Drop the term “Vandwelling” around the Movoto Real Estate office, and you’ll inevitably hear references to Matt Foley, Chris Farley’s classic Saturday Night Live character. Foley is a motivational speaker–the worst motivational speaker ever–who uses his own experience as a cautionary tale. Keep going on the path you’re on, he warns, and you too might find yourself “living in a van down by the river.”
Despite the mainstream perception of living in a van as a tragic last resort, there is a thriving subculture of people who actually embrace living in vans, be they parked by a river or on city side streets. Some are forced into it by financial necessity, while others choose the lifestyle for its freedom and affordability.
They call themselves “vandwellers,” though the term applies to living not only in vans, but in any movable home, including RVs, trailers hitched to trucks, and cars. Read on for an in-depth look at the life of a vandweller.
Origins of a Vanbassador
Bob Wells is one of the vandwelling subculture’s most prominent devotees. He has two sites: cheaprvliving.com and a newer site, cheapgreenrvliving.com. He also just released an ebook, “How to Live in a Car, Van or RV–And Get Out of Debt, Travel and Find True Freedom.” The book provides a wealth of information on the logistics and philosophy of vandwelling and can be purchased for $3 on Amazon.
Wells entered the vandwelling movement in 1995, while he was going through a divorce. He bought a box van (think Uhaul) for $1500, and made the 8 by 12 space his new home. Though he now can’t imagine living any other way, the initial transition was difficult for Wells.
“I was going through a divorce so it was already emotionally traumatic,” Wells said. “I cried myself to sleep the first night. I didn’t know how to go to the bathroom, how to cook.”
The hardest part, Wells said, was waking up and not knowing where he was. After a few months, though, the initial discomfort subsided, and Wells began to embrace his new lifestyle.
“Every month when rent used to be due and I wasn’t paying it–that, I loved most of all. I overcame all the problems and fell in love with it.”
Vandweller for Life
After living in the box van for six years, Wells decided to move in with a woman he was dating. He didn’t think that returning to a “real” house would be a problem.
“I thought, everyone lives in homes, that’s the American way. I thought ‘this won’t be a sacrifice.’”
But Wells found that he hated living in the house, and all the burdens that entailed. When it snowed, he had to shovel the driveway. In the summer, he had to mow the lawn. He had to worry about utility bills, fixing toilets, unclogging drains.
“I despised every second of it,” Wells said. “She understood that I couldn’t live in a house and she couldn’t live in a van, so we parted ways.”
Next, Wells bought a four wheel drive pickup with a 6×7 foot camper, which is where he lives currently. With the truck, he can go wherever he wants to, no matter how remote.
“I never plan to live in a house again,” Wells said. “I don’t want to live any other way than this way.”
A Simpler Life
The biggest challenge to becoming a vandweller involves getting rid of stuff. Wells believes that the average American’s dependence on material possessions is a form of mental illness. However, he realizes that the economy depends on people continuing to buy things.
“Everyone should live this way, but if everyone lived this way I couldn’t. Who would grow the food? Who would make my laptop? If we all became emotionally healthy and didn’t depend on our possessions for our identity, the economy would collapse.”
Still, there is much to be learned from the forced simplicity of vandwelling. The movement is strongly aligned with a sense of ecological responsibility, and not just because it requires a rejection of the culture of consumption. Wells, for one, lives completely off the grid.
“Living in a van is the single most green way you could possibly live,” Wells said. He claims that he uses less water in a week than the average American uses in one day just by flushing their toilet. The “green” side of vandwelling is the focus of Wells’ second site.
Vandwellers are stereotypically thought of as hermits, unable to function in society. Ironically, Wells said he’s made more intimate and deep friendships while vandwelling than he has in his entire life.
“Living in a city is completely alienating for most people,” he said. “You don’t meet a lot of people out here but when you meet them, you’ll connect, deeply and intimately. The hermits live in houses now.”
Wells, who grew up in Alaska and has always enjoyed camping, now splits his time between summers in the Sierra National Forest, and winters in the desert. Wells spends much of his winters in the desert town of Quartzsite, Arizona. While the town has just 3,400 year round citizens, in the winter, it becomes an RV campground, home to 1.5 million seasonal residents.
Two years ago, Wells started the “Rubber Tramp Rendezvous,” a gathering of vandwellers and other self-described nomads. The first year boasted 45 participants; the second year, 90. Wells is excited for the 2013 RTR, scheduled for January 8-22. He looks forward to the event as a way to connect with other vandwellers with whom he’s only corresponded via forums like the Vandwelling Yahoo Group.
So what’s the biggest misconception people have about vandwellers?
“That we’re all crazies,” Wells said. “Honestly there are crazies who live in their cars and vans. I meet them. Let’s face it, they live there because they can’t live in society. But a lot of us, and many more of us every day, are doing it by choice. We’re just good average American citizens who are tired of the rat race.”
In a nation still gripped by the effects of the housing crisis and recession, more and more people are defying negative preconceptions and considering vandwelling as an alternative to scraping together mortgage payments. Jesse, who preferred his last name not be used, is currently making the transition into the vandwelling lifestyle.
“When half to two-thirds of a person’s income is eaten up by a roof over the head, there’s something wrong,” Jesse said.
Though he’s convinced it’s the right decision for him at this point in this life, Jesse does have apprehensions about becoming a vandweller.
“My biggest fear is losing that freedom by being told I can’t do this, be here, sleep there . . . and of course my health.”
As for dealing with people’s preconceived notions?
“Not my problem,” Jesse said. “If they notice me, and ask, I’ll explain. Otherwise, I’ll pretty much confine myself to hanging with the existing vandwellers when I’m not somewhere in seclusion.”
Wells, who is 57, believes vandwelling will be increasingly embraced by younger generations. He thinks that the traditional American dream of homeownership will soon be a thing of the past. In an increasingly mobile society, many people growing up today might never see the need to buy a house.
For a surprisingly diverse segment of the US population, vandwelling could present the perfect housing solution. And with the internet making it possible for many people to work remotely, the vandwelling movement has enormous growth potential.
“I’m always astounded by how many young people are breaking out of the mold and living in a van,” Wells said.