Keys to Freeze, Mile 2978: A Wandering Man with a Seriously Tricked-Out Van

Meet a West Coast financier with DIY flair who transformed a Mercedes van into a vehicle for fulfilling his unquenchable wanderlust.

Dakota is the road angel of Keys to Freeze. From our first meeting at a bagel shop in Durango, Colorado through our arrival in San Francisco — the spiritual halfway point of our 9,000-mile unsupported cycling tour from Key West, Florida to Deadhorse, Alaska — he has been a savior in our times of need. Since meeting Dakota back in April we’ve been in his presence nine additional times in five different states. He has given us hope on the road and introduced us to a new concept of community.

He and his wife Chelsea (both chose to only disclose their first names in order to help separate their private, travel-happy lives with their professional ones) roll around in their Mercedes Sprinter van, which, in true DIY fashion, they customized to suit their traveling needs. The back half of the van has been gutted and then rebuilt into a bedroom and kitchen. Along the van’s left side is their pantry, refrigerator and trash can. On the van’s right side: their clothing closet and cooking supplies. Atop the closet rests a two-burner grill. There is a walkway connecting the dashboard – complete with a souped-up sound system, bumping serious beats – and their full-size bed. The bed rests above the “trunk,” which is accessible from the butterfly rear doors. This is their bike-storage and toolkit space. Dakota built sliding wood panels that can each hold a bike or a full shelf of tools. When pulled, a panel rolls out on its greased track. Over the trunk’s doors is draped a sleeve holding their shoes, an assortment of running, biking, climbing and hiking boots. Above, there are solar panels on the van’s roof that store enough energy to power their installed electrical outlets. It is a van made to live in, a feat of engineering that is both humbling and sustainable, and lets them get out and explore for months at a time.

Dakota's retrofitted Mercedes Sprinter van.<span class="_Credit">(Photo courtesy Traipsing About)</span>
Dakota’s retrofitted Mercedes Sprinter van.(Photo courtesy Traipsing About)

Throughout their travels in the Sprinter, Dakota and Chelsea have generated a fresh sense of community via social media and their lifestyle blog Traipsing About.

On Traipsing About they share their experiences and offer advice on subjects ranging from maintaining a happy relationship while traveling together to a how-to on renovating a Sprinter van. After posting an outline of their alterations to the Sprinter, their van has become legendary among Sprinter owners. Interested owners, potential owners, and renovators contact Dakota with questions. The article, though posted over a year and a half ago, is still one of Traipsing About’s most popular pieces. People will stop Dakota on the streets and engage him with a series of questions about the van. Once in Capitol Reef National Park we watched Dakota give a full tour to an interested van owner, a conversation that lasted over an hour.

After initially connecting with him on Instagram, we finally met Dakota face-to-face in Durango. He was once again looking for answers via adventure, this time engaged in a month-long road trip around the national parks of Utah while Chelsea housesat in Idaho.

The inside of Dakota's van-turned-bedroom<span class="_Credit">(Photo courtesy Traipsing About)</span>
The inside of Dakota’s van-turned-bedroom(Photo courtesy Traipsing About)

Pieces of Dakota’s story came together over breakfast. He is thirty-two. He is a one-time engineer turned green-energy financier. He is his own boss, and has an office in Portland, Oregon. Dakota likes to mountain bike along cliffs and run steep trails in search of big views and shots of adrenaline. He is always in search of new places, people and experiences. He is young at heart, jokes around more than we do — which is really saying something — and wanted to help Keys to Freeze in whatever way he could.

“I got into it like anybody else,” Dakota said of his traveling lifestyle. “I got an engineering degree and hated my job!”

Dakota graduated from Cal Polytechnic State University and then traveled for a year around the world, from New Zealand to Berlin to Southeast Asia to Europe in no particular order. During that year he met with Chelsea in Croatia and then again in China. After his travels, Dakota returned to the states and took his first job as a green building engineer in Portland. But less than six months into his job he realized he was unhappy with his career trajectory. “So I started angling around for other jobs that would let me do what I wanted to do, where I wanted to do it,” he said. “And that turned out to be working for myself.”

