The Real Vanlife

In a world threatened by housing and climate crises, people from all over North America are choosing a life on the road to reclaim their freedom, security, and dignity.

Text—Simon Coutu
Photos—Jake Michaels, Shayd Johnson, Nicolas Gouin

“Being a nomad is the right and proper way for a human to live,” says Bob Wells into his microphone, standing on a small stage set up in the middle of a baseball field.

Applause rings out from a crowd of about two hundred people on camping chairs. “When you move into a vehicle, a car van, an RV, whatever you’re in, you become more connected to nature, more mentally healthy,” he adds.

With his shoulder-length grey hair and bushy beard, Bob Wells looks like a guru. And he’s convincing, even if it’s clear he’s preaching to the choir. Thousands of people made the annual trek to the small town of Quartzsite, in Arizona, to take part in the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous (RTR), a gathering of vanlifers.

This event, in the middle of the desert, draws a wide assortment of people, but you’re not likely to find the cliché of the young, tanned influencer who travels the world sharing their life on Instagram with the hashtag #vanlife.

Participants gather to hear Bob Wells at the initiation for the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous. Photo: Jake Michaels

Bringing credibility to the vanlife movement
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Who among us hasn’t dreamt of owning our own little Westfalia, covering hundreds of miles of heartland with our friends or family? Still, leaving everything behind and becoming a nomad is, for many, extremely daunting. There’s the high degree of resourcefulness and autonomy it demands, and Western society doesn’t exactly make this way of life very easy.

 

Living on the move represents a bureaucratic headache, as most municipalities are more likely to dole out tickets than accommodate those who have chosen life on public roads.

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A mountain scene painted on the inside panel of an occupied cargo van. Photo: Jake Michaels

The Rubber Tramp Rendezvous asserts the right to live without a fixed address and aims to grow the perceived legitimacy of this lifestyle. From the moment I arrive at the park where the free, multi-day event is being held, the egalitarian spirit of sharing and bartering is immediately apparent.

A dozen tables are set up where people leave objects they are no longer using, free to the community. On a large bulletin board, some people advertise their services, while others post what they’re looking for.

That’s where Claudia Tkac found the help she needed to install a battery that will eventually be charged by solar panels on the roof of her pickup. Claudia has been nomadic since March 2021. During the day, she works in a Nevada pharmacy, and at night she shelters in her truck, which she assures me is not too cramped.

“I wanted to be free. I wanted to explore. I thought I was out of time as I got older. And then I saw Nomadland.”

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Based on a book by Jessica Bruder, the movie uses a documentary style to tell the story of a woman in her sixties who loses everything and is forced to live in her van. Nomadland won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2021 and was partly shot in Quartzsite. Bob Wells appears, playing himself.

Bob Wells is the celebrity founder of the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous. Many vandwellers see him as a guru and seek his advice on topics related to minimalist nomadic living. Photo: Jake Michaels

Finding meaning through van-dwelling
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Some people choose this way of life to feel closer to nature, or out of a desire for freedom or simplicity. Bob Wells, though, was forced to leave the comfort of his previous home for economic reasons. When he was 40, he went through a divorce, and his job at a grocery store in Anchorage, Alaska, didn’t make enough money to meet the needs of his kids.

“I found myself living in a van,” says the 66-year-old man with a strong resemblance to Santa Claus. “I felt like a homeless bum on the street, which is the worst thing you can be in this society. A complete loser.”

But living on four wheels brought him to a surprising epiphany: he fell in love with this way of life. “You can’t have many things in your car or your van. And so you’ve got to work out a way to get over the craving, the lusting for more, bigger, better, shinier,” says Wells.

 

“You find a connection. I fell in love with living in the van. I mean, for the first time in my life, that sense of meaninglessness was gone.”

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He points out that there remain very few resources for those who, like him, live in a vehicle at least part of the time. In 2005 Bob (who considers himself an introvert) decided to share what he knows. He created the site CheapRVLiving.com and eventually a YouTube channel by the same name, which now has more than 600,000 followers.

