My first meeting with this concept was through Jon Krakauer’s recount of Christopher McCandless’ nomadic life in Into the Wild, a non-fiction book published in 1996, turned into a movie in 2007. His story, while dangerous and despairing, stirred something in me that never settled until recently.
I set off for Colorado in June to hike, camp, collect rocks and relax for three months. Though fueled with curiosity throughout my journey, I kept wondering how people do this for their entire existence — it was lonely but self-actualizing. What does it take to maintain this lifestyle? Are there real people behind the social media glorification? Who are they? And, for the sake of us all, how do they financially sustain?
#VanLife has upward of 5 million posts on Instagram. Scrolling through, you’ll find surreal vistas, tanned beach bums and vehicle interiors transformed to the likes of 5-star hotels; entire mountain ranges, watercolor sunsets and car doors framing lush prairies and vast wildflower plains — all laced among (hashtag) inspirational quotes that find an astonishing number of ways to say “not all who wander are lost.”
The explosion of the fad can be attributed to Instagram, but not the inception or the soul of the idea. The reality of van life is a subculture of adventurers who are turning the “movement” into a legitimate lifestyle.
Cincinnati-natives Emilie Johnson and her husband Joe Neiheisel are a part of that community, having been on the road for the better part of three years. Johnson, via email, defines home as: “Synonymous with comfort. It’s where you can fully relax, entertain and surround yourself with family, friends and pups, etc.”
A long time of using up every free weekend and vacation they could for camping and exploring assured them that they were ready for a more permanent adventure. Johnson worked in marketing and communications and Neiheisel in finance before they decided to commit.
“Timing was right — we were both healthy, our parents were healthy, we had been saving for years and were in a position to head out on a journey while we could still physically do all the things we like to do to the extent we want to,” Johnson says. “There wasn’t one town calling our names. With our van, we have everything we need and nothing we don’t and there’s no limit to where we can go.”
The couple sold their house and purchased a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van and with the help of friends, remodeled the home on wheels for $90,000. Though this enables them to live freely, Johnson notes that the hardest part about the lifestyle is when something goes wrong with the van. Recently, the couple was plagued with engine problems, which halted their pace.
“You can’t close the door and ignore the problem,” she says. “It’s your home and transportation. Everything you own is in it.”
Anyone, including their nearly 62,000 Instagram followers @permanentroadtrip, can keep up with their current romps. The two mostly stay on public lands everywhere from Florida to Alaska and typically explore one place for a significant amount of time. When they decide to move — beloved dog Alice along for the ride — it’s usually not more than two hours away. While actively managing investments and savings, Johnson said their monthly expenses are around $2,000, the majority of which is spent on groceries and gas. It’s a lifestyle that, as long as they’re still enjoying themselves, they plan to keep indefinitely.
Of their posts, one depicts a foggy stretch of the Kennedy River in British Columbia. “Finding places like this and taking the time to enjoy them is what makes vanlife magic,” the caption reads. “Do yourself a favor, forget about your bucket lists, stop rushing from place to place, tune out the digital panhandlers and rat race 2.0 van accounts. Just relax and enjoy the places you find. You will have plenty of time if you are not too busy trying to get there.”
From tiny houses to shipping containers and mobile homes, a slew of alternative living is redefining life as we know it. Ahead of the curve, Johnson and Neiheisel have proclaimed catchy words of wisdom that need not be limited to van life: #homeiswhereyouparkit.
Follow Emilie Johnson and Joe Neiheisel on Instagram @permanentroadtrip.