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On the road with… Nathan from Wand’rly

Considering living in a van full-time and traveling the country? Here are some things to consider

For every person who dreams of living in a van and traveling the country, there are probably a few reasons why it’s kind of impractical. Often, a lot of those reasons are good reasons. You know, family, work, all of those pesky little things to consider.

But that doesn’t have to stop anyone from selling it all to hit the road. Just ask Nathan from Wand’rly. He and his family (kids, a parent, and dogs have all been included in the family at various times) have been on the road pretty much full-time since 2008. Since then, Nathan and co. have seen it all: They’ve tried out different rides, visited countless cities in many countries, and have generally become our favorite vanlife gurus.

This is Nathan’s story, and some of his best advice on how to make the most of living on the road.

What was life like before you lived on the road? What inspired you to make the change?

So, I had this girl of my dreams from college, but life sent us on separate paths. I got a house, had a kid, and was working the 9-to-5 for a PBS station in Erie, PA. She was hiking around Europe. I thought she was gone for good, but then one day she showed up and was telling me all of these amazing stories about traveling around.

I had just traveled cross-country for the first time a few weeks before, and though I really did love my job (I was an animator, web designer, and graphic designer), and didn’t mind the house life and being a single dad, it sparked something in me and I just couldn’t shake it.

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It was 2001 at an art school in Pittsburgh or so my memory collides into recollection and she was as pretty as a last first love all over again. I thought she might want to be my girlfriend back then, but it wouldn't turn out to all that simple. Instead she made me chase her around the world, lose my mind, and find myself born again as a hopeful world traveler to make her finally take up and notice me. And so she did. We hopped trains and started a small circus. She told me it was all or nothing and convinced me I needed to make more life with less time. I in turn showed her how some curves in the road have the exact specific velocity needed to make any set of rhyming words sound like hummingbirds making love. And then we had a handful of kids, a place on the beach, a treehouse, and an old beat up Bus, but not in any particular order. It's her birthday in a few moments and she's sleeping with two of those boys in a tent while we wait for that same old Bus to wake up from a shop likely still hobbling on down the road. The boy who met her, way back when on the smoking porch of that art school in Pittsburgh, if he could ever have known what he'd stumbled upon, that the girl of his dreams was not only the courageous little thang she is today, but the entire reason he ever became who is he is himself…well I'm not sure he could've handled that. Here's to chance encounters and fated meetings, long life and happy birthdays! @wandrlyrenee

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Once again, she went off to live her life, and I set out to change mine. I quit my job, became a freelance web designer and moved to Brighton, England. A couple years passed and I was living in Pittsburgh, PA (a much cooler town than most folks realize), had spent some time in Portland, OR (Pittsburgh is cooler, because it’s a bit more real), and anyway, I was sitting in a coffee shop one day and realized that if I could work from any old coffee shop in Pittsburgh, I could work from anywhere. I just loved the idea of traveling, and Renée, the girl from college, she was really the inspiration for it.

Tell us about your ride. How old is it? How long have you had it? Did you do any work on it? What do you wish was different about it?

We’ve had a multitude of rigs over the past decade of traveling like this. That first year, I had a 1990-something Dutchman Class C RV. I quickly grew tired of it, right around the time Renée emailed me to the gist of, “Hey, I just saw online that you were just in Colorado. Why didn’t you come and see me?” To which I replied, “Because I didn’t know you lived there. But I’m headed up to Fort Collins to buy this 1978 VW Bus.”

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"Hi," I say to the US border patrol agent, "is this where we check in?" He nods, seriously. "Are you US citizens?" "Yep." "Where are you coming from?" he asks. "Mexico." "Where in Mexico?" "All of it," I reply, truthfully. "Where do you live?" he asks. "In this Bus," I know I could lie. Legally I suppose we have an address in Livingston, Texas, but I've never even been there. My mail says it's nice. "Pull over beside the tables please." "Do you have anything to declare?" one of the guards asks. "No," I shake my head. "What about these oranges?" I admit to having oranges. "You can't bring those into the United States," he says. I ask if I can just eat them. He looks at me as though I'm joking. I'm not. He shrugs and I begin peeling a juicy orange, the exact same ones I can buy in the next grocery store we'll encounter. From what I've read of the law, as an American, I don't have to submit to a search. I don't even have to show my passport. The law also states that with probable cause, they can search us anyway. I figure a hippy van full of people who say they don't live anywhere is probable cause. So I pull over. They search everywhere. Under our battery, inside of our fridge, some kind of detection device in our engine and mirrors along the roof of our car. At one point a dog comes out to walk around the vehicle. "How's the weather in Mexico?" one of the guards asks. "Same as here," I say, "different depending on which part of the country you're in. But hotter." A football we own starts rolling off the inspection table and I catch it before it hits the ground. "Clearly I'm American," I joke. "So you're a web designer?" he asks. "You make websites then?" "Yep. Do you need one? How's the homeland security site doing?" I joke some more. I'm having a blast, frankly. "I'll need you to empty your suitcases," he says. I turn to Renée, "Take the kids somewhere, I don't want them to see this." As soon as I say it I think twice. [continued in the comments]

