Voices from the Road

Hammock naps and s’mores: Scratching my vanlife itch with a tranquil and romantic Outer Banks road trip

I’ve always dreamed about life on the road: mobile living, reducing my carbon footprint, and waking up to ever-changing scenery. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been a realistic possibility for me—an East Coast city dweller working a federal desk job—to sell everything I own and leave my seemingly normal life behind to chase the thrill of wanderlust. Not one to accept defeat, I’ve resolved to pursue short-term escapes that allow me to dip my toes into vanlife instead of diving in head-first. 

Serendipitous opportunity

This summer, while vacationing in North Carolina’s Outer Banks, I met (and have proceeded to fall for) a boy who has leagues more experience living an unconventional lifestyle than I do. So, when he asked me if I wanted to go beach camping around Hatteras Island in his self-converted Chevy van, my answer was a resounding and enthusiastic “Duh!”

Van parked in boondocking site near beach
Photo: Sierra Sarkis

I traveled from Washington, D.C., to Avon, North Carolina, where Shane and his van Sandy awaited my arrival. We spent a few hours packing, gathering supplies, and deciding what ingredients to buy for meals; which red wine would pair best with s’mores; whether we should watch the sunset on the ocean side or the sound side of the island; and which secret, locals-only beach we should spend the night at. 

“These are the only types of decisions I ever want to be faced with,” I thought to myself. 

We filled Sandy to the brim for an admittedly short jaunt, and set off south down the island to Buxton and Frisco. Along the way we stopped at friends’ houses, made sandwiches on the go, sang loudly, and took pictures of everything that made us smile. 

Sunset to sunrise 

On the way back to Avon, we parked Sandy at the Canadian Hole, where we wrapped ourselves in blankets, cracked open a few beers, and watched windsurfers and kiteboarders dance in the sunset. Realizing that we didn’t want to set up camp in complete darkness, we drove toward the campsite. As I placed my bare feet on the dashboard, pretending this had been my life for far longer than a few hours, I felt overcome with a sense of freedom and gratitude. 

We drove down a narrow, bumpy, and densely wooded path before reaching a secluded clearing of soft sand, beach grass, and dilapidated remnants of what was once a bulkhead. Before I could even finish tidying up the inside of the van, Shane had a blazing fire going. 

A storm started to roll in, and we watched the heat lightning illuminate the sky with wine and s’mores in hand. After some time, the storm clouds reached the beach and persistent raindrops forced us back into the van. Once the storm ended and the sky cleared, we pitched a mesh tent on the beach under the light of the moon and returned to our ongoing competition of who could count the most shooting stars. It was tranquil and romantic—everything the curated vanlife Instagram accounts make mobile living seem to be.

The sun woke me up at dawn. As I sat on the beach and looked out over the horizon, it was hard to tell where the calm water ended and where the sky began. The beautiful shades of blue blended and played tricks on my sleepy eyes. 

View from back of van at sunset on beach
Photo: Sierra Sarkis

All grown-ups were once children

Eventually, we packed up and headed north, but not before stopping to take a hammock nap under the Avon Pier. After about an hour on North Carolina Highway 12, we stopped at Mutiny Bay in Nags Head for two rounds of mini golf. Shane proceeded to put my putt-putt skills to shame, and then took me to his favorite childhood frozen yogurt shop in Kill Devil Hills so I could lick my wounds before heading back home. 

The entire weekend felt like a crash course in feeling young again, inciting a cathartic sense of childlike wonder. Mobile living forces you to surrender to the flow and embrace spontaneity, something most adults lose perspective of as we throw ourselves into various versions of the professional world. 

Couple taking photos in van on beach
Photo: Sierra Sarkis

I would not change a single detail about our trip, and while the fruit of vanlife is no longer forbidden and an itch has temporarily been scratched, this small taste has only left me hungrier. And a little bit itchier. 

Sierra’s trip

Meet the Roadtripper

Sierra Sarkis