Leave it to Jess + Jorge to make us laugh throughout this interview with them. After three years living in their VW Vanagon, these two have tried out an Airstream, renovated a van, experienced breakdowns and almost bumped into a bear.
This couple tells it how it is, through both the highs and the lows. And we still can't help but think their van is one of the coolest rigs we've ever seen.
Square Feet: 90
Make, Model, Year: 1991 Volkswagen Vanagon
Years Living Mobile: 3
Jess and I live in our van about 70% to 80% of the year. The rest of the time we stay with friends and family all around the country who have been so unbelievably gracious by opening their homes to us.
Currently Living: Manitou Springs, Colorado
We are staying in a friend’s spare bedroom while we get our van’s motor rebuilt and start working on another van.
Why did you decide to travel around in a van?
About five years ago, we started traveling more and venturing out on extended road trips. We had talked for some time about getting an RV and living out of it, but it was always something that was way off in the future—after our student loans were paid off, after we had accomplished certain career goals or after we had enough money saved up.
At the end of 2012, we moved from Atlanta to Austin. Both of our careers were taking off and we were continuing work with clients from Atlanta, and gaining a handful of other clients around the country from D.C. to New York to Seattle.
Our time in Austin helped us realize a couple important things:
1. It really didn’t matter where we lived and worked from.
2. Having the sweet, modern house, furniture and studio set up just how we wanted wasn’t fulfilling to us.
We started entertaining the idea that maybe we didn't need to wait.
Sometime in the summer of 2013—after coming home to Austin after another long road trip—we really started thinking of it as a possibility. We started reading other people’s stories, and one article in particular about a college student who paid his way through his master's by living in a van on campus really made us realize that we didn’t have to wait until everything was perfect to hit the road. Investing money in a van was no different (and on many levels better) than paying a year’s worth of rent. So one afternoon Jess brought up selling all of our stuff—including our cars—and storing those things that held sentimental value to us when our lease was up in December 2013.
We chose a VW Vanagon because it has a certain romance to it, because of the amazing community surrounding the van and because as children of the 80s we could not resist its nostalgic pull. That and it’s a Swiss Army Knife: it can do almost anything you ask it to do.
What was the process like to move into your mobile home?
We bought our van in August 2013 with the intention of outfitting it over the following months for full-time living. It was just a 7-passenger van when we got it, so that meant stripping out the interior and starting from the ground up.
We found a full (brown) Westfalia interior on Craigslist just an hour away in San Antonio a few weeks after bringing our van home. We drove down there and stripped the interior out of an old burned out Vanagon and set out to install it over the next couple days.
While our van was away at the shop, I got a call from an advertising agency in New York that wanted me to come up there for a one month gig. We had just finished the first several big-ticket items on prepping the van so we figured why the hell not? It’d be a great test trip that would put us back in Austin with a few months to spare before hitting the road full time. That trip was quite an adventure and a huge learning experience. Trying to do the whole van life thing in New York as our first test was maybe a little ambitious.
We weren’t swayed from hitting the road, but we were considering the idea that we might need something a little bigger that had a bathroom if we were going to be able to do this in places like NYC or San Francisco. With a tin top van, there's no standing room or pop-top to add a little more comfort to the living space. We didn’t have a functioning stove or sink; no water tank. We were total noobs and our inexperience was showing.
So with the countdown until we hit the road looming front and center in our minds, we started looking for an alternative to the Vanagon. Just two weeks before our scheduled departure, we took a crazy chance, flew to LA and ended up falling hard for a 1974 Airstream Argosy motorhome. We cleared out our savings, bought the Airstream and drove back to Austin. It was surreal. We made it back with a week to finish packing everything, transporting stuff to storage and loading up the Airstream. We left the van parked at our brother-in-law’s house in north Austin and hit the road east in the RV.
Long story short, the Airstream turned out to be a complete disaster so we sold it and were so very happy to return to our original plan of living out of the Vanagon. We committed to the van for good, and about eight months in to our travels, we had a new motor and a high roof installed.
Where do you park?
We try to park anywhere we think will be quiet and dark and have relatively light foot traffic. When we are exploring and putting miles on the van, we look for forest roads or BLM (Bureau of Land Management) areas to camp on. We probably stay in areas like that 30% of the time.
