Bob Cooney is an interesting cat. For a long time, he lived the life that we’re all told to strive for. He had the 9-5. He had the house. But at some point, he realized he had a lot more living to do — so, shortly after his 51st birthday, he packed up his VW camper and hit the road.
Bob’s been traveling for a few months now and has already found a new sense of passion — which has been well documented on his blog, OnlyTheRoadKnows.com. We spoke to him about his life change and the new knowledge he’s gleaned from travel.
Bob, how long have you been on the road?
I left in June of 2015, on what started as a simple road trip, but turned out to be the first leg in what will be a multi-year, multi-continent journey.
Are you working while you travel?
When I took off this summer, I had just quit my job and really had no plan of what to do next. I knew looking for a job as an executive was going to take months, and that my most likely source of success was going to be networking. So, rather than just sit around and wait for something to happen, feeling sorry for myself, I decided to set off and hope to find something. I didn’t really know what I was looking for, but I felt a strong sense that I would find something if I just detached myself from all the expectations that I had built up throughout my life. Those attachments included my career, my family, my possessions, even my identity to a certain extent.
I finally decided that going to an office every day just didn’t fit the life I wanted to live anymore. Fortunately, I’ve developed enough of an expertise and skill set to build a small consulting business, which is currently giving me the freedom to work from pretty much anywhere. I help young, emerging technology companies figure out how to bring their products to market effectively. But even that is intended to be short-term. By 2017, I intend to be fully engulfed in Van Life, writing, and producing a reality TV show based upon those adventures.
What sparked the van life for you? Is it something you set your sights on for a while or something you just decided one day?
Honestly, I feel like I woke up one morning and snapped. It was like the Michael Douglas character in the movie Falling Down. Only I didn’t beat anyone with a baseball bat.
It was March of 2015, and I was about to turn 51. I was driving down the I-5 freeway from San Clemente to my office in Carlsbad. And I was thinking about my birthday. That night, I was going to camp at San Clemente State Beach for five days and a bunch of friends were going to drop in and party with me — surf, drink whiskey, and smoke cigars. Then I started thinking back to my last birthday, when I turned 50. A lot of guys freak at 50, but I was stoked. I was fit, relatively happy (I thought), and starting what I thought was my dream job. But as I drove, thinking back to the last year, I started wondering what I had accomplished. The year went by so damn fast. It felt like three weeks. Extrapolating that into the future, I’d be dead in what would seem like a few years. And that really freaked me out.
Ultimately, that led me to quit my job. Shortly thereafter, I went surfing down at South Ponto Beach with some of my ex-employees. Post-surf, I decided to stop at a coffee shop. I got a coffee and sat down with my laptop and started looking at flights to South America. I’d been thinking of going down to Montañita and figured I could go down there and live cheap for a month or two and get my head straight.
But then I started thinking about a road trip in my VW Bus and that led to a whole lot of fear. It’s a rustbucket, but it had proved relatively reliable. I had always had plans to fix it up. You know, like we all have plans to do shit we never actually do. And I think that became a proxy for my life. I have all these plans, and what if none of them every happen?
So, I just said fuck it. I am going to take the van and drive up the coast and whatever happens, happens. So, it was kind of my proving to myself that if you just go, stop putting it off, stop making excuses and just go, everything works out. And it did. I think that’s the message for life. So many people I hear from say “I want to do that someday.” And what if someday never comes? Because it doesn’t. It might sound cliché, but really all we have is today.
What kind of planning do you do? Are most things spur of the moment?
Overall, I found that making plans sets up these rigid expectations. I had to be realistic driving an old bus. To paraphrase, Yoda, planning leads to expectation, expectation leads to pressure, and pressure leads to driving too hard and fast then breaking down on the side of the road. So, I went out without any real plans, just a general sense to stay on the coast, surf, meet people, and eventually get to Canada.
Along the way, being open to whatever led to some great experiences. I was kind of like Jim Carrey in the movie Yes Man — I just wanted to say yes to life, and see what happened.
