On The Road: Van Life in the USA | Redbrick | University of Birmingham

On The Road: Van Life in the USA

Travel writer, Iesha Thomas, shares a fascinating interview with two 'on the road' American travellers

For any budding traveller, being trapped in lectures or your part time job can be infuriating. The horizon of being able to realise travel as a full time lifestyle seems forever away, and as a student with looming debt, it sometimes can feel like the dream of travel is an impossible reality. Watching travel vloggers on YouTube and scrolling through travel Instagram accounts often begs the questions, how do they do it?
In 2008, Dani and Tommy Willey met while Dani was still at college, leading a service trip to where Tommy worked in the Florida Keys. They spent the years travelling and working abroad, living in Hawaii working on organic farms, in Utah doing wilderness therapy and Colorado, working for professional ballet companies.

They’ve been married for the past four years, and after working in ‘normal’ jobs for the past five, Dani’s unexpected redundancy in 2015 made them question what they wanted to do with their lives. They’d always spoken about van life and they found the motivation to really make it happen. They saved as much as they could, sold their house in Denver, CO and planned a route with no definite end in sight.

Since embracing van life, they’ve worked seasonal jobs all over the USA such as retail in Maine and hospitality and yoga teaching in the Florida Keys. Their next adventure will be in Alaska where they’ll work for a sea kayak guiding company.

How did you find out about van life? How were you able to fund it?

‘We had followed several Instagram accounts of people who had done this, and had a few friends who did summer trips in vans, but we didn’t know anyone doing it full time. The move stemmed from us being able to sell our house and pay off all our student loans, credit card debts etc. Our family thought we were extremely wise in deciding to do that, and live debt free. Not many people in the US are and we didn’t want to have bills hovering over us’.

What were the reactions of your family and friends?

‘Telling our friends was easy – everyone kind of expected it from us. We’ve always been the wild hare’s and most of our friends were extremely jealous and understood our reasoning. Many were sad to see us leave Denver since we had lived there for 5+ years and had solid connections, but they were understanding. Our families weren’t so easy to convince, but ultimately they support and love us unconditionally. But it took a lot of convincing as to why this is smart and works for us. They always worry if we’re safe, healthy etc. but frequent check-ins and FaceTime helps ease their worries’.

What was your travel experience like before van life? Has it always been a lifelong dream or is it something you’ve wanted recently?

‘We have both travelled extensively before van life, and travel is extremely important to both of us - specifically international travel. Dani studied abroad in Kenya during college, and visited Europe several times before graduating from university. This was her introduction to international travel and it certainly wasn’t going to end there. Since being together, we’ve lived in Hawaii, and travelled to places such as Nicaragua, Europe, Iceland, Southeast Asia, Cuba and Canada. We try to do an international trip each year if it allows. Next year – India and Kathmandu. But obviously van life keeps us travelling and exploring new areas which we love’.

Many people assume to travel permanently is only accessible to the super rich. How did you manage it, has the cost been extensive?

‘Because we post beautiful pictures of us hiking, or sitting on beaches, people assume we don’t work – which isn’t true. We absolutely work! Selling our house in Denver before moving into the van helped us pay off all our student and credit card debt. We put the extra money in savings which we only use for emergencies. When we decide where to go next we make a route and look for seasonal jobs. Typically these tend to be in ‘touristy’ areas that need work. We’re willing to do just about anything and pretty much have. Everything from waitressing, teaching yoga, working at B&Bs and retail. We make just enough to pay for our food and necessities and then we move to the next location. If we’re lucky, we’re even able to put some money into savings. Within our year of van life, we’ve been able to live entirely off the money we make. It isn’t much, but it’s enough when you live simply’.

Did you plan a specific route or are you taking a more spontaneous approach?

‘For us to look for jobs and know where we’re going to be, it’s essential to plan a route. Of course, there’s always detours, but we ultimately know where we’re going to end up for a few months at a time. We try to take the slower routes and back roads instead of highways so we can see more of the unseen part of the country. This has been a huge joy for us and shown us so many gems’.

What’s been the most challenging aspect of van life?

‘Van life isn’t easy, that’s for sure. There is always an underlying feeling of stress – thinking the van won’t make it or breakdown at any point. We drive a 1999 VW Eurovan which is in great shape, but it’s still quite old. Anything can happen, especially with the amount of miles we’re putting on it. There’s also always the concern that everything you own, literally everything, is in the van. If we were broken in to or robbed, that could be devastating. To get past this, we always try to park in safe, well-lit areas. We thoroughly lock the van and be cautious of where we are, it’s a few extra steps but helps us mentally’.

And what’s been the best part about van life?

‘Oh man, that’s a tough one. So much of it is great. We’ve met some amazing people and visited some incredible places. We’ve visited national parks, local museums and spots most people wouldn’t go to and we always meet friendly faces when we’re there. We’ve also learned a lot about each other and ourselves. We spend A LOT of time together, and yes, it can be exhausting and even annoying sometimes, but we love each other deeply and therefore cherish the time we have together. Plus our dog gets to be with us 24/7, so she is officially the happiest dog in the world!’

