Many of us daydream about packing everything into a van and hitting the road at one time or another.
For one Yukoner, 25-year-old Ben Barrett-Forrest, this is a dream come true, and it’s happening at this very moment. I caught up with Ben on the tail end of a brief Canadian detour, on his way from Ottawa back down into Vermont, about three months into an as-yet-undetermined time frame.
Barrett-Forrest, a Yukoner born and raised, began working at the Globe and Mail in Toronto as an assistant art director in 2014. Considering his artistic and tech-savvy proclivities, it was a dream job that saw him designing the front page, doing typographic layout, working with illustrators and photographers and designing web pages, all in the hustle and bustle of downtown Toronto.
After two years however, the long hours and constant creative output began to take their toll; he knew it was time for a change. Early this year, he purchased a 1996 Volkswagen Eurovan Camper (nicknamed Vanna White), and hit the road in the spring.
“While I only started planning for this trip at the beginning of 2017, I have always been filled with wanderlust,” he says.
“My parents have always had Volkswagen camper vans… so I grew up travelling around the territory and country every summer in a little home on wheels. To me, a VW van is synonymous with freedom.”
Because he’d already seen so much of Canada, venturing down into the States seemed the most logical option. He began his drive in Washington, D.C. and progressed through the Virginias and Carolinas down to Georgia, and back up to Tennessee and Kentucky.
He was joined in New Orleans by childhood friend Bryson McLachlan, and the two cut across to Texas, and up to Chicago via Memphis before Barrett-Forrest returned to Ontario for July to visit family before taking off again.
For him, the traveling van life has been an exercise in self-sufficiency and social connection.
“I love having all my stuff with me when I explore new places. I have my cameras and recording gear, and my viola, mandolin, and ukulele in my van.”
An accomplished multi-instrumentalist, Barrett-Forrest notes that he’s made most of his personal connections so far through music.
“Meeting fellow fiddlers around the campfire in Shenandoah National Park, playing at an open mic in Thomas, West Virginia, jamming at a bluegrass festival near Paducah, Kentucky. I’ve found that playing music with people bridges any cultural differences and forms instant friendships.”
Barrett-Forrest found that traveling alone has allowed him to better find the real essence of a place, and integrate with the people that live there.
“Being alone, with an open attitude, people seem to engage with me, and invite me into their lives,” he says, adding that some of the most welcoming people he’s met have been in the Deep South.
“Southern hospitality really is a thing! As soon as I went south across the border into North Carolina, the accents got thicker, the serving sizes got bigger, and the smiles got wider. Everyone called me ‘Honey,’ and people were happy to give me hours of their time, showing me around their town, buying me meals, and even letting me stay in their guest bedrooms.
“The warmth of the Deep South (to me, as a white person) was very noticeable. The presence of Confederate flags on people’s front porches, especially in Alabama and Mississippi, made me aware that not everyone gets this treatment, though.”
Here, Barrett-Forrest touches on an important note: the cultural, socio-economic, and privilege gap becomes even more glaringly apparent when viewed through the lens of his Yukon background.
“Since leaving Toronto, I’ve gotten a deeper understanding of the hardship and poverty that much of the U.S. population lives in,” he explains.
“There are patches of hundreds of miles where are the houses are crumbling, the cars are decrepit, and there isn’t a corner store or restaurant in sight. Having lived in affluent areas for my whole life, it was quite startling to see the scale of poverty that exists in so many areas.
“Also, the racial divide and tensions in some parts of the U.S., particularly New Orleans, gave me a better perspective on all the horrible news stories about racially-motivated crimes that come out of the U.S. every day. I was very aware of my privilege during many parts of my trip.”
The south also offered some pleasant surprises. Barrett-Forrest recalls a particularly eye-opening experience in Kentucky:
“I met a bunch of very talented bluegrass musicians and after jamming, went for dinner with them. They had incredibly thick Kentucky accents, which is the accent I’ve always [associated with] hillbilly/redneck American. But these people were all educated, erudite people, talking about intelligent things with this thick accent. It was hard for my brain to reconcile.”
These experiences and more have led Barrett-Forrest to feel even more grateful for his upbringing in the relatively progressive and artistic city of Whitehorse, with so many resources available to him.
“I travelled a lot in my youth, which is something that many people I’ve met on my trip have not had the privilege of doing. The more places I visit, the more I realize how special Whitehorse really is. There are very few places I’ve visited where I would actually want to live (the only ones so far are Asheville, North Carolina; Thomas, West Virginia; and Austin, Texas).
“The pull of the Yukon strengthens as I find out how different it is from the rest of the world. The natural beauty, down-to-earth people and vibrant arts scene, are what I miss the most.”
After settling into a routine after three months and 17 states, Barrett-Forrest has found van living something akin to a full-time job, every day full of planning and responsibility.
“I have adored this trip, but this style of travel is certainly not for everybody. It involves a lot of time by oneself, and a lot of uncertainty, with a bit of risk,” he says. “I’ve had to practise a lot of self-sufficiency, and be very social and extroverted… and there is just an awful lot of driving to do!”
The longest stretch he’s driven (with McLachlan) was 30 hours, from Austin to Ottawa, in three days, but this immersive style of travel (not to mention having a complete home on wheels) makes those long drives bearable, if not downright enjoyable.
“I get into the groove of driving, and the miles just slip away, and the vast and ever-changing scenery rolls past and is spellbinding,” Barrett-Forrest says.
“I find myself getting restless to get back on the road after a few days in one place.”
Keep up with Barrett-Forrest’s travels on his Instagram page, @benexploring