Like the best marketing terms, “vanlife” is both highly specific and expansive.
Emily King and Corey Smith had been dating for five months when they took a trip to Central America, in February, 2012. At a surf resort in Nicaragua, Smith helped a lanky American named Foster Huntington repair the dings in his board. When the waves were choppy, the three congregated in the resort’s hammock zone, where the Wi-Fi signal was strongest. One afternoon, Huntington listened to the couple have a small argument. Something about their fond irritation made him think that they’d be suited to spending long periods of time together in a confined space. “You guys would be great in a van,” he told them.
The year before, Huntington had given up his apartment in New York and his job as a designer at Ralph Lauren, and moved into a 1987 Volkswagen Syncro. He spent his days surfing, exploring, and taking pictures of his van parked in picturesque locations along the California coast. It was the early days of Instagram, and, over time, Huntington accumulated more than a million followers. He represented a new kind of social-media celebrity, someone famous not for starring in movies or recording hit songs but for documenting an enviable life. “My inspiration,” went a typical comment on one of his posts. “God I wish my life was that free and easy and amazing.” Huntington tagged his posts with phrases like #homeiswhereyouparkit and #livesimply, but the tag he used most often was #vanlife.
King and Smith left Nicaragua for Costa Rica, but the idea of the van stuck with them. King, a telegenic former business student, had quit her job at a Sotheby’s branch when she realized that she was unhappy. Smith, a competitive mountain biker and the manager of a kayak store, had never had a traditional office job. They figured they could live cheaply in a van while placing what they loved—travelling, surfing, mountain biking—at the center of their lives. When King found out that she’d been hired for a Web-development job that didn’t require her presence in an office, it suddenly seemed feasible.
King and Smith, who are thirty-two and thirty-one, respectively, had grown up watching “Saturday Night Live” sketches in which a sweaty, frantic Chris Farley character ranted, “I am thirty-five years old, I am divorced, and I live in a van down by the river!” But, the way Huntington described it, living in a vehicle sounded not pathetic but romantic. “I remember coming home and telling my mom, ‘I have something to tell you,’ ” King said. “She thought I was going to say we were getting married or having a baby. But I said, ‘We’re going to live in a van.’ ”
Huntington’s vanlife hashtag was a joking reference to Tupac’s “thug life” tattoo. “You know, it’s not thug life—it’s van life!” he told me. Six years later, more than 1.2 million Instagram posts have been tagged #vanlife. In 2013, Huntington used Kickstarter to fund “Home Is Where You Park It,” a sixty-five-dollar book of his vanlife photographs, which is now in its fourth printing. In October, Black Dog & Leventhal will publish his second book on the topic, “Van Life.”
Scroll through the images tagged #vanlife on Instagram and you’ll see plenty of photos that don’t have much to do with vehicles: starry skies, campfires, women in leggings doing yoga by the ocean. Like the best marketing terms, “vanlife” is both highly specific and expansive. It’s a one-word life-style signifier that has come to evoke a number of contemporary trends: a renewed interest in the American road trip, a culture of hippie-inflected outdoorsiness, and a life free from the tyranny of a nine-to-five office job.
Vanlife is an aesthetic and a mentality and, people kept telling me, a “movement.” S. Lucas Valdes, the owner of the California-based company GoWesty, a prominent seller of Volkswagen-van parts, compared vanlife today to surfing a couple of decades ago. “So many people identify with the culture, the attire, the mind-set of surfers, but probably only about ten per cent of them surf,” he said. “That’s what we’re trying to tap into.”
“You could buy these vans ten years ago for pennies on the dollar,” Harley Sitner, the owner of Peace Vans, a Volkswagen-van repair and rental shop in Seattle, told me. Sitner, who is forty-nine, said that his generation’s adventurous rite of passage was more along the lines of “backpacking through Southeast Asia, eating mushrooms on a beach in Thailand.” Around five years ago, he began to notice that young people were increasingly interested in old VW vans. “It’s men in their thirties with huge beards, and they’re pretty much all stay-at-home dads,” he said. “Their wives work office jobs and they work on the vans so the family can go out and vanlife on the weekend.”
Part of the fun of vanlife, Sitner theorized, is the old-fashioned, analog pleasure of tinkering. But vanlife, as a concept and as a self-defined community, is primarily a social-media phenomenon. Attaching a name (and a hashtag) to the phenomenon has also enabled people who would otherwise just be rootless wanderers to make their travels into a kind of product. “There are now professional vanlifers,” Huntington told me, sounding slightly scandalized.
