Sunny Eaton is a local attorney and 4-time nominee for Out & About’s Gay Faves. Her wife, Karin Balsley is a network engineer. They have been together for 6 years and live in East Nashville. Sunny and Karin left everything behind to take a two-year drive, with their dog, through Mexico and Central America. Their story has been featured in Curve and Wand’rly Magazine and ExpeditionPortal.com. They are working on a book titled I Can. I Will: Women Overlanding the World, expected to print in Spring of 2018.
Two years ago, Karin and I left behind our lives. Between us, we had three nice cars, a house in East Nashville, thriving careers, close friendships and a mountain of belongings we thought were imperative for happiness.
In 2015, we sold our cars, our home, our mountain of belongings, left our careers, bought a 1997 Toyota Landcruiser, a rooftop tent and hit the road with a plan of driving across the United States, through Mexico to the tip of South America, Tierra Del Fuego, Argentina.
Why did we do this? Any outsider looking in would think our lives perfect. I suppose if working 10-hour days and coming home to television and takeout, and fitting in occasional Sunday-Fundays makes you happy then, yes, we had perfection.
But for Karin and for me, this just couldn’t be “it.” When we looked back at a year of our lives and couldn’t distinguish one day from the next, for us it was time to make a change. The wild, liberated parts of each of us had been forgotten and replaced with appointments, deadlines, monotony and a false sense of fulfillment from the acquisition of things.
Our wake up call began with a medical crisis. Karin developed a rare disease called Eagle’s Syndrome. An extra bone growing in her neck pressed on her carotid arteries causing a litany of life-threatening problems.
It was a difficult year spent figuring it out. Karin was suddenly unable to work or function. 29 doctors, 10 months and 2 major surgeries later, life again became manageable but also reflected the emptiness we had both been feeling and would no longer tolerate. We now understood the fragility of life and that it can change on a dime. There is literally no time to waste.
We weren’t independently wealthy, neither of us have trust funds or inheritances. It would take letting go of everything, of dinners out and drinks with friends, new clothes, everything, including security. We started researching low-budget travel options and came across a world of people traveling fulltime, camping in their cars and moving through countless countries as a way of life. I found the idea of being constantly in motion and flux oddly comforting. The dream started to crystallize.
After 6 months of planning, saving and selling, we pulled out of our driveway onto I-40 West with the plan of entering Mexico through California and continuing south down the Panamerican Highway. With cliché road-trip music blaring through our speakers, we set off, car packed to the brim with supplies for every “what-if” and every item we imagined necessary for surviving such a long trip.
Karin and I were not experienced campers: we both loved the outdoors but neither was particularly “outdoorsy.” We had heard every horror story about Mexico and places like Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. Fears of “cartel” and “sex trafficking” danced ominously in my brain. It’s possible that fear led to our procrastination of crossing the border. After leaving Nashville, we spent two months exploring the Western United States until finally, it was time to bite the bullet and head South.
Our Mexican journey began in Baja California, Mexico. Among adventure travelers, Baja is known as “Mexico 101” or “Mexico Light.” Filled with deserts, cactus forests, travelers from all over the globe, breathtaking beaches, and an abundance of campgrounds, Baja was a perfect training ground. It’s the quintessential road trip.
I’m thankful both Karin and I had done substantial traveling in our lives. The difference, to me, between being a tourist and a traveler is the ability to quickly adapt to the world around us, the capacity to watch, learn, to breathe in and to coexist in communities and cultures incredibly different from ours without imposing ourselves upon them.
We learned about military checkpoints, water purification centers and the importance of basic Spanish phrases like “Despacio” and “Dónde esta el baño?” We perfected beach-camping skills like fire-starting and digging for clams. We slept under the stars, swam with sea lions, and touched an albino grey whale at Ojo de Liebre. No matter what, we tried not to break the number one rule for traveling safely by car in Mexico: Don’t drive at night. Not only because of potential crime but due to poor road conditions and animals (cows, donkeys, chickens) in the road.
There was no cable to watch, no delivery service. There were campfires and talks with new friends; there was quiet and discovery. With each passing day, I found myself feeling healthier, stronger, less afraid, more at peace. I was capable. Although sometimes the space in the car was a little lean, we fought very little, having only mini-battles about this decision or that. With each passing day, Karin and I grew closer. She was capable. We were a team.
After two months it was time to cross into Mainland Mexico. We took a 16-hour, overnight cargo ferry across the Sea of Cortez to the city of Mazatlán. Believe me, it was as cool as it sounds. Our companions, primarily male, Mexican truckers were curious about us and what we were doing.
Along with everyone else we knew, they might have believed us to be insane. Polite and chivalrous, they showed us the best place to park on the ship, petted our dog and shared sunrise coffee with us on the main deck. This was our experience with Mexican people in a nutshell, summarized by the words: kindness, curiosity, hard work.
Mazatlan is in the state of Sinaloa, known most famously for being the home of El Chapo. The State Department warns US travelers against entering this state (the whole state!) but we found it to be both beautiful and touristy, never feeling unsafe. Our first life-lesson of the trip: You know nothing, Juan Snow.
Over the next six months we made our way through Mexico to its opposite coast. Along the way, we spent time in many of Mexico’s major cities: Guadalajara, Mexico City, Guanajuato, Oaxaca, Puebla. Guadalajara came to be called GAYdalajara, boasting 26 LGBT bars and a thriving hipster art scene.
Nothing was what we expected. We hiked deep into the canyons and jungles of Chiapas. We camped in remote, gorgeous places and often-dusty parking lots. We swam in the cenótes of the Yucatan and climbed the Pyramid of the Sun. The people we met, both local and fellow traveler, will forever inspire me. We met people from every walk of life and I believe those friendships will last a lifetime.
Mexico is an endless journey of unimaginable magnificence. A lifetime could be spent exploring and you could never experience all of it. Unfortunately, the Mexican government did not give us a lifetime but only 6-month tourist visas. We used every single day of six months before we were forced to cross our next border.
Our journey wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows (there WERE a lot of rainbows). Some days were incredibly difficult. Nomad life is exhausting. Constant stimulation, constant learning, constant guilt you’re not seeing as much as you could, combined with homesickness and worry about obligations you left behind. Always researching and adjusting. Never knowing anyone, not knowing the language. That low-grade fear every time you move on to a new place.
What will road conditions be? What if we break down? Will our phones work? Do we have enough water? What is the currency? WHERE IS A GAS STATION?
There were days I cursed at the sky, wondering why we had done this ridiculous thing. Sometimes, I couldn’t find any answers I actually believed. After wiping tears and taking a breath, we would get back in the car and move on. Something in each of us kept pushing forward. Something kept us on the road. Without fail, every day on the road after a bad day was better than the last.
We spent two years collecting memories and growing stronger from the lessons and strain. It turns out when there is a lesson to be learned, the road doesn’t sugarcoat it. But it does give as much as it takes with sunsets that steal your breath and unexpected beauty in every direction.
Our time in Mexico was nothing if not transformative. We were sad to leave. Belize, English-speaking, stunning and well-known for tourism was next in our lineup. We packed the car, changed our money, readied our border-documents and poured over travel blogs.
And then we found out it was still illegal to be gay in Belize.
Look for Part 2 next month, where we discuss Belize, traveling through a non-LGBT friendly country and how Guatemala changed our lives. In the meantime, you can learn more about our adventure at: