Words and Photos: Live. Work. Wander
Here at eGarage we are all about stories in motion, so when we ran across Jessica and Jorge from Live. Work. Wander, we had to bring you a slice of their adventures. They enjoy a very different life from most of us as they live and work from the road in their tricked out Volkswagen Vanagon. If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to turn your back on the 9-5 routine and live life on your own terms, read on as we catch up with two people who have done exactly that.
Please describe your van to us and tell us why you decided to get it?
We have a 1991 Volkswagen Vanagon named Falkor (the Luck Wagon). He was a regular ‘ol Vanagon GL tin top 7 passenger van when we picked him up in San Antonio in August 2013. We’ve always talked about getting an RV and living on the road…but always spoke of it in terms of later on in life always after accomplishing a list of milestones like paying off student loans or saving up a certain amount of money first. After spending an extended amount of time traveling the last several years we started entertaining the idea of going ahead and pursuing a mobile lifestyle. Sometime in the summer of 2013 after coming home to Austin after another long road trip we really started thinking of it as a possibility. We started reading other people’s stories and one article in particular about a college student who paid his way through his masters by living in a van on campus really made us realize that we didn’t have to wait until everything was perfect to hit the road. Investing money in a van was no different (and on many levels better than) paying a year’s worth of rent.
So, we decided in August 2013 that when our lease was up at the end of the year we would hit the road full time and try it out for a year. After that (or maybe sooner!) we could always retreat back and rent a place if van life wasn’t for us. So, over the next several months we bought Falkor and started outfitting him for the road. We also started selling a bunch of our stuff including our two cars, and then put everything we wanted to keep in storage. During that time, we got an offer to do some work in NY. It was our first test. After that month long trip to NYC in the fall of 2013, we started thinking that our plans to live and work out of a tiny little VW van were a little too ambitious and started entertaining the idea of getting an RV. So, right before we hit the road full time in December 2013 we switched gears and got a 1974 Airstream Argosy motorhome, left Falkor in storage in Austin, and hit the road. We had a nightmare of a time with the RV and by the time we made it back through Texas several months later we decided to give Falkor another go. We spent the summer in Falkor traveling around the Rockies and fell in love all over again. We knew the van was the way to go and went all in. We put the RV up for sale and invested everything we could into upgrades for the van. We spent the rest of the year in Falkor and have no intention of stopping our full time travel anytime soon. Year two is well underway and we’re so excited to see what this year brings.
Are you guys car enthusiasts at all? Why the VW Vanagon specifically?
In the 13.5 years that we’ve been married, we’ve owned 21 vehicles. Let’s just say we’ve lost a little bit more than a lot of money from our fascination with cars. For six years we ran an auto detailing business that had us in dealerships 24/7 seeing every new (and used) car to come through the building. After getting past the mistakes of our youth, we have finally slowed down and found the right combination of quirky and romantic in the VW Vanagon. That’s not to say this will be our last car. We still joke about how one of our lifelong goals is to have a garage full of unusual and vintage vehicles. Time will tell…
As much as we love cars, please don’t ask us to repair one. Gear heads we are not.
The VW Bus and Vanagon has always held a special place in our hearts. Jess always wanted a “happy bus” as she called the old buses, and Jorge used to ride to school in family friend’s Vanagon in the 80s. After a good deal of research, we decided a late model Vanagon would be the best way to go for a full time mobile lifestyle given that we were looking for a good combination of “reliability”, efficiency (space wise), and quirkiness. We fell in love pretty immediately.
Walk us through some of the upgrades that you’ve done to the van to make it fit your needs?
Our first change was the interior. We added a full Westy interior so we would have a bed and plenty of storage space. We added a full size roof rack and a roof box for extra storage. From there we replaced suspension components as needed, got 16″ rims and new all weather tires. About a year after getting Falkor, and after 9 months on the road, we decided to go all in and get a hi-top roof and rebuilt Subaru 2.5 L engine installed. Those major upgrades were accompanied by a handful of smaller ones like new heavy duty bumpers, off road tires, a suspension lift, new full size spare tire, truck fridge, peloquin differential, and deep cycle auxiliary battery. By the time our first year on the road ended, we also ended up rebuilding the entire suspension and transmission.