What do rock skipping, pigeon racing, and van dwelling have in common?

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Creating a vanlife community in the desert
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About two million snowbirds pass through Quartzsite every year. Many of them take advantage of the public land held by the Bureau of Land Management, where it’s legal to camp for up to two weeks for free.

For eight days, Bob, Suanne Carlson—the organizer of RTR—and dozens of volunteers teach the basics of solar power, ways of making a living on the road, and how to manage the cold. Suanne shares her knowledge about efficient and responsible ways to dispose of human waste. With her grey hat, little round glasses, and fluorescent yellow vest, she’s hard to miss.

The nomadic life is not one she could have foreseen for herself. Originally from Olympia, Washington, Suanne had just retired from her job as a manager in the education system when her 29-year-old only daughter died of brain cancer.

 

“I committed to being in therapy for a year. I realized somehow that I needed to hit the road. So I set the bed up in the Prius, did a test trip with one of my brothers, and loved it.”

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She now lives permanently in the little hybrid car. “The whole wilderness, nature, the desert is my home,” she says. “[My car] is not just my transportation, not just my storage—it’s like a hard-sided tent. There’s enough room to sleep very comfortably. I could never go back to living in a house again.”

Carolyn Higgins is a minor celebrity among RV enthusiasts, thanks to her YouTube channel, Carolyn's RV Life. Photo: Jake Michaels

Finding dignity in van-living
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Every year, since the beginning of RTR, the parking lot transforms into a nomad’s car show. Dozens of drivers welcome people into their vehicles to observe their unique tricks for organizing limited space. Many have ingeniously modified vans with the latest gadgets to enhance comfort: fridges, sinks, diesel heating, LED lighting, solar panels, composting toilets … some even have a shower.

But not everyone is a paragon of organization. Noor “Spider” Dinary—along with her dog, her cat, and her rabbit—embrace a more chaotic style. There are so many things piled up in her old Dodge Caravan you’d swear she brought her whole life with her when she left her home in Eureka, California. In fact, this isn’t far from the truth.

Formerly a housewife with no social safety net, Noor lost everything after her husband died and she had a falling-out with her kids. “I couldn’t support myself anymore,” says the 60-year-old woman, who dresses like Janis Joplin. “I’d been following Bob Wells on YouTube for a long time. And finally I’d had enough. I put the key in the ignition, turned it, and made it all the way down to Quartzsite.”

For Noor, vanlife is a question of dignity.

“I could have gone to a homeless shelter. But why would I want someone else to decide what I’m allowed to eat and when I go to sleep and treat me like garbage? In the eyes of society, being homeless is worse than a cockroach.”

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Betsy Kemper is a semi-retired clown who came to the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous to learn more about living in a van. Photo: Jake Michaels

Like the main character in Nomadland, Noor now plans to work a few months each year at Amazon. “I didn’t want to be working in an Amazon warehouse at 60. The movie definitely puts more of a positive spin on it. But what can you do? And why not work for Amazon if it gives me the freedom to live in my car for a few months?”

A form of affordable housing
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Sitting in a folding chair a few metres from the RTR stage with a laptop on his knees, anthropologist Graham J. Pruss easily passes for another nomad. He’s affiliated with the Center for Vulnerable Populations at the University of California in San Francisco and is conducting his post-doctoral research from his Ford Flex van.

There aren’t reliable statistics about those who choose to live in their vehicles in the United States, but Graham estimates that there are probably about a million. He refuses to make predictions, but notes that more and more Americans are being pushed out of their homes and choosing to adopt Bob Wells’ way of life. He mentions that many cities are reporting an increase of vehicle dwellers in public spaces.

“People are moving into vehicles because of larger housing instability or because they’re on limited and fixed incomes that are insufficient to pay for rising costs,” Graham says.

