Living Unleashed: My Life in a Van

| April 15, 2013 | 8 Comments

Story and photos by Alison Turner.   Read Alison’s original post for Women’s Adventure here.

I’ve been a wanderer and explorer for as long as I can remember. As a child, I jumped in pools without knowing how to swim. I tried riding a bike solo on the first attempt and crashed hard onto the asphalt. I fell off horses, too. My family vacations were spent camping and taking long road trips in our wood-paneled station wagon. I haven’t always had the words to label it, but nomadic life suits my personality.

So, life in a van comes naturally to me.

Many women tell me I’m doing something they’ve always wanted to do. This is always followed by, “if only.” I dare every person to remove the “if only” from her dreams, go through with it and make them realities.

It’s all about making life choices that eventually bring you to your goal. It took me a while to even understand what I was seeking, but I knew there was something else out there for me. I saved a large percentage of my paycheck until I felt I was ready to leave the perceived security of my career and wander into the unknown.

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Charon Henning, a.k.a. “Odd Angel,” lives full time in her vintage Airstream, taking her talents on the road. She’s a tattoo artist, sword swallower, illustrator, and sideshow performer. I captured this shot after a sword-swallowing performance in Ohio. OddAngel.com

“Be honest with yourself and dig deep about why you really want to live on the road. If you are looking to escape something, remember that your brain is still hitching a ride with you.”

After college, I labored toward career achievement and corporate advancement. I worked for years in an unfulfilling job so I could save money and eventually live my dreams – whatever they were. I was fortunate to have a six-figure income, but the job really wasn’t me, and the stress took its toll. I couldn’t relax on the few days of vacation I was allowed, never went to bed without my Blackberry, and was always on-call in case there was some sort of advertising “emergency.” Although it was just print advertising, I received pretty dramatic client reactions when something didn’t go as planned.

Climbing the corporate ladder in advertising had me in a suit and heels daily. From the outside, I thought it would be a glamorous job, but it wasn’t the creative haven I had envisioned. I knew the job didn’t define me, but I took it seriously and, when things went wrong, I took it personally. At the beginning, I was bursting with ideas and creative solutions, but I became hard and cynical as the years passed and didn’t care as much.

I decided enough was enough when the unhappy work day went from days to weeks to months, bringing me to the point where the money – the main reason I stayed for so long – couldn’t keep me there any longer. After working for 15 years in advertising, I quit my job at age 37 and hit the road to see where it would take me.

Now here I am, in my fourth year of living on the road. During year one, I traveled with a teardrop trailer; during years two and three, I lived out of a tent. Now, my home is a pop-top van.

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Max


When I started my journey, I had no idea where it would take me or what I wanted to do. I just drove around and blogged so family and friends would think I was having the time of my life.

But, in reality, I felt lost.

I took this leap of faith when quitting my job, so I felt a responsibility to do something amazing, even though I questioned what I was doing and even though it felt far from amazing. The voices of doubt thundered louder in my head with each passing month, and I tried quieting them at night with a cocktail or two – sometimes more. Whatever it took to quiet the voices of doubt.

It worked for a while – until it didn’t.

After several months of letting fear control my thoughts, I decided it was time to put down the cocktails and face the worry that I was not living an authentic, purposeful life as I had intended. I acted to change the course of my life, starting with eliminating alcohol. To pass the time I usually spent drinking alone during “happy hour,” I picked up my camera and started shooting. Though people told me there was something special in my work, believing it was a challenge. Photography saved my life; it re-awoke my creative soul and gave me a new purpose.

In addition to my camera, it’s just me and my dog Max traveling in “Campy” with my bike “Lucy” on the back. I decide on my daily destinations as I go, and sometimes that means I will give friends only a day’s notice that I will be in town. Most of them are used to that about me. Not planning too strictly allows me to be available for unexpected opportunities and experiences. If I enjoy an area, I am able to stay longer – like I did in Burlington, Vermont, and also in Massachusetts when I made instant connections with some women on Cape Cod. One offered a parking space at her home, so I accepted and stayed several weeks. Each day is a surprise, and there are no expectations about what I will or won’t come across. I can’t imagine a better way to live.

My plan-less nature isn’t for everyone. Planning can be essential with this lifestyle, especially at campgrounds during peak seasons, like summertime in Yellowstone, for example. I didn’t plan my visit there in July and was lucky to secure three nights when I arrived because of a last-minute cancellation. It could have gone either way, and I was open to that.

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After working for 15 years in advertising, I quit my job at age 37 and hit the road to see where it would take me.

Questions to Ask Yourself

Are you thinking about living on the road?

I always encourage women who express an interest in my journey that they can live on the road, too. But it’s important to consider some of the realities of life on the road before moving out of your home and into a van, trailer, RV, or tent for full-time or part-time travel. Heck, even those of you with a sense of adventure but not able to quit your job right now should consider whether nomadic life is for you and hit the road ASAP – even if only for a week.

Remember, you can’t always get what you want.

You won’t have all the comforts of home. You might miss a shower, miss a meal, eat food you don’t normally eat, and do things outside of your routine. To enjoy this lifestyle, you need to be open to change and flexible in unpredicted situations.

