Just over a month ago, while driving into town, we saw a blue Volkswagen Westfalia. In Tofino, VW vans are a very common site as they’re the chosen method of travel/sleep for many adventure seekers making their way to the town. However, this Westfalia was different. While it was stacked with surfboards on the roof rack and bikes on the back rack, we noticed some bold decals on the side of the Westfalia that really caught our eyes. In big, bold font the decals read – Searching For Sero.
Who or What is Sero?
Immediately we both wondered, “what the heck is Sero and why are they searching for it?” Is it somebodies name? Perhaps it’s a place?
As soon as we returned home, a quick Google search found the website www.searchingforsero.com. After looking through the website we learned that Sero wasn’t a place or a person it’s something we all have – serotonin.
What is Serotonin?
Serotonin is a chemical in our bodies that has a lot of different purposes. However, in terms of Searching for Sero, it was clear after reading the website that it was highlighting the serotonin in our brains. In the brain, serotonin helps regulate our levels of happiness. Low levels of serotonin can lead to anxiety and/or depression, while high levels of serotonin can have you smiling from ear-to-ear.
So, what exactly is Searching for Sero?
Searching for Sero is a mental wellness photo/story project that was conceived by John Rathwell & Tracy Guenard. After both John & Tracy had lost family members to suicide, they wanted to use their creative talents of photography & writing to raise awareness for mental health & suicide prevention. Unsure of how they would create such a project at first, the pair later came up with the idea of collecting and sharing Sero Stories.
Sero Stories are the stories of outdoor adventure seekers who have various outdoor passions such as surfing, mountain biking, kayaking, hiking, etc… and use those passions to fuel their happiness.
Searching for Sero Becomes an Adventure
Rather than just have people send in stories through their website, John & Tracy decided to go on a 2+ year adventure around North America in search of Sero Stories. Along the way, John & Tracy would meet outdoor adventure seekers and tell their stories through John’s photography & Tracy’s words.
After concluding their 2+ year journey, John & Tracy plan to use their collection of photos and stories to put together a coffee table book. The purpose of the book, like their website, will be to show the importance that outdoor exercise has in your levels of overall happiness. The proceeds of the book will then be donated to various mental wellness & suicide prevention charities.
Let the Search Begin
To help them in their search, John & Tracy purchased an old, beat up Volkswagen Westfalia which would become their home on wheels for two years. After extensive upgrades and fixes to the Westfalia, the couple hit the road in Newfoundland in the spring of 2016.
Throughout the spring and summer, John & Tracy trekked across Canada capturing a wide range of Sero Stories. The stories truly are both captivating and inspiring, especially when you have John’s fantastic photography combined with Tracy’s moving words.
By the time this winter hit, John & Tracy were in BC, where we saw them rolling through Tofino in their Westfalia. As we went to contact them to see if they’d like to meet up, we stumbled on their twitter account only to see that they were leaving town that day. Still, we wanted to reach out to John & Tracy and have them shed more light on their experience Searching for Sero.
Tell us about your van and how has it held up on the journey so far…
John: Our van is a 1991 WV Westfalia. We purchased it with 360,000km on it and are almost up to 390,000km now. The van has held up great. That being said, we didn’t buy the old van and hit the road immediately. We spent 10 months going over it with a fine-toothed comb and upgrading a lot of parts. The GoWesty all-terrain kit and bigger breaks were the best updates we did. Every bit of time, energy and money we put into the van before hitting the road has paid off greatly. That being said, we have had a few breakdowns. The van is in the shop as we speak getting a new water pump. One part we didn’t replace when we did all the work to her!
Tracy: The thing is, when you decide to hit the road with an old vehicle, you are bound to break down. But the thing is with Westfalias, the community of owners is great with supportive, knowledgeable people always willing to help and that’s quite helpful.
How did you manage to pack your entire lives into a van – which you’ll be living in for two years?
John: Mostly trial and error. We started with a big house purge and focused on setting the things we wanted to take to the side. We both decided on 5 sets of clothes max. We carry a lot on the exterior of our van too. Having the GoWesty swing arm kit was huge as it meant that we could put our bikes, tools and spare tire on the back of the van and leave valuable roof space for our SUP (stand up paddleboard), surfboards, ski box and solar panels.
Tracy: Because of our lifestyle, outdoor activity took priority over other commodities. We wanted to bring bikes, skis, stand up paddles, surfboards, and camping gear so we also needed the clothes and gear that came with them like bike shoes & wetsuits. That took precedence over having trendy clothes, books or more camera gear for example, but that’s a personal choice.
Where have the best adventures been found so far?
John: Tough question. We have seen Canada from coast to coast now and every area is so unique. What is even more unique is the people we have met along the way. It is the people that we meet that make the adventures memorable. If I had to pick one adventure, though, it was our time in Gros Morne National Park in Newfoundland. We saw a lynx, had epic beach campfires, parked the van a top of big ocean side cliffs for the night and hiked some of my all time favourite trails. If you are a big hiker, you need to add Lark Harbour to your list.
How has your dog, RainDog, enjoyed the trip so far?
John: Every time we open the door of the van it’s a new adventure to her. She is such an amazing dog to travel with. Everyone loves RainDog and she’s part of all our adventures. She is already well traveled as well. This is her 3rd lap around North America.
Mentally, have there been any challenges throughout the trip?
