Alyssa & Donnie in a Ford Van

Alyssa & Donnie's story is extra special to me because I have been following them and their adventures even before they began #vanlife. Alyssa reached out to me when they were converting their van. I have been able to watch their progress and planning come to fruition, and I have witnessed this newfound happiness with the freedom in living small.
I have been captivated by their creativity, which is both as beautiful individually as it is together. They have a vision to share how people connect with each other and with the natural world, and I can't wait to see their project unfold.

Square Feet: 72

I’m exploring ‘home.’ This is ours right now, and every night we get to decide where home will be.

Make, Model, Year: 2006 Ford E-350

Months Living Mobile: 2

We are full-time van-dwellers, although new to the road. We drove away from San Francisco on January 4, 2016. As mentioned before, we have no specific end plan. We’re trying to keep it that way but it will depend on money. We love this lifestyle, we’re seeing so much and meeting incredible and inspiring humans at every stop. It’s been so rewarding.

Currently Living: New Orleans

We are living full-time in the belly of this van. We're currently in New Orleans, and then we'll head up the East Coast. The route is more than 9,000 miles around the states with no defined “end” (which we're trying to maintain for as long as possible). While in the West, we lived mostly on BLM/public land, which was incredible, but there's much less public land in the East.

Why did you decide to travel around in a van?

I have always been interested in the tiny house movement, but I never felt ready to settle into a place for good (I have a serious travel bug in me). Originally from Michigan, I graduated from school and spent a few years working in Boston and San Francisco as an experience strategist. I loved this crazy life but knew there were deeper connections to be had if I could take the time and space away. Donnie's interest was based more in the project we wanted to carry out while traveling in the van. But once he started to build the interior of the van, it also awoke in him a love for woodworking and power tools that he was unaware of. So Donnie and I quit our jobs at the end of last year to work on the project. That project is called A Place and All Its Creatures. It’s a multimedia exploration of how people connect with the natural world and with each other. We’re using film, photography, writing and illustration to express and share our observations, research and experiences.

The van is our full-time home for now, and we’re hoping it will remain so for quite awhile.

What was the process like to move into your mobile home?

Donnie and I were living in the city while working on the van. We didn’t have a real workspace, so we’d park at the big open parking lot on the west side of San Francisco at Ocean Beach, or we would look for a flat parking spot in our neighborhood where we could work during the days. We met so many neighbors this way! Some friends in and around the city offered us space to work for the months leading up to it, and we took one day to do a MarieKondo purge of a lot of our stuff, followed by a garage sale. We read so many blogs and took advice from The Rolling Home, Cheap RV Living and VanDog Traveller.

We stayed with a friend for the final days before hitting the road. Soaking up the luxuries of an apartment before we drove away. We were super grateful to have that apartment access before launching so we could transition at our own pace.

Has your relationship changed with each other since traveling in a small space?

Yes! Donnie wakes up before I do every morning. It’s very strange (that never ever happened when we were in an apartment). Mostly, we see each other a lot more than in city life, where our schedules hardly aligned.

Because we are constantly in each other’s space, we are getting better at asking for what we need and working to compromise with each other.

There's also this interesting thing that happens when we visit with someone. Often things come up that we weren't talking about between the two of us. It's as if the presence of a third party almost creates a neutral ground we didn't know we needed. This occurrence has made us realize that communication can always be improving.

Where do you shower?

When we’re further out in nature, we’ll go on a walk with water and rinse off out there. Donnie’s taken a few showers at Flying J truck stops. They are very clean and provide towels! But they are too pricey for being a regular occurrence. (Although, we hear if you ask the truckers, they often have extra shower passes that they get when they fill up their trucks and they may give them away if you ask.) Sometimes we sneak our Dr. Bronner's soaps and washcloths into one-person bathrooms and get clean in there. It’s kind of a fun game. Otherwise, friends let us stay with them AND use their showers (nice friends)!

Where do you park?

Public land as much as possible. There’s a ton in the west. It’s free and there are no facilities. People don’t bother you, and it’s gorgeous. Unfortunately, the public land goes away in Texas and as you move East. We use to find free camping, and we will sleep in Walmart parking lots if we’re looking for just a one-night stay (casinos often work). We’ve found some beautiful free campsites, though, which have been great.

