Faced with high costs of living and access to technology that allows them to ditch the traditional office life, young people are increasingly choosing the “vanlife” instead. They’re trading in their overpriced apartments and sedentary lives for converted trucks, campers, buses, or vans and a life on the road. The movement has become a cultural phenomenon. It has even drawn attention from mainstream media like the New York Times, Forbes, and the New Yorker.
Jared Melrose and Jonny Dustow are two Australian “vanlifers” and the creators of Vanlife Diaries; a social media and online platform that tells stories and connects vanlifers around the world. It was the first of its kind and has been integral in catapulting the lifestyle into the pop culture limelight.
“Young people today realize they can spend $1,000 to $3,000 and have themselves a mobile home,” said Jared. That sounds a hell of lot more appealing than paying off someone else’s mortgage.”
“This week I’ve only earned a couple hundred bucks but my cost of living is so low, I can get by,” Jonny added. “Then next week I could earn a grand and will start saving. But I don’t have to earn that exact amount every week [to cover fixed expenses]. This allows me to focus on family, friends, doing community events, or doing things that give me value.”
However, according to Jared, economics is not the only driver behind the movement. “Happiness is becoming harder to obtain when you’re in a system and serving a monetary goal. It’s good to set goals, I’m not saying that. But freeing time up in our own lives to pursue the things we love – I find that’s a lot more important.”
Into The Van
Prior to vanlife, Jonny lived a conventional life as a school teacher. He owned two properties, had a stock portfolio, wanted to finish his MBA, and aspired to work in marketing. “I wasn’t listening to myself really because I’m a creative person. I was feeling empty and exhausted at the end of the day because I was giving everyone else my energy. It got to the point where I had a pretty big mental breakdown actually”. So, Jonny decided it was time to simplify his life. He moved into a van and began to focus on his music.
“It’s basically about where you want to hang out when you’re not working,” said Jonny. “I don’t want to be in one spot all the time and I was paying rent and mortgages, but I was never in the homes. I want to be on the road and exploring new places so to me it made sense to set up a van as a home.”
Jared, on the other hand, had already been living more unconventionally prior to vanlife. He worked in trade jobs to support his dream of making music. “Living in a van wasn’t a hard transition. When you are an artist, a lot of people don’t consider that ‘work’, so I had already crossed that bridge of not worrying about other people’s expectations,” he laughed. “I really don’t care what people think of me anyway.”
Vanlife Diaries Community
By creating Vanlife Diaries, Jonny and Jared sought to build a place for these nomadic people to connect and help each other on the road. “It can get lonely sometimes so it’s nice to be able to share stories, tips, and be connected with people all around the world,” said Jonny. “You can be laying in your van at night and talking to ten different people in different countries. It’s pretty special and that’s what the website and our social media has done.”
Their mission has clearly resonated with people as their Instagram account has accumulated over 350,000 followers in just a few years. “We filled a void,” Jared added. “It was the first social media platform integrated with a website that celebrated people living in vans. Of course, there have been people living in vans since the 60’s and we’re not claiming to be the first to live in them. But I’m really proud of celebrating every unique story within [the community] and that’s what our website does.”
This platform has created a network of people that not only connect online, but also in person. “Our community pulls together and helps each other,” said Jonny. “Right now, I actually have two American girls staying with me [in Australia] who are vanlifers. What I see eventually happening is getting together with the community and buying land. There’s already people doing it in Portland, Oregon. I met a guy who bought land and is happy to let anyone in the community park on it for a few nights. That’s what I’m excited about – seeing people actually helping each other later in life”. Jonny and Jared even co-host vanlife gatherings and events all around Australia and the U.S.
Often, people tend to focus on the extremes of vanlife, but the community is a mixed bag of characters. Some people live in their vans full-time, while others simply use them as weekend adventure vehicles. Some people are happy just getting by financially while others are actually quite wealthy. There are singles, married couples, and even entire families on the road.
“People think you need to change your job to live in a van,” said Jonny. “On the road, we meet people doing everything, man. There’s carpenters, trades people, nurses, doctors, and lawyers. They might just park around the corner from their workplace and head out on the weekends.”
The Real Story
Currently, Jonny and Jared are working on a documentary called “The Meaning of Vanlife” which is expected to premiere late in 2018. They set out to connect with vanlifers around the world to discover the spirit, struggles and philosophies that define the movement.
“We’re trying to share the real vanlife story,” said Jonny. “It’s an awesome lifestyle, but it’s challenging. They are real stories of people having relationship struggles or even mental health struggles. So that’s what I like the most about the film. It’s a real-life perspective of living on the road through different people’s lives.”
Over the last year, the film’s director, Jim Lounsbury, joined them on the road in a van he dubbed “Hunter S ThompsVan”; an obvious homage to the journalist famously known for involving himself in the action of the stories he covered. “I’m really looking forward to what he does with his whole concept of going behind the curtain,” said Jared. “He’s telling the story from the inside out and doing a lot of work with sociologists, environmentalists, and economists to give a wider scope of why these movements happen.”
“Our social media growth has been amazing, but still the main reason we use it is to connect with people on the road and that’s the whole idea of the film,” Jonny added. “We went on the road, we shared these stories, and we want to show the film on the road. We use technology to create face to face meetings because it’s the most genuine when you’re sitting with someone sharing stories around a fire.”
The 3 Questions
When Jared was 26 years old, he began meeting with a group of men to talk, meditate, and challenge each other. Some questions that were raised weighed heavily on him and helped shape who he is today; “who am I?”, “where am I going?”, and “who’s coming with me?”. In that order.
“In today’s current climate we see a lot of folks in jobs asking themselves, ‘how did I get into this? This isn’t for me!’. This tells me this person set their path before knowing who they were. Others are ending relationships because they realize they decided who would be ‘coming with them’ before they knew ‘who they were’ or ‘where they were going’. It’s hard in today’s society to know where we fit in and what we will be happy to compromise on. We are all making compromises of some sort,” said Jared.
“I was fortunate in the sense that I realized who I was, not long after those group sessions,” he continued. “To be honest, since then I have had the courage to walk through any door that opens, because the ‘where’ and the ‘who’ manifests in the resilience of the stride and the will of the choice. I’m happy to live with the outcomes and I’m still smiling,” he laughs. “I have someone I love dearly and a support network of incredible humans. We all offer something unique and wonderful. In a supportive, caring community, is where the sharpening of one another’s axes becomes vital to any form of development.”
“For me, it was really getting in touch with my true self and that’s what a lot of unconventional people do,” said Jonny. “They actually start to block out everyone and everything to spend time thinking about what type of life they want to live, what they want to gain from the world, and what they want to give back to it.”
To find out more about Vanlife Diaries, visit their website at vanlife.com.au or follow them on Instagram @vanlifediaries. I hope you found inspiration in this story and if you did, please share it! Comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to let me know what you think.