Dakota founded a green energy financing company in Portland when he was in his mid-twenties. His business became the highest rated mortgage company in the city on Yelp! Then, in November 2013, after five years of building the company, he decided it was time to make some changes. Dakota and Chelsea bought and renovated their van, built the Traipsing About website, and took to the road, seeking adventure with no particular destination in mind. What began as a four-month journey in the van turned into fifteen months away that included a cross-country bicycle tour from Washington to Maine, time spent living in New York City, and travels to Mexico and Belize.

Dakota on one of his many bike adventures in southern Utah.<span class="_Credit">(Photo courtesy Traipsing About)</span>
Dakota on one of his many bike adventures in southern Utah.(Photo courtesy Traipsing About)

The trip changed their perspective on the working lifestyle and what it means to rely on new communities for support. “Traveling, particularly bike touring, makes you totally vulnerable, and I like to be in control all the time,” he says. “I had to put myself at the mercy of other people. I had to open up.” Once Dakota “opened up,” so did opportunities from the road. In New York they spoke to a random man in a café, wound up staying at his home that night and took a ride in his personal plane. Some nights they stayed with folks they found on CouchSurfing.com or WarmShowers.org — a site exclusively for cycling tourists. Their hosts were strangers but often cooked Dakota and Chelsea food. The grace they were shown on the road helped shape the way they live now, paying forward the kindness to fellow travelers.

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That high country Durango morning was frozen, in the low twenties in spite of the calendar reading “April.” After saying goodbye to Dakota and leaving the bagel shop, Keys to Freeze was climbing up and over a pass, our team pedaling towards Utah from Western Colorado. A snowstorm was rolling in from the west and would sweep over our group that night in Dove Creek, Colorado. Dakota appeared unbidden — using the app Friend Finder to locate Brady from the road, Without us asking, Dakota bought a motel room for the night, and so Keys to Freeze weathered the storm from within the fabled four walls.

The next day, Keys to Freeze descended into Utah amidst the sleet and snow. Dakota had planned to head to Zion National Park that day. He met us halfway into our ride at a gas station to eat snacks and once again say goodbye. But he changed his mind about Zion when Tyler’s front wheel cracked mere miles later. After calling him from the road Dakota was there to pick Tyler up and drive him to Moab, choosing to roll with the team for another two days in the Red Rock canyons.

A week later, as we pedaled yet again through snow and wind, this time towards the weathered hoodoos definitive of Bryce Canyon in the southwestern mountains of Utah, Dakota held a campsite for the team in Bryce Canyon National Park, nestled midway between Capitol Reef and Zion.

Five days later, Keys to Freeze rode into Las Vegas, yearning to explore the juxtaposition of our natural world with our manmade sins — these opposites existing 200 miles apart. There we found Dakota again, and finally met Chelsea. She had flown in from Idaho to road trip with him. They were staying one more night in the city before heading towards California in the van. We all wandered the strip, playing penny slots.

Two weeks later we saw Dakota and Chelsea in Yosemite National Park. We were in the valley, talking beneath the pines just as the sun was setting behind the granite cliffs. The campsite was full that evening because Dakota and Chelsea were sharing it with us so that we might stay within the valley for an extra couple of nights to get to know each other better and add to the sense of community they hold so dear.

Our Keys to Freeze guardian angel just keeps showing up.<span class="_Credit">Photo by Reese Wells</span>
Our Keys to Freeze guardian angel just keeps showing up.Photo by Reese Wells

“Another big part of traveling has been the change in definition of community for me,” Dakota said. “I had a strong network of friends in Oregon, but now it’s the people along the road that I’ve met that have changed the way I view my communities. There are farmers, and there are sailors. If everyone were farmers then there would be no new places, and if you only had sailors then you would never have any place to come home to, to call port.”

Dakota rides the line of sailor and farmer. For now, he lets the wind sail him to different parts of the country. But one day that wind might blow him and Chelsea home. Maybe not.

Dakota kept finding Keys to Freeze at our lowest moments and lifting us up with grace. He has helped us to the west coast and given us a better idea of what being a nomad truly means: that there is this middle ground between sailors and farmers, a balance point between the root and tumbleweed, and that to be successful is to seek out what calls to you. For Dakota, right now the road has the voice and he must heed it. The digital nomad with wanderlust; our road angel, rambling on.

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Reese Wells is a writer and adventure cyclist from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He is a co-founder of Keys to Freeze and is excited to continue sharing stories from the road. reesewells.com