To most people, traveling the highways and back roads of the U.S. and staying here or there for a while is a method of temporarily “getting away from it all.”
For others, it’s a way of life.
That brand of lifestyle was on display in a big way last weekend in north-central Texas County during the inaugural “Midwest Vanlife Gathering” held on Mark Twain National Forest land adjacent to the Slabtown Recreation Area on the Big Piney River. Event organizers John and Jayme Serbell were joined by more than 100 “vanlife” enthusiasts who showed up in numerous types of vehicles, including converted vans and buses, varying sizes of SUVs and even a modified airport shuttle.
Former St. Louis residents, the Serbells are members of a growing group of people who live a 100-percent “nomadic” life. The concept is simple: You don’t have to have a house to have a home.
“We’re officially houseless, but not homeless,” Jayme said.
Why would someone want to sell almost all their possessions, hit the road and stay there?
“It’s the freedom,” John said. “There’s something amazing about driving down the road and knowing you can go anywhere and do anything – obviously with certain constraints. You basically don’t have anyone telling you what to do, and there’s a romance and excitement in doing that.”
“Freedom is definitely the No. 1 answer, no matter who you talk to,” Jayme said, “whether it’s freedom from your job, your family, where you’ve grown up or any number of other things. But also exploration – and I don’t just mean, like, ‘let’s go for a hike’ exploration, but also the self-exploration.
“It’s not easy to live in a van; you learn a lot about yourself very quickly.”
That freedom extends well beyond the obvious. The Serbells said it allows the ability to – at a moment’s notice – tend to a countless variety of circumstances (both family-oriented and otherwise) without having to make arrangements regarding a myriad of obligations, like time off of work or dog sitting.
“It’s about flexibility,” Jayme said. “If we were in our former 9-to-5, house-in-the-suburbs situation, it’s just so much more difficult to drop everything and take off.”
Most folks who have adopted the nomadic lifestyle would agree it can be hard for people not familiar with it to relate.
“The way we like to describe it is it’s a great way of being able to create your own reality, or your own life,” John said. “How you do that is up to you; some people might park their vans and stay around one area, while others might drive coast-to-coast multiple times a year. In our old lives, we were just kind of receiving paychecks and going down that pathway of having a job, buying a house and having kids without really stopping to think, ‘is this what we want right now?’
“Doing this has allowed us to do that.”
John was formerly employed in the financial services industry while Jayme held various positions, including working with a non-profit organization, waitressing and others. Now the Serbells generate income as online entrepreneurs, running multiple blogs and websites.
One of their primary ventures is more or less being consultants for people wishing to convert their vans or other vehicles into “tiny homes” via a business they call Gnomad Home. The firm’s website features the slogan, “Sell everything. Build a van. Explore the world.”
“The Internet has really opened up a lot of opportunities,” John said. “But it’s like you can work as much as you want to or as much as you need to. There are people out here who work a lot and make a lot of money, and others who are happy doing just enough to sustain themselves.”
Not surprisingly, the nomadic lifestyle community is a closely-knit unit. The “gatherings” annually staged around the country allow a chance to share time and space with like-minded people.
“The community is amazing,” John said. “We have so much in common with everyone who comes to these events; it’s like you meet and you’re instantly a lifelong friend. And the Internet and social media these days allows us to keep up with each other, so we never feel like we’re alone on the road.”
Living on the road on a permanent basis requires many adjustments.
“The biggest adjustment was mental detachment from ‘things,’” Jayme said. “We had a big two-story house filled with things, some of which we considered really important. But when it really came down to it, we didn’t benefit each other – the things didn’t benefit us and we didn’t benefit them. They had no true necessity in our lives.”
Other than what’s inside their van, the Serbells’ physical possessions now amount to only a few boxes of things stored at a relative’s house.
“It’s amazing how much of a stress reliever that is,” John said. “Most people don’t realize how the more stuff you have, the more of a psychological weight it is.”
The Serbells met while serving in an AmeriCorps project. Last year, they started a non-profit entity called “United We Van.”
“We nomads and van people spend a lot of time on public land, and we thought we could do something as a community to support these places that support us,” John said.
The community teamed up on a vanlife cookbook, and the Virginia-based Nature Conservancy was chosen to benefit from the proceeds. Proceeds from a raffle, T-shirt sales and event ticket sales at the Midwest Vanlife Gathering raised $6,000 for Adventure Works, an Illinois-based organization that offers “adventure therapy.”
“We feel strongly about giving back,” John said.
“With the increasing popularity of vanlife, there have been more and more negative articles popping up about how we’re bums or moochers or whatever,” Jayme said. “We wanted to make sure there was an initiative showing that we’re actually doing good things.”
CUT FROM THE SAME CLOTH
Dan and Brenda Cordray met at the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, an annual van-dwelling gathering in Arizona. They ended up married and have been full-time traveling partners for about three years.
“For us, the nomadic life is an easy life,” Dan said. “It’s easy for us to live in the forest or the desert, and it’s ultra-easy when we’re sitting on a beach. But then, we’re cut from the same cloth.”
“We have no specific destination and no time schedule,” Brenda said. “We can be anywhere we want to be at any time, and we’re not limited by anything. We can just pick a general direction and go.”
Dan is originally from Jacksonville, Fla., and Brenda is from Houston, Texas. Before the road beckoned, Dan worked as a firefighter and medic and in factory automation with Toyota, while Brenda was the office manager for a dental implant surgeon.
Dan said that when he left his job with Toyota, he was prepared to face some resistance.
“Because of my age, if I had told them I was quitting a really good job to go live in a van down by the river, they would probably have put me in a straight jacket and had me committed,” he said. “So I called it an ‘early retirement.’”
Before attending the Midwest Vanlife Gathering, the Cordrays and their two dogs had visited four states in three weeks.
“It’s not a life for everybody,” Dan said. “We spent last Christmas in St. Mary’s, Ga., which would be lovely, except it was in the Auto Zone parking lot.”
After a day or two of waiting for their van’s problems to be solved, the Cordrays got rolling again.
“Many people would have gone crazy, but we thought it was great,” Dan said. “We had each other, we had our home and we had our ‘fur babies.’ And just like in the movie, ‘A Christmas Story,’ the only thing open in the strip mall was a Chinese restaurant, so we ate Chinese on Christmas Day.
“Even when there’s bad things, our lives just flow that way.”
The freedom of nomadic life brings the Cordrays peace, comfort and joyful anticipation for what’s next.
“A couple of years ago, we woke up on the first day of the new year,” Dan said, “and I said, ‘honey, let’s go walk on the beach and then come back and cook some breakfast. Then we’ll decide whether you want to go north or stay here another day.’
“That’s the kind of freedom I want to have.”
The Cordrays love sharing what that’s like.
“We aspire to inspire,” Brenda said.
“You basically don’t have anyone telling you what to do, and there’s a romance and excitement in doing that.”
For more information about vanlife, people involved in it and gatherings, log onto http://www.vanlife.com.au/.
For tips on van conversion, log onto https://gnomadhome.com/.