In 2014, Julie & Christian sold their home and letterpress equipment, put the bulk of their belongings in storage and bought a 1990 Volkswagen Westfalia Vanagon with the idea to travel around North America and Central America for a year. That year quickly turned into three, and now they don't plan on stopping.
In their three years of traveling, they have driven 70,000 kilometers through Canada and the U.S., dipping down into Mexico three times. They also painted their van green transforming it from its original gray color.
As recipients of both the annual National Residency Award and Dawson Bursary at Spark Box Studio, Julie & Christian created a Utopian camp installation inspired by their journey thus far.
Square Feet: 80
Currently In: West Palm Beach, Florida
We have been roaming around and exploring Florida since late November. We’re heading back to Canada at the end of January.
Make, Model, Year: 1990 Volkswagen Westfalia Vanagon
We looked at a few older models before seeing this van. This particular van had been very well cared for and loved by its previous two owners, plus it had the benefit of having a water cooled engine.
Why did you paint your van green?
We have always been attracted to the color green. We crowd-sourced, tongue-in-cheek, the color on Facebook by offering a range of colors we liked: green, orange, yellow, gray and white. The most popular color by far was green, which was our first choice. We wanted a color that complemented the gray interior and our homemade yellow and white gingham curtains. Because we were already stationary, we decided this was the perfect opportunity to have the van painted since it was a two-month ordeal. There was rust to deal with and a ton of parts that needed to complete the restoration. We were lucky to find the most amazing body shop to complete the job right in Amherstburg. The owner and operator invited us to see every stage of the restoration.
What sparked the decision to try vanlife?
At the end of 2013, we were burnt out as we’d been working two full-time jobs since 2008, and decided to take a sabbatical, which included a hiking trip in the Andes of Peru, a road trip on U.S. Route 66 and a stint in Europe. We returned home and knew we needed to change our life dramatically. So we listed our home and studio for sale and sold all of our letterpress printing and studio equipment thinking we would downsize and perhaps concentrate on design only. We couldn’t find a place we wanted to buy or rent in Toronto. At first we considered returning to Europe and renting a place there for a while. Finally we began looking at VW campervans thinking this was an affordable way to live for the short term and see new places while we were at it.
What was it like to downsize to a van?
You might think moving from a 2,700-square-foot home and a 600-square-foot studio would be a difficult transition, but it wasn’t too bad. We sold and gave away a lot of our belongings. The rest we put in storage since we assumed we would settle down again in six months to a year.
Once we left our home, our first priority was to make the van ours, so we installed a new marmoleum floor, made new curtains and a mattress cover and bought a few furnishings such as a Peruvian wicker basket and wool blanket from Cambie Design. We installed a roof rack for our Thule Box that we used previously for stationery trade shows. We bought a folding table, lightweight folding chairs and a mildew proof rug, which are all stored in the Thule.
We also added a magnet board and a display board at the back for treasures we would find along the way. We have continued to tweak our space and what we carry and prioritize what we really need. We have fine-tuned what we need to carry to suit diverse weather conditions and environments.
How are you funding this trip?
We sold our home, printing equipment and lots of possessions in Toronto and have been living off savings and income from design jobs.
We can work in the van when weather is cold and wet but otherwise work outside of the van. We have rented through Airbnb a few times so that we can spread out, access dependable Wi-Fi and concentrate more easily in a temperature-controlled environment.
What about health care and retirement benefits?
We purchased travel health insurance through World Nomads for limited periods, but not consistently while we were in the U.S. because of the high cost. We also purchased insurance before entering Mexico. While in Canada, we have OHIP, which is our provincial health insurance. We must be conscious of how long we are out of our home province because there are limitations.
Tell us about your art installation.
We rented an apartment in Victoria, British Columbia for November and December 2015 as we needed to be grounded in our own space where we could work on a few things including a proposal for a month-long artist residency at Spark Box Studio in Prince Edward County, Ontario. It paid off because we were not only awarded their National Residency but also their first annual Dawson Bursary.
