Let me ask you a question.
What if someone told you that she planned to travel to the mountains of Alaska with her husband and two young sons?
And from there, the whole family would hop on their bicycles and start riding South …
… through Alaska, Canada, the United States, Central America, and the length of South America, all the way to the lowest latitude city on Earth, Ushuaia, at the southern tip of Argentina?
What would you say to that?
What if I told you that they’d already completed most of that trip, and are now on the home stretch in Southern South America?
Well, you guessed it. It’s all true. And I recently had the honor to interview Nancy Sathre-Vogel, the female half of this incredible couple as they cruised through areas of poor cell phone and Internet coverage somewhere in rural South America.
Nancy, along with her husband John Vogel, and their young sons, Daryl and Davy, are the real life super-family who took on this challenge and haven’t looked back (much) since.
Read on as Nancy shares with us some of her insights and stories about their adventures as a family.
HUGH: Tell us a bit about what makes your family’s lifestyle a bit unusual.
NANCY: In many ways our lifestyle is unusual, but in others it isn’t. Yes, we travel the world with all our belongings piled on our bikes and sleep in different places every night.
But we are all together as a family, learning about our world. That’s the magic of it all. We still have our routines and our ways of doing things – they may be a bit different from others, but don’t all families do things differently anyway?
HUGH: Tell us about what prompted both of you to embark on your unconventional lifestyle of adventure? What kind of lifestyle did you live before taking the plunge into the way you live today?
NANCY: I think the answer to that question came down to time. John and I
realized that we didn’t have forever on this earth and, if we wanted time with our sons, it had to be now. Besides that, our sons were growing and changing every day and we knew it wouldn’t be long before they didn’t want to spend time with ol’ Ma & Pa!
Before we hit the road, John and I were teaching – spending all day with other people’s kids. Davy and Daryl went off to their respective classrooms all day. We were, like most American families, living separate lives but sleeping in the same house each night. Now, we live united lives and sleep in interesting locations each night!
HUGH: Did either of you have difficulty convincing the other to come along
for the ride?
NANCY: This whole thing started back in 2006 when John came home from a
particularly rough day in the classroom and said, “Nancy, I don’t want this. I want to take off and be with Davy and Daryl. Let’s buy a bicycle built for three for me and the boys and head out.” I thought the man was nuts.
In time, however, I started to realize he was right – we only have one chance at life. If we don’t live it right the first time, we don’t get a second chance. We took off a couple months later for a year-long tour around the USA and Mexico.
At some point on that journey, we made the decision as a family that we wanted to continue traveling and decided upon the Pan American Highway. This time we all knew what we were getting into and we were all aboard with the decision.
HUGH: When and how did you come to the conclusion that having kids and
parenting are not a barrier to living a life of adventure?
NANCY: I don’t think we ever “came to that conclusion” – we always knew. Our boys were born in the USA while we lived in Ethiopia and I took them to Addis Ababa when they were 6 weeks old. They climbed Mount Sinai in a backpack just before their first birthday. By the time they turned two they had crossed the Atlantic five times and visited five countries.
We figured out quite early that traveling as a family is different than traveling as a couple, but it’s quite possibly even more magical!
HUGH: Are you concerned about what your children might be missing out on by not living a more conventional lifestyle?
NANCY: One of the things we’ve learned as long-time teachers is that the schools don’t have all the answers – there is nothing magical about the “curriculum” of schools. Most people tend to think that schools somehow “know” what kids need to learn and they “make sure” they learn them. That’s hogwash.
There is no magical set of facts and figures that kids need to know in order to be successful adults. What they really need to know is how to learn. That’s what our journey is giving them. Davy and Daryl have the most in depth understanding of the world and its peoples of all the kids I know!
Every time you make the choice to DO something, you make the choice NOT TO DO something else. Yes, we gave up school, soccer teams, chess club, and sleeping with the same pillow every night. But we gained swimming with marine iguanas in the Galapagos Islands, climbing Mayan pyramids in Belize, and flying over the mysterious Nazca Lines. You can’t have it all – life is all about choices.
But ultimately, our children have learned basic life lessons of determination, teamwork, and perseverance that will carry them through life. They have learned that life is not always a bowl of cherries -sometimes it’s the pits – but complaining won’t change anything and all you can do is put one foot in front of the other and keep plodding ahead. It nearly always turns around eventually.
HUGH: How do you address your childrens’ education?
NANCY: On our journey, we have made a conscious effort to capitalize on our boys’ natural propensity toward learning. We go out of our way to visit historical and/or scientific sites in order to arouse that sense of curiosity in our children. And our kids have learned the joy of learning.
To an extent, we’ve directed our kids’ learning – to an extent. But mostly, we simply allow Mother Nature to be the boys’ teacher, and she does a much better job than we could ever do. Mother Nature has taught the boys about the evolutionary forces of the earth, the physical layout of the land, and the vast diversity of wildlife. She’s bombarded them with ferocious winds and frozen their fingers with plummeting temperatures. But she’s also shown them miracles only she can show – the grand panoramic vista when we crest the top of a pass or the discarded shell of a cicada.
