Downshifting from Van Life

I’ve aimed to write this post for over eight months. (All photos in this post are from that time frame too!) It’s for anyone dreaming of traveling long-term, and also for those living that dream wondering, “Will we do this forever?”

***

As long-time readers know, Chelsea and I launched our van trip in fall 2013 for a four-month jaunt down the coast of California. “FOUR MONTHS IS SO LONG!” our friends opined. “Don’t forget Oliver,” said Chelsea’s parents as we dropped our fuzzy companion off for cat-sitting.

Little did we (and my unsuspecting in-laws) know we’d live the van life for three years, not four months.

Backpacking with Chelsea’s parents in the Jefferson Wilderness last July.

The Magic of Full-Time Travel

The excitement of travel pulled like a large planet’s gravity. We easily fell into an orbit that took us to 18 countries by van, bike, and plane. I freed up time and mental space by hiring more people for my business, extracting myself from day-to-day client work. It was a scary leap with a real chance of disintegrating into a broken heap. (At least we had the van!)

Things worked out.

Patrick rappelling off a route at Smith Rock.

So we traveled. It was relaxing, simple in many ways (open calendar, every day!), creatively inspiring, a sabbatical from many of the responsibilities of “adult” existence.

I dove into photography and writing and built this blog. My random musings somehow attracted a million visitors and allowed us to meet many adventurous people who eschew the (typical) American Dream.

Many readers are in our shoes, professionals tired of living someone else’s narrative of “success.” They’re flipping the bird at the 9-to-5 and proverbial picket fence and heading out to find open space where the wind sings through trees or roars over the desert landscape.

I met Rich and Esther at a trailhead in 2016. “Hey, I know your van!” Here’s Rich a year later zipping down Xanadu, a sweeeet trail with sweeter views near Leavenworth, WA.

We chewed up mountain bike trails, then 7,000 miles of roads while cycle touring the U.S. and Europe. New York and Santa Cruz each distracted us for a month, as did studying Spanish in Mexico, roadtripping Iceland, and volunteering at a farm sanctuary.

Our travels also strongly focused on people. We spent quality time with our families and developed friendships all over the globe. I regularly stay in touch with buddies from our travels and see them around the states.

Making a snowman with my nephew, Sam. He then crushed me at a snowball fight.

 On the Road…Forever?

At one point, Chelsea asked me, “I wonder if we’ll always be nomads?” At the time, the answer felt like a resounding yes.

And yet, like any frequent activity, the shiny luster faded from full-time travel. What started as a sort of sabbatical turned into a repetitive daily orbit of logistics. Traveling went from stimulating immersion in new places to shallow dips into too many places, voyeurism without involvement. Even a few multi-week stays and volunteering felt too short.

 

Paul dives into Waldo Lake on a chilly October day. Yes, that water is as cold as it looks.

We missed community and tired of constantly saying goodbye. We met adventurous and stoked people, but interactions were short-lived. Was it possible to create a traveling caravan of friends who rolled around together, we wondered…?

Instead, we dug deep in a short time period with people, talking life, traveling, unconventional choices. Then travel inertia – gotta keep moving! – or common courtesy to not overstay our welcome would grab hold. We’d exchange hugs, talk about plans to meet in the future, and point our wheels toward the distant horizon.

Enjoying the views off NW chair with my buddy Robert on Mt. Bachelor. That’s Sparks Lake and South Sister in the distance.

The Travel Pull

When I questioned why I wanted to keep traveling, I unearthed four primary reasons:

1) Daily access to the outdoors
2) Momentum (we’re moving and therefore must keep moving)
3) Positive reinforcement feeding my ego (people saying “wow, I’ve always wanted to do that!” or “you’re living the dream!”)
4) That we COULD travel full-time, so we should (right?).

Not if it no longer fed what we sought to do or how we wanted to grow.

Of those four aspects, only daily outdoor access made sense anymore. Chelsea felt this earlier than I did and was ready to land in one place.

