Turning Back

A Resurgence of the Great American Road Trip

Article by Livia Hooson

Photography by Brett Wilhelm

Originally published in Boulder Lifestyle

Photographer and videographer Brett Wilhelm, along with the help of his trusted 1992 Toyota Townace A’m Craft 4x4 camper, represents how 2020 travel took a sharp turn back in time. When hotels were closed, and flights were canceled during the pandemic, the cross-country road trip had a resurgence, as it was the safer and easier route for families and solo travelers. 

“In 2017, when I bought the camper, van life was already a movement, and vans were pretty expensive, even a 25-year-old VW Westfalia van in good shape was going for $50,000,” shares Brett.

In 2017 he imported the JDM diesel camper van from Japan for $16,000, partly because he learned to drive at 16 while living in the northern part of the country while his father was stationed in the military and because of the quality and feature set of the vehicle. It comes outfitted with a kitchen and fridge, indoor/outdoor showers, a double-walled fiberglass shell, and a pop-top that allows four to sleep in the rig.

“With this vehicle, I was getting that legendary Toyota quality, and even though it has some quirks and hard-to-find parts, it's been awesome,” Brett says. 

It is a fuel-efficient diesel vehicle that uses propane for the fridge and stove, solar panels to charge Brett’s camera equipment, and crossbars in the rear to hold his gear, including skis and mountain bikes (depending on the season). With impressive use of the space designed meticulously by the Japanese, the vehicle is stream-lined and easy to maneuver into parking lots, as well as able to crawl up rough and rutted roads in the backcountry. The real charmer is that the steering wheel is on the opposite side, causing nostalgia each time Brett swings into the driver’s seat. 

The van was purchased both for his personal travels across the west and to be used as his mobile office for his photo business. As a photographer in the action-adventure sports realm, Brett has spent the last 20 years traveling for work, shooting professional and NCAA sports, various projects for Red Bull and ESPN’s X Games division. As he moved into independent work to concentrate on shooting action sports like skiing and mountain biking, it became important for him to be working outdoors, with less time spent on planes and in stadium photo wells. The van helped make his dream life a reality, where he works in his preferred industry, filming athletes and spending his free time exploring the wild west. Along with his girlfriend and dog, Brett has explored places like Yosemite National Park, Lake Tahoe, the Oregon coast and the Grand Teton National Park, with trips lasting between three days and three weeks. 

“If there is a bright spot in the last year and a half, it’s that people were forced to stay closer to home and create some new experiences locally,” shares Brett.    

“Having little breakfasts in a small-town diner in the middle of nowhere surrounded by people heading out into the ranchlands for the day shows you these vignettes of American life,” Brett says. “I find them just as interesting as the grandeur of our National Parks.”     

“And of all the praises I sing about the van, it is still a 25-year-old small non-turbo diesel, by no means fast and topping out at 60 miles an hour...on a good day,” says Brett. “Because of this, it makes more sense to take the older state back roads with a lower speed limit. You get to see more of the small towns, and you learn to embrace a slower pace.”           

This is Brett’s slice of Americana—the revived road trip done on his terms. 

I’ve Been Everywhere, Man 

10 Iconic stopovers from Brett’s travels 

  1. Jackson Hole, WY

  2. Yosemite National Park, CA

  3. Lake Tahoe, CA

  4. Cannon Beach, OR

  5. Rampage Grounds, Virgin, UT

  6. Sand Flats Recreation Area, Moab, UT

  7. Oceano Dunes, Pismo Beach, CA

  8. Sedona, AZ

  9. Craters of the Moon National Monument, ID

  10. Uinta National Forest, UT

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