Laura Hughes is ready for round two. In March 2017, Laura was a Seattleite working in human resources and sharing an apartment with her boyfriend, Shane. That spring, the two of them finished up a loving, two-and-a-half-year D.I.Y. conversion of their brand-new Ford Transit van. Laura estimates the couple poured $15,000 of their savings—including countless nights and weekends—into converting the Transit to the adventure rig of their dreams.
After jettisoning their old, stationary lives, Laura and Shane spent 18 months on their grand—but roughly-planned—adventure. Their odyssey took them more than 20,000 miles—all without going east of Denver.
Along the way, Laura practiced yoga in the Nevada foothills, bathed in hidden swimming holes in Utah, got caught in a New Mexico hail storm, and fell asleep to the sounds of the Pacific Ocean. Laura had these spectacular experiences while also hosting her “Women on the Road” podcast. On her program, Laura interviewed fellow female travelers about everything from body image and positivity, relationships on the road, and protecting public lands.
And then it ended. After six years together, Laura and Shane separated in the summer of 2018. He took the van. This forced Laura to bid farewell to a project for which she’d quit her job, sold her possessions, and said goodbye to her family. What’s more, the split left Laura without a home base.
That’s where we find Laura for this interview: camped out in her parents’ backyard in Whidbey Island, Washington, on the cusp of her new vanlife project.
This interview with Laura was conducted in late July. Since then, she’s made good on her promise to purchase a new van, and she’s in the process of rehabbing it now. Follow along at @thatconnectcamper.
Hannah: How’d you get into this lifestyle to begin with?
It started about six years ago when Shane and I met. He had a Toyota Land Cruiser that we would travel around in on the weekends. He actually ended up installing a really simple bed platform in the back. It was in the Land Cruiser that we had our first two-week road trip.
Honestly, we both just fell in love with road travel. Even though I didn’t shower the entire time and was kind of miserable, I loved it. It was super cold and we didn’t have the right heating systems. However, there was something about it that was really appealing to me. I knew it was the type of adventure that I wanted to do.
EVEN THOUGH I DIDN’T SHOWER THE ENTIRE TIME AND WAS KIND OF MISERABLE, I LOVED IT.
What were you happiest to leave behind?
Honestly, the apartment and all the things inside of it. Selling and donating the majority of my belongings felt so good, especially knowing that I didn’t use most of them before hitting the road anyway. It was such a weight lifted.
I have to ask: Did spending so much time with one person non-stop on the road have anything to do with your relationship dissolving? It’s an interesting dynamic.
Shane and I had lived together for a few years before we moved into the van. It still was a huge change, though. Before, although we shared a space, we had different schedules. Or, at least, we were preoccupied with work every day.
I don’t think that it was the space or the way we were traveling that was the stressor—or a significant stressor. But I do think when you spend that much time with somebody, it speeds things up in a relationship. It creates a level of intimacy that really shines a light on things … things that you might not have seen otherwise. Or at least brings up things you might not have caught on to for years, if at all.
How’d your family take it when you told them that you were thinking about living on the road?
I think initially the biggest concern was about quitting my job. Like, “Oh, you’re going to leave your career behind and go live in a van?”
You know, I think the question comes up often from family, “Why couldn’t you just take a leave of absence? Are you going to go back and get your same job?”
At the time, I didn’t know the answer to that. And I didn’t want to take a leave of absence for a job that I may not go back to.
Tell me about your podcast. Was that born out of a necessity to make some money on the road? Or did you just feel like you needed a creative outlet while you were traveling?
Laura: I’ve actually been working—mostly volunteering—for the past four years with “She Explores,” which is an online media platform for women in the outdoors. Gale Straub, the founder, and I just hit if off online when I first started the van conversion process. I had never thought about having a career in audio or podcasting or really using my voice as a medium, to be honest.
She reached out to me and said, “Hey, I’m thinking about this second podcast, you could potentially be a good host if you’re interested. If you have any ideas send me a pitch.” So I pitched my idea to Gale and she thought it was great so we started working on that.
To answer your question straight up, it wasn’t any of those options. It wasn’t because I needed the money, although it’s now one of my primary sources of income. It wasn’t because I felt like I was lacking creativity on the road. In fact, I had to make time for it, because there were so many inspiring things to encounter as a photographer and a writer.
It ended up being something I love the most because I got to build community with other women who were traveling. You really feel less isolated when you talk to someone who knows exactly how you feel about things and knows what it is like to be living on the road the way that you are. That’s really an awesome, very comforting feeling.
How much have you been working on the road?
Laura: I work a lot of hours per week. I’m working a lot more than I ever worked in an office job and making a lot less. But it’s a passion, and that’s okay.