There’s a metaphor here about hanging onto something…

I’ve seen this shift in dozens of travelers. Friends with big social media followings or a popular blog often hit a point where another new place didn’t ring their bell anymore. Posting online starts to feel forced, a job rather than a joy. Their social media profiles blinked out, blog posts shifted to every few weeks, then quarterly, then gone.

I was no exception.

A magic, strenuous day on Angel’s Staircase in the N. Cascades.

Figuring out where to park the van was the hard part. When we’d return to Portland for visits, I felt trapped by the big city. The combination of gray days and no quick access to nature dragged on me. I was depressed and irritable, frustrated with concrete and traffic.

During our travels, we eyed mountain towns in the west as potential places to pop out landing gear and stick around for awhile. Santa Cruz, Boulder, San Luis Obispo, Bozeman. There was always a reason a place didn’t feel right.

Enter Bend, Oregon, the seat of Lifestyle Awesomeness. We’d visited the surrounding area a fair amount, but never dug into the city. After traveling Iceland and Canada in 2016, we rolled the van into Bend to rent a friend’s place and see how things shook out.

Sunset at Old Mill on the Deschutes River in Bend.

How It Feels to Be In One Place

Over a year later, our new homebase is Bend! We sold our Portland home and bought a house in Bend in a quirky, connected neighborhood.

People don’t randomly wind up in Bend. Most work hard and create the opportunity to live here. We’ve discovered new friends are available and prioritize investing in friendship and family, time outside, health, travel and giving back to the community. We’re loving the strong community of active, positive, engaged friends and the easily accessible outdoor magic.

Cookbook club! Get a bunch of friends together and cook amazing food from one vegan cookbook per month. It’s that easy!

Thanks to prioritizing access to and preservation of public lands, Bend is an outdoor playground with miles of singletrack for mountain biking and running, skiing on Mt. Bachelor and world-class rock climbing at Smith Rock. If there’s a downside to the town, it’s minor growing pains as it goes from small to medium size. Sometimes there’s a 3 min wait at a roundabout! (NOOOO.)

What makes Bend resonate for us isn’t solely the outdoor wonderland. For a mountain town, there’s a lot going on. Music, coffee shops, kombucha makers and breweries galore (not that I drink beer!), unlimited festivals in the summer, all the running and biking events you’d ever want, and a growing business hub are just a sampler.

The open space we created for traveling shifted easily to other arenas. A natural organizer, Chelsea spearheaded things. She joined the board of a local vegan nonprofit, started a plant-powered running group and cookbook club, and filled our calendars with marches, fundraisers, and political events. In a year, we’re more involved in Bend than we ever were in Portland.

Plant-Powered Runners! This crew is awesome.

Rallying friends at our house for the Jan 2018 Women’s March in Bend.

On top of that, I’m finding myself more active in Bend. This is thanks to the strong outdoors scene and access to everything I love to do so close to our door.

I spent 2017 in a mix of physical activity (perhaps too much!), joining events with Chelsea, and investing energy into my business. This year, I’m aiming for less work and more creative time and travel, plus weekly Plant-Powered Runners outings, big dinner parties, and community events. I’m surprised how easily time traveling is filled with other satisfying pursuits.

How can you not get outside with this 30 minutes away?

So What’s the Plan, Yo?

This city is a stellar fit for us and we’ve decided Bend is our home for the foreseeable future. We’re rooting, but we will still step off into sweet adventures.

“Are you selling the van!?” people have asked. No. Freaking. Way. Too many climbing areas the van needs to visit! I also need it to scope out the trails around Crested Butte, c’mon! A trip to Wyoming and Idaho is already slated for May.

My shredder friend Jeremy launching off Trail #3 at Cline Butte with the Cascades in the background.

We’re kicking around an idea for another bike tour; the idea of long climbing trips to Greece, Spain, or Mexico makes me salivate. These travel boots aren’t even close to done walking!

This is a shift to a lifestyle we talked about for the past few years. We’ll dig deep into community and still water the seeds of travel when we feel the itch. By spending months in Bend mixed with trips near and far, we’ll polish both sides of the travel and home coin.

A snowy Crater Lake during a week-long mountain biking van trip to Southern Oregon.

