In January 2013, two kayak instructors from New England, Emily King and Corey Smith, decided to run an experiment to test just how realistic it could be to travel the United States living a nomadic lifestyle.
They set off on a journey in an ’87 VW Vanagon that has lasted (so far) for over 2 years — with absolutely no sign of stopping.
Emily and Corey (along with their dog, Penny Rose) have gained lifelong friends and bonded with many along the way — people from the marshlands of Florida to the Grand Canyon to the California west coast; and with a successful web series as a natural byproduct to their adventures.
Through every challenge, they’ve gained opportunity, yes — but has it all been worth it?
Emily: I had always dreamed of traveling, and although I never quite put my finger on what, I knew I desired something outside of the norm. I first acknowledged the inkling that a typical 9-5 [job] wasn’t for me when I was working as the Marketing Director for a real estate agency.
I was fresh out of college and on an ambitious, career-driven path, and had even considered relocating from Maine to NYC. Rather than driven by passion, I was attempting to fulfill the external expectations of my parents, teachers, friends and society. Within three years, I found myself with extreme anxiety and through the help of doctors and yoga, realized that my sensitivity to an office environment had something to do with it.
So, I quit and decided to pursue acting. Acting was something that was new to me, and incredibly thrilling and challenging. It was something that scared me, put me in the present moment and helped me get more in touch with my inner desires, feelings, emotions and thoughts. For the past 2.5+ years on the road, I’ve worked as a freelance website developer which has enabled me to pursue my passion of storytelling through photography, video and writing. Although working for myself has had its challenges (like time management!) I know I will never go back to a job simply for work’s sake. One day I hope to be able to generate income directly from my passions of storytelling and movement.
Corey majored in pre-med biology at the University of New Hampshire with the initial intention of becoming a physician’s assistant. After assessing his own desires and what makes him happy, he decided it wasn’t the path for him and for years he worked as a kayak guide and shop manager for Portsmouth Kayak Adventures.
We met while guiding kayak tours, and after spending two months backpacking and surfing in Central America, we realized that we desired to explore America, pursue our passions, and live simply… ultimately we wanted to trade “stuff” for “experiences” and live our lives for ourselves.
The plan came together when we realized that I could serve my freelance web development clients on the road. The idea for “Where’s My Office Now” was born.
From the beginning, we knew we wanted a VW Vanagon Westfalia. These old VW’s were incredibly alluring. Originally they were used by surfers, and then by hippies. Now, people of all ages and backgrounds love these vehicles.
The subculture is interesting, inspiring, welcoming and supportive. Beyond the epic subculture, we were drawn to the empowerment that the Vanagons promote through the ability to do-it-yourself when it comes to maintenance and simple mechanical repairs.
The third reason that we chose the Vanagon, and specifically the Westfalia model, is that it comes stock with just about everything we need with a pop top loft bed, downstairs bed (yes, we have two beds), two propane stove tops, electric sink, and more.
In the beginning, we shared our journey as a lifestyle experiment, thinking that people may learn something from it, even if it was from our mistakes!
The journey’s evolution led us to realize that anything is possible, yet nothing is guaranteed. Our mission has been to authentically share this alternative “van life” as a viable lifestyle for people who are interested in living a less impactful life with more adventure and the time to pursue passion.
To fulfill our mission, we’ve regularly shared the journey’s ups and downs and life lessons on our website, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube. One of our passions is film-making and we felt that through video, we could most effectively portray the lifestyle. This led to the crowd-funded production of two seasons of a van life web series.
In the second season, we interviewed 12 modern nomad individuals/couples/families living on the road, in a sailboat, or traveling by bicycle. It was an incredibly inspiring experience and the series should be live on our YouTube channel this September.
The sheer growth of people interested in the nomadic lifestyle, to me is indicative of America seeking to redefine work and happiness, simplify lives, and reconnect with nature.
Van life is very much about making time for what we love to do. Storytelling, especially through the video medium, is something that we love — but in order to bring these videos to fruition, we’ve had to occasionally get grounded, either at a cafe with fast WiFi, or more long term. This winter, we ended up spending a couple of months stationery in San Diego and Sedona, AZ, while I focused on the post-production of season two.
This is the hardest question to answer and the most often asked one. Places that leave their marks deep within us are usually wild, open spaces. There’s endless natural beauty and contrast in the United States. From the high desert of southern Utah and Arizona, to the giant redwoods, the lush rainforests of the Olympic Peninsula; the wild Oregon Coast, and so much more. There’s so much beauty and we’ve barely skimmed the surface.
If we had to answer this question based on our passions of mountain biking and surfing, it would probably be Sedona, AZ and Bend, OR for mountain biking and the California Coast for surfing.
