It was September of 2009 and my son and I had already been on the road full-time for a year in a clunky old Class C. What I originally imagined would be a small vehicle that would take some getting used to turned out to be just too much to handle for us. We wanted to be able to drive into cities more easily, to get deeper into the forests.
I began looking all over Craigslist, from Phoenix to Seattle, for a Volkswagen Bus. I didn't know much about engines, but at the time these old girls were cheap and I figured I could dump a little money in, spend some time learning, and we'd be all set. I found the perfect Bus in Fort Collins, Colorado, emailed the owner and he promised to hold it for me until I could drive a rental up from Texas. Right around the same time, an old friend from college emailed me. Her name was Renée and a long three months of the Colorado winter's worth of story later, she'd moved into that 1978 Champagne Edition VW Bus with my son and I to explore whatever we could.
Years went by and we had two more children together, taking nine months or so each time to cook those babies and give them a few months to get used to this world before hopping back into the Bus, and then eventually a 1976 Airstream when it all felt like too many people, not enough space (by this time, Renée's mom and a chocolate lab named Annie had joined our little tribe). We spent three years in that Airstream and once again found ourselves plagued by "too much house". It was hard to find a place to park while traveling, if we just wanted to stop and explore a town or get some food halfway to wherever we were going. Finding empty spots in high season in National Forests and Parks was tough. We were doing too much "RVing" and not enough adventuring.
So a month ago we got our old VW out of my dad's garage, put the Airstream in storage, and Renée's mom and the dog went to visit family in Michigan for awhile and my lovely lady and I pointed our little family south of the border to explore the Baja region of Mexico for a few months with our friends Malimish.
It's only been a short time thus far in the Bus, and we're still getting used to some of the quirks of living small and breaking down often, especially in a place where many people don't speak English and our Spanish is as rusty as this VW, but quite honestly it's been a blast so far and we're even considering going further south into Central or possibly South America if we can all keep our heads in a good place and the engine humming.
As to the actual "ups and downs" of raising three kids on the road, whether it's in a small van or something a bit more substantial, we always say that for us, it's no different than what we'd do being in a house. Our two youngest boys fight constantly, competitive brothers that they are, and Renée and I are continuously working on our relationship and how little guys can affect that. At the same time, our oldest is 14 and going through some of the early stages of teenage tribulations (though he's rather dreamlike when it comes to helping with his brothers). We get stressed from things like bad weather or not being able to find a great spot to call home for awhile, shoddy internet or bad grocery stores, and sometimes we sail through it...and sometimes we momentarily sink.
But for anyone considering it, all I can say is that I've been able to spend my life with my family, hear their first words, see them start to walk, never missing anything because I'm off at some office and though we have a very small home, we have a wide world of things to explore and do every day. We're only limited by our own imaginations and it feels very good to have all of that control in your own hands.
Photography by: @austinmullenphoto
Even before I moved into the van, I think I knew I was meant to live a simpler life. I grew up in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, I've always been drawn to the outdoors. So this lifestyle has always appealed to me. It started with the thought of a tiny home, then after coming to terms with my financial situation I started to look into older RVs. But ultimately I settled on van life. I found my Volkswagen for a measly $600 and went from there. I wouldn't say my van is the fanciest or flashiest, but I built it myself and what it lacks in bells and whistles it makes up for in character. It went from an abandoned non running clunker, to a home, my home. The Brown Trout.
I'd definitely say that there are way more positives than negatives to living in a van. Although some of the negatives weigh heavy on me on occasion. Once I start getting low on money, and I know I need to find a job soon, the stress levels go up a bit. But I usually find work fairly quick and the situation is resolved. Van life can get rather lonely, especially being a young man without a companion. Now, I do enjoy being alone and seem to thrive creatively and spiritually in my solitude, but it would be nice to have someone to share the adventure with. And let's face it, it's a lot more fun having someone else take pictures of you than taking glorified selfies all the time!