Worrying about the ‘normal’ things
Do you ever have moments when you worry about some of the ‘normal’ nine-to-five job stuff? Retirement plans and things like that?
Laura: I think that’s a big existential question that a lot of the vanlife community talk about. They almost speak of it in hushed voices because they’re afraid people will joke about it. Because, honestly, it’s a real thing. You know, we can’t say that, like, we are different and we are exempt from those things and concerns just because we don’t have a nine-to-five anymore.
Personally, I think because I have only been doing this for about a year and a half now, I am a little less worried about it at the moment. I do have some 401K savings, but I also have student loans. Debt follows you whether you are, on the road or not. Your small 401K follows you whether you are on the road or not. I think, for me, in terms of just feeling more secure as I get older, my next step is just making sure that I do have a sustainable remote career. I hope that it’s in the vein of what I’m doing right now.
So what’s the plan for your new van?
Laura: I’m pretty sure I’m going to be purchasing a Ford Transit Connect, which is the smaller version of the van that Shane and I had together. I honestly don’t need as much space. There are a lot of things you have to factor in when you have a high-roof van, like height requirements of tunnels or hanging branches.
I just want to be able to focus on being on the road and being able to park a little bit easier. I want to explore without thinking, “Oh, am I going to hit the roof of my van with this overpass?” The Transit Connect also has plenty of space for a table, kitchen, and bed. Those are the three things that I need in order to produce my podcast as well as do my photography work, cook dinner if I want to, and sleep comfortably.
How long do think it will be before you hit the road again?
Laura: I have friends who built out some pretty nice vehicles in 10 days, which is a bit much. I’ll probably be working with them and a couple other folks who have access to tools and van-outfitting experience.
I would like to see the build-out happen in the course of a month. In reality, I know it probably will be a couple of months, if not more. I could be working on the build-out through the fall and winter this year until I feel like it’s done. Part of it is identifying what I really, truly need instead of what I just want to have. I need to be OK with a more minimal lifestyle than the one I just previously had, which felt pretty minimalist already.
What do you want an average day to look like for you when you’re on the road by yourself?
Laura: I don’t see myself driving every day. If I do, probably no more than a few hours per day. I see myself doing a lot of traveling both to parks and wilderness areas. I want to explore the wilderness as much as towns I have never been to before. I am eager to check out the local scene and meet up with friends, whether they are on the road or otherwise. I’m OK with sleeping in people’s driveways now and again. And I think I’m looking forward to having more time to dedicate to write and reflect.
What was the process for mapping your route previously? Where do you want to go next?
Laura: When we first hit the road, we had some ideas as to where we wanted to go. They weren’t in any particular route order. We navigated based on the weather and what activities we were hoping to do. I will take a similar approach when I am traveling by myself.
The south, in general, I haven’t been to. So, I’m thinking that, if things work out, I’ll end up down in Florida this winter. That’s very much up in the air. I am happy to let some stories or some photography gigs dictate my travel—to a certain extent. That wasn’t as accessible to me before because we made decisions together.
Any major hesitations about being on the road alone as a woman?
Laura: Honestly, yes, it is dangerous to travel by yourself as a woman. But it’s dangerous to be anywhere as a woman, and that’s just an unfortunate way that the world is right now. So, the best thing that I can do right now is just be prepared, use common sense. You know, something could happen to me while I’m in Seattle walking to get groceries, just like something could happen to me when I am out on a road somewhere traveling.
What advice would you give to someone considering life on the road? Who do you think it’s right for?
Laura: Someone who is not going to be super attached to things—no matter what you are traveling in or if you’re even just backpacking. The biggest thing, honestly, is that you just need to try it, if you’re curious about it. Whether that’s renting something or borrowing someone’s van that has already been converted, or renting out an empty cargo van and just throwing down some sleeping pads, you have to see how you like it. Maybe you will find a sailboat is actually better for you.
Is there a common sentiment you hear about your lifestyle that drives you nuts?
Laura: “Oh, you are living the dream.”
While it’s so nice to hear that from people, and it’s obviously just a sign of admiration and aspiration, anyone can go on the road and live this way. I say that knowing that I am speaking from a place of privilege. Anyone can go take a road trip anywhere, though.
If you want to do it you can. The way that we did it was through a lot of hard work. It wasn’t through luck.
So do you feel like you’re living the dream?
Laura: Personally, yes. I say that right now without a home, but yes. I was reflecting on it a lot recently. You know, just because a relationship ends or a chapter ends or I don’t live in that van anymore doesn’t mean that that whole process didn’t do so much for me.
This isn’t everyone’s dream, sitting in your parents’ backyard figuring out what vehicle you’re going to be in next. But that’s the consequence of following your dreams sometimes. I still know that I have gained so much more than I have lost from this process.