It’s easy to look at Instagram sometimes and see these people living what looks like a dream and think how lucky they must be. Maybe there is a just a bit of luck involved but the majority of what you may not know is how much blood, sweat, and tears has gone into them living that dream. I didn’t come from money or a family that traveled. I never knew that the life I have now was even a possibility or that it existed in the first place. This is my journey from being raised in the midwest with a pretty conventional family to living in a van full- time by myself (plus Ella of course).
“YOU’RE GOING TO COLLEGE”
My entire life I was told that college was my only option. There was no alternative or second choice. No year off or traveling to be done. “You have your whole life to do that.” Now I’m not saying college was a mistake and I didn’t learn anything. Everything I know about business and marketing came from that degree which I will always be thankful for. But there is a reality to being left with a piece of paper and a ton of debt. My parents have always wanted what was best for me, and they were giving me all of the information they had in order to follow through with that.
During my freshman year, I went on a trip to Europe which was my first time out of the country. A friend that I’d made was from Belgium and she asked me if I wanted to visit with her. That was the trip that gave me the permanent, indefinite need to see the world. I immediately got a second job when I returned home and saved up for my first solo trip. It was a year later that I was sitting on a plane to South Africa ready for 3 weeks of backpacking all alone. I wasn’t scared or intimidated at all. I was ready.
THE TRAVEL BUG
When I got home from Africa, it was game on. Finding a way to travel long-term, or at least consistently consumed my brain 24 hours a day. However, I knew I needed to do two things before getting ahead of myself: get that degree and save as much money as possible. Van life wasn’t even on my radar, but I hadn’t just done 2 years of college for nothing plus I knew whatever I did was going to cost some amount of money. One of my jobs was in retail and the other was at a restaurant. I begged my boss at the restaurant to make me full-time which he gladly did. After a few weeks, a manager quit who also worked for the hotel next door. They offered me the position which allowed me to quit my other job and be put on salary.
It was that job which allowed me to save every last penny for the last 2 years of college. I worked 80 hours a week and was mentally exhausted. Going to school full- time and that kind of work schedule isn’t something I would wish on my greatest enemy.
*CUE VAN LIFE*
One day sitting down at the work, I came across a photo on Instagram of two people laying in a van with dinner watching a movie. I clicked on the profile (@cleocohen) and my eyes grew wide and my jaw dropped to the floor. WHAT ARE THEY DOING. No flights, no hotels, not eating out every day. I immediately became tunnel visioned and started looking up everything I could. Research is probably my favorite thing to do on the planet. I will research the best way to research. So I dug deep and realized people are actually doing this. Which means, I could do it too.
I was dating someone at this time and eventually I showed him not only the photos, but precisely how we could make it work within the next year. We both had been saving money for an unknown future but now we had something to work towards. He was excited and equally obsessed with this vision. We started looking for vans and how exactly we were going to do the build.
The week I got my degree, we got a van.
HITTING THE ROAD
I asked a couple family friends (now, @vexedgarage) to help with the build, one being a carpenter and one an electrician. They had never heard of van life, but they loved the concept. It took two months to complete the build so we continued saving money, eventually quit our jobs, and moved to my parent’s home to wait out the rest of the build.
The plan at this point was to live off of savings for awhile until we found a means to make money on the road. I started my blog and he began working on other ventures. It was all coming together and the hardworking was finally paying off.
We hit the road and it was even better than I could’ve dreamed. The build was absolutely beautiful and I was just floating through my days knowing that I had done it. I made it happen and it was perfect.
A SUDDEN SHIFT
… Well it seemed perfect. Notice that I said “I had done it”; and “I made it happen.” Not exactly the verbiage of someone in a happy relationship. I felt like I was doing exactly what I was meant to be doing. Being in the van felt right and for the first time in my life, I felt so at peace with what I was doing. The more I learned about myself, the more I realized I had so much more to learn. The relationship started in a very toxic environment (the restaurant) during one of the most chaotic times of my life. I needed a fresh start and our relationship was causing a lot of tension in both of our lives that didn’t allow us to live on the road to the best our abilities.
After 8 months of traveling together in the van, we broke up. I always tell people that it had nothing to do with living in a small space because it didn’t. We simply weren’t meant to be. But as soon as we called it, I knew I wasn’t done.
Because the break up was largely my idea, we decided that he could have the van. In retrospect, not my decision but let’s not dwell. So after several months of hustling hard, selling everything I owned, and working full- time as a nanny and on my website, I was able to build out my second van. This time a Ford Transit instead of a Mercedes Sprinter (for various reasons).
My new van took about 3 months to convert by the same guys who had done the first. This was now their second go- around so I was even happier with how it turned out than I was with the original van. This van was MY home and I could make it anything I dreamed of. I decided to go girly, rustic, fill it with my favorite colors, and add any touch that I thought would make it “me”.
This time.. it was perfect. Maybe it was the van, but I like to think it was the freedom of knowing this adventure would be all mine. A time to learn, grow, transition, or anything I needed to become the human I wanted to be.
I got my dog, Ella who has now been by my side since the beginning, and we quite literally drove off into the sunset.
FINDING MY HAPPINESS
People often ask what the downsides are to van life. “Emptying the toilet? Making money on the road? Not showering?” I wish I could say that any of those were downsides but they seem like mild, hardly- existent inconveniences to me. I would take this dream 100x over no matter how many times I have to dump a toilet, do something to make a little extra money, or go a few days without showering. This truly is the most important time I have ever experience in my life and the happiest I have ever been. Ella is the world’s greatest partner and being on the road together feels like waking up every day to a dream better than when I’m sleeping.
I feel excited to wake up in the morning, I feel energized to keep living, and I feel indefinitely free. That, my friends, is how life should be.