Van Life as a Mindset

The social media tag #vanlife represents freedom from a staid, boring existence. There’s a reason Millennials are flocking to it. We’re repeating the paths of anti-establishment parents back in the 1960s. This time around, though, people can work remotely, freelancing from Yosemite, writing software code from Moab, or editing science papers in a ski resort parking lot.

Even if Chelsea and I aren’t traveling in a van full-time, #vanlife carries into the way we live. For me, it’s a mentality as much as a way of life, encompassing adventure, minimalism, and an open-minded, flexible approach to travel. It’s an examined, intentional approach.

About to examine the downhill on Fuji Mountain near Waldo Lake!

This is a new phase, and not the last. I expect continuing shifts filled with moments for play and exploring, time for growth and building, space to give back, and occasionally the chance to do it all. There’s no playbook for this version of the American Dream, just an evolving patchwork quilt called life. A stitch here and there adding new experiences, a rearranging of the patterns as needed.

It’s about the adventure of living a balanced, exciting life of play, community and contribution. Full-time travel no longer lit us up, so it was time for a shift. We all need to weave together pleasure, purpose, and pride. Done correctly, it creates a strong rope to hoist away toward a happy, satisfied life. That’s our aim in this next stage.

The ever-evolving book of our lives continues. The Bend chapter continues with rip-roaring satisfaction and fun. Instead of “going places to be moved,” as Pico Iyer describes travel, we’ve landed and sunk both feet in deep, toes gripping, arms wide.

It feels great.

We’re still having fun!

***

Have you traveled long-term and felt the pull to land somewhere? I’d love to hear how you handled the shift from full-time travel to a rooted existence.

28 replies
  1. Dave Adair
    Dave Adair says:

    Dakota! Another interesting, thoughtful post.

    My first thought was: I want that van! (Drats, they’re not selling!) I’ve just passed eight years on the road with no home base to go back to, though I have a van in Europe for the summers. When I first hit the road full-time I thought of it as an experiment, and now I think: the experiment continues. There’s definitely a cost that goes along with any choice, along with the benefits. We all need to go where we feel moved to, but it’s helpful, I think, to realize that no combination of travel/non-travel, living here-or-there, this-food/that-food will really lead us to some kind of ultimate happiness, because it’s not found outside ourselves in ever-changing conditions. Be happy, then travel and live and eat as you wish! I enjoy reading about your adventures and your mindful and intentional good works!

    Well done, mate, both of you.
    Dave Adair recently posted…“The light of eternity” (Four hikes in the Dolomites)My Profile

    Reply
    • Dakota
      Dakota says:

      THE VAN IS MINE! Hahaha. I think the life you’re living is awesome. Your point about only finding ultimate happiness inside ourselves rings very true to me. Maybe one of these days we’ll meet in person…we’ll definitely be back in Europe for a bike tour sooner or later. Til then, keep living your dream!

      Reply
  2. Loren
    Loren says:

    Loving this — nodding my head the entire time. So awesome to see you guys doing so well, I’m inspired to be more intentional about these choices!

    Reply
    • Dakota
      Dakota says:

      Awesome! Thanks Loren. Seems to me that you’re quite intentional about your choices, always pushing and examining what’s next and why. Looking forward to connecting in person somewhere in the world someday sooner than later! Maybe we can go for a run, and this time I’m not going to bike for 3 months beforehand… Cheers!

      Reply
  3. pamela
    pamela says:

    DOWNSHIFTING FROM VAN LIFE is everything. THANK YOU for writing that. I needed that. We are so similar and it felt necessary and comforting to read what you wrote!!! We have a 6 week trip coming up in April and THAT will be the time for reflection: house vs van or the balance that I’m craving. You’re awesome!

    Reply
    • Dakota
      Dakota says:

      Thanks Pamela! It took forever for me to sort out what the heck I wanted from travel for this next phase, and I think this post sums up my thought process. Glad it helped!

      Reply
  4. Bethany
    Bethany says:

    Love, love, love this post! It echos so much about where we’re at with traveling full time as well. And we, too, miss a certainly depth of community involvement. Seems we are just a few years behind you in the trajectory. So happy you love where you’ve landed. Cheers!

