Guest Post: Navy Life to Van Life

Rob Morgan traded a career in the Navy for a life of traveling in a Chevy van. His van, nicknamed Vanawhite, has given him opportunities and a life he didn't see himself having in the military. This is the story of how his life has changed in the almost eight months he has gone from Navy life to van life.
I know that our bodies were made to thrive only in pure air, and the scenes in which pure air is found.
— John Muir

Looking Back

At a young age, my parents always encouraged me to be outside. I rode my bike to meet up with friends, played in the sand box and definitely didn’t watch a lot of TV. I hiked and camped with my family and was introduced to backpacking at five years old when my dad also taught me how to climb and kayak. My parents dragged me down trails, up rocks, down rivers and deep into the woods. When I joined Boy Scouts, I traveled the country backpacking, sailing in the Bahamas and gaining a huge lust for adventure.

Navy Days

At 18 years old, I joined the US Navy just a few months out of high school. I re-enlisted and served for eight years, traveling Europe and serving in the Middle East. It was because of the Navy that I saw things I thought I would never get a glimpse of, except from movies and books. I loved what I did for the Navy and I was proud of myself, but something was missing. I worked a lot. I had a lot of responsibilities because I was young and in the military.

I would work until I hit a breaking point, and then I would run for the mountains.

I was one of the lucky ones, eventually getting stationed in Washington. Having the North Cascades as a playground was pretty amazing.

After years of deployments all over the world, long work hours and insane amounts of stress and chaos, I needed another change. It happened slowly though. The idea of leaving the Navy scared me.

I felt safe knowing I would always have a paycheck and knowing how to do my job because there were rules for every step I made.

But something wasn’t working, and that was my motivation. I kept looking at Mount Baker every time I walked into the flight line, before I got on a jet to go back overseas and when I got off that jet coming home. Every time I saw that mountain, I wanted to leave work and go get lost down some trail or climb up something.

Van Life

In August 2015, that’s exactly what I did. I drove off Whidbey Island with one goal in mind: find more adventure. I didn’t know how to surf, but I bought a surfboard. I haven’t climbed in years, but I bought a new rope. I had never been to Oregon, Montana, California or many other amazing places. But I bought a van, packed my things and took off.

People all over this Earth travel; many travel a lot more and further than I do. That had started to make an impression on me. I needed to see what the road was like, where everyone was going and how in the world all these people were living life so carefree and happy.

I knew that I loved the mountains and ocean, but I really wasn’t sure if I was going to last long out there.

But now, almost eight months later, I have had amazing experiences all over and I couldn’t be more pleased with my life—just carefree and happy.

When the road is home

Living like this can be so easy and laid back. It's fun to go surfing every morning but still have enough time to hike 10 miles, climb all day or just sit around and be lazy.

Getting barked at by the police, park rangers and other forms of law enforcement comes along with this life. You get yelled at for sleeping somewhere you’re not allowed to, or the Forest Service decides it's time to close all the campgrounds and you’re stuck on the side of the road each night. But I truly don’t mind the discomforts, as small as they are. They don’t discourage me from wanting to stay out here.

Every day is a chance to do something new, meet someone new and learn a little more about yourself.

The best part of the road is that it is one big party: a celebration of everyone's achievements. I hadn’t climbed in years, but I spent three weeks in Yosemite with other van and car dwellers who I met in the campground, because they pushed me to go climbing. I drove to Joshua Tree with them to keep getting pushed. Then I surfed in Washington and Oregon with people I met on the road, teaching them and learning from them side by side. We drank beers by the fire in celebration of someone or something. It’s a wonderful life being a dirtbag. We all take photos and share stories and love. Especially love; it’s a wonderful life out here.

How far can you go in one day? How high you can climb? How big can you surf? What can you do today that you haven’t done before? Where haven’t you been? Who haven’t you met yet? How far can you go on your own?

I think that is a story in and of its own: the idea to live a life of pure joy and thrill. To push yourself to new highs and lows.

What's next

Almost eight months living on the road solo and I have only made it to southern California, not that far from Washington.

But I still think I’ve made it far—far out from a normal life, far out from where I was two or eight years ago.

We all have an urge to travel; we all want to do something special. I know I do. I plan to do as many things as I can before life ends. Who can I share this with? Who can I bring with me? Where else can I go? How high can I really climb? How big of a wave can I really surf? That’s what I want to find out. I want to find myself in a life that’s led by thrill and joy. I am proud of where I come from and what I have made of myself thus far. But I am not satisfied yet with where life has taken me. I need to go further.

Every morning, I wake up and ask myself a few questions: How did I get here? What made me take off in the van? Why continue to live in a van? Where did it start? And what will I do now?

All these questions lead back to my past, to the military and to my family. What got me on the road in the first place was that I wasn’t satisfied anymore.

I needed to break away from everything I was doing and forge my own path.

Every time I ask myself these questions, I get a little bummed out and scared. But the answers ground me and remind me of why it’s important to keep doing what I love. I will have to go back to work soon, and will have to make some sacrifices in my freedoms because of that work. But I can’t let it hold me back or let it cause me to lose my motivation again.

Life is meant to be lived, and I intend to do just that.

Follow Rob and his adventures

Edited by Kate MacDougall.
All photos credit to
Rob Morgan.