We live in the van full time so outfitting the interior to be more roomy and functional in both the city and offroad was paramount. The hi top helped in all of these areas. The other upgrades we made to the suspension and transmission have made pretty much any of the off roading we want to do possible. We try to stay on forest roads as much as possible when we’re out and about traveling.
Tell us what it is like to live and work from the road – what makes it different from the 9-5 life?
Having the freedom to live and work from the road is extremely liberating. We always had trouble defining and finding “home”. We moved a lot and have owned a few houses over the years. After trying the whole picket fence thing we realized that having a house and all the furniture we wanted, the nice home office and the 2 subarus in the garage wasn’t fulfilling to us. We’ve been self employed most of our adult lives so we never really did the whole 9-5 thing, but we did have our home office and we were pretty much in it day and night. We’re both kind of workaholics so we really enjoyed going on extended road trips to get out of the house and experience new places and people. After a while of living in Austin and working remotely with clients around the country…and then going on extended road trips and taking our work with us we realized that maybe taking this show on the road was within reach and that we didn’t need to wait for “someday when we’re older” like we had been telling ourselves.
Day to day life on the road is a bit more like camping than living in a house. We don’t have a bathroom or running water. We’ve mastered the art of using a water bottle to brush teeth and wash our face and peeing in a cup or bottle is super handy when you’re in a city, there are no public restrooms, and popping a squat can get you arrested! But really, most of the time there is a restroom to use and if you’re diligent, a shower is relatively easy to come by as well. Getting used to living in a small space where your living room is also your bedroom and kitchen is tough at first, but you fall into a routine fairly easily. One thing that’s really been striking is how easily we adapt to different environments/climates. The human body is a wondrous thing and you really get to witness that first hand when you expose yourself a little more to the world around you.
Working from the road hasn’t been a huge change for us or our clients because most of our them are remote (and always have been). We are both freelance creatives, making a living from design, illustration, and film projects. Jorge is an interactive designer meaning he focuses primarily in the digital realm designing websites and apps. Jessica is an illustrator and designer who focuses more on print, posters and branding, but she also does some web work. Our clients range from individuals who need a logo and business cards to Arts Centers who need the visual assets created for their exhibitions to large advertising agencies and corporations who hire us for a specific period of time to come in and help on a large scale project.
Major adjustments for us were planning ahead for having reliable internet and phone service. There are a surprising number of places in this country with absolutely no phone service so it’s important to know when you’re going to need it for an extended period of time. Working in the van is great, but you only have a limited amount of power to draw from the van when it’s not in motion and recharging the auxiliary battery. So, if we know we have a big project coming up we’ll make sure to be somewhere there is a co-working space or at the very least a coffee shop with great internet. Another challenge is conducting conference calls. When we’re at a co-working space this isn’t an issue as there are designated rooms for this, but if we’re stuck working at a coffee shop, the van is usually the best place to conduct the phone calls. Nice and quiet.
A question we often get is about internet. We do have a Verizon Mifi hotspot that we keep with us in the car. The speed is great, but the 30 gigs of data we have per month runs out really quick when we’re working because we deal with extremely large files and back them up online. So we try to use our data plan for the regular stuff like surfing the internet and answering emails. We try to do the rest (backing up files, sending files to clients, streaming music and video) while we’re on someone else’s internet. We have plenty of music and movies we keep with us for those times when internet isn’t available.
We’ve also developed a system for billing and getting paid that works for us on the road. We welcome people to get in touch if they have any more specific questions about living and working on the road.
What are some of your favorite things about your van? Places you’ve been?
We absolutely LOVE being on the open road…and the way Falkor drives like a mix between a school bus and a boat is just our speed. From the way the dash is styled, to the silly steering wheel, to the goofy profile, we are WAY too into our van. He brings a smile to our faces every day.
So far, we’ve been to 42 states. We’re hoping to round out the rest this year. Our favorite places so far are probably all along the continental divide. We love being in the mountains in Colorado, driving the Bear Tooth Highway along the Wyoming/Montana border, Rocky Mountain National Park and Glacier National Park. Jackson Hole and Grand Teton National Park are right on up there too. Some other favorites include The Big Bend in west TX, Taos NM, Sequoia National Park in CA and most anywhere along the Pacific Coast Hwy in CA. We’re hoping to head up to the Pacific Northwest for the summer this year, and Alaska after that so we may have a few more contenders to add the list once we do that.
Describe some of opportunities that owning your van has afforded you (perhaps that you would have never experienced otherwise)?
