Pete's motto is "life is short" and Taylor has a tattoo on her arm that reads "simple" in Thai. Together, with their sidekick Snoop, they are living on the road in an old airport shuttle bus that they transformed into a cozy traveling home. Living in and exploring nature’s beauty all over the world, connecting with people from all walks of life, immersing themselves in new cultures and playing music with strangers are a few of the reasons they chose to live in a van.
They moved into Pete’s parent’s house after graduation, working full time at their family business during the day and converting the van from the second they punched out until they went to bed. They did this for five months before the van conversion was complete and they were ready to hit the road.
Square Feet: 80
How did you two meet?
We met in college in Wisconsin. We wish we could say that our eyes locked from across the library when we were studying for finals, but let’s be real.
What was life like before vanlife?
We were both finishing up our business degrees and trying to balance school and work. I was working at a dog boarding and daycare facility, and Pete was serving at a bar/restaurant/music venue. With graduation approaching, neither of us were keen on the idea of getting entry-level marketing jobs and beginning our glorious ascent up the corporate ladder.
Why did you choose vanlife?
We came across the vanlife community and the idea felt so right to us. We could live a nomadic lifestyle and get to see more of our beautiful country; so we made major moves. We moved into Pete’s parent’s house after graduation, working full time at their family business during the day and converting the van from the second we punched out until we went to bed. We did this for five months before the van conversion was complete.
Months Living on the Road: 4
We are still somewhat newbies at vanlife. We’ve been on the road for four months and are still figuring out this whole lifestyle.
Make, Model, Year: 2004 Dodge Sprinter
We named our van Sonder (“Ders” for short). He is a 2004 Dodge Sprinter 3500 with a Mercedes diesel engine. He has a 170” wheelbase, meaning he’s the extra long Sprinter.
How did you find it?
We found our van where you find anything else that is pure gold: Craigslist. We bought it with only 194,000 miles on the odometer from a really nice guy who was selling his business and no longer needed the van. We scored an awesome deal, because the outside was covered in colorful vinyl that a previous owner had put on. It was really hard to get off and made the van look absolutely ridiculous.
What was your budget?
We didn’t have a specific budget when we started. All we knew was that—as recent college grads—we wanted to do it as inexpensively as possible. This meant that we outsourced very little and did almost every part of the conversion ourselves, and we learned a lot from it.
Did you have any design considerations for your build out?
We wanted the design to be simple and efficient.
We knew we wanted a bed that could be put into benches to maximize the space we had and to have ample storage space. We also knew that we wanted a simple kitchen setup and to use as little energy as possible.
Take us on a tour inside the van.
When you walk in through our beautiful shuttle doors (Sonder was a San Diego airport shuttle bus in his first life), you’ll see our walnut and plywood kitchen unit equipped with a stainless steel sink with a hand-pump faucet, cupboards that hold our water jugs, food and cooking supplies and a pullout maple cutting board. Next to the kitchen is an end table that holds our toiletries and hides the porta-potty. Next to that, you’ll find our music center, which is where our guitar, ukulele, foot tambourine, harmonica and cow bell live. On the other side of the van is our walnut and plywood dresser. We each have three drawers and a cupboard to store our clothes. We also have our own shelves for personal belongings that sit above the bed/benches.
The benches have denim cushions and comfy throw pillows, and their backrests stack on a ledge in the center to make one, giant bed for all three of us to snuggle on.
Do you have an off-the-grid setup?
Yes we do. Our van runs completely off of our two 100-watt solar panels that are mounted on the roof. We have a 160 Ah AGM battery that lives under one of the benches, and it holds enough energy to power our refrigerator, fan/vent, coffee maker and other devices.
How do you sustain this lifestyle?
Money is probably a sensitive subject for a lot of vanlifers. Because it’s still early in our life on the road, we are living mostly off money we have saved right now. I have a part-time job reviewing papers for an online tutoring company, but it doesn’t bring in a substantial amount of money. We don’t want to live off of our savings though. One reason we chose this lifestyle is that we want to make a living on the road and sustain this life; this isn’t just a trip for us. We have a lot of things we are working really hard toward that can generate an income in the long term, such as driving traffic to our blog and getting involved with some music projects. So right now, we have to hustle and find side gigs that will fund us in the short term.
What are your van essentials?
Guitar & Ukulele: Music is a passion of ours and we would go crazy without them.
Road Atlas: We try to travel old school and use an atlas instead of GPS. It’s so much more fun to figure out the best route ourselves rather than listening to a device.
