Van Life: The Real Deal

May 2, 2018
Van Life: The Real Deal

Our social media world is saturated with images of #vanlife: beautiful male/female couples who travel the world with radiant, perfect smiles plastered to their faces. As we scroll through Instagram, we are bombarded with information on how to become a digital nomad. We have our choice of webinars that will teach us how to make money online, how to get sponsored, and how to spend multiple thousands of dollars converting a van that we paid another multiple thousand dollars for. Many of us have fallen down the Google rabbit hole of researching ways to break free from the constraints of society and live in a van with our beautiful partner who adores us and make more money than we need online, waking up to the sound of the ocean from within the wood-paneled walls of our Mercedes Sprinter.

But is any of it real? Are those gorgeous couples as happy as they appear on social media, or do they argue like normal human beings? Are they trust-fund babies who don’t understand that not everyone can drop 50k on a Sprinter van? Do they ever feel lost and alone and scared like I seem to feel all the time?

Several van lifer pages I follow on Instagram will post a photo along the shores of Washington State one day, and the very next they’re posting a photo in the mountains of New Zealand, claiming that both photos are theirs.

I call bullshit.

I call bullshit.


Van Life: The Real Deal, What It's Really Life

Either they’re dipping into the Dropbox files or they are so good at being nomads that they magically got their VW bus across an ocean in one night.

Also prevalent on Instagram are the people who have brilliantly capitalized on the van life movement and started companies renting out converted vans to people for van-life photoshoots. Aw, the deception of social media.

And don’t get me started on the photos of women leading their men by the hand through exotic destinations. I find those photos absurd. I know I’ve always been different, but I want a man who will walk proudly beside me, not one I have to drag along behind.

Instagram, and society, seem to have forgotten about the rest of us. Those of us who have been living in vehicles since “before it was cool”. I am one of those forgotten black sheep. I have been living in my car since Myspace was a thing. And when I say ‘car’ I don’t mean a pimped-out, restored Westfalia.

I want a man who will walk proudly beside me, not one I have to drag along behind.

In fact, I started with a Subaru Impreza hatchback, then lived in a Jeep Grand Cherokee off and on for five years. The Jeep had no sink, no toilet, no mini-fridge, no bed platform, no storage space, and no white Christmas lights. It was, quite literally, a small SUV with the seats taken out of the back. And I did it alone. I have never had a beautiful man to lead by the hand or to walk beside me.

What about all those fringe-of-society people who pioneered van life long before most #vanlifers had even been born (including me)? When I was growing up in the early ’80s, my grandparents took me camping on the Oregon Coast. In the campsite next to us was a couple who lived in a converted school bus. They gave us a tour of their bus and later. We all shared a campfire while they regaled us with tales of their travels. I was enthralled.

Even though I was still young, I had always had this yearning to wander. Though I didn’t yet know exactly what that feeling was. When I saw that converted bus, it hit me like a lightning bolt. Before my very eyes was the lifestyle I had been craving. I wanted to be a nomad when I grew up.

Become a nomad I did, after I was securely tied down to the American Dream and had spent years chewing at my restraints until my gums bled. But I finally got out. When I was 29, I quit my photography career. And I packed a few personal belongings from my newly constructed, 30-year-mortgage home on the beach north of Seattle, divorced my husband, and boarded a plane to Japan. I haven’t stopped roaming since.

Van Life: The Real Deal

I roamed overseas for two years. I’ve driven to Florida and back twice, to Massachusetts and Alaska, along the famed Alcan Highway, seven times. I spent a summer working as a bartender in Salem and living in a parking garage in the Jeep. In Alaska, I parked each night at the glacier and listened to the raging river polishing ancient stones while I spilled words onto the pages of my journal.

I always get the same reaction when I tell people I live in a car. They’re shocked and say something like “but you don’t look homeless”, and then they feel sorry for me and say, “you can crash on our couch for a while”. While I genuinely appreciate their offers of shelter, the pity in their eyes makes my heart hurt. I do not have a life worthy of pity. I have 100% chosen to be a homeless nomad. And at any point, if I wanted to, I could stay in one place and rejoin the corporate world. But I don’t want to. In fact, I have never wanted to.

I quit my photography career, packed a few personal belongings from my newly constructed, 30-year-mortgage home on the beach north of Seattle, divorced my husband, and boarded a plane to Japan.

I sold the Jeep a few months ago and bought an actual van. It’s a 1994 Dodge van that I found for $2,000 on Craigslist. It was hard to sell the Jeep, emotionally. We had been so many places together. Just the two of us. That car was the only home I’ve known for many years. However, I knew that if I was going to continue this nomadic lifestyle, I needed a vehicle more appropriate for living in. So I sold the Jeep to a good friend, bought the van, and spent one month in Oregon at my parents’ place while my dad helped me convert it. I must admit that for living in, the van is much easier than the Jeep. But when it comes to sentimental attachment, I simply don’t have those feelings for the van yet, because I still miss the Jeep deeply.

I now have a legit #vanlife van with all the things the Jeep lacked – a bed platform, storage, a sink, a counter, a bookshelf, and even a flat-screen TV. My dad and I did it all ourselves. We used nearly all second-hand materials. And the only things I needed to buy were plywood, two by fours, screws, insulation, and other odds and ends such as tubes of liquid nails and silicone. Total, it cost me $358 to convert my van.

Total, it cost me $358 to convert my van.

With the purchase of the van, putting in a new transmission, registration, insurance, conversion, new tires, new battery, and a few other improvements/fixes, I have spent a total of $4,000 on the van. It’s a far cry from the thousands on thousands spent on van conversions that we’re used to seeing on social media.

Next time you’re scrolling through Instagram and see a van life photo and think to yourself, ‘I wish I could do that’, remember that you absolutely can. It won’t look like at all like what you see on social media…but it will be real, and it will be yours.

About Liberty Miller

Born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, Liberty was raised within a family of photographers and writers. After studying photography and journalism in college, she worked as a corporate photographer in the Seattle area for many years before moving overseas and working as a Foreign Correspondent for a marine conservation non-profit. She now lives the van life and works as a seasonal outdoor guide, mostly in Alaska and Washington State, and a freelance writer. She has recently published her first book, a memoir about her solo travels, living as a nomad, and overcoming life’s challenges while maintaining wonder and belief that life is beautiful.

3 thoughts on “Van Life: The Real Deal

  1. Carol
    May 11, 2018

    Great story. Instagram photos remind me of food pictures you see in a cookbook. I could never make the food look like the picture. The pictures look great, but are they real? Good luck on your adventures!

  2. May 2, 2018

    Thanks for your comment, Janet! Glad you liked the article. I have an ebook coming out soon about the *real* van life. I’ve also just published my memoir, The Heart of the Runaway, available on Amazon, which covers a lot about living in a car.

  3. Janet Pace
    May 2, 2018

    Whoot whoot! Thanks for sharing your van life story! I look at similar Instagram accounts and find the glossy fabrication annoying. I want to hear about how cold it can be or how badly one sleeps due to annoying neighbors or aching hips.

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