You will start appreciating things you don’t think twice about today – like where to go to the restroom and shower while living out of a tent, van, or small RV. At times, I’m unable to shower for several days in a row and, when I finally find a shower, it seems luxurious.

Once, in a small Texas town, I went out to breakfast, which I rarely do. I ordered a meal and told the waiter I didn’t want meat. The meal arrived with bacon on top of it, so I reminded the waiter that I requested no meat. He answered, “That’s not meat, that’s bacon!” So, Max had a nice treat that day.

If you have to lie down to put on your pants, leave them at home.

Nobody cares who designed your clothes or what you look like, except you. Function is the key. Before you pack an item, ask: Will it keep me warm? Will I have a meltdown if it gets ruined? Can I put on these pants standing up or do I have to suck in? Lay out all of the clothes you think you want to pack and take about a third of them with you. I confess: I am not a “glamper.” I pack two bags of clothes – one for summer and one for winter. I have a puffy vest that I wear almost daily, one sweater jacket, and the most comfortable pants, shorts, and flip flops. I wear the same basic outfit, and that works for me. Ditch the makeup, heels, dresses, and jewelry. You will be surprised by how much you don’t need.

Are you running away from something?

Be honest with yourself and dig deep about why you really want to live on the road. If you are looking to escape something, remember that your brain is still hitching a ride with you. Driving to a new destination doesn’t erase your worries. As much as you move to stay busy, there will be down time when you have to confront your inner self. Remember, all of my doubts crept in, and even all the driving in the world couldn’t reassure me that I was on the right path. I still had to deal with those thoughts; otherwise, they’d keep me constant, nagging company.

To discover your subconscious intentions and develop a real picture of why you want to live on the road, write down why you want to go and develop goals before you go. This list will keep you focused and remind you why you are on the journey. Is it to learn more about yourself? Visit a place you’ve always wanted to see? Climb the highest peak? Canoe unexplored waters? Hike lesser-known trails? Plus, it’ll ground you on days when you eventually do question your choice.

I didn’t question my decision daily, but sometimes I sat alone at night and wondered why I was on this journey. I wrote a list of 39 things I wanted to do during my 39th year, and I checked off most of them. Having written goals lightened my mood and gave me a challenge. In the following years, I listed things I’d accomplished that year, to reflect on achievements rather than plot goals.

You may head out and never experience any of these emotions – loneliness, doubt, discomfort, purposelessness. But, having a foundation and written intentions will still prove crucial.

Ditch the “honey do” list.

Remember, this is your time. Don’t do something because it’s what others wish they could do or what others expect you to do. This is a commitment to yourself and what you want to achieve. Your goal doesn’t have to be big; it just has to be authentic to you.

At the beginning, I pressured myself to visit all the places people suggested and blog every day. I stressed about publishing a blog so much that I forgot to enjoy the ride. I finally realized that the blogging and writing was for me, and it became a more pleasurable experience.

Do these jeans make me look lonely?

Women commonly ask if I get lonely. I explain that there are lonesome moments, but they aren’t frequent. Even though I am alone, I can choose to be around people anytime. Many times, I choose to travel to places that are less crowded – to get lost, in a sense. I stay busy by taking photographs, writing in my journal, driving, or hanging out with my dog, Max.

If you have a hard time being alone, this lifestyle might not be right for you. You will be alone to do things just for you – everyday. I see that as positive, but you need a plentiful supply of confidence and independence. Even if you are self-sufficient and happy solo, keep your friends and family close to feel connected when you need them or vice versa.

You can stay connected through social media, but there’s a chance you’ll feel left out when your friends back home post photos of the parties you missed or of their families. Remember to make the best out of this time and know that – although it may be uncomfortable – you are growing with each new experience.

It’s okay to feel lonely, tired, and unsure. You will experience all sorts of emotions. It’s good to feel them. Release them and move on.

But I’m broke…

The cost of life on the road depends on how long you’re traveling, how far you drive, how much you eat, and where you sleep. It might seem on the surface that living out of a van is cheap, but you have to factor in parking fees, fuel expenses, and the price of little extras you’ll need while away from your comfortable home.

What to do if you hate living on the road

Remember, nothing is permanent. You can return to the security of the known at any time. Although I live in a van now, I kept my home in southern California, and it serves as a vacation rental until I’m ready to go back. Renting out my house helps tremendously with my finances, too. I travel by gut, but I don’t restrict myself to moving around often or staying put. If I ever want to live in one place for a long time, then I will settle down somewhere.

Life on the road is tough at first. Though I had major doubts and questioned my decision often, I wouldn’t change anything about the path I took and continue down now. If you want a nomadic lifestyle badly enough, then you will push through and have faith that the rewards will outweigh any initial discomfort. But, if you hate it, you can go home.

If you’re unsure, get a feel for it before you commit to this lifestyle in an extreme way. Just take a few trips to start. You don’t really need to quit your job, sell your home, and leave your family to make time for peace, quiet, and freedom from daily routine. Give yourself time to be alone and experience an adventure – whatever it may be. Whether you have a week or a month, you can rent an RV or a trailer and explore another lifestyle. Check out Airstream listings at airbnb.com.