Baby Wipes: Sometimes you don’t have the luxury of showering every day, or every three days for that matter. A hobo shower is better than no shower.
Towels: We don’t have waterproof floors and our dog, Snoop’s, water bowl seems to be a magnet for Pete’s feet.
Tell us a little about your musical background.
I was raised in a musical family and loved singing songs with my dad while he played guitar. I wanted to be able to sing songs for people on my own, so I learned how to play guitar in middle school. In college, I learned how to play ukulele, which is what I usually play when we jam in the van, given that we only have one guitar on hand.
Pete grew up watching his older brother, Jim, play in bands and write songs, which sparked his love for music. He played in a band in high school as well, playing drums, guitar, and singing lead vocals.
What inspires the music you play?
It’s such a blessing to share a passion with the one you love. We have our own interests, but music brings us closer. We play covers of all kinds of music and songs that Pete writes. I have given writing a shot, but I'm better at collaborating with others. Pete is the writer in this duo, and his songs are absolutely beautiful. They’re inspired by travel, nature and the simple things in life. We even plan on recording some original songs on the road.
Where have you been in your travels? Any favorite places?
We’ve spent most of our time in California, in Arizona and on the Florida coast, but we’ve driven through Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico as well.
It’s always tough to choose favorite places, but we’ve been in Southern California for a while and love it down here, especially Joshua Tree National Park.
Tell us about your adventure dog, Snoop.
Where do we even start? Every dog owner thinks they have the greatest dog in the world, but if every dog owner could meet Snoop, they might change their mind. Snoop is the chilliest, most loving and loyal dog we’ve ever met. He needs to be on our laps at all times, even when we’re driving, and he’s almost 90 lbs.
Are there limitations to traveling with a furry friend?
We are lucky he is so chill because it makes it easier for us when we have to leave him for a few hours. The biggest obstacle is making sure the van is a comfortable temperature when we go on hikes or grocery shop or any other time he’s left alone. We wish we could take him on long hikes with us, but he’s 9 years old now and suffers from arthritis. He loves long walks on nice, flat trails, and we always make sure he gets at least one a day. Aside from his walks, he’s outside almost all day every day and is rarely ever on a leash. Snoop loves the van life.
How do you create alone time being in such a small space together?
We have personal interests that allow us to have time to ourselves. Pete will go out for a surf for a few hours. I will do yoga or go for a run. We take turns going on walks with Snoop. Sometimes just doing our own thing and not working on Always the Road stuff together gives us a little time for ourselves, even if we’re both in the van.
How do you find community?
We’ve made some great friendships on the road. When you meet people living the same lifestyle as you, you automatically have something in common. If you don’t jive with someone, you go about doing your own thing. But if you make connections with people, they aren’t surface level.
You never know how long you’ll get to hang out with people that you meet on the road, so you cut the crap and are just real with each other. There’s no reason to put on an act. You just show them your real self and they do the same, making deeper connections with people in shorter time.
What are some of the more difficult parts of this lifestyle?
One of the toughest aspects of this lifestyle is finances. We are always searching for migrant and remote creative work, but as of right now, the only steady income we have is from my tutoring job. We both did a pretty good job saving up prior to our departure, which is comforting, but we’re hoping that the hard work we’re putting into other bigger projects will pay off in the long run and we will be able to live more comfortably.
Snoop is a senior dog and suffers from arthritis. We love going on long, challenging hikes that Snoop can't handle, so we have to leave him in the van. Although we make sure he’s comfortable, we always feel guilty. If it’s too hot or too cold, we do not go.
Pete has Crohn’s disease and receives treatment in the form of infusions. Right now he has them done every eight weeks in Madison, Wisconsin, and unfortunately, it's extremely difficult to have it done in other hospitals due to insurance and liability issues. So until another treatment comes along, every eight weeks we either have to all drive back, or Pete has to fly back by himself.
Will you always live this way?
We don’t plan on living this way forever, but we do plan on living this way as long as it feels right for us and we can sustain it.
We released a conversion book that details our build out from start to finish to help others who want to convert a van/RV/bus/etc. The beginning of the conversion process is all about searching for information, and this part was so stressful for us. We wanted to write a book to help minimize the information search by having the most helpful, detailed information.
Follow Pete & Tay of Always the Road
Produced by Kathleen Morton.
Edited by Kate MacDougall.
All photos credit to Pete Thuli.