    Reply
    • Dakota
      Dakota says:

      It’s funny how social we can be on the road and yet it doesn’t quite fire all the cylinders for some reason. It’s good to swing the pendulum from static to free sometimes just to see what the heck it feels like. You two are doing that well! Here’s to finding that balance, whatever it is, that works great for you. Lots of cool places to land when you’re ready! Howdy to Martin for me.

      Reply
  5. Hilary
    Hilary says:

    Sounds like you are officially “Bend Fit”. 😉
    Looking forward to meeting you somewhere in this big world in 2019.
    BIG hugs to you and Chels. xo

    Reply
    • Dakota
      Dakota says:

      It’s allll relative with the #BendFit levels, but I can hold my own in about 7 sports so I suppose that counts for something? It would be so cool to see y’all overseas in 2019! Big hugs back at you and Don. Good luck with trip planning!

      Reply
  6. David, Your Buddy
    David, Your Buddy says:

    Your article inspired many thoughts, centered for me around the notion of contrast. Laying down roots hits the spot because you’ve been in constant motion. Let’s say you transitioned from stream to tree and I imagine that before your stream phase, you’d been treeing it up. Similarly, warming up by a fire or in a hot tub feels (to me) extraordinary after a day of snowboarding, but undeservedly indulgent if I spent the day inside watching Netflix. Eating tastes best when I’m hungry and sleeping feels great when I’m overtired. Along these lines, the way you concluded the post felt right: You’re not done moving and you’re not done being still. Like seasons, these drives naturally change. The most important lesson I take from this is that we can bounce around without “committing” to one style or another as what we are and what we do. It’s our nature to transition and we should relish switching gears when our guts tell us it’s time.

    Reply
  7. Johnny B.
    Johnny B. says:

    Great post, my friend! Looking forward to some two-wheeled, two-board, cookbook club, and maybe even some running if I can sort out my hip/IT band. And maybe mix in some simple hanging out… 🙂

    Reply
    • Dakota
      Dakota says:

      Running?! That’s just something we do when the mountain biking trails are muddy or snowed under. Ok, FINE, it’s not that bad. But I still want the bumper sticker that says “0.0: Running Sucks”…even if I did run 10 miles yesterday…

      Reply
  8. Sean jacklin
    Sean jacklin says:

    Hey Dakota,

    Great read – it really resonated with me. The underlying theme here for me is commitment; to a place, a group of people (community), a partner. Stoked to see how this story writes itself 🙂

    Sean

    Reply
    • Dakota
      Dakota says:

      I thought it would! You figured out about 13x faster than most people rocking van life that it isn’t satisfying to roll 300 miles every 1.5 days to a new destination. Smart man.

      Reply
  9. Kaylin Lydia
    Kaylin Lydia says:

    What a great update! It sounds like you guys found a great balance in this new lifestyle. A sense of community is what makes any place a home. I’ve also been more motivated to participate in local marches and other progressive events and I’ve made so many new and fun friends. It’s a good reminder to me that making friends as an adult and maintaining personal relationships is a very intentional act. Be well!

    Reply
    • Dakota
      Dakota says:

      Well said! Making friends after we’re out of school/our 20s has to be intentional because we all don’t have as much open space in our schedules. Since we do have the time, we love hosting gatherings and bringing people together for various events. Feels like a worthwhile way to spend some time and energy. Hope life is great for you and your family out east!

      Reply
  10. Guy
    Guy says:

    Thank you for the interesting reflections Dakota! I just got my first van yesterday and completed the first step in making two years of dreaming into a reality. I was particularly interested in your sharing because I envision my ‘van life’ to be a balanced lifestyle of travel, play work and longer periods spent within communities that could possibly become the seeds of a new long term home one day. I’m beginning my journey without a home base, so we’ll see how it all unfolds 🙂

    Reply
    • Dakota
      Dakota says:

      Welcome to van life! Way to make it happen. I think you’re kicking things off with the right mindset! Take it slow and don’t get caught up in go go go and maximizing the number of destinations. Cheers!

