The Academy Award-winning film Nomadland portrays the daily struggles of those who live life on the road. Many in the film chose or were forced into the lifestyle for economic reasons. Others were attracted to a less fettered way of existence. In real life, there are as many reasons to choose a home on wheels as there are people behind the wheel.
“It’s that whole vibe of being free and doing something different,” says Paul Myers, a twenty-something road dweller who is currently traveling the West Coast in a van.
Others like couple Melissa Sevier and Dakota Decker are satisfied by the minimalism of nomadic living. “We don’t need to pack. We can take the house with us.”
For former hippie Mike Headley, it was about asking, “What’s on the other side of that hill?”
Some imagine a totally free-spirited experience or a method for self-growth. They save up their money, quit their jobs, and head out. Others are occupational travelers who maintain their jobs on the road, often through a laptop and Wi-Fi. Some do it to avoid a big mortgage or rent. Many mobile couples homeschool their kids. Unfortunately, others were made homeless and are forced to survive on the road. But no matter the form, they all share the experience of making a home and a community on the road.
A Recollection of Early Adventures on the Road
With the thousands of Instagram accounts and YouTube channels dedicated to the exercise, along with cable television shows, one might be tempted to consider #VanLife as just another millennial trend, but this nomadic lifestyle has been practiced in the United States for decades.
According to Roger B. White, a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and a mobile culture historian, the practice traces back to the introduction of Airstream trailers in the 1920s.
“Auto camps arose,” he says. “They gave a greater sense of community. This concept of community has changed throughout the decades.”
Cultural nomadism rose with the counterculture movement, which saw the 1960s and ’70s as a time of protest, experimentation, and change. Many looked to redefine their lives.
“We wanted to be different, not doing the traditional, and blaze our own trail,” Mike Headley says. “The ’60s turned the world upside down. Everything was changing.” In 1974, he set out to travel the country by van with two friends, inspired by traveling musicians like John Denver and Woody Guthrie.
Headley purchased a robin egg blue 1968 Dodge van with “LEON Machine Company” painted on the side. “I still remember the LEON logo which included a typewriter in the middle of the letter “O.” Before leaving on his journey, he built in a sink, storage, a modular bed, an ice box, but happily kept the logo. Headley, who would eventually make his career building Smithsonian exhibits, convinced his sister to paint the cover art of the Grateful Dead’s Europe ’72 album on the back of the van, accompanied by the words “Keep on Truckin’.”
His crew traveled the country for twenty-five months, facing many of the same hardships you hear nomads discuss today: making money, finding repair shops, and worrying about places to stay. The group took jobs in factories and a landscape company while on the road, “basically making enough money for the bare essentials,” Headley recalls. A couple of times, friends wired him some. There were times other travelers depended on Headley. He mentions picking up a couple he found while driving who were malnourished. “You could see their ribs sticking out,” he says. He fed them, understanding their struggle.
For Headley, the goal was to connect to the local culture, though he admits it did not happen often enough. He remembers waiting at pay phones for hours to receive calls from friends and family. He refers to a two-inch-thick National Park Service camping guide as their “bible” for finding places to shower and park away from police.
“Our network was always the campgrounds and connecting with people to find places to go,” he says. The campground culture was a valuable lifeline, in which people shared experiences and gave recommendations and advice. He recalls as the most gratifying part: “It was the people, coming and going—the conversations.”
Perspectives of Mobile Culture Today
Paul Myers defines the essence of happiness on the road as “windows down, cool breeze flowing, singing at the top of my lungs, my golden retriever co-pilot, Solaris, hanging out the window.”
“I always knew the desk thing wasn’t for me,” he says. A Middletown, Connecticut, native and owner of Van Life Yoga, Myers began life on the road when his nine-to-five job became unenjoyable. For three years, his dream had been to buy a van, renovate it, and teach yoga cross country.
I hoped we would sit down to talk in Utah before a majestic sweep of mountains, but the COVID-19 pandemic had other ideas. Instead, Myers comes to me via webcam from a city park. In just the last few weeks, he’s been towed twice, and then his 2006 Mercedes Sprinter began blowing hot air. A garage has it now. Myers managed to stay upbeat despite the week-long motel stay.
He starts his story even before his journey began: underestimating the length of the renovation process, which took two years. He watched countless YouTube videos in transforming his van into a tiny home. Like Headley, he did all the work himself. When the van was ready, he traveled to Costa Rica to obtain his yoga licensure.
Myers admits that van life is a major undertaking. “You expect things to be easy, beautiful. You expect to be somewhat deeper within yourself. What I didn’t expect was that even though you are on the road and seeing a lot of things, it’s still hard to be present. Things like the van being broken down and being stuck in Salt Lake City for a week are tough. Things I should have expected.”
Digital platforms play a large community role for travelers like Myers, who depend on online forums for recommendations of places to stay, get repairs, daytrips, and more. But those postings can be misleading, as many users only show the good things, their photographs of dreamy landscapes. “You don’t see when people are broken down, when you run out of gas, or get a scorpion bite”—something that happened to his brother.
Myers keeps things authentic on his Instagram account, @vanlifeyoga. In between posts of captivating scenery, you will find stories of being kicked out of parking lots or showering under a lawn sprinkler. “There are times when I’m not worried about a single thing, but there are also times which remind me that I’m 2,000 miles from anyone I know. I try to share what life on the road is really like.”
