Ron in a VW Vanagon

Ron is not new to vanlife. Back in 2012, he built out an 85 Vanagon and traveled the US for about eight months. He sold that van and then, for the following three years, deeply regretted that decision.
In the summer of 2016, he purchased another Vanagon with great plans for hitting the road. The first six months were wrought with issues, but finally in February, he was ready to take off again.

Square Feet: 75

A man, a van and a dog named River.

Make, Model, Year: Tin-Top 1985 VW Vanagon

This is your second journey in a van. Tell us about your first one and that van.

Ultimately, I am not sure what prompted the first van trip. I was getting restless, I suppose. I had a little SUV at the time and sold that to buy a van. I was not set on a particular make and model, but a Vanagon was on my list of possibilities. Even then I thought the Vanagon price tag would exceed my budget. But alas, Craigslist came through and put me in front of a somewhat rusty and beat up 1985 Vanagon. With very little repair time (a couple axles and tune up), I would go on to live in that van for eight months, most of which was spent tooling across the US. I would push-start it an entire state to reach Oklahoma, replace a ball joint in South Carolina and camp in a Walmart parking lot in eastern Oregon while waiting to swap out that one last axle. All in all, I would say it did amazing.

Why did you decide to leave vanlife the first time?

I thought I wanted to come back and settle into something, maybe nothing in particular. For some reason I thought Portland held some life plan for me. At the time, I thought I couldn’t just keep doing this…this was meant to be a vacation, not a lifestyle. When I was in that Walmart parking lot mentioned above, I realized I wasn’t that excited for it to be over. I had taken months heading east and only weeks heading back west. I was in a huge rush to get back “home.” But there in that parking lot for three days, I found myself sort of disappointed to be home, or close there to.

I wasn’t ready for the adventure of vanlife to come to an end.

And why go back?

It seems that when living in a van, every day is an adventure. Whether it is the seemingly constant problem solving or the simple act of moving about freely, every day somehow seems more…more something. Honestly, I am not even sure what the word would be.

I found that I felt more alive, more in tune with the world and more scared as well as more elated. There is a wild feeling about it.

Not knowing where you might sleep on a given night or what the next day may bring or anything about how the day or night is going to go. I missed that.

You seem to really like VWs. Why not a different vehicle?

Simply put, the community. While there is a big vanlife community out there, and more connected now than ever, the Vanagon community is a tight knit one filled with some of the most kind and interesting folks. Even those outside the community love a VW van. I have folks all across the US, simply because it was a VW Vanagon. I love looking over at a car when they pass by and seeing someone smiling and waving back -—I don’t think that happens to the Econoline. Just this past month I went camping with eight other vanagons, brought together by their simple love for the vehicle. Then I would stop and have lunch with a friend in San Luis Obispo, her heading south and I north, and I ended up turning around and working with her in San Juan Capistrano for the past four weeks, where I am currently sitting and writing this. Like the others, I came to know her simply due to the fact that we both have a VW van.

What are some of the challenges to owning an older vehicle and a VW?

This is the flipside to all the good previously stated. These machines are or can be a total handful. My first van—while rusty and beat up—ran great for the most part. This one, I spent three times as much on—purchase price wise—and had the transmission fail a month in and then the engine needed to be swapped just a couple months after that. They are classic cars at this point, and the wiring and mechanical parts get pretty well worn and seemingly every part is slowly needing replaced. Thank goodness for places like GoWesty that still sell all the little and big parts that these vans need.

Where do you usually sleep on the road?

I love to sleep in the woods. But sadly, despite what Instagram sometimes portrays about vanlife, it doesn’t always happen like that. I boondock, I pay for campgrounds and I stay with friends and family. Probably my favorite place to sleep on the road is in a driveway of a stranger I met through Couchsurfing (CS). I used it a lot back in 2012 and I am using it again now. I love rolling into an unknown town and having someone there. The CS community, like the vanlife one, is amazing.

These people always seem to have interesting stories of their travels, and it’s like having a friend living in the town who already knows the place and wants to show you around. I love it.

