Be inspired by the amazing true story of Ian Dow, whose TWO near-death experiences changed his life forever
It’s rare for anyone to have a truly life-changing moment; for someone to have two, well that’s quite something. Meet Ian Dow.
Not only has Dow experienced an unlikely Double Epiphany, but he’s taken those moments and run with them. Run and run and run, through nearly 70 countries, with very little money and – for the last couple of years – in a converted ambulance. He’s not so much seized the day as seized the globe.
He’s a man for whom the travel bug hasn’t just bitten: it’s completely consumed him – gnawed at his flesh and bones – and he couldn’t be happier.
“It’s such a perspective-changing experience that you come back from a big trip a completely different human being with different judgments and different morals and different ethics,” says Dow, in a Californian drawl that sounds even more relaxed than your standard Californian drawl – which is saying something. “I see that as what makes the world a better place.”
So, how did the Californian reach this state of bliss? Let’s visit Epiphany #1, which happened up a mountain when he was just 22.
Near-death experience number 1
“I was originally a competitive snowboarder,” says Dow. “I wouldn’t say professional, but I was competing in lots of contests and doing pretty well.
“I’d had a perfect day. I was landing every trick I had. I ended up jumping over a rope and off a cliff. The sun had hit my landing location perfectly the whole day before. It exposed some rocks. I landed on those rocks and I broke my scapula, the left side of my back.
“I remember lying there and looking back up the hill. There was a divot in the snow between these two rocks, where my head had hit. I barely missed hitting my head on those rocks. That was the first epiphany: thinking that I wanted to go back to school and go travel to see the world.”
For those of us who have never had an epiphany – i.e. most of us – the idea is intriguing. Is it clear or vague? Does it happen instantly? Does it pop into your head a few days after the big moment? Does it appear as writing on a piece of burnt toast? Dow explains.
“I was struggling even to breathe,” he says, “but I remember that thought just came straight into my head: that all I cared about at that point in my life was snowboarding and it almost killed me. There were other things that I wanted to be doing with my life.”
Time to carpe diem
This spark caused an explosion. Dow spent two years at community college and working at a restaurant, all the time dreaming of travelling.
His first trip began with him buying a six-leg ticket that took him from Los Angeles to Oceania, Asia and then Europe. It was a grand tour that took in 50 countries over 18 months.
Not bad for a first go and all the more remarkable for the fact that, even as a solo traveller, he did it on just US$16,000, picking up some useful travel tips along the way.
Learning those travel hacks
“You can use couchsurfing.com and resources like that to find free accommodation. Eat with the locals at local places, because it’s cheaper and better quality. And find out the things that the locals do for fun – they’re free or cheap rather than getting consumed with skydiving or zip-lining or something.”
Resisting things like that must have been tough for an adrenaline junkie snowboarder.
“I’d find other ways,” says Dow. “One of the things I would do regularly is rent or buy motorcycles. That was my favourite way of travelling. I’d strap my things to the back of the motorcycle and then just take off with no destination and just drive in a direction until I found something amazing.”
The life-changing effect of travel
Like all good things, though, the trip had to end and Dow returned to his home town of Newport Beach, California. He found it tough going. Not only was he going from a world of 10 dollar accommodation to one of US$2,000 a month rents, but, as anyone who goes away for a long time knows, he returned to a place that seemed to be in stasis.
“I was really excited to return and to tell everybody my story,” he says, “and try to inspire my friends to go out and see these wonderful places, and experience these wonderful things that I’d been lucky enough to experience.
“But it was really difficult. A year and a half isn’t that long for most people when they’re in their routine, so most people hadn’t changed at all, yet I was a completely different person. Then I received an offer to be an art director on a film in Hungary.”
With flights paid for, Dow planned to use the return leg to do quite the opposite. It was to be used to fly onwards to Asia, to continue his travels.
The heartbreak moment
Even when Dow became romantically involved with Julia Pietrucha, a Polish actress working on the film, it didn’t stifle his wanderlust. Instead, she ran off to Asia with him. They spent three months travelling together before she returned home and he bought a motorcycle in Vietnam, spending a month touring the country alone.
Eventually, they settled in Poland for a few years, where they married, lived the celebrity life and wrote music together. Sadly, it didn’t end well, and Dow returned to the US, once again an unhappy but a resourceful man.
“When I returned, I had one suitcase that I’d come across the pond with, and almost no money,” he says. “I bought a motorcycle from a friend up in Washington state. I had US$1,000, a hammock and my motorcycle. I just cruised around the Pacific Northwest for the whole summer, sleeping in the woods and trying to clear my mind. Basically, reflect on my life.”
Man’s best friend
This was not, obviously, a sustainable existence, unless you’re Ed Stafford. Dow needed some kind of life. He got one in the form of a job at a medical marijuana farm in northern California.
It was a decent enough life. He slept in his hammock, lived on the farm, rode his motorbike, helped out around the place, doing everything from setting up security systems to hiring farmhands. He also developed a close relationship with the farm dog, Rhino.
“I told them at one point that if the dog ever has puppies, I need one of them because I loved the dog so much,” he says.
Be careful what you wish for. Two weeks later, it emerged that Rhino had been a bit too horny (sorry) and was now an expectant father. A few weeks after that, Dow had his own small furry son, Dino (rhymes with Rhino, see?).
“That changed everything because now I’m a guy by myself with no place to live and a dog. The season was over, so I was about to leave the farm and all I had was a motorcycle.”
Near-death experience number 2
Cue Epiphany #2. Out riding that bike on wintry roads, Dow had a crash that nearly did for him.
“I separated my shoulder and almost slid off of the cliff. Luckily, it was pretty muddy and the mud grabbed me, so there was a potential for something worse.”
