When vanlife duo Natalie and Abigail Rodriguez crossed the border from Mexico into Arizona last month, they were re-entering a country that had changed vastly since the last time they left. The couple had spent three months in Mexico — driving, cooking, and living the vagabond life. They had plans to start hitting up the U.S.’s national parks as spring arrived. Instead, they found new shelter-in-place and quarantine orders being issued daily.
By mid-March, most of the country was locked down and the two travelers had to rethink their plans for the foreseeable future. Natalie and Abi — a chef and photographer, respectively — tried hitting up larger campgrounds but found them overcrowded and racing to close as the quarantine began in full. So they decided to take to the wilds and isolate on BLM land, with just their two dogs and their kitted-out van.
We were able to jump on a call with Natalie and Abi this week to see how they’re holding up through the pandemic. We asked them about what it’s like having to shelter-in-place when your “place” is a van, masked grocery runs, striking a new work-life-balance, and how the vanlife community is adapting. Let’s jump in!
What drew you two to give up the brick and mortar and take up the van life?
Natalie: I wouldn’t say there was a specific moment. There was kind of a buildup. Being a chef and working in the kitchens, I was kind of doing somebody else’s job. I wasn’t doing what I really wanted to do. And I just got tired of it. I met Abi, and Abi had already been traveling out of the country for quite some time. I had not really traveled until I was about 28.
So, I knew she would be on board and the idea of van life. It was practical for us to be able to do it for an extended period of time. And she said yes. I think a month after talking about it, we found the van and started going from there.
Abi: Yeah, we were — just like a lot of people — tired. It wasn’t a nine to five for us. It was more like… ten to ten every day?
Natalie: Every day.
Abi: We were just sick of that cold routine and wanted something different. Traveling was really important for us, so that’s what happened. We needed to break away from the system.
You need to be sort of on your toes while working on the road — be able to adapt — in the best of times. Now, you’re sheltering-in-place in your van due to the global catastrophe that’s happening. How did you find a place, and how have you adjusted?
Natalie: Well actually, it wasn’t as easy as we thought. Before everything started really closing down, we were in Mexico. We had just crossed the border a few weeks before they closed the border with Mexico. That’s kind of when we found out how intense everything was because, before that, there wasn’t a lot of talk.
We were in Arizona and our plan was to go to all the national parks, which were still open other than the visitor centers. Then, very quickly after that, those started shutting down too. Forest roads were shut down. We realized how serious it was. We needed to be somewhere where we could stay, where there wasn’t a lot of people, where the weather was okay. We’re not really set up for cold weather. Then we also needed cell service to keep in touch with our family and friends.
So yeah, it hasn’t been easy. We’re currently somewhere that ended up being a great spot, but we can only keep so much on board. So water is the main thing that is going to cause us to leave and go on the search again. It has been pretty interesting.
What’s a grocery run like?
Natalie: We have to drive quite a while to go to a grocery store. They’re at the point where they’re only letting in a certain number of people at a time. So, we just wait in line as everybody else does. We wash our hands frequently. We wear something over our mouths to protect other people. We try to be really respectful of any store we’re in, any community we’re in.
Abi: And their rules.
Natalie: Yeah, whatever protocol they have in place, we’re going to follow that. We just try to make sure we go to the store to get as many supplies as we can. We can go probably three to four weeks on what we can store in the van. It really just comes down to the water, and just trying to maintain it as long as we can. We also have two dogs, so they’re also drinking.
What’s your solution for water?
Natalie: Well, typically we do a lot of national parks and a lot of the campgrounds and parks have potable water for free. Now, that’s obviously a little bit more of an issue.
Abi: We use iOverlander. They have water fill-ups marked on a map. So we’ve been using an app to find water. It’s a lot trickier because a lot of the places listed are campgrounds. But the campgrounds are closed so we can’t use those. So we have to search for water, but we end up finding it and then we can last two weeks on what we can bring with us.
Natalie: Yeah. It’s not easy though, because we don’t want to buy a lot of water from the store. It gets pricey that way. So it’s kind of just patience and finding water that we can get to.
How has your work-life balance changed with this new situation?
Abi: So for me, as a photographer, I do have a few little side gigs where I can make us money while we’ve been traveling, but not enough really to cover all of our monthly bills. We saved ahead of time before embarking on our travels. As of now, we have enough saved for another maybe like six months or so on the road. I did lose some regular monthly gigs that I had, due to this pandemic, with everybody needing to put a halt on work that isn’t essential. A lot of photographers got cut out of some jobs, and that’s happened to us.
Natalie: Yeah, we’re still very fortunate that that’s the route we took. I know a lot of people are digital nomads, and they went into it knowing they could work on the road. But when we spent a year and a half building, we were also saving money. It was important for us to have that first year just be about travel. It really helps. And so now it’s just a matter of really paying attention to what we’re buying, making sure it’s essential, and utilizing it, letting it stretch as long as it can go.
