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Freedom On Four Wheels: Van Life On The Rise

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.

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