Dodging Disasters, Cross-country Van Voyager Alexis Comeau Gains New Perspective

By: Alan Pollock

Chilling on the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu. The cargo van was well on its way to covering the rear doors with travel stickers.  COURTESY PHOTO

CHATHAM For Chatham teen Alexis Comeau, 2017 went down as the year of her first great adventure. And it won’t be her last.

Following months of research and work, Comeau and her boyfriend embarked on a cross-country trip in early September, driving a custom-outfitted cargo van from Cape Cod to California and back and returning in time for Christmas.

Her parents set aside their worries for their 18-year-old daughter’s safety and helped facilitate the trip. In a sense, maybe it’s better they didn’t know some of the adventures that would await her and her traveling companion, Tom Shanahan of Brewster.

The Instagram gallery Comeau posted (instagram.com/CargoVanChick) shows scenes from big cities and remote back roads, at American landmarks and at places that seem to have been forgotten by time. Where was her most memorable stop?

“South Dakota, actually,” she said. She stopped to spend time with a friend who was helping make some repairs on the van. On the night of Sept. 20, a massive storm moved through the area, dropping two destructive tornadoes. Because it was night, Comeau didn’t see the twister, “but you could hear it.” They emerged in the morning “and everything was crazy. There were huge trees fallen, trucks flipped over,” she said. “And the van was fine.”

In some places, it was the scale of her surroundings that was the most impressive. In the Midwest, it was seeing horizon to horizon in a field of wheat. And in Colorado, “just driving through the mountains, you feel like a tiny little ant,” she said. On a roundabout trip to their campsite near the Grand Canyon, they traveled almost 80 miles through the woods, encountering no towns but pausing for a herd of 50 bison, wild cattle, wild horses, elk, deer and wolf packs, “all in the road, in that one drive.”

When they reached California, they were greeted by wildfires. It was odd to see the massive blazes all around, “and to see people going about their daily lives,” Comeau said. They drove along Route 1, the Pacific Coast Highway, navigating the top-heavy van around hairpin turns with cliffs below and no guard rails. Driving at night through heavy smoke, the pair decided to switch roads at a tiny town called Jenner, where they planned to take an inland route to San Francisco. One resident agreed to allow them to park at his place overnight.

“We woke up at 5 a.m. because there was smoke everywhere outside,” she said. People were all around in the thick smoke, and Comeau and Shanahan knew it was time to go. In the rush, they accidentally missed the turn-off for the inland route and ended up continuing along the coast. They saw people flocking to the shoreline and long lines at gas stations. Their cell phones had no signal.

About an hour later on their journey, their phones were suddenly within range of a tower and began to sound a series of emergency alerts. Those alerts, and frantic text messages from home, were warning the two not to take the inland route.

“The flames leaped over the road, setting cars on fire. People were killed,” she said. “That was the road we were trying to take.”

Thankfully, the remainder of the odyssey was more relaxing. They met up with family members at Bryce Canyon, Utah, before making their way home again. It was a chance to reflect on the incredible people they’d met and the beauty of the landscape they’d seen.

What was it like sharing a tiny living space with another person for several months? There was a little stress, Comeau admitted with a chuckle.

“You have to really know that person well enough,” she said. “You don’t have personal space.” That kind of proximity also means that decision-making has to happen by consensus. “It forces you just to communicate, to be honest,” she said.

Comeau said the trip changed her perspective on life.

“The best way to sum it up is that, basically, the van is like an analogy for life,” she said. Sometimes, she and her boyfriend would spend a day dealing with a mechanical problem or some other setback, “and then we wake up tomorrow and we’re in a new place, and we keep moving.” She said she hopes the photos and a video posted to her Instagram account stir up a bit of wanderlust for everyone who sees them.

There is a certain security in traveling the same route every day, “but you can always choose to make today different than it was yesterday,” Comeau said. “Everywhere there’s another adventure to be had. That’s kind of, just, life. You really can go anywhere.”

The cross-country trip was the first half of a gap year that Comeau is taking before starting college. The second half of the year will involve volunteer work. On Feb. 3, she will hop a plane for India, where she will spend two weeks teaching English. After that, she will spend two weeks in Sri Lanka caring for endangered elephants, followed by two more weeks teaching English in Bali. In India, Bali and other places, the goal is to use English education as a means of breaking the cycle of poverty that keeps young people from getting better-paying jobs, Comeau said.

She admits that it’s more stress for her parents, who are still glad to have her back from her cross-country journey.

“I’m giving them different stresses,” she said with a chuckle. “You’ve got to switch it up.”