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He himself has lived without a fixed address, sleeping under bridges or in the back seat of his car.

He also points out that the increasing frequency of natural catastrophes is forcing more Americans to live this way. Originally from Santa Cruz, California, he witnessed first-hand when forest fires forced hundreds of people out of their homes.

“The streets were full of people living in vehicles,” he remembers. “In the first weeks, the general response was, ‘We need to help our displaced neighbours.’ But the response very quickly became, ‘We need to get these homeless people out of here.’”

In 2022 Graham participated in the creation of the National Vehicle Residency Collective, which aims to honour the voices of vehicle residents, support their policy goals, and protect their legal rights. Despite advocacy like this, however, many municipalities are still reluctant to welcome this population.

“Our research has shown that vehicle residents tend to participate actively in economic life,” says Graham. “These people tend to have incomes. They pay for gas, insurance, registration, and even for tickets. This investment should be recognized.”

Like the protagonists in Nomadland, most of the people I meet at RTR are older and perhaps retired. However, this community is not necessarily representative of the nomadic population of North America, Graham tells me.

“Some young people reject that sort of ‘American Dream’ idea of ‘work hard and enjoy life when you retire.’ They want to enjoy life now, and they’re moving into their vehicles as a way to do so.”

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Cats also need pit stops too. Luna does some exploring on the squamish Spit and Estuary in British-Columbia. Photo: Shayd Johnson

 

Reaching for “Freedom 35”
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More and more millennials are deciding to embrace vanlife. Many of them simply don’t have the means to keep up with rising real estate prices. Twenty-five hundred kilometres north of Quartzsite, in Whistler, BC, Julien Gagnon and Kim Vaillancourt had never been able to imagine themselves investing their savings in a home, as their parents once did. The couple in their thirties have lived in their Chevrolet Express since the beginning of the pandemic.

“I was eligible for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, and I didn’t want to stay shut up in my apartment,” says Kim. “I wanted to travel, so I headed west and met Julien, who’s been living in his van since 2018.”

Today, the couple from Québec works when the need arises and snowboards when they feel like it. Even if they wanted to settle here, they wouldn’t be able to afford a property in the area.

Julien relaxes with Luna the cat on their van's small bed. Photo: Shayd Johnson
The Squamish Skatepark is a favourite hangout spot for Julien and Kim. Photo: Shayd Johnson

“In my van, I feel like I’m in control of what I own,” says Julien, his face framed by long curly hair. “I don’t have to pay rent and I choose where I live. Most recently, we wanted to go to California. We were thinking about staying two weeks, but the trip ended up lasting two months. It’s a way of living your dream and having a normal life.”

Julien used to work as a primary school teacher. Now, he does a string of odd jobs in construction and restoration, and manages a summer skateboarding camp. Kim works in landscaping and takes advantage of the mountain in the winter.

“For me, this is paradise,” she says. “If we moved back into a house, we’d be much more limited in our activities.”

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The couple has renovated the entire interior of the van by hand. They’ve managed to squeeze in a double bed, a small shower, sink, fridge, and stove. A tiny door even lets their cat, Luna, come and go between the front and back of the vehicle. The space is limited, but cozy.

While Julien and Kim sometimes return to Québec to visit family and friends, or to do renovations on their van (materials cost less there), it’s never with the intention of dropping anchor. “After multiple attempts in Montréal, it’s hard to get through the long cold winter,” Julien admits.

“She and I are inseparable,” Gerry Lauzon says of his van. Photo: Nicolas Gouin

 

«Leave us alone»
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In Lower Québec City, Gerry Lauzon is a diehard vanlifer who strives to spend the winter in his Dodge Caravan, nicknamed the Grey Ninja. “She and I are inseparable,” he says between drags of his cigarette. “She’s grey and discreet, and I, well, I have grey hair.”

Gerry is one of the rare ones who doesn’t pack his bags when the province is buried under snow. The day I visit him, it’s -19 °C, and he’s still planning to sleep in his vehicle. But at this temperature, his red-checked coat and space heater won’t suffice.

