In the spirit of teaching you how to be free, I have a couple of demands* to make. Trust me, it’s for your own good.
Congratulations! Your van life is officially in motion. From now on, your only goal will be to move far away from the status quo cocoon you shed. You know — the good ol’ days of 50+ hour work-weeks spent unengaged behind a desk, still stressed about paying your bills on time. You weren’t alone in your turmoil: 80% of Americans work sedentary jobs and 60% feel detached from their emotions at work. With the stillness of the status quo behind you, you’ll find a complete new future full of the scenic camping spots on FreeRoam. “Normalcy is a novelty to me now,” says blogging digital nomad Katie.
“Cooking a main meal isn’t just as simple as bunging it all in the oven,” shares van-life veteran Emily R, “…so it takes careful planning, and usually takes twice the time because you have to stop and wash up halfway through the prep just to give yourself a bit more room.” Though she loves the lifestyle, Emily is clear about it not being cut out for everyone: “Just like in a ‘normal’ home, things can go wrong – vehicles break down, you get leaks and flat tires and some mornings you wake up and the water pump has mysteriously decided to stop working. Or the heater’s stopped for no apparent reason. You have to find ways to fix them and if you can’t do it yourself (or bodge it with tape and WD-40) then it’s going to get costly.”
“For those dedicated to it,” says van-life blogger Brandon Withrow, “van life is a complicated mix that includes a daily frustration with the simplest of things, while also providing opportunities for personal discovery, community building, and activism.”
Van life is not an escape from work. Nomadic living is born out of a desire for fulfillment — not ease. A 2016 Forbes survey lists humanity’s biggest desires alongside their biggest obstacles; happiness, money, and freedom were among the top wants of those surveyed. The list of challenges was lit up by questions of purpose, fulfillment in work, potential, and having “something to offer”. Recent surveys show that close to 60% of Americans feel distant from their peers and family, with many citing long work hours as the cause of their isolation. Lack of social connectedness can lead to lowered self-esteem, and in some cases the loneliness even manifests as physical pain.
Nomadic living presents individuals with the freedom to choose their work and thus create their own modes of fulfillment. On the precipice of the pandemic, the population of digital nomads grew by 49%. “We’re extremely happy in this life and the freedom it gives,” says van-life patron Smriti Bhadauria, who took off from Toronto in 2020, “There’s no deadline in sight.”
Al Jazeera columnist Belén Fernández found her own connection to the world during months of ‘international wandering’ after graduating college.“Whether I was being given a ride while hitchhiking in Lebanon or a place to sleep by peasant farmers in Colombia, an invigorating sense of human community came to supplant the toxic culture of competition and soul-crushing consumerism that passes for life in the US.”
Internalized capitalism describes this intrinsic link between self-esteem and productivity, a dangerous thread that, according to social worker Nikita Banks, easily leads to “burnout, depression, and overall dissatisfaction” with life. “You can’t feel value in yourself just for being alive – just for being a human being” says Professor Anders Hayden of Dalhousie University, “You have to be a ‘human doing’ to have any value.”
The cages of capitalism are all around us. The average American is burdened by $96,371 in debt and many only have an eighteenth of that amount in savings. Over half spend more than 40 hours a week toiling to make up the difference, and nearly 85% report feeling unhappy at work. The stress, the pressure, the excess of material and absence of purpose – all of it reinforces the walls of disillusion that so many people struggle with everyday. Van-lifers August and Jill emerged from their time on the road with a new understanding of their own invisible cages: “You won’t see it ‘till you take a break from it.”
The happiness found by those leading nomadic lifestyles breathes life back into a centuries-old debate on human nature. Questions of purity, reason, greed, and vanity long troubled the thoughts of philosophers Hobbes and Locke. What those two minds may have overlooked is the possibility that human nature did not exist on only one side of a polarized spectrum; that their self-interest could perhaps be fueled by their purest, most natural wants in life.
CEO of Great Place to Work, Michael C Bush, cites purpose as a central motivation for life: “It’s the reason why we spend so much time away from our families to do this thing called ‘work.’ It’s the reason why we are late for soccer games, family dinners, birthday parties, parental visits, daycare pick-ups, vet appointments, and so on. Purpose is also the reason why we sometimes question our priorities and life choices.”
Voices of Youth blogger, Kamogelo, says she fights against social injustice and racism because she “…will not merely accept that this is all we deserve.”
Italian poet Dante Aligheri wrote with passion on the human potential, saying “Mankind is at its best when it is most free. This will be clear if we grasp the principle of liberty.” In order to grasp the full potential of liberty, people would first need time: a luxury not afforded them by the demands of a capitalist society.
But what happens when one rebels against those demands?
Van-lifer Jenny Lincoln found the time to explore liberty on the road and has stayed on wheels for 6.5 years as a result. “The liberation I felt with physically downsizing, popping my stuff into storage and then renting my house, was BEYOND WORDS,” Lincoln shares, “…I was no longer defined by what I had or had not!”
Stevie Trujillo was a young UCLA graduate with a resume chock full of awards from her corporate tech-sales career when the Great Recession of 2008 forced her to renovate her life, determine what she could sacrifice, and pack the rest into a van. With bittersweet liberty thrust upon her family by economic turmoil, Trujillo was faced with a harsh yet meaningful new reality. “Though it was sometimes terrifying to feel so exposed,” Trujillo says, “like when soldiers in balaclavas searched our van for drugs at military checkpoints, or when we were confronted by heavily armed narcos at a gas station in Honduras – mostly I appreciated the way our vulnerability put us in the way of strangers, seeding connection and a wider sense of belonging.”
Business-owners Dave Ramsay and Matt Felser saw an increase in freedom-seekers visiting their Colorado van-renovation set up in 2020. The plan for van conversion is simple: “Everything you need” says Felser, “Nothing you don’t.” Some customers were forced into van life as a way to ease financial hardship like Trujillo. Others, like seventy-two year old Darla Letourneau, came to Dave & Matt Vans looking to achieve their dreams solo: “I want this trip to restore my faith in humanity. I want to connect with people and have an adventure.”
For $150, Jordan Peterson will teach you that confidence is the answer to all your woes. In exchange for your views and engagement, almost any Tik-Toker will set you straight on the path to self-love. The thousands of self-help books published each year are sure to yield some set of rules you can apply to your life – to assign you a new carrot to follow after and dream of.
A 2021 survey found that the global standard for happiness was determined by whether an individual had three things: health, family, and a sense of purpose. So, you choose. You can put the keys to your fulfillment – your wellbeing, community, and purpose – in the hands of your most trusty Tik-Tok advisor, or you can put them in the ignition and go.