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Which was kind of the truth. Except that I was also eyeing a ’72 in Phoenix and a ’69 in Austin. I picked the ’78 because, well, it was closer to her. Three months later we were all (including my then-8-year-old son, Tristan), living and traveling around in it together.

We ended up having another baby, Winter, a year later. We took six months off living in a beach house in Manzanita, Oregon and then hit the road again in that old VW for another year before we had another baby, Wylder, and decided we needed to upgrade to a 1976 Airstream, which we towed with a Ford van (not that old, 2006) for three years or so. Renée’s mom joined us at that point too.

Then, I guess about three years ago now, we got over hauling around a 31′ Airstream plus the van, gave the van to Renée’s mom and put the Airstream in storage. Our bus had been in storage at my dad’s house, so we grabbed it, headed to Mexico, and lived in that for about sixteen months traveling around Mexico and Belize.

I did all of the engine work and any interior stuff we wanted myself on the VW, but we got back to the U.S. and visited a mechanic in Austin who had a lift and promised he could swap out our exhaust, which had been catching fire, and which had 40-year-old rusted bolts holding it on.

A couple of long months of living in tents later, he destroyed the VW’s engine and we ended up getting that 2006 Ford van back. So, we’ve been in that for the last year now. In that, we built a bed and a little kitchenette similar to what you’d see in a Westfalia, and have loved the ability to drive fast and far if we need or want to, climb mountains, and since it has no pop-top or high top, just pull off anywhere and look like a normal cargo van more or less from the outside.

Other than the ride, what other preparations did you need to make to transition to living on the road?

I suppose telling family about it was the hardest thing. “We’re going on a trip for a year,” though, turned into ten years, and so there was this slow falling out with some. But most of them have come to accept, if not understand it. We’re five people living in a van and our oldest is now 16 (he has his own tent), so I can see why it’s difficult to grasp or truly understand.

Other than that, it’s the same old “sold our stuff and hit the road” story. There weren’t many other folks we could find doing it, Live Work Dream comes to mind as the one reference we had, and the Bare Naked Family found us shortly into our travels, but we hadn’t known them beforehand so it wasn’t a help then, however, they have fast become our “road family” and were a wealth of information.

Where are you now? Where are you headed next? How do you decide where to go?

We’re currently in Durango, Colorado and plan to spend some time here as we homestead a little plot. I’m not sure where we’ll go immediately next, probably scoot around the Four Corners area, but our next big idea is to go to Australia for a year or however long they’ll let us tour around their nation.

What’s the hardest part about living in a van? What have been some unexpected challenges?

The hardest part about the VW was keeping it running. Compared to that, living in a reliable Ford van is a breeze. I think the biggest unexpected challenge we face is figuring out where to go, when we’ve just finished exploring where we wanted to go last. Like, you’re at Spot A or Town B and it’s been amazing, but you’re ready to move on, so you head off into some desert and find… nothing that quite compares.

Where do you eat most of your meals?

Never anywhere specific. If we’re staying a place with a picnic table, we utilize that of course. Otherwise, we don’t bring our own table or anything like that, so we eat on the ground or in our camping chairs. We like restaurants, and feel they’re a great way to meet locals, so we eat at those several (expensive) times a week.

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Raising children, on the road or otherwise, has been the easiest and hardest thing I’ve ever done. I want nothing more than for them to be wild and free, but I have to say no all day long to keep them from just shattering themselves down over cliffs, sticks to one another’s eyes, flipping over handlebars. I believe it’s my job to teach them to be open minded and fair. The world seems to want to watch everything any parent does and decide what level of accuracy the performance deserves. I’ve been told by the people closest to me how what I’m doing is straight fucking them up. And by strangers how beautiful it all seems. And by true friends, not people bound by a gene pool but by lifelong bonds tested and tried and proven countlessly, that the job is being done well. But watching other people, I think I’m failing at times. And then I know I’m not, but it’s hard to watch TV families and the glimpses of other people’s lives and other people’s relationships and see their front facing actions. It’s easy to judge myself against these little clips of non-reality. It’s easy to forget that they’re all breaking down over the texture of the Mac n’ cheese or having to get dressed every morning too. It’s difficult all around when I hold myself to a microscope but can only watch others through a backwards telescope. I never want to give up. I never want to change who I am as a parent or how I do it. I just wish sometimes it was easier to handle the concept of screwing them up versus just doing what I can. I just want to keep them ever-close and let them fly at the same time. Teach them respect but only for those who deserve it and how to know the difference quickly, before the leaches suck you dry with their snake charmer facades. How to let the punches roll off of you and know when to hold your tongue and when to show your fangs. And so here’s a picture of some pork chops nobody liked, a bottle of champagne that spilled all over due to the elevation change and a propane can that I’ll never see again. Hmm. #parenting #campvibes #campcooking #porkchops #lost

