Freedom On Four Wheels: Van Life On The Rise

By Amelia Arvesen
Daily Times-Call, Longmont, Colo.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) As the cost of housing balloons and as 20- to 30-year-olds increasingly embrace mobility and minimalism, living on wheels in vans and vehicles is rising as a viable alternative to traditional housing.

Daily Times-Call, Longmont, Colo.

Rain patters on the roof of John Salhany’s 2006 Mercedes Sprinter van as he points out the half-finished ceiling of tongue-and-groove pine paneling that will eventually continue down the walls over layers of plywood and reflective insulation.

Items strewn in the hollowed back include a dusty climbing rope, a road bike and a six-pack of Upslope Brewing Company’s Citra Pale Ale.

All his essentials will soon have their places once the van build-out is complete, when Salhany will have a bed big enough to accommodate all 6 feet, 2 inches of him, a countertop with a sink and drawers, and maybe even a backsplash with the cutout of the mountains — amenities like that of a house.

“I have a lot of friends who are buying houses right now who are just getting to that age, all on the East Coast and I’m just like, how do you guys know where you want to live?” said Salhany, 25. “You’re buying a house 20 minutes from where we grew up in small-town Massachusetts, but you don’t know what the rest of the country has to offer.”

As the cost of housing balloons in growing cities, such as in Boulder County, and as 20- to 30-year-olds increasingly embrace mobility and minimalism, living on wheels in vans and vehicles is rising as a viable alternative to traditional housing across the nation.

“I love Boulder, but I’m not ready to buy a house here even if I could afford it,” said Salhany, who is tied to a lease through August 2018 while he works on the van. “There’s so much more to explore. I’m just not at that point in my life where I’m prepared to be like, I love this place, I’m going to settle down.”

People have been inhabiting vehicles for decades — bands on tour and families RV camping — but in the last few years, trading a cement foundation for wheels has risen as a movement. There is major appeal in not being tethered to any one place for Salhany and others wanting to pick up and leave at a moment’s notice to places for exploration.

“Being in a van allows me to go and say, ‘I’ve never been to New Mexico. Let me leave and check out New Mexico. How’s Santa Fe? Santa Fe’s cool; I’m gonna hang out for a few days,'” he said. “How about Vegas? Stop in Vegas, don’t like it, get back in the car and keep driving.”

Just search #vanlife on Instagram for more than 1.8 million photos (a number that increased from 1.7 million in a week) or #homeiswhereyouparkit for more than 500,000 photos of people snuggled into their tiny spaces and vehicles strung with lights and mounted with solar panels in front of mountainous backdrops and posted to various accounts, such as Vanlife Diaries, Vanlife Colorado and Our Van View.

On any given street in Boulder County, a live-in vehicle could be parked at nightfall and gone by sunrise. Or, if it’s not on public land in the mountains, staying there for days raises the suspicions of neighbors and police.

A Toyota Tacoma with a topper on Glenwood Street in Boulder. A Jeep Cherokee at dawn beside the East Mapleton Ball Fields. One or several Mercedes Sprinter vans overnight in any given climbing gym’s parking lot. A Chevrolet conversion van in a shady spot at Thompson Park in Longmont.

The windows are most likely covered with curtains or dividers; otherwise, a bed and belongings would be visible. And if the owners are hanging out inside, it’s probably hard to tell unless they open the door, as many prefer to keep a low profile.

“I like to call home free — all of us do,” said Ryan Lowe, a former Boulder resident who founded the Vanlife Colorado Instagram account in 2015 after ending an apartment lease to live on the road.

Houseless, not homeless
That intentional choice to move out of an apartment and into a vehicle for reasons of freedom and simplification is not the same as homelessness. Van lifers acknowledge the difference, as many have steady jobs and assets, and most could afford to pay rent if they wanted.

“The line between it is whether you’re doing it because you want to or because you have to,” said Lowe, 33, who now lives in his Ford E-350 van most frequently in various Denver parking lots and wants to be a resource for Colorado van lifers.

Yet the two communities blur a little because both face swelling housing prices and laws across Boulder County discouraging people from permanently sheltering in their vehicles. The area has the fourth-lowest level of houses available in the country, according to a recent report.

In Boulder, it takes a few days before neighbors catch on that the van or truck across the street is actually its owner’s bedroom, according to Boulder Detective Sgt. Jim MacPherson.

He said police don’t publicize the law out of fear of abuse, but it’s legal for someone to spend one night in their vehicle. He said the law caters to visitors passing through Boulder, not struggling locals.

“We normally don’t write those tickets unless it’s a chronic problem with the same car,” MacPherson said. “Someone will sleep in their car for three or four days and then we get a phone call.”

Those calls for abandoned or suspicious vehicles come more often in the summer than in the winter, he said, but it’s typically at least once every week.

“It’s way more prevalent than anybody knows,” Mike Homner, an advocate for the homeless who would like to see a parking garage or lot designated for the homeless taking shelter in vehicles. “Everybody is hiding in the shadows because of the camping ban and it’s illegal to sleep in their car.”