Oh man, these are endless and grow everyday. We have seen so many new places and met so many new people this year that have enriched our lives. We aren’t particularly social creatures so the community we have gained access to through traveling has been life changing for us. In the year we spent in Austin we could name the new people we met and really got to know on one hand. That number has multiplied many times over in the year we’ve been in the van. The VW Vanagon is one of the best ice breakers there is. Perfect strangers from all walks of life are infinitely more likely to strike up a conversation with you when there’s a van around. They make people happy to see, and we really love that in driving ours around we can bring a little joy to someone’s day.
One story in particular sticks out when we talk about experiences we wouldn’t have had if we didn’t have Falkor and live the life we do. Thanksgiving weekend 2013, a few weeks before we hit the road full time, we went on a road trip from Austin TX to The Big Bend in West Texas. While there in a little ghost town near the Mexican Border called Terlingua, we were at a beloved local dive bar called La Kiva. We saw a band play there that night led by musician Jim Keavney. We really enjoyed the show and bought a couple CDs of his we saw the next morning at a local gas station before hitting the road back to Austin. A few weeks later, we hit the road for good, taking Jim’s CDs with us. Those CDs got us through some tough times in NY city those first three months, and provided the soundtrack for many back road in the eastern US where our year long maiden voyage began.
Fast forward to early November 2014. We had a few friends join us on the road for a couple weeks to get a little taste of the van life. We made our way west from Nashville TN and eventually ended up back in West Texas. We pull up to a (the only) store in town, and who is sitting on the porch and drinking a beer in? Holy hell it was Jim Keavney! Jorge approached him and asked if he was Jim, and Jim exclaimed “Holy shit! I’ve got a fan!”. We all got to talking and Jim ended up inviting us over to his ranch the next night for a small private show kicking off his new album. This would be the first show the band had played since we saw them at La Kiva the year before. It seems there was an unfortunate incident that night after the show involving heated tempers and a few too many beers.
Well, we went to show at his ranch the next night. The directions included turning at a row of mailboxes, going a few miles until we saw the words “snake road” painted on a rock and making a left two dirt roads down. Turns out the directions were spot on and we pulled up to a one room house out in the middle of west Texas desert under a blanket of a million stars. The stage was Jim’s front porch and it was surrounded by locals drinking tequila and smoking the finest of herbs. There were couches and chairs set out creating an amphitheater of sorts and a beautiful fire pit crafted by a local metalworker keeping us warm in the late Autumn chill. Inside the house you could see Jim’s rifles hanging on the wall and out back was the old school bus he and his wife purchased to live in on the property while they built their home by hand over the last 5 years. It was a magical night we will remember for the rest of our lives, and one we wouldn’t have experienced without hitting the road and exploring the roads less traveled.
One thing we have really learned in our travels this year is that all those evil people that we fear are lurking around every corner mostly just exist in our bad dreams (and on the nightly news). Are there bad people? Absolutely. But they aren’t nearly as prevalent as we are led to believe. Plenty of people are assholes, but very few of them are out to cause you actual harm. Learning that first hand has done wonders for our outlook on life and view towards people in general. There are so many interesting stories out there, just waiting to be heard when you’re willing to listen.
There is a large community built around each generation of the VW van, what is the Vanagon community like?
The Vanagon community that we witnessed on social media is a huge reason why 1. we opted to hit the road full time in the first place and 2. we went with the Vanagon over another sort of adventuremobile.
The Vanagon community seems to be filled with young to middle aged adventurers who are committed to living a life of choice…people who choose to actively pursue what brings them joy as a way of life. And that’s really cool. People in this community are super open and hospitable. There are only a handful of us who full time it, and the ones that don’t are so welcoming at their homes. We’ve met some folks this year in the Vanagon community we hope to stay in touch with the rest of our lives. We’d also like to give a shout out to all those people who don’t even own Vanagons and have offered up a place to park and shower as we pass through. They are kindred spirits who we may not be connected to through the van, but are adventurous souls nonetheless.
Where are you now and what are your upcoming travel plans?
We are currently in San Francisco. We came here for work in early December and are hoping to finish up here by the end of February. After that, we’re not really sure. We’d like to head south for a spell until things warm up and dry out a bit in the Pacific Northwest. If the travel gods smile down upon us and we can find some other caravaners, we may take a little trip south of the border for a bit before heading north for the summer.