When Mother Nature isn’t teaching the kids, our journey, itself, becomes their teacher. We take advantage of our journey to visit places we know the kids can learn from. We’ve visited Mayan ruins in Mexico and Belize, national parks in the USA and Canada, and coral reefs in Central America. Whenever we are in one of those locations, we spend a fair amount of time working with the kids to help them understand what they are seeing.
But even so, we recognize that neither Mother Nature nor our journey will teach the boys certain things – things we consider essential. For those, we carry materials with us and take advantage of time in motels or the tent to work on them. We carry math books in our panniers and are steadily working through them. The boys write in their journals on a fairly regular basis and research and write essays about locations they visit. They read voraciously.
Are there holes in their education? Maybe. But what are holes? If they were in public school in Boise, would they learn the same things that they would learn if they were in school in New York City? Or in Kaohsiung, Taiwan? Our goal is to encourage the boys to learn how to learn – that way they will have the skills to fill in any hole they may find!
HUGH: I hope you don’t mind my asking, but are you rich or something? I
mean, how can you afford to live such an exciting family adventure lifestyle while the rest of the world is working hard every day just to get by?
NANCY: Rich? Two teachers? Are you kidding?
I think the key is to realize that we aren’t young 20-somethings. We are both 50-something and have worked many years. We always saved for retirement.
We are financing our journey in a variety of manners. We’ve rented out our home (it’s paid for) and the rent income pays around half of our expenses. Our website and articles I write generate a few hundred dollars per month. Donations come in sporadically. At the end of the month, whatever is not covered by other means comes out of our retirement account.
We will have to work a few extra years in order to build up our retirement account again, but we both feel that having this time with our children now – before it is too late – is well worth it.
HUGH: How do you address issues like safety while traveling? What have been your greatest security challenges?
NANCY: Safety hasn’t been much of an issue – traveling on bike is one of the
safest ways of traveling. Statistically speaking, you are much more likely to be injured in a car accident that in a bike accident. We are defensive riders and follow safe practices for cycling and safety has rarely been an issue.
Many people fear fellow human beings, but our experience has shown that the vast majority of people on our planet are kind, generous people who are more than willing to help their fellow travelers. In all our years on the road, we have yet to meet one single bad person.
Theft is the greatest challenge we face. While camping, we try to find a secluded location where nobody can see us. If they don’t know we are there, they won’t know to come steal our gear in the night. We did have one issue where my son’s toys were stolen at the Ecuador/Peru border – very unfortunate and a sad day for us all.
HUGH: What’s been your family’s most exciting, memorable event? What have been the greatest challenges in your family adventure lifestyle?
NANCY: I think crashing down that final massive descent of the Dalton Highway in Alaska and reaching solid pavement after 15 days on the Dalton was the highest point ever. The Dalton is 414 miles of rough track cut through northern Alaska from Fairbanks to the Arctic Ocean and is known as one of the toughest cycling routes in North America. I was sure we would be defeated by it as have so many cyclists before us.
When we finally reached the end, I was elated beyond words – we did it!!! We conquered the Dalton!!
The greatest challenge we’ve faced – surprisingly – has been Davy’s in-grown toenails. His feet grew from size 9 to a whopping size 13 in just over a year and that rapid growth caused a series of very serious, painful ingrown toenails that needed to be surgically removed. so far, he has had five surgeries (in Panama, Colombia, and Ecuador) and we are hoping it’s over. Only time will tell.
By far the hardest part of our entire journey was simply making the decision to take it. How does one go about making the decision to go against everything she has been raised to believe to make her own path through life? We are raised to WANT the American Dream – a big house in the suburbs, a couple of cars in the driveway, 9-5 job, etc… So making the decision that the American Dream is not the be-all and end-all is tough!
HUGH: How have friends, relatives and new acquaintances reacted when they discover your family adventure lifestyle?
NANCY: The vast majority of the people we encounter see the magic behind what we’re doing and understand that Davy and Daryl are learning to be true global citizens.
HUGH: Tell me about the Guinness Book of World Records connection. How did you decide to pursue setting a record and what do you hope to accomplish?
NANCY: Our sons are determined to reach Ushuaia and gain a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the youngest to cycle the Pan American Highway. But mostly they are determined to simply accomplish what they set out to do and to reach their goal.
The world record was an afterthought and still remains secondary to
having fun. If, at any point, we decide we would rather do something else than cycle the Pan American Highway, we will call this trip off in a heartbeat and do the other thing. So far, that hasn’t happened.
HUGH: What’s the plan for your next big adventure?
NANCY: I have no idea. If you figure it out, would you please let me know?
You can follow the Vogel family as their journey continues at their blog, Family on Bikes.
All the best,