At Home With Valerie and Ben

What if you dropped everything you were doing, put 90% of your belongings in storage, and traveled the country in a van for six months? Sounds a little wild, right? But also amazing. And it's exactly what my friends Valerie and Ben have been doing since June. I've been following their adventures on Instagram all summer, green with envy, that has taken them to mountains, forests, and coast to coast in their renovated homey express van. I'm so happy to have their perspectives on home, travel, seeing the country, and finding home where you are in our new At Home With series here on the blog. Read on to inspire your own last late summer adventures.

Who are you, what do you do, and why?

Hi! We’re Valerie and Ben. Valerie is finishing her Masters in Public Health and Ben runs a nonprofit called Global BrightLight that provides solar energy solutions to rural villages in Latin America. We both believe in making the world a better place.

We’re currently living in a van that we converted into a tiny home and named ‘Tommy Pickles’ in honor of the previous owners, a daycare named ‘Lil Rugratz’ in Winchester, Virginia and of course the best cartoon to ever grace the Nickelodeon network. Our cross-country road trip adventure is our childhood dream finally coming to fruition!

 

What made you decide to take to the road and how long will you be on the road for? 

One of my favorite movie quotes is: ““Life moves pretty fast, if you don’t look around once in a while, you might miss it” from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

After  living in DC for most of our 20s we realized that we didn’t want to live the rest of our lives with the constant pressure of being busy and productive with little time for friends and nature. It was a good point in both of our lives to pivot and recalibrate how and where we wanted to live. A road trip to explore other cities in the country seemed like a good idea and building a van into a tiny home was the most economical way to make it happen, so we jumped in head first. We’d also been learning a lot about minimalism and wanted to embrace that lifestyle fully. Initially we planned to be on the road for 4 month’s but we have already decided to make it a full 7 months through the rest of 2018.

How long did it take you to renovate the van? Did you have certain ideas about what you wanted to include in the van's renovation and look to make it more homey?

We bought the van in February and worked nights and weekends until June to finish the whole conversion. To make it feel homey, Valerie was set on having curtains on all the windows and Ben insisted on wood paneling on the roof. There were also practical features that we included to make living in the van easier including solar panels on the roof that power a vent fan, fridge, LED dimmable lights and a kitchenette with working faucet. We even have a bed that turns into a couch that faces either inside or outside the van, depending on how good the view is. The final additions that make it feel like our home are candles, a teddy bear and Valerie’s flower crown that hangs over the rear-view mirror (that she made at a Handmade Habitat x Distill Creative workshop!).

Ben: A lot of people might think that they don’t have the money or the skills to renovate a van. The total cost of the project was around $17,000, which included the cost of the van, taxes, registration, materials and tools (we didn’t have any!). If you factor in not having to pay rent in a major city for 6+ months, that $17,000 becomes a lot more reasonable. We also knew this was something we wanted to do so we made deliberate decisions about our spending so that we could save enough to pay for the entire project with cash. In terms of skills, there are so many resources available on the internet that we could always find the answers we needed. We combined that knowledge with some good old-fashioned common sense to get the job done. Time became the biggest constraint for us because we were both either working full time or in school full time. Again, we had to sacrifice nights at the bars and weekend trips to complete the project on time. In the end, it was more than worth it and we are both incredibly happy with the home we built together.

What have been your high points and low points living in the van?

Low points: A gray water overflow (look it up – gross!), being way too hot at night & missing friends in DC!

High points: Freedom, waking up in forests and mountains with incredible views, seeing different types of landscapes in America, having time to read, meeting new friends and fellow nomads, not having to pay DC rent.

 

Downsizing from an apartment to a van has got to be a crazy exercise in minimalism. How did you decide what to take with you and what to leave behind?

Well, it was actually much simpler than we thought because we had such limited space to work with in the van. We only had 7 crates for storage that fit under our bed. We filled them up with necessities for cooking, cleaning and toiletries and then only had 2 bins each for everything else we wanted to take, including all clothes and shoes. I was really worried about fitting everything I ‘needed’ into my two boxes (Valerie) but we’ve both learned that we really don’t need that much to survive! We’ve added a few things along the way but try to keep a rule of 1 new thing in, 2 things out!