Any weird and wonderful anecdotes from being on the road? ‘… always take the back roads!’

What do you miss about ‘normal’ life?

‘There’s a lot we miss some days. When we’re parked somewhere for a longer period of time, we’re typically off the beaten path – somewhere in the woods, or we have friends generous enough to let us park in their driveway/backyard etc. As wonderful as this is, we always feel that we’re in somebody else’s space. We miss having our own house and couch for those days when we feel lazy and just want to watch TV. Where we lived in Denver, we had an incredible urban garden with loads of vegetables and chickens. We really miss being able to tend to the land and grown a lot of our own food’.

Do you ever meet up with other van lifers on the road? Do you stay with friends or strangers sometimes?

‘We’ve never sought out a fellow van lifer to meet up, but we have talked with a lot of them via Instagram to answer questions and get tips. If we’re ever in the same place at the same time we’d love to meet up with them. We spent a few days in Vermont with some fellow van lifers we met at a concert and love it, but we haven’t had the chance to meet up with them since, as they’re from Canada. Typically, when we’re on the road, we do try to stay with friends or family. We’re fortunate to have friends and family all over the country so it hasn’t been hard to get in touch with anyone. If we’re unable to, we’ll try to stay at BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land for free or camp somewhere. Sometimes if it’s late, we stay in WalMart parking lots if we have to. They’re free, safe and welcome to van lifers and RVs. Not glamorous, but sometimes you gotta do it’.

Have you seen or done anything that without van life you never would have?

‘We’ve had the ability to mostly work only part time, which has freed up our schedules to do a lot of other fun things. We’ve hiked part of the Appalachian Trail, gone paddle-boarding throughout the Florida Keys. Surfed all up and down the East Coast, driven gorgeous backroads of Canada and now, making our way to Alaska. I can confidently say we wouldn’t have had the luxury to do all these things if we were working 40 hours a week and only one weeks’ vacation a year. The flexible schedule allows us to explore so much more’.

Do you plan to continue long-term, and what are (if any) future plans?

‘That’s up in the air right now. After Alaska, we’re not sure where we’ll go we’ll go. We’ve tossed around the idea of working somewhere along the West Coast, spending some time in Mexico, or perhaps working at a ski resort in Colorado. We’re always open to van life stopping and settling down. If we find an amazing town, or are offered incredible jobs we’ll gladly stop. When we settle again, we want to make sure that we are in an area that encourages us to explore, to be outside, surrounded by art and hope that it’s affordable. For now, we have a loose plan to continue van life for probably another year, but that could change at any point. I’m sure at some point we’ll have ‘normal’ jobs again. Normal being 40 hours a week, but we want to make sure our jobs excite us and we enjoy them. But right now we’re loving seasonal work and trying new things’.

Has having ‘alternative lifestyle’ changed you/your outlook on life?

‘100%! We’ve realised that you need so little. When we downsized from our house to the van, it was a challenge to decide what to keep and what to get rid of. We had so many clothes and ‘stuff’, it was so overwhelming. Now we live in a tiny van, we make conscious decisions about what we need and how we use it. We try to produce very little waste and reuse things as much as possible. We try to shop locally, whether it’s for hard goods or food. If we’re able to, we shop at local and farmers markets to support the community and individuals. We absolutely plan to continue that as we move forward’.

Do you think you’ll stay to the contiguous United States? Do you think you’d consider it elsewhere?

‘So far we’ve visited Canada and most of the US. We’d love to spend time in Mexico surfing the Baja Peninsula, and we always talk about the possibility of driving to Central America as far as we can go. We’d love more than anything to travel and do van life in Europe. Unfortunately it’s a hefty cost to ship a van to Europe. That’s not saying it’s entirely out of the question, but financially it’s not possible right now.’

What is your advice to someone looking to do the same?

‘Have an open mind. Don’t be attached to a schedule and reach outside your comfort zone. As much as we are all ‘planners’, things often don’t go according to plan. Hiccups happen and it’s important to stay open minded as to where you may go next, or where you may have to stay a bit longer. Try jobs and go places that challenge you or get you out of your comfort zone. We’ve both worked in jobs during van life that are a little out of the ordinary, and not something we’d initially do. These jobs have pushed us to be more open and try different things. It’s also helped us meet so many new people. And pack a lot of dry shampoo and download a lot of podcasts!’

‘To say this has all been easy isn’t the case. There are ups and downs like every life. The van needs constant care and regular oil changes which isn’t always easy when we’re parked in the middle of nowhere. They’re essential. Similarly, living in a tiny van can be exhausting mentally – but we wouldn’t change it for a second. We absolutely love van life and we don’t regret it for a second. Not yet, at least’.

I waffle a lot about things I care about and hope it doesn't suck. Partial to writing things, going places, cult films, ranting and Cocker Spaniels. Instagram: ieshamae97


4th April 2017 at 9:00 am

Images from

Iesha Thomas