Van life: Making one's home on the open road
America is a land of vast, open spaces, best explored one mile at a time. But while we've long romanticized the open road, very few of us would want to live on it.
But then consider the Schannep family: Robin, Robert and their four kids, all under the age of 10. Until recently, Robin was a stay-at-home mom, and Rob worked long hours as a financial planner in Orange County, California: "Working at a very good office, very good people. We owned a home," he said.
"We were normal," Robin laughed.
That is until, Robin said, "We kind of started questioning the mentality that just because you have kids everything is put on hold. We love to travel, and we thought, 'Well, why can't we just bring our kids with us?'"
Now the family of six eats, sleeps, and lives in a converted school bus – 250 square feet of home sweet home, in which you can just barely stand up.
Correspondent Tony Dokoupil caught up with them in rural Tennessee.
"We see what we're doing, too, as a large part of our kids' education," said Robin. "I mean, they're pretty young. And they've seen the Declaration of Independence. They've seen the Bill of Rights. They've seen the Lincoln Memorial. They've seen a lot."
Robin home-schools the kids, and Rob is still a financial planner.
Dokoupil asked, "Do you ever have clients say, 'I don't wanna take money advice from a guy living in a bus'?"
"Yes, a few," Robert laughed. "And then they became clients."
It is, they note, a lifestyle choice, not a consequence.
Jessica Bruder, who chronicled van life in her recent book, "Nomadland," said that the movement accelerated during the housing crisis of 2008, and hasn't stopped a decade later.
"I consider a lot of these people conscientious objectors to the culture we're in right now, which is really, 'Get on this work treadmill with no guarantee of any sort of safety net and yet you should still pledge allegiance to the culture of the endless work week,'" she said.
"The millennials I met on the road said, 'Look at this, I can't pay back my student debt or I don't want to go into debt. I can afford to do this, I should do it while I'm healthy and spry,' and they're out there doing it."
And these days, either by choice or circumstance, more and more people are making America's highways and scenic byways "home" – thanks, at least in part, to Bob Wells.
Dokoupil said, "For most people I think the archetypal failed character in American life is the guy in the van down by the river."
"That's it!" Wells laughed. "You wanna say you're a loser? That's how you would describe it."
And the first night Wells slept in his van, he felt like a loser: "I had just gotten a divorce, something I swore I would never do. We were fighting over the kids. I faced losing them. And now I'm living in a van."
But as the months rolled by, he said, "Every step of the way, you just answer every problem as it comes up."
Wells started to feel less lost, and more like a man who had found a road map to happiness – and 20 years later, he's sure of it.
He says although he has enough money to live in a home today, "Why would I torture myself? Why would I make myself miserable?"
"Oh, you must dream of that lever on the recliner," Dokoupil said.
"Arggh, you got me – I do miss my recliner! But it's not worth the sacrifice."
This former grocery store clerk from Alaska now runs a website, cheaprvliving.com, and more recently a Youtube channel, to spread the gospel of van dwelling – equal parts frugality, simplicity and freedom.
Wells also covers van life 101, like, is this legal? Mostly; depends on where you park and for how long.
Doesn't everyone need a permanent address? Sure, but there are mail forwarding services.
What about work? If you have a cell signal, you can work anywhere.
And of course, the biggie: how do you … uhm .,.
You can find out that answer yourself online, where Wells' videos are approaching 50 million views.
Dokoupil said, "I think the average person might come into a van like this and think, 'It's a little cramped.'"
"I think anybody in their right mind would come into this and say, 'This is a little cramped,'" Wells laughed.
"All right, I was trying to be polite."
"You're being diplomatic. But I sleep in here, and I live out there."
Wells says today's van dwellers are a little different from the retirees that have long spent their golden years in RVs.
"There are a lot of RVers who live a normal, happy life. Well, they transferred their average same life that they've always had, and put it in an RV, and lived exactly the same life.
"I see van dwellers as rejecting, to some degree, something about society. It could be the nine-to-five grind. Whatever it is, it's not just the transfer of the same life they've always lived with the last 50 years into a different home, shape, on wheels. It's a rejection of some element of it."
And speaking of wheels, a rolling home can be as varied as any other home, from the cozy to the contemporary. One old airport shuttle has its own music studio. Clearly living in a van does not have to mean what it used to.
Still, you're right if you think van life is not an easy life. Which Dokoupil found out when he tried to make a rented minivan a mini-home, even with Wells as his neighbor.
"My short-term plan is to find a shower," Dokoupil laughed, "and a basin I can wash and shave with. I guess maybe I'm not cut out for the van life."
Wells says he's committed to helping everyone find their own answers, out on the not-so-lonesome road.
"It is a story of desperation and of ecstatic victory," he said.
Dokoupil asked, "Do you feel like your message is chipping away at the model of America that exists today?"
"I hope so!" he laughed. "I do. I hope so. That's my goal. "
For more info:
- Robin and Rob Schannep (contentednomads.com)
- Follow the travels of the Schannep family on Instagram
- Bob Wells (cheaprvliving.com)
- Follow Bob Wells on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube
- "Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century" by Jessica Bruder (W.W. Norton), in Hardcover, eBook and Audio format, available via Amazon
- thevanlifeapp.com (for iOS and Android)
- Van Clan
Images featured in the story were generously provided by the following folks:
- Alex Hayden Seidenberg (@poseidenberg)
- Crystal and Ben (@earthisourfavoriteplanet)
- Janine, David, Luna (@_onthehorizon)
- Savannah Simmons-Grover (@ssimmonsgrover)
- Cole Zuver (@colezuver)
- The folks from Always the Road
- Ruby Van Zandt (@rubyvanzandt)
- Elise Taylor (@elisehalina)
- Tommy Erst (@longroadtonowhere)
- Jay and Brylee's Vanlife (@sliceofheavan)
- The Schannep Family (@contentednomads)
- Mike Shisler (@vanthere)
- John and Jayme from gnomadhome.com
- The folks from @vanlifediaries
Story produced by Anthony Laudato.
- Traveling America's scenic byways ("Sunday Morning," 5/17/19)
for more features.