“Sometimes I feel more like a homeless person than a traveler,” says Ben Hurst, calling from the Baja Peninsula, to describe the recent direction his life has taken. Actually, he’s both. For the last year, the former Air Force physicist has been living out of a VW van, winding his way through North America, and has no plans of stopping any time soon.
This series, sponsored by Wild Turkey, will profile the #Nevertamed people of the world: artists, adventurers, and entrepreneurs with an unrelenting passion for and commitment to what they do who never cut corners or sacrifice quality or vision. It’s this #Nevertamed spirit — fueled by tradition — that goes into every barrel of Wild Turkey.
It’s dramatically different from the life he once led: before setting off on his current journey, Hurst spent eight years in the US Air Force, where he was a physicist working on laser-weapons systems in the military’s research labs. “It was interesting and challenging work,” Hurst says. “And I had the opportunity to work alongside some brilliant and inspiring people. But I didn’t go to bed Sunday excited about going to work the next day. When my term was up, I realized my heart wasn’t in it anymore. I thought it was time for a change.”
For Hurst, that change meant buying an ‘80’s VW van — “a bit more rugged looking” than the iconic ‘60s and ‘70s models, he says — and hitting the road.
“I wasn’t married, I didn’t have a mortgage, I had left my job. Everyone’s got things they want to learn and do, and I realized I suddenly had this opportunity to knock them all out in one go,” he says.
Hurst started in New Mexico, then Los Angeles, then moved up the coast to Canada and then through the Rocky Mountains back to New Mexico. Now, he’s left the US entirely and is heading south.
“The ultimate goal is to get to Tierra del Fuego, which is the southernmost part of South America. It’s kind of a natural goal, I guess. Shoot for the bottom. So there’s that. But I’m not a meticulous planner, by any means.”
Instead of setting a serious itinerary, Hurst has mostly been playing it by ear — with help from the people he meets along the way. “My favorite approach is to try and meet locals that are familiar with the area and get good recommendations. Just the other day I was in a small town, and this guy came up to me because he loved the van — you don’t see them around here too much — and I told him what I was doing and he was just so stoked, and so excited. He took a stick and started drawing a map in the sand, and pointing out the places that he thinks I should go.”
Relying on the kindness of strangers has been key to Hurst’s survival on the road — in one case, after sliding his van into a ditch in western Washington’s Hoh rainforest, he had to summon the help of a mechanic he’d befriended days earlier in Tacoma.
“I was in the middle of nowhere, probably ten miles from the nearest town, maybe more. But I had cellphone reception, so I called this mechanic and I was like, ‘Dude, I’m kind of in this tough spot.’ And he just told me right away, he said, ‘Hey, man, just make yourself comfortable, I’ll drive out there and we’ll tow you out and we’ll go camping tonight since it’s already kind of late.’ It was like a three-hour drive for him. Maybe more. When he showed up, I was like, I owe you a steak dinner someday. And he goes, ‘It’s funny you should mention that. I actually stopped at a grocery store and picked up a few steaks for us to grill when we get hungry.’”
Now, in Mexico, Hurst is still consistently surprised at the generosity of just about everyone he meets. “Sometimes somebody will drive by and come talk to you, and at first you can’t help worrying that it’s a cartel or banditos or something,” he says. “I’ll have my hand on my knife but then they come over and talk and give me a bag of fish they caught that day or something.”
It’s a good thing, because despite his time in the military, Hurst isn’t looking for any serious action. “I wish I could say that I received combat survival skills that translate directly to me fending for myself but I can’t put a bear in a chokehold or anything. Mostly, I feel like my experience in the military made me more open to new experiences and making new friends. It’s just this general sense of restlessness. You want to go somewhere new.”
“At the same time, comparing this to my work environment — where I was used to having schedules and having deliverable items — I’d say the lack of industriousness and productivity does bother me sometimes. But my goal for personal travel isn’t to sit at a resort and sip piña coladas, you know? I’m constantly trying to learn while I’m out here. Like, right now I’m in Mexico, so it’s time to learn a new language.”
He’s also been documenting his trip as he goes. “I don’t have any formal training in photography, but I think in some of these places it would be wrong not to take a photo — it’s just so beautiful. So that’s another skill I’ve been trying to read about, and improve on. You know, to look at the work of professional photographers and try to draw inspiration from it.”
For the moment, Hurst hasn’t spent much time thinking about when he’ll be heading home — wherever home even is at this point. “I’ll give up when my van breaks, or I run out of money, or get kidnapped, or meet a girl,” he says. “I think realistically I can pull this off for another year or two, but in the meantime I want to get to a place where I can really put to work the skills I’ve pick up along the way.”
For now, he’s taking it one step at a time: next, he plans to take a ferry to Central America, and then head south from there. The #Nevertamed life may be a far cry from the regimentation of the Air Force, but so far it’s working for him — he’s ready for whatever the road, or forests, or mountains, or oceans can throw at him.
Luke McCormick is a writer living in Brooklyn. He has written for SPIN, rollingstone.com and other publications.