Arley & Claire in a Toyota Van

Meet Arley + Claire and let's not forget Winona, their 1985 Toyota van. Before the two of them got married, Arley asked Claire to live in a van with him. That sparked a road trip that left them with a new perspective on their time together and what they want to do next. While they have prepared for this trip to come to an end, they have learned that their connection to nature is important and one they want to embrace in whatever home they live in.

Our van came into our lives at a unique moment. Arley and I were about to get married, and Winona was the van he was living in full-time before we moved into our new place in Oakland, CA. We were thinking a lot about our future during that time—the kind of life we hoped to live, what really mattered to us and the kind of people we wanted to be. As we began to make plans for our first year of married life, we wanted to set the tone for the future by allowing ourselves the time and space to reconnect with nature, explore new interests (such as kayaking), and to just be. Spending a summer living and traveling in our van Winona seemed like the perfect way to do this.

Arley began working on a more robust interior van build about two months before our May 2018 departure. We needed a build that maximized space, since there would be two of us living in it. We also knew that we would occasionally dip into urban areas to visit friends, so we wanted enhanced interior locking mechanisms for our gear.

He had a good idea of the design he wanted, having researched other Toyota builds (including Tiny House, Tiny Footprint!). It was important to have space for all our camping gear, since we wanted to do some backpacking along the way. The bed was built to the height of the cooler and water tank, so that we could house our fridge and water supply when venturing away from civilization. We constructed a shelf where the safety handles used to be, so we could have access to a small throw bin for our tools and essentials.

We bought a classic Rand McNally road atlas and mapped our route across the country, west to east and back again. We included destinations we’ve always dreamed of visiting—Banff, Glacier National Park, Grand Teton National Park and Moab. We also planned to travel to visit our closest friends and family.

Early on in our journey, we realized how unbalanced we had become—mentally, spiritually, and physically.

When we arrived in these wild places, we felt like we could finally breathe again.

We were now spending every day outdoors, strengthening our bodies with a hike or kayak, and connecting with old friends or strangers who become new friends. For perhaps the first time in our lives, it felt like we were living the way humans were meant to live: free and alive in the present moment. These were sacred days that showed us what it looked like to truly thrive. 

Those were sacred days that made us feel like we were truly living.

But, of course, vanlife comes with its own unique challenges. Despite its small space, it was surprisingly easy for objects to get lost or misplaced in the van, so we had to learn a new system of organization. We had to accept the fact that things simply weren't going to be as clean. And we had to roll with the punches when plans inevitably went off-course—like the time Winona sputtered to a stop and broke down in Jasper National Park, as we were driving back to our campsite after a long hike. Arley assessed that he could get the van to drive if he put it in low gear and kept his foot on the gas pedal, so we inched our way to the nearest Napa Auto Parts and camped in their parking lot until they opened the next morning. As we sat in that parking lot, discouraged and out of place, a kind stranger passing by offered us a couple of cold beers for our troubles—teaching us yet another important lesson that beauty and kindness can be found in the most unexpected places.

From the beginning, we knew that this trip would only last during the summer because that's how long we could reasonably afford to take off from work (I was in between jobs and Arley was in between freelance motion design projects). It was important for us to be completely “off” from work in order to be fully present in this experience. Soon, we will return to our home in Oakland.

At times, it feels like our incredible travels have left us with more questions than answers.

But, if anything, our experiences on this trip have taught us to relinquish our need to know what comes next, and to be more comfortable with the unknown.

So in the meantime, we’re focusing on the truth that feels more real to us now than ever—our connection with nature and with others is the most life-giving.

Follow Arley & Claire of Wild Winona

Produced & edited by Kathleen Morton.
Photos courtesy of Arley Cornell