Fresh Off The Grid

Megan McDuffie and her boyfriend Michael are spending a year on the road living out of their Ford Hatchback. They set off in August, and they’ve already built out a wealth of drool-inducing camp recipes and stories on their shared website, “Fresh off the Grid.” Learn what life on the road is like for Megan – interview below!

Photos (C) 2015 Fresh Off The Grid



Meet Thoughtful, Creative Megan

How did your trip come to be?

My boyfriend, Michael [van Vliet], and I met three years ago, and our first conversation revealed that both of us had a deep desire to break free of our conventional lifestyle and seek out the new and unknown. We talked for hours about dreams of slow travel, of setting out to wander on the open road, and of finding a more meaningful existence. It was something we immediately bonded over and something we continued dreaming about together as our relationship grew. So, you might say that this trip is intrinsically linked to our love story.

The other side is that I found myself nearing thirty, living a life which I had not quite imagined for myself. Parts of it were good, yes. But parts of it were unfulfilling and painful. I knew I wanted to be doing something else with my life, but there were so many things that I was allowing to hold me back, both material and emotional. I decided that I needed a hard reset in order to break out of it. Luckily, I have a partner who was in the exact same place in life and we were able to take that step forward together.

Megan backpacking Winchester Mountain in Washington, Photo by Michael van Vliet
Megan backpacking Winchester Mountain in Washington, Photo by Michael van Vliet

Why did you choose the Ford Hatchback? What are the pros and cons to not driving a traditional camping vehicle?

Simply put, we chose the Ford Focus hatchback because it was the vehicle we had. Michael and I had talked for a long time about going on an adventure like this, but the biggest sticking point we had was the vehicle. We’d convinced ourselves that we needed to get a Sprinter or a similar van, build it out, and join the tribe of #vanlifers in order to make this kind of journey. However, we had a set amount of money we had saved up over the years, and buying a van was going to significantly eat into our trip fund. So, we kept putting off the trip, until one day we had a moment of clarity and said, “What if we took the hatchback?” We’d already done some weekend trips in it during the winter months when it was too cold to tent camp, and had gone on a 10 day road trip up the west coast, so it was already outfitted to be a mini-camper. The week after we realized that we didn’t need to buy an adventuremobile, because we already had one, we put notice in at our jobs and started prepping for the trip.

Megan with the Hatchback; Photo by Michael van Vliet
Megan with the Hatchback; Photo by Michael van Vliet

Now, I will not pretend like the hatchback is the ideal adventure vehicle. It definitely has its pros and cons. The biggest con is that we cannot cook in the vehicle, which is only an issue when it’s raining, windy, or freezing cold, which has happened more frequently as the seasons shift and as we move north. We deal with that as best we can, trying to find some sort of cover to cook under, but mostly I’ve just accepted that when it’s wet or cold outside, I am also wet or cold. (Likewise, when it is beautiful and sunny out, I get to bask in that!) The other cons come with being in the city. We cannot “urban camp” the way van-dwellers can, because we have to fully convert the car from drive-mode to sleep-mode and it is not super stealthy. So, we have to find other ways of staying in the city, either with friends or AirBnB or couchsurfing, or avoid cities entirely, which we are starting to do more often anyway.

There are definitely pros, though. The first being that we will be able to travel for months longer than if we had bought a new vehicle (the hatchback is 15 years old with 200K miles on it so we would not have been able to sell it for anything), and we didn’t have to build it out. Our maintenance costs are low. We get great gas mileage. We’re challenged to think of creative space solutions, which I find to be very rewarding. I love that we have had to carefully consider every item we own, that everything has a place and function.

Megan & the Hatchback at Sunset - Photo by Michael van Vliet
Megan & the Hatchback at Sunset – Photo by Michael van Vliet

You make the most mouthwatering camp recipes. When did you first get interested in cooking?

Truthfully, the whole reason I taught myself how to cook was because I moved away for college and my apartment was a block away from In-N-Out. I knew that if I didn’t come up with a repertoire of things I could easily cook, I would end up eating there every day. However, I soon learned that I really enjoyed cooking, and it became something that I quickly began to view as a hobby instead of a chore. I enjoyed reading and learning about the “why” behind cooking techniques and flavor pairings. Once I was able to cook confidently without recipes I found that cooking was a great creative outlet for me, and as a bonus, I was able to feed myself and my loved ones well!

Camp cooking with Megan; Photo by Michael van Vliet
Camp cooking with Megan; Photo by Michael van Vliet

Why do you think people have a love hate relationship with camp food?

There’s something about sharing a meal with other people that really fosters a communal connection. The same goes for sharing a camp site. Add those two experiences together and it can be very bonding. We all crave authentic connection with each other, and when you strip out the noise of daily life and get back to the basics – food, the outdoors, being present with each other  – I think it’s a wonderful catalyst to building that.

However, camp food comes with a lot of inconvenience. Cooking can really interrupt your outdoor experience; just when you want to be enjoying the magic of golden hour, that pang in your stomach reminds you that you’ve got to eat. Which usually means pulling out your stove that is way more temperamental than the one you use at home, prepping everything with minimal counter space, and knowing that every pot, utensil, and dish you use is going to have to get hand washed without warm running water. Not to mention the whole thing is pretty high stakes: if you get it wrong there is usually no backup plan (unless you count s’mores as dinner food).