The experience has given Myers a new outlook on humanity. “No matter what situation I was in—when I broke down in Salt Lake and a repair shop took my van in a moment’s notice, or the time my door fell off and campers helped reattach it, or the time in Arkansas when fellow travelers helped change the oil in my van and shared some beer as well—I’ve looked toward the community for help. There are always going to be tough times, even in a life so free as van life, but what I’ve realized is how many good people there are.”
That community is not only important for survival but vital for human connection.
“I was staying the night at a rest stop next to the Golden Gate Bridge, and another van pulls up. After a while of watching the sunset with people buzzing all around, I connected with my next-door neighbor. It turns out the license plate on her van read Connecticut. We found that back home, we lived just thirty minutes apart, and she was also a yoga teacher. It was incredible that 3,000 miles away, we ended up at the same rest stop that night.”
When the pandemic hit the United States, road lifers found a way to create community and support one another virtually. They banded together to create a van life “town hall” through the Van Life App. Besides access to forums and blogs, visitors find meet-up information from fellow travelers. The app Harvest Hosts reports the location of wineries and breweries that allow free overnight parking. The free app Gas Buddy lists affordable gas and diesel stations. These crowd-sourced platforms create virtual communities and promote discussion around interests and shared experience.
Today, Myers is back on the road. “That’s what’s great about van life. It teaches you to roll with the punches,” he says, laughing. Although COVID has curtailed his yoga classes, he is enjoying his travels, and he has plans to up his game. “I want to do a school bus. Not having a bathroom or shower can be difficult, and I want more space for my dog.”
Living the School Bus Life
One couple is already living their dream of renovating a school bus, or #skoolies, as they are called. Dakota Decker and Melissa Sevier of Northern Virginia own a 1998 Thomas school bus with 200,000 miles. Making the decision within forty-eight hours, the couple paid $2,800 to a salvage yard. Being huge fans of the show Tiny House, the couple hope to live out west amid mountains and hiking trails.
Having grown up in a military family, Sevier is accustomed to frequent relocation. “Once I know the backroads of places, it’s time to move,” she says. Her dad was the one who talked them into the bus.
The couple named it after Sevier’s grandmother, Janet. As a young child, she lived in a bus with her family, who traveled the country as vaudeville performers. Roger White, author of the book Home on the Road, classifies vaudeville performers as “occupational nomads, those required to travel as a necessity of employment.” When comparing occupational mobile culture to recreational mobile culture, White says, “The difference is what you see today: the purpose, the mindset.”
Decker has nomadic roots as well: his grandparents basically lived in a two-level fifth-wheel trailer for fifteen years. Traveling is in their blood.
Decker is not one to splurge on luxuries or unnecessary goods. Sevier jokes, “Dakota once asked me why we own five forks when we only have two people living the house.” Decker smiles at this. “Less is better,” he says. The couple is already training for life on the road. They’ve started using less electricity, less water, and fewer paper goods.
The renovation has been enjoyable but trying, too. “There’s more to debate,” Sevier says. “You learn how your other half works in certain situations.” Decker, who studied mechanical engineering in college, is good at basic woodwork and enjoys taking things apart and putting them back together. They have documented the renovation process on Instagram, @janetisabus.
The couple credits a lot of the renovation to their local community. “We’ve never met anyone in the neighborhood until now,” Sevier says. By having Janet on display in their driveway, they have met about thirty new people and counting. Most have offered to help, including a woodworker, a pottery artist, and me.
Decker points out the irony: “It took building something to move away to feel this.”
What makes the couple unlike most road dwellers? They are not hitting the road in pursuit of a greater sense of purpose. “A lot of people who do buses and vans want a big adventure,” Sevier says. “We just want to simplify our life. For us, it’s about quietly, truly enjoying the things we want rather than a bunch of stuff we don’t care about like a mortgage or huge house we have to vacuum a bunch.” Instead, the pair prioritize financial stability and a passion for the simple life. “It’s a really fun learning exercise to decide what’s important enough to make space for when you have 125 square feet. For us it’s been the dogs and comfort, and that’s about it.”
Their overall goal, if ever they do settle down, is to buy land in each of their favorite spots and bounce between them on the bus. Sevier states, “There is a perception that people who live the van life have jobs that don’t earn them much money. We are more traditional in our jobs. I think it is fun to be a little bit of an example for that. It’s not like we can’t afford something else. It’s truly what we want.”
If their dream of building tiny houses happens, Decker and Sevier plan to help the van life community by using one of their homes as a place for travelers to crash. Their advice for future nomads: “Pull the trigger. Go for it. If there are any doubts, don’t be afraid to reach out to the community. Everyone is really, really helpful and wants to see you succeed.”
Life on the road calls out to many. As the generations come and go, the passion or necessity remains. “The reasons people want to live on the road are different depending on the person and their socioeconomic status,” Roger White says. “Not all van life is the same.”
Despite the differences, one thing remains consistent. “Change is the constant in American history,” White says. “As each generation discovers, they put their own spin on van life. That’s when it gets interesting.”
Samantha Beach Sinagra is an intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a master’s candidate in arts management at George Mason University. She would like to thank her former neighbors Melissa Sevier, Dakota Decker, and Janet the Bus for the inspiration to write this story and her friend Paul Myers for sharing his experiences.