Roll with Ben in a VW Bus

I always love interviewing couples who live small, but lately, I have felt quite empowered by the solo adventurers. It can be difficult when you're on your own to make ends meet after quitting your day job or traveling solo for months on end.
But Ben shows us that it can be a rewarding way to live. He lives off his savings, doesn't have a serious itinerary and only stays in one spot for a long period of time when his van break downs.
And as for an adventure sidekick? All Ben really needs is man's best friend.

Square Feet: 80

I put food on the table
And a roof overhead
But I’d trade it all tomorrow
For the highway instead
— Tom Waits, "Long Way Home"

Make, Model, Year: 1986 Volkswagen Vanagon Westfalia

I call my van "Wally." Before I bought him, one of my old military roommates (and now one of my best friends and van mentors) had a similar VW van that he was always doing projects on. Maybe it was the “free candy,” down-by-the-river, creepster stigma I had come to associate with guys in vans, but I just didn't understand the appeal. However, after piling all of our friends into his van for a few epic camping adventures and ski trips—not to mention the fact that, after a late night on the town, he could fold out the bench seat and pass out on a cozy bed while I had to dish out 10 bucks for a cab ride home—I started to become intrigued.

A few months later, I had a van of my own.

Since then, I've developed a fondness for these vehicles that reaches downright embarrassing levels. I never imagined I'd become immersed into a subculture predicated on the ins and outs of decades-old German campervans. But the community is what makes it for me—fun, creative people with a contagious, childlike yearning for the outdoors.

Years Living Small: 1

Currently Living: South America

My van and I just arrived to Cartagena, Colombia after sailing the Caribbean Sea (my van on a cargo ship, Lorenzo and me on a small sailboat). We'll be making our way slowly, but surely, south to Patagonia over the course of the next several months. My van is my home, and it, through various mechanical problems, has given us opportunities to call different places home along the way.

In Mexico, a damaged valve allowed me to get to know the wonderful city of La Paz, Baja. In Guatemala, a broken piston ring led to a complete engine rebuild, which I opted to do myself inside a small apartment outside of Antigua.

But wherever I break down, I seem to meet locals and other travelers that are willing to lend a hand or just be a friend when I need one, making the experience more than worth it.

What were you doing before you went mobile?

I was a physicist in the US Air Force for nearly eight years, testing high-energy lasers and stuff. When my service commitment was up last year, I found myself at a decision point. I wasn't miserable in my office job, but I certainly wasn't fulfilled. I'd come to realize that I was spending the majority of my waking hours preparing for, going to and recuperating from the work day.

Often times I didn't feel like a person—just a worker.

Why did you make the change?

Ultimately, I decided to leave my job and take some time off to reflect and reassess my priorities. I planned a short roadtrip through the Western US and Canada to visit a few cities that I considered potential candidates for a new home. While doing so, I got the travel bug hard.

I’d never felt so consistently excited to be alive—that feeling when the road stretches on forever in front of you and you have no clue where you’ll be sleeping that night, only that it’ll be somewhere past that point on the horizon where the road meets the sky.

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

I've never been a big "haver of things," but I definitely had more things that could possibly fit into an old van. Each item had to be evaluated for its size, function and necessity. I ended up giving a lot of my possessions away to friends or thrift stores.

It was a process, but I think most people who have significantly downsized would agree: getting rid of stuff is oddly therapeutic.

Yet, the more demanding part of the process was all the work that needed to be done on the van. Prior to owning Wally, I'd never changed my own oil before, but I wanted to learn. I thought having an old, not-exactly-reliable vehicle would afford more opportunity for adventure and growing experiences. I was lucky to have a few friends more mechanically inclined than myself who were incredibly gracious with their time and patient in working with me and teaching me how to take care of my van. I can remember the feeling of looking into the engine when I first made the purchase. It was horrifying.

Now, after a few years and a few breakdowns, I'm able to do nearly all the maintenance myself without the assistance of a mechanic.

How do you balance work and living in a small space?

I was fortunate to have earned a decent salary in the Air Force, and being that I was unmarried with no kids, it wasn't too hard to put money away. As of now, my trip is self-funded by savings, but I'm not opposed to finding work along the way, whether out of necessity or to just pick up some new skills.