How do you sustain this lifestyle?

Two fold. One, I work as a photographer. I do some work from the road, but the majority comes from shooting weddings during the summer back in Portland. I also work 10-15 hours a week doing web development for a market research company. That job is what really spearheaded the first trip. I was working from home or a coffee shop every day, and I realized that if I can work remotely, then I can work from anywhere.

What's a typical day like for you?

It varies, but more often than not, I get up fairly early and find a coffee shop. Despite being completely independent power-wise, I find that I get more done when I post up at a coffee shop and work. I like to get my work done early, as I seem to be able to concentrate more at that time.

As the day progresses, I prefer to be off exploring the area and what it has to offer.

What's been your most memorable experience from the road?

During my first trip, when I was green to the whole vanlife experience, I stayed a week or so in Santa Cruz. I would get up early and go to the west cliff and get a good spot and hang out there for the day. My office had the best view. But my favorite moment was in a bathroom in Santa Cruz. I went in and was washing my hair in the bathroom sink, and I looked up and gazed at myself in the mirror. At that moment it really sunk in that I was homeless—or "home free" as I like to think of it—and that I was bathing in a public bathroom. While I realize this might be a low point for some folks, for me it was the realization of a dream.

I had made it, I was doing it and I was living the life I had set out to live.

What's it like to be a solo traveler? Do you get lonely?

The first time out I was totally alone; this time I have my dog, River. While it's not a whole lot different, as we don’t have conversations, having the dog along has been really nice. She is a terrifying theft deterrent. In the realm of love, I definitely get lonely from time to time. I, admittedly, sort of enjoy the loneliness sometimes. I like to be with it, to experience it and to just be in that moment and that state.

I would love to have someone to share in this adventure and help feed it, but I also have come to really love being on this journey alone.

Being alone allows you to truly be free to change direction on a whim, and most of all, it forces you to go out and make connections with the locals.

What struggles do you face living an alternative lifestyle?

Self doubt, as in, what the hell am I doing. The typical blueprint of what life is to look like is so far from this one that it can be hard to explain to those not in it. The majority of the people that I know have a house, a husband or wife, a career, etc., and here I am without any of those. By the general metric, I am really failing at this game of life—assuming that life is to have 2.5 kids and a white picket fence.

Has anything surprised you from your journey?

The kindness and generosity of strangers. Frequently, a Vanagon owner will come along and help another van owner. But being out on the road, I have found that it goes beyond just the other van owners.

Has there been a moment that confirmed, "This is why I live this way."

Every time I hear someone talk about their debt or not having enough money. When you have a big house, it is easy to get wrapped up in filling it with things. I find that living in this van and in the tiny house before this van, having a small space means only owning and buying the things that you really need or want—not the frivolous stuff. I have an annoying habit that anyone who has shopped with me has suffered through of picking something off the shelf and walking around with it for a while, and then putting it back once I decide I really don’t need it.

What location do you keep coming back to in your travels?

The California coastline. Maybe it’s due to that first experience with Santa Cruz, or maybe that there are tons of other VW vans along the 1 and 101. I have spent that last few weeks here in San Juan Capistrano, and I have to say, not all of California’s coast is the same. The beaches down this way are crowded and have more parking lot space than beach space. It reminds me of the Joni Mitchell lyrics “they paved paradise, and put up a parking lot.”

My love affair with the California coast starts around Big Sur and goes north from there.

What's next? Any news or travel plans?

To be honest, none really. My first time out I had some direction for my travels—to end up on the east coast in South Carolina and go through the south and come back through the north. I am glad I had that plan, because otherwise, I might have turned back and spent all my time in the areas that I believe to be the most beautiful (near the Rocky Mountains and west thereof). But this time, I just want to go wherever sounds interesting, looks beautiful or someone asks me to go.

I want to just be open and free to the experience.

Follow Ron of Continuous Camper

Produced by Kathleen Morton.
Edited by Kate MacDougall.
All photos credit to Ronald Hope