Melanie & Justin

Welcome to our From the Driver’s Seat series, where we feature “real” overland travelers who are either currently on the road or have just returned from an overland trip.

Today we introduce you to Melanie Cahill and Justin Smith, who have traveled overland on 3 continents — North America, South America and Europe!

Our family was lucky enough to meet them for the first time at a hostel in Colombia.   It’s safe to say that we hit it off with them right from the beginning.  We also had a fabulous time traveling with them for several weeks in Ecuador and Peru.  We know that you will love them as much as we do!

So grab a cup of your favorite beverage, sit back, relax and enjoy the ride…


Tell us about yourselves.  What are your names, backgrounds and where are you from?

Before we traveled we’d been married for 12 years and were living in Providence, RI. Justin owned a wooden window making shop and Melanie was administering public housing in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Melanie & Justin in Paris

What inspired you to do an overlanding trip?  What are the steps that you took to turn the dream into reality?

A few months into our marriage we were happily unemployed, had an expiring apartment lease and some time on our hands. So we embarked a camping trip around the US that ended because Melanie was offered a job. 15 years later we were in similar circumstances and thought “what the heck, let’s do something different!” We bought a small RV that allowed us to practice driving and stocking up for many weekends. We spent that year making decisions that kept us moving forward toward full-time travel life. We deferred getting a dog, new drapes, eliminated junk mail (!) etc.

What was your biggest obstacle (real or imagined) to embarking on your trip?  Did anyone try to talk you out of it?

In terms of obstacles, fortunately, we had few.  No kids, pets or jobs. No one tried to talk us out of it.  At most folks thought we were either a little odd or complete slackers. Justin’s attitude was anyone who thought it was strange/dangerous/weird was suffering from a paucity of imagination.

What kind of rig do you have?  Does your rig have a name?  What do you like or dislike about your current setup?

Our rig is a 2004 Mercedes Sprinter Westfalia. It’s creatively called “Westy.”

We (meaning Justin) picked it since Westy met our laundry list of can’t-live-without features. A bathroom (specifically a shower for Melanie), enough height so 6’3” guy can stand straight up and maneuverability in small towns and cities. Oh, and a bed long enough for said, tall guy.

We could list the things pros (many of them) but the list of dislikes is shorter: A bit more ground clearance (we lost some — replaceable — plumbing from underneath in Peru).  We would swap an aggressively cold coach AC for some solar panels.

Melanie in Westy

Where have you traveled (so far) with your vehicle?

Horizontally across US – Maine to California. South through Baja, east to the Yucatan, south through Central America, ferry across the Darien Gap, south through the west coast of S.A, ‘til we cut across Argentina to Uruguay.  Shipped to England, drove around western Europe, shipped from Antwerp to Baltimore – done.  Westy is currently residing on the East Coast of the US awaiting further deployment. (and also functioning as our daily driver!)

What have you learned from your travels?  Have you experienced any unexpected revelations along the way?

We have learned: don’t overpack. Meaning, don’t pack 1 year’s worth of bathroom supplies, trash bags, t-shirts etc.  If it’s something you need for everyday living, don’t sweat it, your new neighbors need that stuff too and probably buy it cheaper. And, Walmart is everywhere — after a while, you will be happy to see them.

We were well prepared with fantastic RV water filters, only to experience that outside of the US & Uruguay no one had enough water pressure to use them. So, we got used to the taste of bleach or went to water stores and stocked up. Water (in five gallon bottles called“garrafons”) are common and cheap through Mexico and Central America.

Everyone says this because it’s true: people are nice.  They are friendly and helpful. Also, everyone in the world laughs at Justin Bieber (take it from Justin…. Smith).

99% of obstacles are solvable. It is not necessary to have a rig/set-up that will handle every emergency that could possibly occur.  Heck, you’ll be sharing the road with 7 locals driving in a Toyota Camry. If you design a rig for every situation, you will miss the chance for real adventure and connection. So plan to cover most situations: have a tow strap for yourself and others, make sure you’ve got the minimum country requirements to avoid tickets and just GO.


Do you have a favorite travel experience that you can share?

Meeting the Sparks-ci! We visited the Galapagos for a big trip splurge. It was an experience of a lifetime.  5 days hanging in the Atacama Desert all alone waiting for money to hit our bank account turned out to be a great week.

France & northern Italy. Who knew they were RV-ing paradises? We found great municipal RV parking and easy access to cities and sight-seeing. And bread. A lot of bread.

Justin fishing

How do you fund your travels?

We run an online business  We maintained a connection to wifi for the most part and checked in everyday. Sometimes we spent days at a good wifi spot to get work done and some weeks we were out of pocket.

What future overlanding plans do you have?

We left the southern halves of Chile & Argentina and Brazil for a returntrip. We plan to ship Westy to Europe again and maybe head east to India and Thailand.

Sunset over mountains

What was the biggest misconception about overlanding that you had before your travels?

That we were odd or unusual. Really, there’s whole community of folks doing the same thing and they are fun and have good info to share. That officials and police might present some problems. As it turned out, we had one laughably bad encounter and the rest were really nice and helpful.

What piece of advice could you offer to aspiring adventurers?

  1. You don’t need lots of stuff, especially technical stuff. A cell phone, local chip, paper map and good attitude will get you where you’re going.
  2. GO! You can always come home.  Maybe you won’t really care for it.  But at least you’ll be able to say so from a position of experience.
  3. You will meet folks on the road who totally “get it” and will make you feel like this was a really good decision. Plus, they probably have more experience and you will be inspired!

Justin & Melanie at a Fort


So there you have it — some terrific advice and travel-inspiring words from Melanie & Justin.  We hope that you enjoyed this peek into their adventures.  Who else wants to explore Europe in an RV?  It sounds so amazing!

Want to be featured in future installments of From the Driver’s Seat?  

Please leave a comment and let us know.  Who knows?  Sharing your experiences might provide the inspiration for someone else to follow their own travel dreams.

Until next time…. Happy Travels!

5 Responses to 'Melanie & Justin'

  1. Sunny Harvy says:

    We have an identical vehicle to Melanie and Justin’s. We met these great folks in a campground near Santa Barbara a few months after we’d each left the East Coast. We didn’t get as far away as they did, but we did travel all around North America (with a side trip to New Zealand without the van) for 2 years and 8 months. Can’t wait to get back on the road this fall!

    • Jen says:

      What a great story, Sunny! Thank you for sharing it with us. Where are you headed next?

      • Sunny Harvy says:

        Sorry Jen, I didn’t see your question right away. Should I have gotten some sort of notification? my husband just happened to see it last night. Anyway, we have lots of “where next,” ideas, but for now we just plan to head south for the winter with no particular itinerary. Europe is always on our minds, but we’d like to see things settle down a bit before we head across the pond.

  2. Rebecca says:

    I love their attitude! And it’s making me want to ship Wesley to Europe for the next adventure!

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