Vanlifers have a tendency to call their journeys “projects,” and to describe them in the elevator-pitch terms that make sense to potential sponsors. While still in Central America, King and Smith came up with a name for their project: Where’s My Office Now, a reference to their goal of fusing travel and work. “We wanted to see if it was possible to combine this nomadic hippie life with a nine-to-five job,” Smith explained. After the couple returned from Central America but before they bought a van, King registered a Web site and set up social-media accounts. “The business part of me knew there was potential,” she said. Smith, who was still using a flip phone, was suspicious of his girlfriend’s preoccupation with social media, worrying that it would detract from the experience.
But there was never any doubt about what kind of vehicle they were looking for. Some vanlifers drive shiny new Mercedes Sprinter vans or practical Ford Econolines, but the quintessential van is the Volkswagen Vanagon, beloved for its bulky, unaerodynamic shape. “It’s the Swiss Army knife of the R.V. world,” Smith explained. “And the community is great. And it was going to look great in the photos.” That winter, while living in New England, he and King bought a cream-colored 1987 Vanagon Camper from a woman in upstate New York for thirty-five hundred dollars. The van was sturdy and full of personality; it had a rusty undercarriage and was wired with an external P.A. system that made animal sounds. They called it Boscha, because it sounded like the name of a German grandmother.
They gave away their business-casual clothes and sold their car. In January, 2013, they left New Hampshire during a snowstorm and headed south. Their first post from the road, a picture of the van driving through snowy woods, got ninety-seven likes.
On the first day, the van slid backward down an icy hill and had to be towed. They drove through winds so strong that they worried that Boscha was thrown out of alignment. Progress was slow; even in optimal conditions, the van couldn’t go faster than sixty miles per hour. King and Smith spent Valentine’s Day at a truck stop in Albuquerque, where a security guard accused them of being prostitutes. The uncertainty of life on the road was a constant low-level drain at first, particularly for King, who discovered that she was afraid of the dark.
After the engine conked out in Arizona, a tow truck delivered them to an R.V. park in Sedona. They stayed there for a month while Smith replaced every ground wire in the van. One afternoon, he called GoWesty to talk through a puzzling repair situation. On a whim, he asked a GoWesty manager named Jad Josey if the company did sponsorships. By the end of the day, Josey had e-mailed Smith a one-page contract, asking for periodic social-media mentions in exchange for discounts and subsidized repairs.
GoWesty’s sales have increased fifty-five per cent in the past five years, thanks in part to the vanlife trend. The company now sponsors fifteen vanlife projects, including one run by a couple selling crêpes and one by a touring folk musician. Smith, who had seen similar deals between cycling companies and mountain-bike racers, was familiar with this kind of arrangement. “I don’t think of myself as an employee of GoWesty but more like an ambassador for their vibe,” Smith told me. He began to see that the time King was spending on social media might have a point after all.
Smith and King slowly grew accustomed to their itinerant life style. They hiked the Grand Canyon and visited hot springs in Oregon. King’s stress abated. With every mechanical breakdown, Smith became more confident handling repairs. He also developed a repertoire of meals suited to the van’s two-burner kitchen. His specialty was a dish he called huevos vancheros: eggs fried in coconut oil, seasoned with turmeric, served over buckwheat with salsa and sauerkraut. The couple bought things to make the van homier and more comfortable: a fruit basket, a travel bidet.
Working on the road proved harder than expected. Smith took occasional part-time jobs—as a mountain-bike guide; as a P.A. for a television show about aliens—but King was the primary breadwinner. “I was working anywhere from fifteen to forty hours a week, which doesn’t seem like a lot, but when you’re driving around and having all that motion, and what I guess you could call the stress of vanlife—not knowing where you’re going to sleep that night—the anxiety was still there,” she said. “We could never really go deep into national parks or national forests, because I had to always be on call.”
A year into their journey, Smith and King met Zach Driftwood and Andrew Knapp, photographers who were touring in a van to promote a book featuring images of Knapp’s dog. Driftwood and Knapp made money from their popular social-media feeds, through product placement and partnerships with brands. In the course of Smith and King’s travels, their following on Instagram had climbed into the tens of thousands, but they had never been paid for a post. Driftwood encouraged the couple to focus on Instagram if they wanted that to change. “He made it clear it was very viable,” King said.
