Roll with Amanda in a Toyota Van

Before Amanda turned 11, she had set foot on every continent. But for the past few months, she has been exploring one (North America) a little more in depth, traveling solo in her '97 Toyota van. Along the way, she shares illustrations to represent her current mood, experiences or locations. She also creates designs for clients and custom #atwildwoman portraits.
Life is one big experiment, and Amanda plans to experience it fully and encourages others to do the same.

Square Footage: 40

See the world. Create endlessly. Stay wild.

Months Living Mobile: 5

Photo: Kris Holbrook

Make, Model, Year: Toyota Previa 1997

I’m all about the gut feeling, and I had one of those as soon as the van popped onto Craigslist after months of searching. It was in my price range (less than $3,000), had less than 160,000 miles and came with excellent reviews (4.9/5 stars from hundreds of people who said these vans run forever).

Photo: Kris Holbrook

What inspired you to live on the road?

I met a friend who lived out of her Honda Element for a whole year by herself and traveled and climbed all around North America. She was a huge inspiration to me, although I never thought I could do it by myself as a single woman.

I was scared, and I wanted to face that fear because I knew great stuff was on the other side of it.

Oh, and #vanlife on Instagram because let’s be real.

Tell us about the process of building out your van.

It was intense and quick. With the help of my awesome mom, it took just about one month (maybe even three weeks) to rip everything out, insulate, panel the sides and ceiling and install flooring. I drove from Florida to Maine all the while sleeping on a pad, and then built the bed and cabinets in another two weeks at my grandparents’ house in Pennsylvania.

The polyiso between furring strips...clearly choosing progress over perfection here.

The polyiso between furring strips...clearly choosing progress over perfection here.

What challenges did you face and what did you learn?

Considering before this I’d never cut wood or drilled a screw...a lot.

I learned how to think strategically and build, but the experience also taught me how to let go of perfection and be okay with good enough. I realized I am not the best at execution and details; I am more of a big ideas creative person. And I don’t plan on building out another van any time soon.

Reflectix lining the gaps in the metal van siding; furring strips attached to top and bottom of wall for siding.

What advice would you give to someone choosing an adventure mobile?

Think long term and big picture. Take a step back and analyze your daily life—what brings you the most joy and comfort? Is it your morning tea, or being able to do yoga first thing? What are you willing to sacrifice? (Because there will be sacrifices.) Are you willing to not be able to stand up in your home?

It might be worthwhile to wait and save your money for a pricier vehicle that’s more comfortable for long-term living.

I know you probably want to get on the road right now, but waiting an extra few months won’t rob you of anything you can’t experience down the line.

I promise.

I am also so glad I waited for a van that is reliable and not crazy expensive to fix. I know some friends who have vans that shell out close to $1,000 every time even a little thing goes wrong because the parts are hard to find and have to be shipped in from overseas.

Last thing, if you’re buying a used vehicle, make sure you budget for the inevitable fixes you’ll have to make before hitting the road. As my mechanic told me after I bought Penny and was stuck with nearly $2,000 of unforeseen repairs, “You’re buying someone else’s problems.”

Photo: Kris Holbrook

What's it like to live and work on the road?

It’s so many things. It’s a roller coaster, and it’s taken me quite a while to find a healthy rhythm and balance. My experience has been pretty challenging internally, and I’ve grown so much as a person.

Pictures do not do it justice, in both good and bad ways.

There are many low moments that often are not shared via social media—feeling lonely, decision overwhelm, missing friends or family, feeling cramped, lack of fresh fruits and vegetables, lots of loud cars and parking lots.

There are also many high moments that simply cannot be captured in one photograph—the satisfaction of a simple life, freedom, being welcomed into friends’ homes, delightful conversations with strangers, the expansiveness of an empty desert, waterfall mist covering your face on an afternoon hike, the newfound appreciation you’ll have for showering, big comfy beds and other creature comforts.

How do you balance using the same tiny space?

I stay super organized. There is no room in my van for mess.

Everything has its place, and every day I make sure to tidy up and sweep it out.

This makes everything easier.

Since I can’t stand up in the van, I try to cook meals with the side and back doors open. I prop the stove on a box so I can stand and move around freely while I cook. Sometimes I am in a place where I don’t feel entirely comfortable doing this (like Walmart), so I’ll just sit in the van and open the side door for ventilation while I cook.

The longer I’m on the road, the more I’m realizing that vanlife is not really about the van. The van is merely a vessel for the experiences you have and the sights you get to see that you may never be able to experience in the same way again.

Photo: Kris Holbrook

I don’t spend much time in the van itself and primarily use it for sleeping.

How do you sustain your lifestyle? Do you ever worry about money?

I do, but not as much as I used to. I’ve been doing a lot of mental work around money and trust. I am a self-employed designer and artist, so my income has never been consistent.

Living on the road really works for me because expenses are generally low, and if I need to work more, I can—I just have to find a Starbucks and camp out there for a few days to focus on drumming up business.

Generally I like to work less, spend less and live more.

What has been your most memorable experience?

One of my favorite feelings in the whole world is when I am truly, entirely, completely in the moment. During these times I feel so alive and free, and suddenly I have this tiny glimpse of the expansiveness of this world and how everything that has happened in my life has led me to this moment, and it all makes sense.

It’s so beautiful and raw, and I can’t contain my wonder.

I usually start laughing my head off, like a crazy person, as gratitude and joy fill my heart so quickly that I literally feel like my chest is about to explode (in a good way).

Those moments have happened just a few times on this trip. One was when I couldn’t find a shower in Squamish, British Columbia, after hours of searching, and I finally decided to just run into this little beach where the river meets the sea. I jumped in and it was so cold. No one was around and a giant slab of granite from the mountains towered overhead and I just realized in that moment that this is what it’s all about.

I love those moments. I live for them.

Tell us about a time that made you question vanlife.

Oh gosh, there are many to choose from. The Pacific Northwest was such a tumultuous time. I absolutely fell in love with that whole part of the world, but my loneliness came to a real head there. I can’t explain what happened (yet) other than a lot of tears and questioning and unhappiness.

I never expected vanlife to change me in the ways it has, or bring up the muck that I’ve been avoiding within myself for a long time. And I know there is still so much more to learn.

I’m grateful for these hard times because it’s created an environment for me in which I’ve experienced exponential growth that might not have been possible otherwise.

What do you miss about your previous life?

Probably just the creature comforts and not having to make so many daily decisions.

But I am finally starting to truly adapt to this way of life, and it’s totally freeing. I wouldn’t change it.

Photo: Kris Holbrook

Do you see yourself always living in a van?

I’m not sure where I see myself in five years, but I feel like sometime I might want to put down more solid roots—I’d love to buy property somewhere and have a dog and an art studio, but continue traveling. I can see those things for myself; I’m just not sure when it’ll happen.

What's next?

I’m calming down the travel for the winter months but will still be in the van. I am currently in Colorado, and between November and December, I'll be near Joshua Tree, California.

Go up and down and around and backward and sideways. Start again. Let people think you’re nuts. YES. Create that precious, beautiful (perhaps non-linear) life you love!

Follow Amanda & her adventures

Produced by Kathleen Morton.
Edited by Kate MacDougall.
All photos credit to Amanda Sandlin and Kris Holbrook.