How do you fund this trip?

Trip funding! Most of this trip is coming from savings, which is great but not sustainable. I’m doing a little remote work from the road (six hours a week) and will likely increase that when the project work minimizes. The other source of cash (fingers crossed) will come via a Kickstarter that we just launched to support the project and create some great outputs once the project is over (a book, a #vanlife magazine and more).

What about health care and retirement benefits?

I know we’re supposed to worry about saving for retirement right now, but I’m really not ready for that. What I’m doing instead is taking a huge break from a 9 to 5 (or more like 9 to 7) stationary and stressful office job, and I think that counts for health improvement. Also, Donnie and I both have health insurance.

What are your hobbies on and off the road?

I love acroyoga but focus on vinyasa yoga on the road.

I also recently acquired a ukulele that I'm learning to play. Otherwise, I like to write, draw, talk to people, dance and travel. Donnie is all about photography (and now videography with our project), and he likes graphic design as well (he designed the project's logo). He also usually runs a half-marathon every spring, but this year we'll be driving nearly 700 half-marathons instead.

What are your top three go-to items in your van?

10-Degree Sleeping Bags: These make life so much cozier.

Solar Panels: So that we can be energy self-sufficient.

Yeti Ramblers: They keep our beverages seriously hot for way longer than we thought possible. This makes coffee and tea last all day.

If we were to hitch a ride with you, what song might be playing?

We’re still loving "Lights On" by Big Grams (Big Boi and Phantogram), anything by Sylvan Esso (we still aren’t over them, "California" by Grimes or a podcast (This American Life or the Savage Lovecast).

Favorite Place to Visit: Terlingua, Texas

We were surprised with how hard we fell for this place. It’s a tiny town near Big Bend National Park that felt real and grounded and was built in between old mining ruins. It claims to be home to all chili cook-offs worldwide and has a vibrant music scene. Beautiful big skies, dry heat and a great view of the Chisos Mountains. But perhaps best of all is you can crack open a beer with the locals on the big porch for the Terlingua Trading Co./Starlight Theatre, and they treat you like one of their own.

Who inspires you?

Roxy: An awesome woman we met at the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous who has been living in her car solo for 12 years.

OutdoorBella: Constantly highlighting awesome women doing awesome things.

Emily Polar: An incredibly talented and adventurous photographer and friend.

The Bitter Southerner: A great website documenting the tales and trials of people in the south.

What has been the most rewarding thing about living small?

The time. There's no rush. We have reintroduced daytimes into our lives. Daytimes that are your own, not owed to anyone. We get to wake up and decide. We have the time to sit and chat with strangers and locals, to hear their stories, to feel a place.

What is the most challenging thing?

Balancing saving money with eating quality food. This is almost impossible. And every time we visit friends, we want to cook for them or explore their town with them. This definitely strains the budget.

What is your advice to people who want to live small or hit the road?

Don’t worry so much! So many people wait till they are retired to travel, but then they can't do so as freely because old age has gotten the best of them. Take advantage of your current mobility!

Do you plan to go back to your previous way of living?

Great question! Hard question. We are really trying to leave things open ended to allow them to become whatever they become! I’m personally interested in exploring a lifestyle that supports a deeper connection with the natural world and with other humans. My previous life doesn’t really encourage these things. Donnie and I are both considering new homes.

What's next? Any news you want to share?

The success or failure of this Kickstarter will really help us figure some of this out. This money would give us the time to create and share video, writings, and photographs that we'll capture and curate from the road to share. We've already stayed with and focused on two communities, and we're currently focused on two local artists in New Orleans. We cannot wait to share with you all!

Our goal is not to seek out glamorous environmental success stories or to create solutions to the modern isolation we experience. Rather, we want to show examples of what exists and how it exists.

Follow Alyssa & Donnie and Their Kickstarter project

Edited by Kate MacDougall.
All photos credit to
Alyssa Ackerman and Donnie Rex.