The rest of the time, we park somewhere in a town or city. Normally we go to a neighborhood and if we see an RV parked on the street, we stay near it. Or if we’re between cities, we park at a Walmart or 24-hour gas station. One of the benefits of parking at a Walmart or 24-hour gas station is there are bathrooms. Sweet. Relief.
Where do you shower?
The shower question. We get this as much as we get “where do we go to the bathroom.” Ha!
If we’re in travel/explore mode, we may shower once every two to four days at a hostel, a Laundromat (some of them have showers!), a rec center, a truck stop or at the home of a gracious person we meet through Instagram. If those are not available, we use wet wipes. Not great but it holds the funk at bay.
When we are in work mode, we’re normally in a city center and we rent an office that has a shower or sometimes people we know in different cities will let us shower at their place. We’ve gotten very acquainted with other folk’s showers.
How do you balance work and living in a small space?
Finding places that offer both power and "reliable" Internet is always a priority and sometimes a real challenge. Because we do graphic design, illustration, and video work, the files we work with are very large. This makes the 30GB of data we currently have with Verizon go very quickly if we’re doing a lot of work from the road that month.
Another challenge of working on the road is being able to get in the zone and get lost in the work. We rarely have the opportunity to just sit down with a project and not worry about anything else but the task at hand. That might be because you're in an uncomfortable coffee shop chair, the Internet connection keeps dropping, the place you’re at is closing, or the public library has air that seems to recirculate all the bad smells similar to being on a transatlantic flight.
But from time to time, we do work in the van. If we already have all of the assets we need for a project and don’t need to use the Internet for downloading big files or anything, we find a quiet spot and set up the van for work. I sit in the front swivel seat, and Jess sits in the rear seat.
What about health care and retirement benefits?
Jess has a health care plan she pays for 100% out of pocket. I am an Iraq War veteran and receive “care” from the VA. Retirement is something we are starting to consider again this year. There were quite a few years there after we had depleted our savings trying to keep our first business afloat that we were just in rebuilding mode—paying our way through school, paying off cars, buying a van—that we were too concerned with other pressing financial matters to consider putting money away for retirement. As far as how we are going to approach that, it’ll be in much the same way as we do for health insurance: do our research and compare products that are available to us as small business owners. We also have a great resource in that we can chat with our brother-in-law who is a financial adviser about what the best course of action is once we do a little due diligence.
What are your hobbies on and off the road?
I enjoy photography and filmmaking. Also, I love playing video games and writing.
Jess enjoys sketching and painting. She’s also an avid lover of wildlife, especially anything in the otter family. And she really loves to read…and sharpen her knives.
Jess's top three go-to items in the van
Linus the Dachshund: He’s beyond cute and snuggly.
Teva Boots: They’re made for walking.
Sketchbook: Jess will sketch at dinner, on a train, in a plane, she will sketch under the ocean, she will sketch while in motion. She sketches anywhere, and anywhere she sketches is everywhere.
Jorge's top three go-to items in the van
Canon Camera: For capturing the moment.
REI Vest: It does wonders in hiding my portly figure (not really, it’s just comfortable).
Hammock: No Hispanic should ever be without a hammock.
Share a photo and tell us the story behind it.
There have been many magical days that have happened since we first got on the road. There is rarely a dull moment (unless we’re driving through Southeast Oregon). One day that sticks out in particular was when we went on a hike around Leigh Lake in the Grand Tetons. Being from the South, we don’t really see glacial water unless it comes in a plastic water bottle. So when we first saw the lakes on the east of the Teton range, we were mesmerized by how stunning they were—especially with the craggy peaks of the Tetons rising up behind these still, perfect sapphire and emerald pools.
When we started our hike, signs lined the trail warning of bears and Jess asked if we should turn around and get the bear spray. I said, “Nah, we’ll be fine.” She thought otherwise and ran back to the van and retrieved our spray. We continued down the trail for a mile or more and were admiring the epic landscape and considering a dip in the lake when another hiking couple walked by and informed us to be careful, because they’d seen an adolescent male cinnamon black bear near the trail about 100 yards down. Oh dear! We’d never seen a bear!