In Longmont, the City Council could take action Tuesday night on a measure that would require RVs and camper trailers to be moved at least 600 feet within 48 hours after code enforcement or police officers mark the tires with chalk and post notices on those vehicles.

Assistant City Manager Shawn Lewis said Longmont has one of the most liberal policies in the state regarding living in RVs on public streets.

“We are one of the few cities that has no prohibitions on it, and we aren’t putting any additional restrictions on the practice that aren’t in place today,” he said in an email. “The only thing we are doing is clarifying how far one must move a vehicle after a certain amount of time — and we are actually extending the amount of time you can be on a street.”

It’s the most recent policy aimed at restricting people in Longmont from setting up camp in public places, and consideration by the council follows a slew of complaints about people dwelling in RVs, vehicles and camper trailers in various spots throughout the city, such as in the JCPenney parking lot. The neighborhood forum Next Door is also a platform for unsettled residents to share their grumbles.

One woman wrote to the council in support of the enforcement, saying, “I would support a location in Longmont where a person(s) can live in an RV for small fee if that is the only means a person(s) can afford. We can’t turn into places I’ve heard of in (California) where people live in their cars and trucks on the street.”

Opposing the enforcement, resident Michael Habinsky wrote that the ordinance would be action against people that aren’t as lucky as those in permanent housing. He said, “RVs are a sort of release valve for housing pressure in our community…RVs are there for a reason: our community’s failure to provide affordable housing.”

In Mountain View, Calif., pop-up RV parks have multiplied in the most recent sign of the Bay Area’s decline in affordable housing. The owners are forced to move every 72 hours to abide by city law, the San Francisco Chronicle reported in October 2016.

Steve Maes, who said he has been homeless in Longmont for two years, takes shelter during the nights in a two-door truck with three other people on Rothrock Place south of Kensington Park. Like others in the same situation in the area, he said living in a vehicle is not a choice he wants, but the only choice he has for right now.

“As long as we move the truck and everything back and forth about every three to four days and we don’t leave a mess in the park and everything, they don’t have a problem with us,” Maes said.

But that could change depending on the City Council’s decision, as the ordinance could stifle the appeal of vehicle and van life in Longmont.

Matt, who declined to give his last name because he doesn’t want his part-time employer to find out he lives in a conversion van, said he hasn’t been booted from anywhere in the past year.

“Nobody really cares,” he said, “as long as I’m not loud and obnoxious and leaving trash all over the place; you’ve just got to be really respectful to the environment and people around you.”

Formerly homeless without a vehicle, the 35-year-old said he would be comfortable living in his conversion van or something bigger for the rest of his life. He was parked one day in a shady spot next to Thompson Park in the middle of a residential neighborhood.

At one of his other parking spots by the railroad, he said, he’ll fill up a bag with trash “just to make it a little bit prettier.”

‘Home is wherever you stop’
Homeownership isn’t part of Aaron Haack’s version of the American dream.

“I don’t see the point of owning this big house you don’t spend a bunch of time in,” said Haack, who added he’d rather spend money on climbing, skydiving and traveling. “All of your work goes off towards this illusion that you need to pay off a mortgage and set up your nest egg. There’s other ways to do this.”

The 31-year-old recently relocated from a farm near I-25 to a wooded plot near the Vance Brand Municipal Airport in Longmont in his 340-square-foot tiny home — with a compost toilet shielded by a salvaged barnwood door, two lofted rooms and a full kitchen — which he finished building himself in November 2016.

The yearlong project of building up walls and stairs fine-tuned his carpentry skills enough to start his own van-building business, Run Away Van, at the suggestion of his cousin Roberto Gutierrez, an entrepreneur and Oru Kayak co-founder.

“Your home is wherever you stop and that’s what’s really, really cool about that whole idea,” Haack said. “We’re nomads; that’s how we evolved as nomads and people are listening to that inner call.”

A report by the AARP on 2017 travel trends shows that the millennial generation — usually defined as people born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s — are the generation least likely motivated by the need to relax, and rather more apt to use vacation as an opportunity for adventure or to go somewhere new. The generation also is the most likely to take weekend trips, the report shows.

There are also recent studies, such as those reported by Business Insider, that young adults are holding off on buying homes because of student debt, delayed family formation and high home prices.

Tapping the millennial market, Haack aspires to be the affordable, go-to van builder in Colorado. He can build platform beds, cabinets, counters and the like. He even envisions one day creating a hub with wifi, public restrooms and parking spots for van dwellers, who sometimes call their vehicles “rigs.”

He’s built out two vans so far. He said Gutierrez provided him with the first as a test run — a 2011 Ford Transit Connect XLT in San Francisco. He added a power station, oak drawers with laser-etched art, a water filter and a solar shower bag. It sold recently for $18,000, leaving Haack with a $6,000 profit. His second build-out of a van from San Diego was more modest, with a budget of $5,000.