Like seeing the divot between the rocks, staring into the cold abyss was a call to action for Dow. At first, he toyed with the idea of buying a van and converting it into something he could live in.
Then he spotted an ambulance being sold on eBay by a charity. He saw that it had an hour left on the auction and was in his price range. He bid US$2,800 and, to his surprise, won the auction.
How to buy an ambulance
He now owned an ambulance – ironic for someone who’d already spent more than enough time in one. All he needed to do was collect it from Missouri.
“I didn’t know it was in Missouri when I bid,” he says. “It turned out to be in wonderful condition.”
Dow and his father drove the ambulance back to California, where Dow began work on converting it, bit by bit, with no solid plans (which is clearly an Ian Dow trait).
He wasn’t going to scrimp on quality, though. Oh no. With only 47 square feet of floor space, he decided he might as well use the best materials possible. Gathering small pieces over time from local shops, he ended up with a solid teak floor.
“I approached the project as my first home,” he says. “I was going to sleep in it, so I gave it all the elements that I see as creating a comfortable home.”
The result was the kind of thing that would have Kevin McCloud drooling rapturously. Park it in central London and it’d fetch seven figures.
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On the road again mañana!! Bringing @_cadalso to the airport in Managua where he’ll fly back to San Francisco for 2 weeks then come back and find my somewhere on the Caribbean coast of Honduras. We still have some deals brewing down here in Nicaragua but nothing’s set in stone yet and the road beacons. Honduras here we come! #dinodoggy #ambulancelife #vanlife #traveldog #honduras #overland #overlander #dogslife#adventuredog#vanconversion#vanlifers #vanlifedog#vandog#vantravel#vanlifetravel#vanlifeideas #vanlifestyle #vanlifemovement #overlandlife
But this vehicle was never going to have a static future. Not with Dow at the wheel.
Break for the border
“I talked with a friend who was living in Australia and also going through a break-up,” he says. “He’d flown back to California and had been thinking about getting a truck and driving down to Baja [California, in Mexico]. I told him, ‘Look, I’ve already got this ambulance, why don’t we just go for a trip when I finish it?’
“We started our trip just going down to Baja. Then, we remembered that we had this friend that had moved to Costa Rica. So we decided, ’Why don’t we just go to Costa Rica?’ We just kept going south. We actually ended up arriving in Costa Rica about six months later. It took me over a year to get back. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Dow laughs at the memory of his not-so-high-speed journey.
He ended up staying in CostaRica for two months, exploring in the ambulance, meeting some interesting characters, generally having a whale of a time, even after his friend left the country. Then he realised that he only had US$800 left in the world, and US$800 doesn’t buy enough fuel and food to get an ambulance from Costa Rica to the USA. “I was in a pickle,” he says. No sh*t.
That said, he was in a tropical pickle, stranded in one of the world’s most beautiful countries. Not quite a crisis. Still, he went about raising money for the return trip. He did odd jobs, managed a house for a friend he’d met on the trip, and Lonely Planet paid him to contribute to a book on ‘vanlife’.
He also wrote about his life on Reddit, where he gained quite the following. People there sent him money through PayPal, while others encouraged him to start a GoFundMe page.
“I got about US$1,500 to help pay for gas on the way home,” he says. “I’m not huge on accepting charity, but I was providing information about borders, travelling with a dog, how to convert a vehicle or a van, how to buy an ambulance. I was giving people that information as best as I could, in order to justify receiving money from them, in my own mind.”
Dow’s attitude is a refreshing change from the more avaricious and calculating travel influencers: he wants nothing for nothing, and only enough to keep on trucking (or ambulancing).
Which raises the question: where to next?
The next step
“When I returned from the last trip, I had an opportunity to run up to the Pacific Northwest,”he says. “I jumped on a sailboat that followed a [Native American] canoe journey for 120 miles. I really fell in love with the area. I’ve been thinking about selling the ambulance and buying a boat and sailing up to like British Columbia basically.”
Surely he can’t ditch the ambulance. He’s the ambulance guy.
“I know right. I was thinking there’s the option of getting a smaller sailboat on a trailer, towing it with the ambulance and then doing smaller sails rather than living on the boat.
“It’s that or… I’ve recently become romantically involved with somebody. We spent the last couple of days talking about doing a big Africa trip and potentially sending the ambulance to Africa and driving it around the continent. There’s a lot of crazy ideas and options out there. I love to adventure whether it be something that’s relatively local or as far off as Africa.”
No more ‘not yets’
Meanwhile, his adventures have inspired others to buy and convert their own ambulances.
“I would say that there could be as many as 50 people with ambulances out there that I’ve either sold on buying an ambulance or completely talked through the process of fixing it up. There’s definitely a posse of ambulance owners out there that were inspired to the point of a life-changing decision through my travels and my experience, which is cool. I love that.
“I’d say to anyone thinking about going on an adventure that the hardest part of travelling is buying that first ticket. Once you buy that first ticket, everything comes naturally. Honestly, just do it. Don’t think too much about where your life is and why you can’t do it, just buy the ticket and then close up shop and go.”
Three trips that are wheely great fun
Pedal the Inca trail
The Incas didn’t invent the bicycle, but we bet they wish they had because they’d then have had as much fun as our Flashpackers on this epic trip.
Safari so good in Tanzania
Not as fast as a cheetah or as tough as an elephant, but jeeps are absolutely the way to spot these beautiful animals on safari – all part of our Tanzania trip.
Scoot across Spain
Little says Mediterranean cool better than pootling around on mopeds in the sunshine, wearing shades and saying ‘Hola’ to the locals, so sign up for this Vespa tour of Spain.