In August, 2015, King quit her Web-development job. The following spring, Where’s My Office Now posted its first paid, sponsored image to Instagram, on behalf of the water-bottle company Hydro Flask. It showed King heating water in a teakettle, a light-blue thermos conspicuous in the background. “Our bodies, the most precious vehicle for our journey here, run on water,” she wrote in the caption. “A big thank you to @hydroflask for creating durable water bottles that help shift the bottled/privatization of water paradigm.” King and Smith were now professional vanlifers. They began working more product placement into their Instagram posts. Since then, their sponsorships—which King prefers to call “alliances”—have included Kettle Brand potato chips, Clif Bars, and Synergy Organic Clothing. Last summer, the tourism board of Saskatchewan paid the couple seven thousand dollars to drive around the grasslands of central Canada with other popular vanlifers, documenting their (subsidized) kayaking trips and horseback rides.
On a drizzly Tuesday in February, I met Smith and King in front of GoWesty’s offices, in the chilled-out oceanside town of Los Osos, California. The parking lot was full of snub-nosed Vanagons in various states of disrepair. So many road-trippers make pit stops at GoWesty that the company has installed a public shower and bathroom.
Smith is short and broad-shouldered, with a mechanic’s scraped-up knuckles. He wanted me to see Boscha, which was up on a lift in the back of the shop, its undercarriage exposed, suffering from as yet undiagnosed engine trouble. Because Where’s My Office Now is one of GoWesty’s most high-profile sponsored projects, the company does some upgrades and any necessary repairs—which would likely amount to thousands of dollars of work—for free. This was GoWesty’s second major overhaul of the van; in 2015, it did a thorough upgrade, replacing the engine, the cooling system, the bumpers, and the wheels, and adding a bike rack.
GoWesty had loaned the couple a van so that they could get back on the road while Boscha was being fixed. They had spent the previous four months holed up at their parents’ homes in New England, as King recovered from an intestinal parasite she’d picked up on a backpacking trip in Montana. It was the longest the couple had stayed in one place—and not slept in a van—in four years, and the time off the road presented a problem. Where’s My Office Now has nearly a hundred and forty thousand Instagram followers and a dozen corporate sponsors; maintaining that kind of audience requires constant tending. King, who is largely responsible for the project’s social-media presence, had done her best to post images from older travels, but the archive was getting thin.
As the afternoon got progressively gloomier, Smith and King transferred their belongings from Boscha to the loaner van: two surfboards (bought at a discount from a sponsor), wetsuits, tins of red lentils and buckwheat, stacks of T-shirts and leggings (mostly from sponsors), a woven blanket (a gift from a sponsor), a hand broom, two yoga mats, three hula hoops in different sizes, a tool kit, a digital S.L.R. camera, and a bag of wheat-free kibble for their soulful, brindled dog, Penny. A sticker on their portable fridge read “It’s not a slow car, it’s a fast house.” The couple travel lighter than they used to—when they first set out, they lashed five bikes to the back of the van.
We didn’t pull out of the GoWesty parking lot until almost two the following afternoon, three hours behind schedule. A surfing app on Smith’s phone indicated that a promising swell was approaching Southern California, so he headed south on the 101. The borrowed van, a 1990 four-wheel-drive Syncro, made disconcerting noises. “You’re wrestling with the van, wrestling with the wind, every truck that goes by you vibrates you,” Smith said. King sat cross-legged in the back seat, replying to e-mails.
At a rest stop, a man in his fifties stepped out of a white S.U.V. and eyed the van hungrily. “I bet that can go anywhere,” he said. Smith, who seemed to have an infinite capacity for small talk, stood in the rain and chatted with him. King was fretful about the delay; sponsors were clamoring for posts. “We really need to create content,” she said. “And that’s hard to do in this concrete jungle.”
It had been an extremely wet winter in California, and more rain was expected. At sunset, we were stuck in rush-hour traffic near Santa Barbara, windshield wipers ticking, as a chain of red brake lights snaked up the freeway in front of us. It was after dark when we pulled into a campground by the ocean, outside Ventura. Smith found a parking spot between two hulking R.V.s, their generators thrumming.
On sunny days, with the doors wide open, the van seemed spacious enough that the R.V.s baffled me; what on earth did they need all that room for? But on a chilly night, with the doors shut against the rain, three adults and a dog made the van feel cramped. Smith and King seemed to have developed an unspoken system for sharing space, but everywhere I stationed myself I was in the way.
Source: #Vanlife, the Bohemian Social-Media Movement – The New Yorker