What are your hobbies on and off the road?

My initial trip in the van through the states and Canada taught me how much of our world is still wild. Time and time again, I found myself waking up to spectacular sunrises over stunning mountainscapes while camping alone in the woods, or at the viewpoint at the end of a hike without another human in sight.

This is my hobby while traveling—striving to find these moments of fulfilling solitude. It’s my favorite way to be outside.

Off the road, my number one hobby is music. Playing guitar is the one thing I can lose myself in and do all day long without getting bored. Of course, I brought my guitar with me on the trip, and it's fostered some rad experiences—jamming out with locals to Mexican "Banda" music in a small fishing village in Baja, recording on a rooftop in Mexico City with a young female singer-songwriter who invited my travel partner and me to stay with her family, or just singing folk songs to nobody while camped out in the woods.

What are your top three go-to items in your tiny home?

Cast Iron: It makes everything taste awesome and you don't have to clean it. Though I haven't been using it as much in Latin America because the street tacos are so cheap and delicious.
iPhone: It may not be "cool" to say it out loud, but I gotta be honest: my iPhone. It's invaluably convenient that I can save precious space and use one pocket-sized item to store my music, books, maps and personal notes and use as a lifeline in case of an emergency.
Adventure Dog: Not really an item, but...Lorenzo! I found Lorenzo as a puppy in a small town in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. Since then he's become my best bud. He's always there to keep me company and actually does a better job than I do at fostering new friendships with locals and other travelers.

What has been the most rewarding thing about living small?

The simplicity of living small provides clarity.

I'm able to better focus on all those big life questions to which I'm trying to find the answers.

But my favorite thing about vanlife is the people I've met. I've probably seen more of our continent in the past year than many will see in their lifetimes. But it's the generosity of people—friends, family and especially strangers—that has consistently blown me away. It's that, more than anything else I've gained from my travels, that I'd like to keep with me and pass on to others in the future.

It never ceases to amaze me how these goofy looking German vans can create such a tight-knit community of like-minded travelers.

What is the most challenging thing?

The most challenging thing is staying organized, especially now that I have a dog. It seems I'll have everything cleaned and in its right place, glance away for a moment and look back to see the van's interior in utter disarray. I exaggerate, but if you want to stay tidy, you really have to build cleaning time into your daily routine, which I—naturally—choose not to do. I hate chores.

Another challenge has been van breakdowns.

Dear Wally the Van,

You’ll be back up and running soon, ol’ boy. All your new parts have arrived (I think) and your owner is working diligently (mostly watching YouTube tutorials because he has no idea what he’s doing) to get you healthy again. If everything goes according to plan (it won’t), we’ll be on the road again in no time (but more likely, you’ll be a Guatemalan lawn ornament for the rest of your life).

Love, Ben

After two months of work on the engine rebuild, I got Wally up and running again, but it was a slow process.

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

Do it! Living small leaves more room for all the best stuff in life. On the other hand, traveling through the Americas like me in an old, heavy-on-the-pocket VW van may not be in everyone's budget. But I'll defer here to some great words from my friends Brad and Sheena van Orden, whose book "Drive Nacho Drive" inspired my own trip:

I do realize that there are people out there for whom this kind of thing isn’t possible, but it’s not as many of you as you think. I hear it all the time, people telling me that it’s nice that we could do it, but there’s no way they could because of X, Y, and Z. But most of them are selling themselves short. If you can think of someone in America who is surviving on less than you are, and you’re willing to make the necessary sacrifices, then you can do it too. And if it will enable you to live the life you want, then I hope you do.

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

My life after the trip is still a big question mark. I do, though, have dreams of getting back to the States someday and settling down into a simple life, perhaps in a log cabin, outside of a small town, near the mountains, with a wood-burning stove, and a garden, and a stream full of salmon running through the backyard...and maybe a Mexican guy out front selling street tacos at all hours of the day. Something like that.

We need sometimes to escape into open solitudes, into aimlessness, into the moral holiday of running some pure hazard in order to sharpen the edge of life, to taste hardship, and to be compelled to work desperately for a moment at no matter what.
— George Santayana

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Edited by Kate MacDougall.
All photos credit to Ben Hurst