I bought a van! If you didn’t see that one coming, don’t worry! Neither did I, 😂. For the last couple of years vanlife has been on my radar. I thought it was unique and interesting, and I spent hours on Instagram being inspired by the incredible ways people built and traveled with their vans. I thought “one day” and tucked it away in that “dreams for the future” file.
Then, the great stay-at-home depression of 2020 hit. The worst part of the pandemic for me wasn’t the inability to travel, it was the inability to plan to travel. In March, naive like so many people, I made tentative plans to travel domestically at the end of the summer. Coronavirus had other plans. Then, I made plans to travel after the holidays. “Nope! Try again” Coronavirus said. Defeated, I tried ‘early 2021’, after all, there was a vaccine on the way! After all this trying, and failing, I was getting defeated.
But what could I do? It felt like it could be months or years before I was comfortable traveling internationally on a plane again. Having lived my entire life on the East Coast of the US I’d seen most of it. I wanted to go new places. I wanted to see the mid-West, the Rocky Mountains, put my feet in the Pacific Ocean, explore Canada.
And, I wanted to do all of this with Oscar, my golden retriever. Have you ever looked into hotel prices when you have a dog in-tow? Ouch. They’re ~$75 non-refundable deposits per stay. If you’re checking into a new hotel 2-3x a week that’s another $150-$200 per week just to bring your bff along. Not including the actual hotel price.
Then I saw it! The light at the end of the tunnel. It was the headlights of a Ford Transit. A shining beacon of light.
New Zealand Inspired Me
I was first introduced to the concept of living in a van on my first trip to New Zealand in 2017. Just about every where you turn you will spot a vanlifer. On this first trip I didn’t fully understand the beauty of vanlife. I thought the concept provided a slightly cheaper alternative to traveling around the country than staying in hotels did. And hotels had hot water, endless supplies of it! Plus, as a solo female traveler I really liked the idea of hotel security.
It wasn’t until my second trip to New Zealand in early 2020 that it really dawned on me. While traveling around I had met quite a few locals who lived in vans. They would share pictures with me, showing me all the beautiful places they woke up, watched the sunrise, stopped to have lunch or take a dip in the crystal clear water of some unknown part of the island. It was glorious, beautiful, breathtaking. I couldn’t believe how much freedom I felt just by looking at these photographs.
I woke up in the same bed, staring at the same ceiling, making the same cup of coffee while looking out the same kitchen window every morning. It suddenly felt stifling. That burn in my belly was lit. “Some day” that was going to be my life. “Some day” I was going to wake up in different places, staring at beautiful sunrises, enjoying my cup of coffee while breathing in the fresh salt water air, or the mountain pine air, or the crisp autumn breeze that rolled across the prairies. I was going to have that kind of freedom… “some day”.
But for now, I was a nine-to-five girl with a good job (as far as jobs go).
Vanlife is for Dogs
If there’s one thing I can ramble on about more than travel, it’s my dog, Oscar. So of course, I wanted to find a way to travel more without being away from him more. We (me and Oscar) had planned to start flying together in 2020 (when he turned two years old), but for obvious reasons that did not pan out. Air travel is going to be weird and complicated enough for a while, and I wasn’t looking forward to trying to navigate that and getting Oscar used to the new experience too. Not to mention the legal changes to ESA animals which basically eliminated any possibility of flying Oscar in the plane cabin with me. Stowage is an absolute last resort and something that makes me incredibly uneasy, so for now, plane travel is not in our cards.
I needed to find a way to avoid planes and hotels, and be able to travel for long periods of time. That left two obvious choices: RV travel or vanlife.
I’ll be honest, towable RV’s are a lot less expensive up front. But I wanted something I could customize from the beginning. And let’s be real, towing something is probably beyond my skill level.
Quarantine Van Build
“Some day” happened a lot sooner than I anticipated. Who could have predicted a global pandemic? (Actually, don’t answer that). More so, even when the pandemic did hit I was still completely naive to how big of an impact it would have, and for how long. The months ticked by. At first, I was crushing pandemic life.
