Meet The Couple Whose ‘Van Life’ Led Them To Build An Awesome Mini-Home

Some people take a different approach to this whole “living” thing. Or, maybe it’s more accurate to say that some people try the expected approach only to realize it doesn’t quite jibe. They’re a square peg trying to fit in with a world of round holes, because people have collectively been telling them, “that’s what you’re supposed to do.”

In most cases, the square peg learns to do its best round peg impression and life goes on. In most cases, the nine to five is lived out and all’s well. Nothing against “most cases” — but that wasn’t going to work for Bryan, Jen, and their dog Karma (“the wonderdog”).

Bryan and Jen were going about their lives. Wearing the suit and commuting five days a week to the glowing fluorescent lights of an office building. They were in their late 30s and it finally clicked that something wasn’t “right.” The incessant nudging of the subconscious won out and they offloaded their possessions, rented out their house, packed up the van, and hit the road.

That was three years ago, and now the “Dangerz” (as they’re called online) have returned to Portland, Oregon, with a fresh outlook, some awesome stories, and a new occupation as small-home consultants. We spoke to them about their travels and how those adventures have shaped their worldview.

On what they’re “prepping” for right now:

“Prep” right now isn’t exactly trip prep, it’s more creating a home base in Portland and setting ourselves up for continued freedom, keeping the lifestyle we’ve become accustomed to and not having to return to jobs. Somewhere along the road it dawned on us that we could use the rest of our savings to stay gone on the road for another year and then have to go back to work — or we could take that same savings and try to make sure we never had to go back. We liked the sound of option 2.

On craving freedom:

Before the trip we both had “corporate” jobs. We worked 60 hours a week under fluorescent lights. The whole deal. Great jobs. Great pay. But it didn’t feel “right.”

We used to talk a LOT about how we wished we could just be normal, fit in, and just go along with it like everyone else. Just be happy with “normal.”

The cravings for travel, freedom, exploration – were just too strong.

On returning from the road without getting drawn back into “conventional living”: 

We’re still working on that. Sadly, there seems to be a ton of people, books, videos, etc., telling you how to save money for a long road trip. Not so many sources out there telling you how to come back, or how to stay gone. We kind of have to make that up as we go along.

On settling down:

We decided somewhere along the way that, at least while in the states, we wanted to be in Portland. To be around our friends, family, etc. Before we left [to Central America] everyone told us that the only way to afford a long overland trip was to sell your house and use the money to travel. We feel lucky that we didn’t do that, and have been trying to leverage that asset to create freedom rather than just a constraint or mortgage payment.

On leveraging your assets: 

We rented out our house while we traveled. That worked well for covering the mortgage (mostly), but basically we broke even. Then, once back in Portland, we found ourselves paying rent for a small apartment even though we had a house in the same neighborhood. Our tenants lease was up and we almost moved back in, but had purged all of our belongings — we became used to living in a very small space (the bus), and hated the idea of expanding to fill three bedrooms, much less having to pay the mortgage for them.

It finally dawned on us that there was a garage that sat unused by us or the tenants, and maybe we could keep having someone else pay the mortgage if we converted our garage to a home, or at least a home base while in town. Certainly not a fit for everyone, but we designed and built everything in it by hand, and all 480 square feet of our previous garage is now our perfect home.

On their new garage and the birth of their company, Zenbox design:

Initially, we just thought we were making a space that could easily be shut tightly, or even allow us to pull the bus inside for dry storage when we traveled. But instead people kept coming up to ask questions, curious about what we were doing and asking for help. Jen eventually pointed out one night at 3 a.m. that I was up working on other peoples ADUs (accessory dwelling units, as they are legally called here in PDX) for free. That obviously led to a conversation about how if I loved it enough to do it for free, maybe we should try putting a name to it and asking for money. We still have no interest in turning it into a full-time job, but if we keep enjoying the process of meeting new people and neighbors, talking about the life changes they are trying to make and helping them design spaces to fit their needs, then we will keep taking on a few clients at a time.

On “the dream”:

Our dream is ever evolving… and for us we’ve never really done a good job of labelling it or knowing exactly what that goal is. (It’s) more just trying to wake up every day and make decisions for happiness and freedom. We make sure we are where we want to be and doing what we want to be doing – or at least free enough to make a change quickly if we wake up one day and aren’t.

On walking away from the road:

The beauty is you don’t have to. If that’s what you choose.

On the notion of a “homebase”:

For at least one of us, having a home base to jump off from started looking more attractive. Now that we have that, we find ourselves eager to run away again. Seems finding the perfect balance between the two is our current goal. After a while on the road it seemed like the “newness” of everything was wearing off a bit, even on the impeccably gorgeous beaches of Central America. Now I can honestly say it’s happening here too, which means it’s time to book another trip. As long as you’re just as excited to go home as you are to leave for the trip – it’s a pretty good place to be.