The advantages are seemingly endless. Freedom to go wherever you please, do whatever you want when you want. The binds of regular society and the standard American life don't affect me. I'm truly free do whatever I please. If I'm sick of a place or situation, I simply turn a key and move on. Sometimes all it takes is a few miles down the road, sometimes more. But the choice and freedom are always there. And to me, that's the greatest perk of them all.
I am more than content living this lifestyle. I believe I'll be living like this for a long time to come. I am heading back to Colorado soon to do some work on the van, interior work mostly and then it's back off on the road! The north is calling my name, you'll find me chasing the less waded waters of northern Montana in search of some truly epic trout!
Keep the rubber side down,
In late 2013 we decided that once our lease was up in Austin, we would move into a van and live full time on the road for at least a year. Without going into too many details, we ended up buying a van and then decided instead to travel in a 1974 Airstream Motorhome. Huge mistake. In our first month on the road, the engine blew and just about everything else went wrong with it that could have gone wrong. About $20k later and a homeless, miserable winter in New York City where we had gone to work, we headed back to Austin, Tx, defeated and frustrated where we then decided to jump back in the van and see if we had better luck.
At the time this all happened we had been married for 12yrs (we married at the ages of 21 and 19) and had been through what seems like a lifetime worth of experiences. From serving in a war and learning to deal with all that entails to losing everything, from growing up faster than our peers to starting a business and then losing it to the recession. All of these things and so many more had been a catalyst to a lot of problems we had in our marriage before hitting the road in the RV/van. A few times we’d talked about splitting up but resolved to keep at it because…well, because our relationship was familiar and safe and splitting up and facing the world alone was scary. These aren’t the best circumstances under which to start traveling together full time in a tiny space. But we tried it anyways.
In late July, after being in the van for a month everything we’d been holding back, all of our anger and frustration, all the pent up, smoldering regret and spite we had for one another spilled out of us on a long drive through the vast emptiness of Wyoming. I started off by saying that I was done with Jessica. No more of all of her vacillating and hard headedness, her relentless capacity to pick at me in the most annoying ways. I was ready to step away and just be done with it. I’d been visiting divorce lawyer websites in Texas and had the whole strategy for splitting up figured out before I opened my mouth. It wasn’t a surprise to Jessica. She spit back her hatred of how unfeeling and uncaring I could be. It was too much too bear continuing to pretend that she loved me and my harsh, coldness. She laid into me, telling me how utterly impossible I could be deal with. We yelled at each other. We cried. This time it was for real. We had chosen that we’d had enough and it was time to end it.
After a few days past we talked calmly and laid everything out. You don’t just walk away from something you’ve invested 12yrs in without giving each other the opportunity to calmly discuss why splitting is the best course of action. I had time to think about what Jess had said and how hurt I felt. Jessica introspected about what I had pointed out. We asked each other “Is this what we want? Do you want to be with me? Don’t stay because it’s safe. Safe sucks. Safe is for ‘fools rushing to die in their sleep.’” Nothing makes you realize what you want out of your partner like being stuck with them in a tiny space 24 hours a day. Nothing makes you realize whether you even want your partner like not having anywhere to hide when they say deeply personal, brutal, honest things about you. There is no bedroom to hide in, no man cave, no bathroom to cry in, no doors to slam. It’s just you, them and a steering wheel.
Long story short, this lifestyle has been the best thing that ever happened to us. No counselor could have put us in the position where we had to choose whether this was right instead of just living with each other in a house, hiding in a cubicle for 8 hours a day, disappearing in front of a TV to watch football all Saturday and Sunday, looking at a computer monitor even when all of our work was done. They say you really get to know someone when you road trip with them. We had been married for 12 years and it took a dumpy little Volkswagen van and thousands of miles to make us choose that this relationship is what we want because it isn’t safe. We just have to hold on tight, be open, and stay connected. This may not be the case with everyone and we aren’t saying to go out and buy a van to save your marriage, but we are starting our third year on the road and we’ve never been closer both figuratively and literally.