Luckily, his employer, a small plastics company that hired him as an apprentice operator-machinist, gives him electricity for free.

“That was my only condition before taking the job,” he says. “I make sure there’s not three feet of snow on the van and I’m not here on weekends. In mid-April, it’s warm enough to unplug, and I become completely mobile once again. When I’m tired of it, I put my van in drive, step on the gas, and off I go.”

Like Bob Wells, Suanne Carlson, and Graham J. Pruss, Gerry Lauzon is also a defender of the rights of those who live in their vehicles. He’s a spokesperson for the Association Vanlife Québec.

“We’ve all been woken up at one in the morning by a police officer telling us to get out. It’s a rite of passage. My only request is that they have some damn patience with us.”

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On his blog Le Ninja gris, Gerry published his “Manifesto of the Voluntary Itinerant.” “With the cost of rentals rising endlessly, others are joining our ranks, whether by choice or not,” it reads. “It’s essential to stop being afraid and to come out of the shadows. […] If we are legally parked and we aren’t bothering anyone, leave us alone.”

Ironically, in another life, Gerry was the one giving out the tickets. For 33 years he worked for the city of Dollard-des-Ormeaux. “I was a court liaison. I saw my share of cases. I even helped write the municipal laws.”

 

For Gerry Lauzon, living full-time in a van means staying organized. Photo: Nicolas Gouin

After a heart attack when he was 53, he left his sedentary life behind. “I wasn’t eating well, I was stressed all the time. I saw a guy on YouTube who lived in his van, and I decided to look at things another way.”

This wasn’t a decision Gerry made lightly, and the first piece of advice he offers people thinking of taking up vanlife is: don’t do it on a whim.

“It took me two years of planning. I sold, gave away, or threw out everything I owned. When you live in a duplex, you can rack up a lot of stuff! Now, besides a plastic bin stored at my son’s house, my whole life is in my van.”

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Like every nomad I met, from Arizona to Québec to BC, Gerry Lauzon has no regrets. He’s found his people.

“In this community, everyone has had the experience of pissing in a bottle or doing their business in a plastic bag. Everyone has washed themselves with a washcloth. You can’t have vanity. This is a big difference from the sedentary world.”

This duality between nomadic and sedentary societies wasn’t invented yesterday. As French philosopher Gilles Deleuze writes, “history has always been written by the sedentary.” In truth, at least half of what we call “civilization” was created by people on the move, including some who are still alive and well.

Qualities like resilience, minimalism, and flexibility, on display in abundance among the vanlife community at RTR and beyond, are more important than ever in the current context of the housing crisis, inflation, and climate change.

As for me, I’m not quite ready to pull up stakes just yet. As Gerry put it, even if this mode of life grants you great freedom, you don’t give up the comfort of a brick and wood house on a whim. You still need to have the luxury of choosing.

Simon Coutu is a freelance reporter and documentary filmmaker. He has worked for Radio-Canada and Vice Québec, and advocates an immersive field approach that gives voice to those who are rarely granted one.
instagram.com/simoncoutu

 

Jake Michaels is a Los Angeles-based photographer who splits his time between commercial and street photography. A graduate of Art Center College of Design with a focus in fine arts, he is currently working on releasing a new book in the fall of 2024.
jakemichaels.com/

 

Shayd Johnson is a Canadian commercial and editorial photographer. His work ranges from commercial projects for automotive and retail brands to media publications and tourism organizations. His photographs have appeared in the Narwhal, the New York Times, Serviette Magazine, and OFF Magazine.
xshaydx.com

 

Nicolas Gouin is a documentary filmmaker and photographer who explores the complex relationships between the environment, culture, and collective knowledge, focusing on projects with positive social impacts. When he is not shooting silver prints in his darkroom, he can be found in the woods with his hunting rifle.
www.nicolasgouin.com

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