What are your top van go-to items?
IndelB Truck Fridge from NorthernFridge.ca: For the first year on the road, we relied on the original fridge that came with the Westfalia. But more often than not, we ended up storing our perishables in a cooler with ice because the Westy Fridge just couldn’t keep up when it was a driving day or a hot day or when we had it overfilled. We researched replacement units and were able to find a Canadian supplier of IndelB Fridges similar to the Engel Fridges sold by GoWesty.
GoWesty Solar Panels: We purchased the solar panels after our first year on the road. The solar panels in conjunction with the new fridge mean we can travel further and stay longer without the need for hookups. We are able to keep our laptops and camera batteries charged when we are far from civilization.
Folding Bikes from Camping World: Prior to hitting road in June 2014, we debated about whether to bring our bikes. We decided to keep it light and left them behind. In month 4, we visited Savannah, Georgia, and took a bike tour of the city. We found out that we really missed biking. We started seeing people biking around in state parks on compact folding bikes and quizzed them about their choices. We stopped at a Camping World in Panama City, Florida, where we picked them up for a super price. We found they made such a difference in big parks or cities. We have ridden them around New Orleans, Savannah, all over Sarasota while our van was being repaired a couple of times, around the Florida Keys and up and down a mountain in Alberta.
What have been some of your favorite travel destinations?
That is really hard. We love so many places for so many reasons. We loved Newfoundland but Alberta was pretty magnificent too. Big Bend National Park in Texas is high on our list of recommended places to visit, as is Joshua Tree. Driving through Montana in the winter was stunning. The state that surprised us most was Michigan, especially the Upper Peninsula. We spent about a month and a half this past summer exploring the state and it is now one of our favorites. It isn't called Lake Superior for nothing.
Has your relationship changed with each other at all?
We have lived and worked together for 27 years now. The thing about van life is that we spend most of it outdoors. We obviously sleep in the van, but we mostly cook, eat and wash up outside.
We share the driving and navigating. We talk all the time and plan projects and brainstorm while driving. While driving, we are constantly dreaming up new business ideas. Once an entrepreneur, always an entrepreneur.
On days when it is extremely rainy or otherwise inclement and we are confined to the van, it suddenly seems much, much smaller. On these occasions we get Vanagon Fever, particularly if we are unable to raise the pop top.
How do you stay healthy on the road?
1. We drive a maximum of four hours in a day and we do not drive every day.
2. We hike as much as possible, cycle and, where possible, we swim.
3. On driving days, we take advantage of viewpoints with hikes and steep climbs on route to our destination.
4. We seek out farmers' markets and healthy food in every place we go. We try to eat predominantly organic, sustainable and ethically sourced food.
What has been the most rewarding thing about living in a van?
Realizing how little we need to be comfortable and how much we love being together. The catch phrase "home is where we park it" really resonates with us. We do not miss things. We miss people. But we love meeting new people everywhere we go.
What has been the most challenging?
Restrooms. Because of this, we really appreciate a clean restroom and also privacy. We certainly don’t take for granted the comforts of living a stationary life anymore, but we also recognize the pitfalls of living that way.
Also, we have had a lot of mechanical problems with the van. It is 27 years old and we have driven more than 80,000 kilometers in less than three years. We don’t always know how to fix it and where to get it fixed.
What is your advice for those thinking about vanlife?
Do it! Don’t overthink it. Keep your expectations low. Keep it simple. There are many ways to achieve this.
What's next? Any news you want to share?
After our artist residency in September, we were reminded just how much we missed having a dedicated workspace and being part of a supportive and creative community. We began looking to plant roots or at least shallow roots again. And so we’ve bought shares in a co-op apartment building in Toronto. On February 1, we will begin renovating a 500-square-foot apartment that will serve as a base from which to work on art and design projects. This apartment checks a bunch of boxes for us right now while allowing us the freedom to continue to travel and explore from the comfort of our van.