So I think there is definitely a love/hate feeling a lot of campers share. I try to look at it the same way I look at most things in life: if there isn’t some sort of struggle or hardship you have to work through, you’ll never enjoy the richness of the reward quite as much.

Megan in Horsethief Canyon, Photo by Michael van Vliet
Megan in Horsethief Canyon, Photo by Michael van Vliet

What’s your go-to recipe for a quick dinner after a day of driving?

Rice and beans, or a one pot noodle dish. One of our current favorites is a riff off of a dish we used to get at a Taiwanese restaurant back home, Dan Dan Noodles. We make it with soba noodles for extra protein and smother them with a peanut butter and Sriracha sauce along with any fresh veggies we have on hand. Super quick and super comforting!

Photo by Michael van Vliet
Photo by Michael van Vliet

What have you learned about Michael that you might not have before this adventure?

More than anything, I think that this adventure has taught me to see and appreciate my favorite qualities in Michael in a completely new way. There is something about throwing your life into complete upheaval that just makes you look at things differently. Michael and I have been together for three years and during that time we began to build a life together. We had routines, we settled into our relationship, we grew comfortable. Not that any of that is inherently negative, but I do think that growing comfortable means you begin to take things for granted.

Michael cooking by the Lost Coast in California; Photo by Megan McDuffie
Michael cooking by the Lost Coast in California; Photo by Megan McDuffie

Walking away from our life in LA and walking into the unknown together means that I have been given the opportunity to reframe some of the things I already loved about him. I’ve always enjoyed his sense of humor, but now I get to appreciate how he injects humor into situations that might otherwise just be a total bummer. I’ve always admired his entrepreneurial spirit, but I admire it in a totally new way now that we are building a business together. He has always encouraged and supported me in times of uncertainty, and now he gets to do that every day! And I get to be grateful for his encouragement and support and love every day in a totally raw way.

Do you have any inexpensive camping tips?

My best inexpensive camping tip is to look into dispersed camping such as National Forests or BLM land: for the most part, you can camp for up to two weeks for free. There have been a few higher profile (read: expensive) National Park spots we have wanted to camp in, and when we can talk a friend or two into joining us for the weekend, we’re able to bring the costs down to something more affordable.

Swimming near Mt. Shasta, California - Photo by Michael van Vliet
Swimming near Mt. Shasta, California – Photo by Michael van Vliet
Megan on the Lost Coast in California, Photo by Michael van Vliet
Megan on the Lost Coast in California, Photo by Michael van Vliet

Take a photo of your five must haves for road travel.

download-5Mattress: Like, a real one. We decided that since we would be traveling for a year, we needed to invest in getting quality sleep each night, so we bought a full sized foam mattress from Ikea and cut it down a bit to fit the back of the hatchback.

Dutch oven: Our most versatile piece of cookware. We can use it on our camp stove or over a campfire, and cook basically anything in it.

Insulated mug (with a lid): Michael and I are both big coffee drinkers, and these mugs allow us to enjoy our morning cups without having to chug them before the coffee goes cold.

Collapsible water jug: Since we do a lot of camping in spots without any facilities, we bring along a 5 gallon water jug that we refill as needed.

iPhone: I’m almost embarrassed to have this on my list, but after having spent a month in Canada with no phone plan, I can say that a smartphone definitely has a place on the list. Directions, researching locations to hike and camp, keeping up with family & friends, and running our blog and business are all way easier with it.

Have you had any meltdowns on the road thus far? What would you have done differently to avoid them?

Oh, for sure I have. They’ve all had two things in common:

  1. I’m stressed. There are an infinite number of decisions that need to be made every day when living on the road. Some of them – What do I eat today? What do I wear? How should I spend my free time? – are ones that I had to make in my previous daily life. But there are a ton of decisions I never had to make before that are now part of my every day – Where are we sleeping tonight? Where is a good spot to pull over and make lunch? Where’s the next place I can pee?  Having to make that many decisions in a day, day after day, gets stressful. Not to mention that every time we move (which is several times per week, usually) we have to completely reorient ourselves. Where are we? Where’s the grocery store? The coffee shop? The gas station? Add that to trying to work on the road and meet deadlines while having unreliable internet and power, and it’s easy to get a little stressed out at times.
  2. I’m hungry. This is always due to poor planning on my part, not eating enough for breakfast or not having something to snack on, and then I start getting low on energy and my ability to handle stress (see above) goes out the window.

Now that I’ve seen this pattern, avoiding getting to that state boils down to one thing: taking care of myself. It’s so easy to not have any routines, so I have to be more intentional about this: making sure I’m eating well, having quiet time to recharge, being active each day, finding a happy balance between working and exploring. (Note to the editor – your Self Care article really hit the nail on the head about this subject!)

Photo by Michael van Vliet
Photo by Michael van Vliet

Where are you now and where will you be in one month?

We are currently in Alberta, Canada exploring the badlands outside of Drumheller. In one month we’ll be heading back to Los Angeles so that we can spend time with family and friends for the holidays before heading east.

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Questions about life on the Road?