Chris Nelson on What Van Life Used to Be

Originally published on Korduroy.tv as part of the “Hitting the Road” series

By Natalie Jacobs

Now that there’s a van life hashtag, it feels like people are suddenly purchasing campers, gathering their partners, loading up their surfboards and hitting the road for indefinite stretches of time. But the internet has a funny way of making what’s old, new again.

It is interesting to note that Volkswagen introduced its first camper model, known as Type 2 (the Beetle was Type 1), in 1950. Winnebago, the RV company, started in 1958.

In the United States, we’re familiar with the hippie movement that brought scores of curious youngsters out to the streets of San Francisco and other more remote areas of the west coast in the 1960s. Europe experienced a similar movement, fueled by the same impulse to protest war and advocate for peace. When that didn’t work, the most disenfranchised decided to “drop out” all together. In the United States, people joined Ken Kesey and his Merry Band of Pranksters, traveling back and forth through the country in a bus full of psychedelics. In Europe, the people who hit the road headed to places like southern Morocco where British, French, Spanish, Australians and even a few Americans found themselves together, on an empty beach.

Surfers, perhaps because they feel the movement of the ocean somewhere deep in their souls, have always had the impulse to be in constant motion, maybe even especially if it means escaping a system that they can’t agree with or aren’t quite ready to resign themselves to.

“Surfers have always been great travelers,” says Chris Nelson, a former van-lifer who spent 2001 traveling the coast of Europe with his partner Demi Taylor. “[Surfers] have always pushed out and been at the boundaries of travel. I think there has always been a number of people on the road doing these kinds of trips.”

When they started talking about their trip, Chris and Demi had been dating for three months. He was working at a surf magazine and she at Quiksilver, both in Britain. They got serious about the trip about six months into their relationship, researching vans, discussing all the possible bad things that could happen on the road. They celebrated a year together by quitting their jobs and packing their lives into their new (to them) 1980 Winnebago.

“The idea was that we were going to write a book about our journey,” Chris explains. “So we set off in our van and we’d meet people along the way and they’d say ‘what are you doing?’ and we’d say ‘oh, we’re writing a book,’ and they’d say ‘ah really, yeah right’ and we’d go ‘no really, we are!’”

Having the book in mind allowed Chris and Demi to frame the trip within something that felt more important than just a year of surfing all day.

“We really wanted to do the trip but then we also wanted to do something with our time. The nice thing about Europe is it’s so different. You can drive from Northern France into Southern Spain and you’re driving from one culture to a completely different culture with different languages. And at the time we did it, it was different currencies as well. It was a really interesting time and we met some really interesting characters along the way. So we wanted to write about that and hopefully inspire other people to do the same.”

This idea of documenting an extensive trip, sharing experiences and stories with a broader public, is something that has certainly carried over into this current, new millennial iteration of van life. Except now it’s more immediate, with van lifers providing up-to-the-minute updates through blogs and Instagram feeds.

“I think it has become more popular because I think it has become easier,” Chris offers. “When we were doing it, it was obviously pre-iPhone. We had no internet. When we were in Morocco we’d try to tune into the news, and every once in a while we’d find an internet cafe. But we were basically off the radar and out of contact.”

This new ability to connect on the road isn’t necessarily bad. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with a portable, down-sized life that includes wireless devices. But some of that freedom, the kind that comes from being truly unplugged, might be lost forever.

“I think for some people, it allows them to be able to go on the road and still experience the travel and the new places. But then again it does bring with it those kinds of pressures which I think we managed to leave behind for a year and not have to worry about deadlines and things like that.”

Chris and Demi liked that way of life so much, that, even twelve years later, they still make the conscious choice to remain iPhone-free so they don’t have to be always on.

Even beyond devices, van life, then and now, teaches you that you don’t need much to survive.

“[On the road] you find you need a lot less than you actually think. Which I think has served us well, because now we live in a tiny little Cornish mining cottage that was built in the 1850s. You do learn that you don’t need a lot of things in life, that you can downsize. You don’t need a lot of clutter, really.”

He says the most important things for the trip were books, one surfboard that is made to ride anything, and music.

“I think you can get through with those basics.” And anything else you need, you can pick up on the way.

The hardest part is coming back. Eventually, most of the hippies of the late 60s and early 70s adjusted to a more sedentary life. Most people don’t stay on the road forever. Chris and Demi knew it would just be for a year, but even that didn’t help the adjustment period.

“It was a difficult transition because we were surfing three times a day – basically we would surf, eat, surf again, maybe read a bit and have some food, then surf – and I think when you get back and you don’t have that travel and new places, it is difficult. You don’t surf as much because you’re not on the road. Our focus was on finding good surf and finding interesting places. And then when you’re back in one place you do realize how much…you surf a lot less and you miss new places and new people. So that was difficult.”

And how could it not be?

But Chris and Demi made it work by focusing on their book (which they did, in fact, publish). They sold their Winnebago in favor of a smaller VW Van so they could still live the van life on smaller trips in between writing gigs. And they settled into a life together.

So van life isn’t new. But it’s still interesting.

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