Have you considered getting a test or an antibody test just so you have a bit of peace of mind in case you might’ve been asymptomatic, or is that a bit of an impossibility for you?
Abi: It’s not very easy to get that done here in the States. There’s no sort of central healthcare or social healthcare where you can just go in and get a test.
Abi: It’s really difficult. So it’s not really something out there for us to do. Like, we can’t just walk in somewhere and get a test.
Natalie: It’s also … we were in Sedona, and we tried to camp there. There were so many rigs parked and we just don’t feel comfortable — even if it’s what may be a safe distance. We really just make sure we go somewhere where it’s just us. The place we’re at now, we’ve seen maybe two people. So we really just tried to maintain our social distance, for the safety of us, but also so that we’re not bombarding people. Because we know that it’s not that easy for us to go in and get a test.
There’s always been a close-knit community built around vanlifers, campers, and RV-ers. Do you feel that the community is coming together a bit?
Natalie: I definitely feel like it’s coming together. The online forums and chat rooms are huge. Someone sent us an email about people putting together a list for people who may not have somewhere to hunker down because in certain states it’s harder. A lot of BLM land is getting shut down to only residents, which is something maybe you’ve heard. So the directory is really cool. It helps people find where they can go, where people are giving up their driveways, or some remote land. Places that if you can get to, you can spend time there. So I think that’s amazing. But, really for some people, it’s not easy. If you’re van-lifer and you got quarantined or stuck in a big city, you’re kind of at a loss.
I think people are really trying to keep positive and find ways to keep the community together. We do our VanLife Pride platform, which gives voice to the LGBTQ community. We were going to be a part of the Midlifevanlife gathering and that got canceled, so we’re trying to do it virtually now. Things like that are really happening all over. It’s really awesome to see.
As someone living on the road, you need to be pretty well planned which seems like it’s pretty hard to do right now. How hard is it to make plans for what’s next?
Abi: Yeah, it’s like you said, it’s hard to really make any sort of plan at the moment. When all this is over, we do plan on going back to our national park routine. We haven’t been to the parks in Utah. So we’re hoping to spend just some time there, hopefully, this summer if everything opens back up.
For now, we’re just trying to lay low, camping out in the middle of nowhere, in the hopes that the parks will open up. All of our families are pretty much on the East Coast, so it wasn’t really an option to drive all the way across the country to go stay with them. That’s kind of why we’re out in the middle of nowhere, doing isolation out of our van, in the forest.
Natalie: We’re going into our second year on the road. We’d planned for a year, but obviously, we knew this was something we wanted to maintain. Our goal this year was to spend more time in one place for a lot longer. I think a lot of people that get on the road get excited, and it can go pretty fast. We were in Mexico for over what?
Abi: Three months.
Natalie: We were in Mexico for three months, and the atmosphere was very relaxed. When we got back over the border, it was important for us to say, “Okay, if we’re going to go to a spot, we want to be there for a few weeks at a time.” So this is actually something we had already planned on doing, taking it slow. So I think having that mentality has really helped us be able to cope with being isolated, and just only leaving when we need to restock. It’s keeping us positive.
Abi: It’s a good challenge. It’s something we already wanted to do, and we’re just forced into it more quickly.
Do you feel like this crisis has changed your perspective on what you want to do in the future?
Natalie: I definitely think it goes back to just slowing down and really taking time to figure out what it is we want to do from here. As we said, we had saved money. So financially, it gives us time to really think about what do we want to do next as far as being able to maintain this lifestyle financially. As a chef, there’s no way that I could get a job with the food and bev scene the way it is right now.
Abi’s been a lot more creative on the projects that she’s been working with photography. We do our own videos and stuff like that. We’ve had more time to hone in on the art that we want to focus on while trying to find a way that that’s going to be financially sound for us once it’s possible to start doing that again. So, yeah, I think it’s changed our perspective in a positive way.
So got to ask, Natalie, do you do all the cooking, or do you both share the load?
Natalie: I do a lot of the cooking. Abi’s doing a lot more of the keeping up with our videos, our photography, and stuff like that. But I love cooking. This is what I wanted to do. I’m cooking on the fire a lot more because of being outside and to save on our fuel. It’s really opened me up to new ways of doing my art. Before when I was running a kitchen, I was doing somebody else’s food. So, yeah, I think it’s made me more creative, and I get really excited about that. It’s one of my favorite things to do.
Abi is an excellent cook, and she got me into cooking plant-based. So we’re plant-based now. Now, it’s about me finding new ways to make vegan food not taste crappy, which is something a lot of people think.
Abi: I’m pretty spoiled. She’s a great cook.