Excited, but nervous, we continued down the trail drilling each other on proper bear etiquette and talking loudly so as not to surprise the old chap. Just when it seemed maybe the bear had already moved on, we spotted the bear right next to the trail about 20 feet away behind some overgrown foliage. Actually, I spotted the bear. Jess didn’t, and she kept walking along, loudly chattering away with bear spray at the ready, unaware of what lurks around the stand of trees blocking her view. So I reached out and yanked her by the backpack so hard she nearly fell down. She got upset because she didn’t understand why I yanked her so hard and then suddenly:
She gasped quietly. The bear was so close, we could hear it breathing and rooting around for bugs and grubs. He caught sight of us as we slowly backed up a little to give him his space, removing the safety mechanisms from our bear spray canisters as we went...just in case. After a few tense moments (for us at least!), he went right back to his delicious insects contained within the fallen tree trunk he was tearing at. It was so beautiful. So peaceful. He couldn't care less that we were there. We continued to back away slowly as he rousted himself and crossed the trail, disappearing up the hill and into the trees. Just amazing. The day couldn’t get any better, right?
We walked back down the trail to the spot where we were considering that dip in the lake, took off our shoes and started wading around in the cool water splashing, laughing, talking, marveling at the setting we found ourselves in.
I turned to look back towards the shore and started flailing and stuttering: “Bbbbmmmm, it’s...it’s...MOOOOOOSE!”
At just that moment, a bull moose glided by the shoreline on the trail we had just left. Jess doggy-paddled her heart out back toward the shore so she could get a closer look. I reminded her that moose are much more dangerous and ornery than bears and to keep her distance.
“Yeah! Ok! Yeah, I get it!” she yelled back.
She grabbed her camera and from a distance of about 50 yards she followed the bull moose down the trail, putting trees and boulders between herself and the moose as she went, until suddenly he departed from the trail and walked down near the water to begin eating his fresh Teton salad. She stood there in awe at the sheer size of the moose, fascinated by how it moved and ate and grunted. It was so immense and yet it moved more gracefully than anything that large should. Eventually the moose moved on and Jess returned to wade in the lake when he began to move back toward the trail.
We exited the lake, put on our shoes and started back down the trail to the van. On our way back, we ran into our bear friend again, only this time we saw him a little sooner than the first time. He was still rooting around, doing his bear thing. We continued down the trail with ear-to-ear smiles on our faces. Our experiences with untended, wild nature that day left a deep impression on us. We made memories that day that we routinely talk about on long drives or around campfires.
Favorite Destination So Far: Yosemite National Park
If we were to hitch a ride with you, what song might be playing?
Wagon Wheel. Because if you were hitching a ride with us, we’d be on a road trip, and what better road trip song is there? Cliché, we know, but it’s true.
Who inspires you?
The American Prairie Reserve. The model they are implementing to conserve the prairie and its attendant wildlife inspires us and confirms some long held beliefs we’ve had about the intersection between private property and preserving wild spaces.
We are also inspired by global overlanders who live full time on the road but aren’t necessarily retirees.
And lastly, pretty much anyone who excels at his or her craft. It doesn’t matter if it’s photography, designing, fixing automobiles or mountain climbing.
What has been the most rewarding thing about living in a van?
The time we’ve spent introspecting. The time we’ve spent nurturing our relationship as a result of living so closely but also having so much time to think through what it is we want.
What is the most challenging thing?
In some ways, that place is on the road. But we don’t have an anchor. We are constantly floating from friend to friend, from location to location. That may sound awesome and it can be, but it’s equally awesome having a place you call home. It’s important to have your tribe, your community, your place, your garden, your things, your space to produce and be creative. We have all of these things to a certain extent on the road, but they are more fleeting and temporary. People and places come and go. Interestingly, even though this is a challenge for us, it is also our favorite thing. We are restless people, and being in any one place for more than a few weeks or so makes us claustrophobic. Maybe the most challenging thing is our personalities.
Do you plan to go back to your previous way of living?
No. At the moment we are outfitting another adventure rig to begin testing it out so that we can travel around the world. This lifestyle started out as an experiment we wanted to do for a year, but it has turned into our normal.
What is your advice to people who want to live small or hit the road?
Whatever it is you end up doing, make it memorable.
What's next? Any news you want to share?
As mentioned above, we are in the process of building another adventure mobile. This one has four-wheel drive and will be a total monster. Our goal is to have a reliable vehicle with character that we can take across Africa or Siberia or Australia. We’ll see whether it happens. But as of now, that’s what’s next.
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