John: Totally. I think the toughest moment was at the start of winter. We prepped ourselves for the cold, but what we didn’t plan on was the shorter days. It didn’t help that we changed time zones the same weekend as daylights saving time. It went from getting dark at 7 to getting dark at 4:30 in the matter of the weekend as we went from Canmore AB to Golden BC. We found ourselves going to bed at 7:30 pm and sleeping until 9 am or later.
Tracy: Financial insecurity is also part of it. I have had traditional full-time employment for my entire adult life. Moving away from that to being self-employed and dependent on contracts was a big change but one that also brings with many opportunities.
What’s one lesson that you’ve both learned from this experience that you want to pass on to others?
John: For me, it is a lesson that Lydia taught us when we interviewed her for a Sero Story. She told us “I always wanted to travel, but I was never making it happen I was just seeing all these people travel and I was envious of them. I remember this girl I was working with was going to Australia for a year and I told her how lucky she was. She responded that she wasn’t lucky, she made it happen. That just totally changed my mindset. It didn’t just happen, she made it happen. That’s when I decided I was going to go on my first trip.”
It is so true. We have so many people tell us how lucky we are to live the #vanlife, but the truth is, we worked hard for it and made it happen.
Tracy: I conquer. I have learned a lot about myself on that trip and the reason for that is I got out of my comfort zone in so many ways. I allowed myself to be scared, frustrated, cold, dependant. It taught me that I am stronger, tougher than I thought, that it’s ok to rely on people, to ask for help. Because of the nature of the project, it also forced me to meet a lot of people. I am a little more of an introvert than John and although that hasn’t changed, I have met so many incredible people on this journey and I want to keep doing that. I have seen more greatness, wisdom and love in people in the last year than I have in my entire life.
In your opinion, how can people better take care of their mental health?
John: Simply make time for the things you love. Have that outlet to release day to day stresses. We, of course, focus on outdoor adventures as that outlet, but it doesn’t have to be that. It can be anything like music, art, cooking, gardening. Whatever puts a smile on your face. For us, and the people we interview, it just happens to be outdoor adventures.
Tracy: Research shows that time spent in nature and time spent exercising both have positive effects on mood and combining both with what we call outdoor adventure or green exercise can only be better. That’s what we are trying to encourage with Searching for Sero.
Do you believe that the societal norms of Western culture – the 9 to 5 lifestyle, tendency to spend more time sitting, etc… – puts too much mental pressure on people?
John: I think what we have discovered from traveling and talking to people about it, is that everyone has a different balance. Some people can put in 60-hour work weeks, get out to play for 1 day every few weeks and be perfectly happy. Others need to get out pretty much every day. It all comes down to finding your own balance and making it happen. Listen to yourself, your body and your mind.
For those who lead a busy, pressure-filled life, what tips do you have for them to wind down a bit and maintain a strong sense of mental health?
John: Find your passion and make time for it. I know it can be hard to do sometimes, but it doesn’t have to be an epic adventure every time you go out. A quick early morning surf, mountain biking for an hour after work. Any bit of time you can make for yourself will go a long way. And while you’re doing it, enjoy it 100%, be grateful for it, notice the changes in your body, in your mood and the impact on your everyday life. If you don’t know what that passion is, go out and try out things. You’ll know right away when you find it.
Do you have one image that you’ve captured throughout your journey that, in a way, sums up the what Searching for Sero is? If so, would you mind sharing it and explaining why?
John: That is a tough one. How about this mosaic? It is the portraits of most of the people we have done Sero Stories on. It is the people we have met and that have opened up with their stories that are so key to the project. They motivate us every time we sit down for an interview and we hope they motivate our readers too.
Has there been one story throughout your journey that’s been exceptionally inspirational?
John: Every story has touched us in its own way. I think the one that has had the most impact on us is that of Sarah Spurell. This young woman has lived through multiple lives of pain and hardship yet was still so happy and excited to get out and climb. Both of us were crying when we interviewed her.
How can people support you throughout your journey?
John: Simply just help us get the word out there. Share some of your favourite Sero Stories and give us a follow on Instagram and/or Facebook. Use the #FoundSero when you go on your adventures. Bring a friend, a family member along and spread the joy. Make the world a happier place.
If people want to share their stories with you, can they meet up with you?
John: We love hearing other people’s stories. If you see our blue and white Westy in your town, wave us down and come say hi! Or shoot us a message or email anytime.
Tracy: We also have a process through which people can write and submit their own Sero Story and we’ll publish one a week on our website as another mean to inspire others. Share your story.
One of our goals, when Kate & I started full-time RVing, was to spend more time outdoors, we knew that it would help lead us to live happier and more fulfilling lives. After reading John & Tracy’s collection of photos and stories on their Searching for Sero website, we found ourselves once again more inspired to get outside and enjoy nature in the pursuit of happiness.
Just yesterday, we can with certainty say that we #FoundSero. Here in Tofino, we hiked up a mountain that was thick with brush and boggy at times but as you can see – it was well worth it.
After our hike, we couldn’t stop smiling. While it was a small challenge at times, the trek to the top of the mountain that produced that view will be happily stored in our memory banks for a long time to come.
We hope that you’ve found some inspiration in John & Tracy’s wonderful story. Be sure to continue to follow them on their journey (Facebook/Instagram/Twitter), share your Sero story, or even join them in the van for a bit.