Words and photos by Brianna Madia.
If you’ve been on the Internet in the last year, chances are you’ve seen photos of decked-out Sprinter vans, camper vans, and old Volkswagen buses, all made to look like mini wood-floored rolling apartments. You’ve also probably seen photos of the long-haired, new-aged nomads that call them home.
“This quest for freedom is chalked up to a trend.”
#VanLife consistently ranks as one of the top trending hashtags, with entire Instagram pages and blogs dedicated to the process of buying a van, building it out, hitting the road, and never looking back. And despite the fact that the van life community ranges from young singles to married couples to families with small children to retirees, this ultimate quest for freedom is often chalked up to a “millennial trend.”
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For the last eight months, my husband, myself, and our two dogs have called our big orange Ford E350 home, securing our own spot within this trend. But if I’m speaking truthfully, I don’t like that word…trend. Because believe me when I say you don’t move into a van because it’s “trendy.” Rosé is trendy. Those stretchy choker necklaces everyone wore in the ‘90s were trendy. Choosing to give up a majority of your worldly possessions and the traditional comforts of a stationary home in order to live inside a moving vehicle is not a trend.
“There’s a passion behind it that just isn’t befitting of a trend. It is, in many ways, a movement.”
There’s a passion behind it that just isn’t befitting of a trend. It is, in many ways, a movement. You move into a van because you’re determined to live in a very specific way…determined to feel something that only a movement can provide. And while the era of the Internet makes these stories of tiny-living available to us at every turn, the truth is that history is cyclical, and much of this minimal movement has deep roots in the past. Yes, long before the hashtags and the blog posts and the Instagram live tours…there were nomads.
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I grew up obsessively looking at photographs of 1969’s famed Woodstock music festival while blaring my favorite Doors album and plastering my bedroom walls with posters of Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead. There was something incredibly profound to me in the general pushback of the 1960s and 1970s. People just weren’t buying what society was selling. Young kids struck out on their own, looking for meaning beyond the white-picket-fence dream and the suits and shiny shoes of Wall Street. There was a profound urge to stick it to the man, to run against the grain.
But this unconventional desire for freedom and the sacrifices made to achieve it confused people. It had to be given a name, an explanation. So, they called them hippies, punks, and vagabonds, and it’s with this same lens that many view this new herd of nomads: As nothing more than a bunch of “millennials” who don’t want to grow up.
But the reality is that we have grown up. We’ve grown up being told that “success” involves a permanent address and a big fancy job with a ton of fancy stuff in a big fancy house. We’ve grown up with the message that there is only one way to do things in this life. But just like the free-roaming wanderers of bygone years, we’re not buying it. We’re doing it our own way.
The “vanlifers” you see across the internet and at coffee shop parking lots throughout the country have worked to achieve every inch of that life, because it has always been about wanting less, not doing less. We run mobile businesses, create social media content, write books, work remotely for software companies and marketing firms. We climb mountains and scale rock faces and build fires and advocate for the earth we roam so freely on.
“We don’t just work hard to play hard—we work hard to live hard.”
We don’t just work hard to play hard—we work hard to live hard. We work hard to simply survive, and we take on the challenge of living each day with a determination and objective that most wouldn’t understand unless they’d experienced it.
And while our tiny, rolling homes seem frighteningly unstable to some, we feel a certain safety in the malleability of a life on the road. We can always change what’s outside our window. We can always head for higher ground. The unending list of possessions that tether us to the ground on which we stand have been stripped away and in their place there’s nothing but horizon.
At the end of the day, the van, the RV, the airstream, these are the catalysts—the means to an end. They are the mechanisms that carry us down those sun-bleached highways toward the freedom of a life lived with unending intention. So keep heading for that horizon. We’ll see you out there.