Two more van owners are in line for a makeover, including Kathleen Morton, the Colorado-based American representative for Vanlife Diaries, and Tommy Caldwell, the world-renowned climber based in Estes Park.

“People want a van because, ‘Oh, it’s cute,’ but that’s your vessel,” Haack said. “That’s your vessel to transport you through this life to give you what you want out of life. Your life isn’t a van; life isn’t the tiny house. Your life is what these things can give you.”

For Alton Richardson, a 29-year-old professional adventure photographer, his white 1999 Chevy Express van named Bertha is a tool, akin to his specialized camera lenses and climbing gear. It’s complete with prayer flags, spice racks, three burners and a flip-down TV. He sleeps in the parking lot of his Gunbarrel office and uses the shower there if he’s not camping in the mountains.

But the van also keeps him from spending the $650 or more in rent for a room in a house in Boulder, where he found himself staying one week out of every month before his girlfriend at the time bought a van in 2013. He’s been living in one ever since, on his own full-time now for a year.

“I’ve wanted to live in a van since I was a little kid,” he said. “I grew up skateboarding and I remember being, like, 11 and seeing like these pro skateboarders roll into town and they were all in a van. And I was like, that’s the (expletive), that’s cool. And then I got into climbing and I was like, woah, people have been living in their vans for years.”

His atypical schedule lends itself to van life, and vice versa. Work on one Thursday in July started at 9 p.m. when he ventured to Chaos Canyon in Rocky Mountain National Park for a video shoot that lasted until 1 a.m. Friday. Four hours later, he and a friend skied a popular route on Longs Peak called Lamb’s Slide because he was already there.

“For me, it’s a comfort thing, totally,” Richardson said. “I would much rather have a nice house. I would like to have a record player and, like, have framed things on the walls because those are all materialistic things, but the things that I enjoy.

“But I spend so much time outside in the mountains that it doesn’t make sense, so I might as well try and formulate a way to make that more comfortable for myself and so I can just do it more.”

Not in it for the glamour
Less common on Instagram and social media are the posts showing breakdowns on remote roads, urinating in water bottles because the public restrooms were closed in town, waking up to strangers trying to break in from the outside or getting the dreaded knock on the door by police. But sometimes things don’t go as planned.

“It’s not glamorous,” Richardson said. “It’s not what people think it’s gonna be. It’s awesome and in general it’s one of the coolest things ever and I don’t see myself stopping anytime soon, but the lows are very low. Lots of long nights by yourself; you’re just left with your thoughts a lot.”

Claire and Josh Uhl and their dog, Nala, are new to van life as of June. For the last few years, they paid $1,200 every month for a 350-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment at Canyon Boulevard and 20th Street in Boulder, then $1,175 for a one-bedroom with laundry in Lafayette.

Using $33,000 of inheritance following the death of Claire Uhl’s mother, she said they paid cash for a Dodge Ram ProMaster van, invested another $10,000 in a five-month build-out and purged most of their belongings. Now, home is in parking lots or on public land outside of Boulder, and they have access to showers as members of Movement Climbing and Fitness.

“I’m definitely getting a little bit more used to it,” she said. “Everything is just so glamorized on Instagram, so coming to these realities like, ‘This really isn’t that great all the time,’ was difficult.”

Falling asleep in nature and waking up to a sunrise at their campsite on Switzerland Trail is short-lived, Uhl said, because responsibilities require them to descend the mountain. She said she has chosen to keep her full-time job as a production coordinator and customer service manager at GrafXGroup, whereas her husband is flexible as a photographer and filmmaker.

“I think that’s been the hardest part for me is trying to balance this high-pressure 9 to 5 with then leaving work and having all these possibilities,” she said. “We could go anywhere, we could do anything — trying to balance that dichotomy between structure and no structure.”

The jobs of van dwellers span all industries — outdoor programmers, graphic designers, telemarketers, brand ambassadors, sales account executives, mechanics, freelancers and youth counselors — such as those interviewed for the story.

But the popularity of remote work, affordability and connecting with nature are reasons Morton, for Vanlife Diaries and Tiny House, Tiny Footprint, believes that living simply and environmentally friendly is becoming more feasible and more accepted these days.

“When I started living small three years ago, I definitely didn’t do van life because it was a popular thing,” she said. “I didn’t do it because of Instagram photos out the backdoor … I started to think, ‘Is there a way that I can afford to live in the Denver area while also living minimalistically?”

The community of people living full-time in tiny houses, vans, vehicles and RVs is just getting bigger. She said the Colorado Van Gathering held in July this year brought 250 people, more than doubling the 90 people the year before. Another van life event on Thursday in Boulder drew about 100 people to tour 15 vans in Upslope’s parking lot at 1898 S. Flatiron Court.

Morton said she has noticed most van dwellers reside in Colorado and west thereof, with fewer on the East Coast, but she’s hearing more about the need to bring people together there. As more people get into it, she’s hoping it becomes more widely accepted.

“We don’t have fences around our vans like houses do,” she said. “We welcome people in to be a part of it no matter what kind of rig they’re in.”

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