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Where do you find Wifi?

We use the hotspots on our AT&T accounts.‍‍‍‍‍

How do you shower?

Rarely, maybe twice a week if we’re boondocking, which we usually are. In those cases, we find rec centers or pay an RV park a few bucks each. We also dig state parks and those often have showers. If we were sitting at a campfire, having a few beers, and I felt a bit overconfident, I might say something like, “Covering yourself in water daily is overrated, unnecessary, and takes a toll on the environment.” But instead, I’ll just say, “I don’t mind being part of the great unwashed.”

Where do you park your van for the night? What kinds of places do you like to stay at?

Well, initially we flocked toward national parks. My way of figuring out where we should go would be to pick the next closest national park, look up the nearest towns, and then see if there are any fast food or big box chains nearby. If none of those showed up, we’d figure it was a pretty small town that was maybe worth visiting. We’re looking for the less homogenous, strip mall side of America, where if we hang around for a month, the 500 locals living there start wondering if we’ve moved in.

These days, our ideal spots are boondocking in national forests in the summer and BLM deserts in the winter. Free is nice, and we’re set up to live that way, so we figure we might as well take advantage of that. If we want showers or power for some reason (long bouts of rain, for example), we go for state parks. States like Texas, Florida, and New Mexico have really great state parks that are cheaper than any RV park and give you way more space and natural beauty.

What are some essential tools that make living on the road easier?

For us, it’s my laptop since I make my money online. We run a Coleman stove and a little 12V fridge, which give us most of the conveniences of life and let us run a kitchen from anywhere, and as I’d mentioned our phones keep us connected to the internet. We also love our bicycles.

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“I’m gonna dig a hole!” one cries, grabbing our small shovel and running for the soft red dirt. “Me too!” the other blasts from the van, an M&M minis tube in hand. They begin to dig pits in the Earth, jumping in and out of them, dirt and juniper berries now caked in their hair, nails and cracking between their teeth as they stick their tongues out in disgust before bursting into hysterical laughter. I think about being a kid myself, climbing every tree, making swords from fallen limbs and drawing maps of the farm and forest where I grew up. It’s a beautiful thing to be young and in nature. I carry a cup of wine to the hill’s edge and watch the sunset. “That’s beautiful,” the older one surprises me from behind, taking in the glow of a falling sun on the red sandstone cliffs shaped like pots and centurions, bells and layer cakes in the distance. The small town of Jerome lights up a hillside beyond. “Are we trashing this place?” he asks me, shovel still in hand. It startles me a bit. His concern for whether playing in the dirt is equivalent to ruining the beauty his young eyes can already recognize. “I think kids digging in the dirt can get a pass,” I say, “but what do you think?” A car pulls up rather close to us, where the boys had been digging. Two young people get out and pitch a tent, firewood and wine in tow. They immediately clean their area of toilet paper. The boys look at me. “If you’re so worried, what can you do about it?” The oldest says they’re spies but then runs to fill his hole back in. I’m nearly forty and, while not as old as the Canadian couple in a small, beat up RV down the way, we’re both still enjoying these vista sunsets instead of toiling away at our checking accounts or trampling the links in our spare time. Our new 20-something neighbors have come out to this desert to enjoy a campfire under the stars. My own kids are born and bred into the great outdoors. Any fears I have that this won’t be here when they’re the old folks living in beat up RVs of their own someday fade into the haze of twilight. As we’re all falling asleep in the van the older one whispers to himself, “I still know they’re spies.”

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What lessons have you learned that you would pass on to those aspiring to live on the road?

I’d just say, take it slow, it’s more fun to see more of less than it is to drive like crazy all over the nation or continent or world or whatever, and that it’s not a competition. I think the less you try and make vanlife a job and the more you just let it be fun, the more fulfilling it tends to be.

For more sage advice and incredible stories from the road, follow Wand’rly on Instagram and Twitter, give them a like on Facebook, and check out their website (where you can sign up for their email newsletter).