Or, venture out of your comfort zone without leaving town – do something you’ve never done before. Eat at a new local restaurant, explore an unfamiliar neighborhood, paint, take a different route home, sign up for an outing with strangers, meet and show around a visitor, take a community class, and so on. Try anything that seems daunting at first. It sounds simple, but breaking up your routine gets you to experience that uneasy feeling that leads to a broadened perspective and growth. Feel it often enough, and you might reevaluate what’s really important to you in this short life.

Read more about Alison’s life unleashed at AlisonsLife.com and see the characters she’s met on the road at AlisonTurnerPhoto.com.

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A dedicated bingo player in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Bingo!

Shy by nature, I am surprised by how open I am with my camera in hand. The perspective through a lens has heightened my natural curiosity and love of getting to know new people. Two years ago, I walked into a Bingo hall in Maine and found something that changed my course for several months. I realized that, once these players pass, so will the game. So, I needed to document these people who dedicate at least one day a week to coming and losing themselves in a game of hope and chance. I ended up creating a series of portraits of Bingo players across America. That series is just one part several I’m creating to document Americans and our way of life.

Category: Extreme

Women's Adventure

About the Author ()

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Comments (8)

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  1. Erin McElroy says:

    Thank you for sharing your story! I think storytelling is so important for us to connect at whatever part of our own stories we’re living right now.
    I’m about 2 1/2 years deep into leaving my corporate job and my home, on a journey of self-discovery and it’s been in the last few months that I’m sensing van life is definitely in my future. … I had been thinking long term expeditions in an adventure vehicle…still am, but just finding it will be more than that.
    So timely article for me! Thank you and happy journeying!

  2. Quinn says:

    Amazing and helpful essay. I started following you on Instagram recently, and was stoked to recognize your name as the author of this piece. I’ve been taking little RV & camping trips with my dog, too, but when I learned about your journey, you kind of became my hero haha. This how-to was what I needed so that I stop wishing about it and start doing the work to make it happen (I.e. Save up, etc)! Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom and pictures!!!

  3. james mickelson says:

    Hello. I read articles like this from time to time. Your thoughts are right on. I am within weeks of doing what I have wanted to do for decades. I have built a van and I will be on the road full time. I love to explore. I am a photographer. I will process film (4×5/5×7) in my van at night and print when I get back to San Jose where my friend lives. Please email me back if you get this and are still on the road. I’d love to keep in contact. I have to learn insta/face/twitter/ect. Thanks for writing this peice. James

  4. Billie says:

    Hi Alison,
    Really enjoyed your article. I am a retired single lady about to go on the road. Of course everyone thinks I’m nuts. I lean toward a nomadic life anyway, lots of travel as a kid,so I don’t worry about the nuts and bolts so to speak. I have had thought about purpose in my day to day. Your article was very helpful Thank you so much and will be looking for more from you.
    Roll on,
    Billiw

  5. Love this as I am a female nomad like yourself… I always love and am inspired by reading of others adventures as doing it solo as a girl is not always easy. I’ve lived onboard boats for the past three years out of two small bags and love it and because my environment is small I don’t buy any more crap that what I truly need.. though often I “need” more adventure gear haha! One of my best adventure gal pals now goes by the name Vanvagabond as she found a man who wanted to live the lifestyle with her and they upgraded to a married couple van last year and are digital nomads working as computer programmers traveling across the western USA. I’ve come to believe firsthand that there are ways to have this lifestyle along with romance and a decent paycheck… so keep it up and keep roaming on! 🙂 @AnjuliGlobal

  6. Mary K Hakkinen says:

    Very inspirational – I am about to embark on my own journey from Massachusetts, heading south,then across the country I hope.I am 59, traveling alone, and have moments where I am somewhat terrified….but off I go. Hope to stay connected on instagram. Who know.s, when I return in April I may just turn around soon after and head right back out again! Mary

  7. Lisa Hackett says:

    I really enjoyed your article and I love it that you named your van! When you live in a van it must be named!

    I am AnjuliGlobal’s friend, Van vagabond. I lived solo in a van for several years before marrying someone who loves van life. He also loves sailing, so now we live on a sailboat half the year and in our van half the year.

    Living in a van has led to wonderful outcomes I never would have imagined. I am not certainly never sorry I left that cubicle behind to pursue a life of dreams. I hope everyone finds the courage to live their unique dreams.

  8. luciano says:

    Hi, I enjoyed reading your story. I appreciate honesty and transparency and your way of expressing yourself has both.
    I just finished putting the finishing touches on my van. Like you, I’m renting my house on Airbnb for part of the month, and during the time I have guests I go on the road. If I want to go on the road longer, I rent longer. Conversely, if I feel like staying home, I just don’t rent. It’s an awesome way to live.
    I’m a photographer as well. Check my work out on IG lucianoleonphotography
    Perhaps one day we’ll cross paths and we can trade stories of our adventures. ( :

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