At Arkansas’ Lake Ouachita, Nikki and Emmaus Ferdinand learned to live in the moment.
National parks like Zion and Yosemite showed them nature can connect people.
And at a museum, a Native American woman gave them advice that stuck with them throughout their trip — honor the detours. In other words, adventure doesn’t always follow an agenda.
Those are just some of the experiences the young Baltimore couple lived for two years in a converted luxury van. In sickness, in health and on the road, the newlyweds found adventure and life lessons as they traveled across the nation.
Like many couples who got married in 2020, Nikki and Emmaus had to navigate planning a small ceremony during a pandemic. The original plan was to honeymoon internationally for two years. But because they married in the middle of COVID-restricted travel, that wasn’t possible.
Emmaus was scrolling through YouTube and fell down a rabbit hole of videos about RVs and van life — a nomadic lifestyle where people live out of their vehicle as they travel. Emmaus was taken aback by how accessible and convenient the lifestyle seemed. He pitched the idea to Nikki, who immediately thought it was something for old retirees and not sexy or how she wanted to celebrate marriage. Then she, too, was reeled in by the same thread of videos and enthralled by the possibilities of converting a van.
By chance, they were able to get an appointment with Off Grid Adventure Vans, a Maryland-based company, to transform a 2019 Ram ProMaster for about $100,000 on rush order. Less than eight weeks later, “Carmen VanDiego,” named after a character in “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” was ready to go. Parked on a residential Northeast Baltimore street, Carmen VanDiego looks like a normal vehicle. Inside, however, is a miniature, fully equipped home.
The sliding door on the side of the van opens to a small sink with a marble countertop. Hanging on the wall near the sink are wedding photos of Nikki and Emmaus and a small sign that reads, “You are my home and my adventure all at once.” Behind the sink is an indoor shower with blue tiles and a small refrigerator affixed to the wall. Cream-colored, textured wallpaper lines most of the interior. For movie nights, Emmaus added a small projector and a 72-inch screen near bench seats with gray cushions that can be converted into a queen-size bed.
The couple’s first stop was Atlanta and then Florida. They visited southern states first because it was winter before heading west. The goal was to hit every national park, major cities, museums and restaurants. They enjoyed the beaches, city life, and mountains of California. Arkansas and Texas were also favorites.
The colorful patches lining the back doors provide a glimpse at the many places the couple visited — St. Pete Beach in Florida, Wupatki National Monument in Arizona, Cheaha State Park in Alabama, and Hoover Dam in Nevada. At many of the locations, they sat in two swings hanging from the back of the van and took in nature’s backdrops: mountain ranges, forests and sunsets.
“I always thought traveling internationally is what you need to do, but there’s a lot of beauty right here in the U.S.,” Emmaus said.
The two-year trip wasn’t all smooth cruising — and sometimes tested their marriage. After all, downtime in a confined space is probably a lot for anybody. Emmaus planned their state-to-state adventures and Nikki organized many of the meals. They parked in Walmart or Wawa lots if they weren’t at a national park or campground, and documented their travels on YouTube.
They navigated a coolant leak and other hiccups with their engine. The heat stopped working and they had to bundle in blankets to bear Colorado’s frigid temperatures. Nikki said unexpected mishaps are part of the adventure, but that it can be stressful feeling like “you need to know everything,”
Kind strangers helped them along the way. A woman spent almost an hour teaching them how to make a fire at a campsite. Another person taught them how to empty their wastewater. They even learned how to make kombucha on a farm.
Emmaus, who can be cautious around new people, said joining a group of strangers on their boat at Lake Ouachita taught him to “live in the power of now.” They also went to one stranger’s house and met other locals for a night of music and conversation — one of the highlights of their trip.
Though they met countless people on the road, and visited friends scattered across the country, Nikki and Emmaus wish they’d run into more people of color and younger adults. Some of their friends and family were fearful of their travels and the possibility of encountering police or unpleasant people, especially in areas with few people of color.
Nikki said travel taught her to find the best in others and give them the benefit of the doubt. She didn’t want to hit the road in fear or with a pessimistic outlook.
Emmaus grew up in New York and has Haitian roots, and Nikki is from West Baltimore. Emmaus was selling cars after he quit his job at T. Rowe Price and that’s when they met. He ended up buying Nikki a car and teaching her how to sell it. Their “whirlwind romance” moved quickly, and Nikki moved into his apartment within two weeks. Their interest in entrepreneurship was part of their bond.
They opened a car dealership in Belair-Edison in their 20s. Emmaus also published a book called “Melt the Ice: A Millennial’s Guide: 9 Ways to Earn $9K in 90 Days.” They’ve pursued several professional ventures together, including real estate, Airbnb rentals, storage auctioning and operating an ice cream truck.
“We were able to spend all day together. We were inseparable, having fun together, but then also making money together and starting a business together,” Nikki said.
They’re now ready for another pit stop — building a family. Not in the van, though, Nikki joked.
The cross-country travel gave them an idea about where they want to settle down. Maryland, Georgia and Texas are at the top of their list. They still have a goal to visit all 50 states. Eventually they want to rent the van out through Airbnb or Outdoorsy.
They encourage anyone who wants to try the lifestyle to not overthink it and give it a try.
“Don’t close your mind to something new and different,” Emmaus said.