me, but there was some bitterness, there was some upset… so I was doing this very personal journey internally.
“I was thinking as I drove down across the border to Uruguay, and I was not wanting to quit and wanted to keep going because my goal had been to go all the way to Ushuaia. But in the timeframe that I had, it was not going to be feasible.
“But when I crossed into Uruguay, I thought, ‘wow, I’m a motherfucking badass and no one can stop me’! I had been put through so many mental challenges and, you know, you have to be in a really good place with yourself to do something that can be so isolating.”
How to be a Motherfucking Badass!
Cassey is a motherfucking badass in my book. Facing down threats with a cool head, driving and living alone in a van relying completely and utterly on herself, repairing her own van numerous times, and simply having the guts to do something so many people dream of but never actually do.
Solo travel is a huge high, and something I think everyone should try in their life. But an adventure like this takes a special kind of person, and not everyone has it in them.
“I think everyone and anyone can do it. But I do think that you have to have the right mentality. You have to be committed… I was solo, I was alone. So that means that instead of being a couple working together, or being with travel friends, every single thing solely rests on your responsibility to take care of.
“If you have mechanical issues, you can take it to a shop, of course. But you have to work on the logistics of the parts. You have to get your own water and make sure it’s filtered. You’re doing all your own cooking. So everything that you do every day makes you very self-reliant, but it is your responsibility.
“But I think when do, you get a new perspective on life – in general travel not just in van-life. And I think there’s a lot of opportunities in this day and age to get these new perspectives without losing your job! So I just think any opportunity you have, you should take it… seriously.”
For Cassey, the trip continues. She was back in Pennsylvania when I spoke to her, planning her next trip with the Nancy Mulligan. Our phone call gave my unending wanderlust a new lease of life. Although I doubt I’ll ever be as much of a motherfucking badass as Cassey, speaking to her rekindled my love of solo travel, and inspired me to start planning the next adventure as soon as I can.
Follow Cassey on her blog at the Cassey Excursion or on Instagram.