My home had never been cleaner or more organized. My work email had never had fewer unread emails. There was a point I had even cleaned my dishwasher. I tried planting a garden from seeds (which later failed miserably). But not being able to see friends, wander around Home Goods, have a coffee while contemplating the meaning of life at Starbucks or go out and explore started to take a toll.
By October, I was crawling the walls that I decided to pack up and go visit my parents in Upstate New York for a few weeks. That turned into a few months, I still have no idea how. About a month into the visit I realized that this was the perfect time to build a van, if ever there was one!
I wasn’t spending any money on travel, so I had extra in my budget I could use to complete the build.
My dad has a TON of tools in his workshop I don’t have access to at my home in North Carolina, I might as well make use of them!
Having my parents and brothers around meant extra sets of hands (super convenient for installing a 100 lb air conditioner on the roof). I also come from a long line of nerds (some use the term engineer) which was really helpful (mostly) for bouncing ideas around and coming up with custom build solutions.
As the black sheep in the family, I have a business degree and absolutely no aptitude for engineering, which made my skillset useful for the boardroom and worthless for the build. Having professional mathletes at my disposal was super handy (thanks Dad!).
Getting outside of my comfort zone
Do you ever feel like the best version of you shines through when you’re traveling? I definitely think I’m more outgoing, less stressed, and overall happier when I’m exploring. I really come out of my shell. There is something about being at home that makes me want to abide by the status quo. I go to the same grocery store every week, I eat the same meals, I visit the same places, do the same activities, see the same people (not always a bad thing!). There isn’t a whole lot of room left for creativity.
Schedules are uninspiring to me. As much as I love knowing what’s next, or being able to plan months in advance, it removes a certain amount of spice from life!
I had become too structured, too scheduled, too “by the book”. Not being one to do well with small changes I figured shaking it all up and flipping it on its head was the best way to remove my obsession with schedules and planning.
Room to Dream
Do you ever have moments where your imagination is endless? For me, when I’m traveling the impossible seems so much more possible. The road blocks, my own insecurities, and my ideas of my own limitations are lifted when I’m outside of my normal day-to-day.
My creativity soars. Being on the road is when I truly feel like I’ve connected with the truest version of myself- where I’m the best version of me, and where I can dream about the things I want to do, build, create or see without the dark cloud of reality acting as a shield.
Space for Personal Growth
I’m like most people. I have daily obligations, responsibilities, a job. Prior to leaving Corporate America I remember feeling like I had no time to do the things that lit me up. How American. To think that our job takes so much out of us we don’t have energy left to live. It’s time to normalize taking a break, setting boundaries, and saying no. (An easy thing to say, a much harder thing to do) But that’s a topic for another day.
One of the aspects of time off, or even time away (while still clocking hours, but in a different location) is that it throws your daily life into a new perspective. Kind of like a kaleidoscope. All the ingredients and pieces are still the same but the way you see them keeps changing. Stepping outside of my ‘normal’ helped me refocus on the things that are truly important to me- health, happiness, balance, adventure.
I can’t quite explain it yet, but something about stepping outside of yourself and seeing your life from a new perspective helps you to refocus, course correct, and aim for what you really want and need.
So, I bought a van
I spent a year and a half converting it into a camper, and now I spend half the year traveling around the US with my dog, Oscar. I work remotely, which allows me to pay my very modest bills. This nomadic lifestyle has given me a perspective on travel unlike anything I’ve experienced before, and I love how intimately I’ve been able to explore my home country.
What about the other half of the year? It’s fluid. Sometimes I’m at my home base in North Carolina enjoying the stability of a community and routines. Sometimes I’m off exploring another part of the world- Iceland, New Zealand, or hiking the Camino de Santiago.
Life is always changing. It’s fluid. Not predictable, not the same. And that’s exactly how I intended it to be ☺️