      Reply
  11. Jeremy Wilstein
    Jeremy Wilstein says:

    Dakota great post which resonated strongly with me. My fiance and I live in Park City, Ut and after 5 years of selling real estate and her doing nursing we hit the road in our Sprinter back in 2015. Traveled the U.S., Canada, and Mexico then headed over to New Zealand and bought another van over there. We rented our house and left on our adventure! Your post hit it on the head! We are back in Park City now asking ourselves the same question, “Where do we want to put down some new roots?” After working on life tasks we are hitting the road in search for a new home base with Bozeman, Durango, Crested Butte, Bend, Driggs, etc on the list. Life is all about balance and even if you are doing amazing things on a daily basis, the deeper, long lived connections are vital to our species.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
    • Dakota
      Dakota says:

      Hey Jeremy! Sounds like you two had a great adventure that will continue. Watch out for the Bend vortex is my only advice…it can be hard to extricate yourself from this place. Or any of those towns on your list, for that matter. Good luck with your search and drop a line when you’re in Bend if you want to catch a ride!

      Reply
  12. Loretta Sayers
    Loretta Sayers says:

    I accidentally moved to Bend in 1978. It was so very different back then.

    I lived there for 32 years and couldn’t wait to leave. I now live in Sunny Santa Barbara and LOVE the outdoor life here. The winters in Bend changed over the years to become a hassle and hazard. I still follow the Bulletin online and every single winter it’s filled with auto accidents.

    I raised my two sons in Bend and it’s a great place for families.

    Enjoy!

    Reply
    • Dakota
      Dakota says:

      Thanks for stopping by, Loretta. Glad you’re digging SB. I went to school in SLO, just north of you. Gotta love the Central Coast!

      We frequently hear that Bend has changed dramatically! I guess it’s all perspective. Growing up in a small town, then living in Portland, this feels like a perfect middle ground for what we are seeking. The access to nature and awesome people here greatly outweighs the other potential headaches for us, at least for now! Cheers.

      Reply
  13. Janine
    Janine says:

    Excellent write up on how you feel. As I approach the world of medicare [omgosh, how COULD I be that old already???], I am thinking of getting a van. Researching everything. Which is how I came to your blog. Yeah, that’s the wisdom of older folks there, Dakota. You got it baby. Figuring out what makes the world right side up to each of us. Community is important to many, not so much to others who have had it up to their eyeballs. My plan is to travel during the nice weather months, and hibernate into the community in the winter. Figuring out which van to get is the biggest obstacle, then how to DIY on the build out. Very good article. I look forward to reading the rest.

    Reply
  14. Maxime Grenier
    Maxime Grenier says:

    Very interesting post Dakota! Sounds like we have got much in common! We hit the road next week to volounteer 2 weeks at Burning Man, then ridding the OTT and finally heading to Descent on Bend before going back to Quebec! It would be nice to meet you and Chelsea around Bend, or around Quebec City if you plan on driving up here one day.

    Reply
    • Dakota
      Dakota says:

      Sounds like an excellent adventure! Drop me an email when you’re heading to Bend and we can get out for a ride (or not, ha) or at least some food. I may be traveling then, but if it works out, great. Best of luck on the OTT!

      Reply
  15. Pat
    Pat says:

    Dakota,
    Long time listener, first time caller. I love your blog and it is definitely an inspiration for myself and my small family. I don’t know if it has ever been on your radar (at least I know it was never on mine until recently) but adventuring in Japan is pretty awesome. I just moved here a few months ago, and my wife (a former Portlander) said it is like Portland, but better. There are a lot of trails, waterfalls, and pure untouched nature where we live (Island of Kyushu).

    Reply
    • Dakota
      Dakota says:

      Thanks for dialing the hot line, Pat! Appreciate the nice comment. Sounds like you all are choosing a fine adventure in Japan! I’m hoping to bike tour through Japan, S. Korea and/or Taiwan sometime in the future and your description of Japan makes me want to make it happen sooner than later. Thanks!

      Reply

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