Van Tours: The $900 Pan-American GMC Safari

Astro Van
Jess McGlothlin

The interior of the van is coated with a thick layer of dust. It creeps along the makeshift kitchen area, entrenches itself into the worn floor, and sinks deeply into the weathered upholstery. The chalky substance isn’t just from the rutted dirt road we’re currently bumping down; it has been accumulating over a year and a half. It’s dust from 11 different countries—from sandy Baja beaches and sea-bound shipping containers to bridge the Darien Gap, to the wind-battered roadside camps of Patagonia.

Astro Van
Jess McGlothlin

With each road bump, dust puffs up to coat the van’s driver, Zach Lazzari, and his co-pilot, Shale. The 11-year-old dog serves as traveling companion, nighttime guard, curious conversationalist, and convenient icebreaker: She’s an impossibly fluffy red mutt whom Lazzari found a decade ago in a Montana animal shelter. There, in a building full of dogs needing homes, Shale was the only one who ignored Lazzari. He knew it was meant to be.

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Jess McGlothlin

The pair have been living in Lazzari’s tattered GMC Safari van since September 2018, when his marketing automation job at a Missoula, Mont., tech company began to feel more soul-sucking, and less like a job he could tolerate. He decided it was time to revisit an old dream: take the long drive down to visit the rivers he’d grown to love since his last season working as a fly-fishing guide in Chilean Patagonia in 2016, with Shale as his traveling companion. Along the way, he’d explore new water and fish corners of the world far, far removed from most fly anglers’ purview.

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Jess McGlothlin

Lazzari quit his job and bought the 1994 Safari, abandoned in a Missoula alley, for a grand total of $900. It took merely a month for a quick build-out of basic living quarters. He rough-framed in a bed and cabinets using free wood scraps; one of the main challenges fitting in a 12-foot STAR Lightning Bug raft he planned on bringing, crucial for exploring remote waters. While he’d have the luxury of a trailer the first part of the journey south, he knew pulling the trailer through Central and South America would pose unnecessary trouble. So, he built a hidey-hole underneath the bed, accessible from the rear doors to fit the deflated raft. The frame rode tethered to the roof, the oars running inside the van, suspended under the roof with shelving and luggage.

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Jess McGlothlin

Just before departing the States, Lazzari added in a Dometic fridge, solar energy, a deep cycle battery, and an ARB awning—creature comforts that would make years on the road easier. Perhaps most importantly, beefy BF Goodrich tires enabled the Safari to conquer thousands of miles on dirt roads.

One of Lazzari’s favorite features is one of the simplest: a camp stove rests along one side window, on top of the cabinets that make up the small kitchen. It was once his grandfather’s and brings back fond memories.

“I can wake up and make coffee,” he notes of the classic two-burner. “It’s common and basic but reminds me of camping with family as a kid.”

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Jess McGlothlin

The magical wake-up juice is key for any overland explorer, and perhaps even more so for Lazzari, who worked through most of his journey, chronicling his adventures in his blog, Busted Oarlock. Thanks to modern technology, the professional copywriter worked for a variety of clients as he trekked through Central America and the top half of South America, relying on public Wi-Fi in town squares and small cafés as his connection to clients.

When asked about his favorite piece of gear, the avid fly angler eschews anything techy or van-related, however.

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Jess McGlothlin
Astro Van 10
Jess McGlothlin

“Fly rods; that’s the point of it all,” he says with a grin over his shoulder as we pause on the dirt road for a tractor to pull in front of the weathered Safari van. What’s his favorite van feature, beyond the convenience of bedside coffee? “The fridge,” he says. “Food is freedom. If you have food, you can stay out wherever. Do whatever. Food is easy in Central America. You can buy food and cook or just stop at little markets.” When I met up with Lazzari and friend / fly-fishing guide Skylar Lamont in Chile, we subsisted for several days on market-bought empanadas, reheating them on the van’s little stove.

In the heat and humidity of Central America, the Dometic fridge also factored into Shale’s happiness. Lazzari would keep bottled water in the refrigerator to dump them on the thick-coated dog when she got too hot.

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Jess McGlothlin

The van also features another special enhancement for Shale. The “Shale seat” is a piece of plywood Lazzari placed on the middle console. Shale stands on the wood, nose pressed to the windshield, shifting her weight athletically as the van navigates rough roads. Shale enjoys meeting village dogs, and in true “Momma Shale” fashion, she’s trained up a few puppies along the way; playing for a bit and then retiring to her (at times) grumpy old-lady ways. It’s provided plenty of entertainment for Lazzari as they’ve crossed country-to-country.

It hasn’t all been easy going. The van’s had its share of meltdowns: from a driveshaft seal in Mexico to a hard-to-diagnose electric short, and fuel injectors that plagued the transit throughout Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. The trouble was finally diagnosed in northern Chile—by taking apart the engine. A tire rod snapped near Coyhaique, Chile, and nearly all door handles broken, minus the driver’s side. Midway through Chile, the four-wheel drive quit, dramatically changing the off-road capability.

Still, not bad for a $900 purchase that has taken a beating.

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Jess McGlothlin

The road hasn’t been a solo affair, either. Lazzari estimates he and Shale picked up around 100 hitchhikers throughout the trip. The most memorable? On a peninsula of Peru’s famed Lake Titicaca, where he picked up a local Quechua woman who promptly explained the man waving his arms wildly in the middle of the road, using a whistle to give directions (“doing the YMCA,” as Lazzari called it). That, she exclaimed, was not a threat, nor a traffic cop; just the town drunk.

In Honduras, nighttime hotel security guards tried to break into the van; Shale’s barking caught them off guard and woke up Lazzari.

He met plenty of girls along the way who wanted a ticket to the States. His standard response became, “I live in Montana where it’s cold.” A popular answer from the girls? “I’ll get a jacket.”

The biggest surprise of the trip? “That the van didn’t die,” Lazzari notes with a grin. And, of course, the biggest challenges? Finding bathrooms.

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Jess McGlothlin

What Lazzari did find was fish. All along the way, he caught trout in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, and Argentina. Overall, Patagonia proved to be his favorite place to fish, though his favorite van-camp was high in the Peruvian desert, where he found water springing from rocks along an animal trail.

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Jess McGlothlin

What’s next for Lazzari and Shale? After more than a year and a half on the road, it’s time to transition back into the real world, at least for a little while. Lazzari is selling the trusty Safari and his raft in Chile and flying back to Montana with Shale. He’ll pick up more writing work, enjoy spring fishing on the rivers surrounding Missoula, and then decide what’s next.

Plans are in place to buy a travel trailer and continue to live the roadlife throughout North America. Traveling throughout Latin America served as inspiration, and Lazzari is eager to return to the places he and Shale have now scouted, hitting them in the prime fishing seasons—with the inevitable adventure right around the next corner.

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Jess McGlothlin

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