We live in a country where we are free to explore and redefine concepts to fit our desires, dreams and values… how beautiful is this! I'm in the process of redefining what work means to me. Instead of a brutal necessity, a result of modern civilization, perhaps it can be something authentic that amplifies love and truth. Rather than using only my analytical mind to redefine work, I'm prioritizing simply being a human BEING. Moving my body, interacting with nature, witnessing my impulses to Do, feeling my breath and journaling are my current priorities. Giving myself ample time and space to gently uproot my deeply ingrained concept of work will help me create a new one that serves me and others better. When I'm inspired, I'll be vlogging this process on our YouTube channel. The first video is up (link in profile). What does "human being" mean to you? Do you feel you have a good balance of doing and being? What's this balance like?
This is the first time this question has been asked and it’s not an easy one to answer. Let’s see… Well…. I mentioned that part of the beauty of America is in the contrast. This contrast includes the natural world vs. cities. I personally believe that spending time in cities helps me appreciate nature. However, after spending many days in a National Forest, entering a city brings upon a blanket of sadness. There are two Instagram captions that I wrote that I believe speak to this.
“We’ve left the western Sierras and are ocean bound. I feel grateful but heavy hearted. You see, for the last 6 weeks, lakes and rivers rejuvenated me, mosquitoes reminded me to be present, bull frogs lulled me to sleep, and bears made me feel oh so alive when they visited our campsite and stole my backpack. The lakes, rivers, trees, flora, bears and bugs that we lived with must have grown deep roots in my heart. Because right now I experience this five lane highway, concrete strip malls, and pollution as the death of wilderness, the loss of something pure and now deeply part of me. I cannot help question, why, why, why as the tears flow. Oh what have we done.”
“In the silence of the forest, I hear my heart beat. This is home.
Earth is 4.6 billion years old. If we scale that down to 46 years, we’ve been around for 4 hours, the industrial revolution began one minute ago, and in that time we’ve destroyed 80% of Earth’s natural forests.
We are often reminded of our human impact on Earth when we see entire mountains clear cut, fracking trucks hauling water through national forests, shopping strips everywhere and on a smaller but equally significant scale, trashed campsites. Van life isn’t perfect, but maybe it’s a start to caring, questioning, exploring, redefining and falling in love again with what we come from. For when we love something, we will take action to protect it.”
This journey is so much more about the people than we had ever imagined. From the modern nomad community that inspires us through social media and in person, to the strangers who offer a hand when we’re broken down, and the van and freedom lovers who approach us continuously in parking lots and express their shared passions of freedom and the road.
Today, the media often portrays the negative in humanity. We’ve been all over the U.S. and believe now more than ever, people are good at heart, and will lend a hand and a smile when given the chance.
Driving a 1987 VW Vanagon thousands of miles around the country inevitably leads to breakdowns. The first couple of breakdowns were very stressful, but we’ve since learned that there’s always something positive that comes from a breakdown. Often this involves meeting amazing people that become lifelong friends. Don’t get me wrong, during a breakdown we usually aren’t laughing, but our faith in the journey helps us breath through each moment.
Emily: Being on the road has allowed me to observe what it is that makes me uncomfortable and I’m learning to accept my discomfort and move through any fear and limiting beliefs that I hold.
As I accept myself and uncomfortable circumstances, I realize that I become more accepting of others and where we are as a society. I’m learning to have faith in myself and others and trust in the flow of the road. I’m learning that my most creative moments happen not when I’m “doing”, but when I’m “being”.
The importance of doing nothing for periods of time is evidently growing. Most recently, I’m embarking on a personal quest to explore redefining what the word “work” means to me. We’ll see where this it takes me.
Corey: I’ve learned that you just have to go for it, and not wait around for something or someone to make it happen. I’ve learned how to balance going with the flow with my natural state of preparedness and planning, which makes for a rewarding van life.
Episode 9 is live! Almost a year ago, the road led us to Malibu, CA, where we participated in a Spartan Race and were faced with warm water waves, cold muddy obstacles and high nerves. We were interviewed by the folks of Spartan Race (@spartanrace ) about #vanlife and are so grateful to have had the opportunity to show people that it's a viable lifestyle option for many. Watch the full episode NOW on our YouTube channel (link in profile) and if you like it please subscribe. ✌️️#spartanrace #spartan
Ambition is an inner fire that cannot be snuffed. One that burns bright, and like all fires do, works to transform ideas, definitions and paradigms to bring more happiness into the world.
Season Two of Van Life debuts in September 2015.
Dan Perichino is a staff writer at Ambitious.com. After watching countless hours of “Van Life”, Dan’s Google search history has netted him an ’87 Vanagon in his Amazon wishlist. Follow his shopping cart possibilities on Twitter @yakkybeats.