 

What has been the biggest adjustment living full time in a van?

Living in a van and traveling as much as we do is definitely a more spontaneous way to live, but in order for it to go smoothly we’ve learned we have to plan ahead. For example, we may not know exactly where we’re going to sleep one day as we’re driving to a new place but we better have food, water and clean clothes to make it through the night! All household chores and tasks take more time. But, we enjoy the time we spend cooking and eating meals. Cleaning and laundry require more effort, but it has also been more relaxing than ever before and forces us to remember how simple life can be.

Does the van feel like home? How do you find comfort and a feeling of home when you're constantly in a new place?

Our van is the one constant no matter where we are, so it has become our haven and truly feels like home. Whenever we come back to the van it always feels like our special, secret clubhouse to relax and recharge. 

Valerie: As an introvert the constant change of this nomadic lifestyle was a difficult adjustment. Every few days we drive to a new place and embrace new people and new experiences. While this was hard for me at first, I’ve come to love diving into new spaces and seeing the country throughs different perspectives. Having a wonderful partner who is always there with me also helps to stay grounded and keeps the van feeling like home.

Ben: I’ve always been an extrovert so moving around and meeting new people every day is something that I love about our trip. Even so, having a cozy van to relax in helps both of us unwind, relax, and recharge after a long day on the road. I am constantly amazed by the fact that we can pull into a parking space and 5 minutes later be lounging in our beautiful home. It reminds me of sneaking away to the treehouse I used to have when I was a kid!

I would love to do a trip like this someday just to see the different parts of the country and what different places are like. So far on your trip, what places have surprised you the most?

We were both surprised when we loved South Dakota! It was the first state on our route where the topography felt different from the East Coast with rolling hills, wide open blue skies and breathtaking sunsets. The town of Mitchell, South Dakota is home to the world’s only Corn Palace, which we thought would be silly and had to stop by. It turns out, in the early 1900’s early settlers created the corn palace to showcase the crop growing potential and attract more people to their town. To this day, artists create giant murals using multicolored corn husks every year based on a different theme and the town celebrates their harvest with a music festival. Also, while driving West through South Dakota on I-90 there are a million signs for ‘Wall Drug,’ so many that we also had to stop to figure out what it was. Turns out, Wall Drug started out as a mom & pop pharmacy that offered ice water to thirsty travelers when their business was really struggling. They put up billboards to advertise their shop and free water and have since grown into a giant business center with a restaurant, museum and life size jack-a-lope. After you pass the Corn Palace and Wall Drug you get to the Badlands National Park and Mt. Rushmore, which were both amazing. Basically, South Dakota is totally worth a trip.

 

What places have stuck out to you you? 

We’ve loved the Badlands, Yellowstone and Grand Tetons National Parks. We did a 6-mile hike through the Badlands unique terrain of rock formations and saw a prairie dog village and a family of big horned mountain sheep. In Yellowstone we saw Old Faithfull, herds of buffalo and a ton of natural hot springs and geysers. And in Grand Tetons we did a 3-day backcountry backpacking trip (Valerie’s first ever) where we crossed over the Continental Divide and saw 3 moose. These days in wildlife and camping in National Forests along the way have been incredibly special times. The total cost for all of this nature time was $80 for a National Parks pass. We’ve been surprised by how much public land exists and enjoy meeting fellow campers that are also taking advantage of the natural beauty that I preserved for all Americans.

What's next for you guys? Where are you going? When do you think the trip will be over? Do you have an endpoint

So far we’ve spent time in 15 states (Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maryland, Virginia, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Iowa, South Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado and California), 3 National Parks (Badlands, Yellowstone, Grand Tetons) and countless National Forests. Next, we’re flying to Maine for our friends’ wedding, then flying back to San Francisco. From there we’ve drive up to Vancouver and Banff in Canada then spend October cruising down the West Coast states. Our plan is to be with Valerie’s family in Gilbert, Arizona for Thanksgiving then explore Northern Arizona and Southern Utah before Christmas. Our official end of the trip will be when we move to a new city in the West, which is still to be determined!

 

How can people follow your journey? 

Best way is to follow Valerie’s Instagram at @valerie.etxe! We’re hoping to post more photos and 360 videos in the future too so stay tuned!