At first, I was overly concerned with where I would park to sleep each night, and spent way too much time planning for that. In Southern California, there is a growing conflict between people living in their cars and vans, and the police trying to enforce the ‘no overnight parking’ laws. In Los Angeles, the average renter is paying 40% of their income on rent. And that percentage is increasing. So, I was a little fearful of being able to find a place each night. But that wore off after a week or so.
Other than that, I have a general direction of where I want to go, but I stay totally open to whatever comes up. Like this past summer, my target was Bellingham, Washington, where a friend of mine lives. And on the way I wanted to stop in Portland to see another friend. And I wanted to stay along to coast to look for surf. But once I got to Washington, I decided I was going on to Tofino, on Vancouver Island. And once I got to Vancouver, I was recruited into this eco co-op, which really was kind of a hippie commune from the ’70s called Poole’s Land. And that was a cool experience.
Where are you going next?
When I was in Tofino, I decided I really wanted to go to Alaska. But it was getting into fall, and the weather was turning. I didn’t have the gear to handle Alaska. So, I decided that I would regroup and take it on another time.
There’s this Alaska Marine Highway System, which is a network for ferries that takes cars and people from Washington to Juneau, and then to Anchorage and even to Dutch Harbor in the Aleutians. People camp out in tents on the deck of the ships. It’s a rad scene and the perfect way to explore Alaska. It’s going to require a little more planning, and I am hoping to find some sponsors so I can make a short film about the adventure. I would like to spend several months up there this year, surfing, fishing, and exploring the different cultures. It’s a really rugged environment, and there’s not much of a support network up there. So, taking an old VW Bus across Alaska is a little scary.
Which is why I want to do it.
Is there a family somewhere? Is that a downside of van life? Not being able to be with them or not being able to have one?
The family piece has been tough in some ways. My wife has shown immense patience with me. We are both in our early 50s, and the transition from externally focused measures of success to more internal ones is a hallmark of the mid-life transition. We are both exploring ourselves more deeply and I think she understands this is something I need to do. Where it leads us is still to be seen. That’s why the name of my blog is “Only the Road Knows.”
I think my kids just think I am cool. They’re all in college, still living at home for now, but my oldest two are getting ready to fly the coop.
On my first leg, I was literally taking each day as it came. Every morning when I awoke at Poole’s Land in Tofino, my friends would ask me if I was going home. And I would look at them and say “not today.” And they would smile. But one day I woke up and the answer was, “yeah, I think it’s time.” I’d gone on the trip to figure something out. And I felt like I’d accomplished that. Plus, I had unfinished business at home.
What I learned was that I had everything I needed to be happy in my 15-foot VW Bus. Which meant I had a whole 2,400 square-foot house full of stuff in San Clemente that didn’t mean anything to me. So, I headed back to start the process of getting rid of everything that was tying me to that old life.
On that note, what draws you to van life?
I didn’t know this when I started, but leaving behind all my attachments was liberating. The feeling of freedom that comes with living light is palpable. When I got back to my house after my first trip, I literally had an anxiety attack that I attributed to the weight of feeling all my possessions again. I think this is why people are attracted to tiny houses, too. All the stuff that we accumulate over a lifetime creates a gravity that keeps us pulled towards our existing lives. We need to break free of that gravity if we want to change. And the only way to grow is to change.
A big part of the appeal is traveling in a classic VW Westfalia, and the affinity people have for it. Everybody seems to have a Volkswagen story, and I find it makes it really easy to meet people and make friends. For me, doing this in a Sprinter van just wouldn’t have that same appeal. Though it would make the trip easier, and definitely safer and more comfortable. But there’s something about that VW Bus slouch behind the wheel, cruising at 55 mph slow in the right lane. People throwing you peace signs and shakas.
Another attraction is the freedom to just move around. Or stay in one place if it feels right. I didn’t stay anywhere for more than one night until I got to Tofino. And then I didn’t want to leave. Until I did.
Is there a “life after the van” plan? Or is this it?
I really didn’t have any idea where this would all lead when I started. But I’ve begun to form a vision for a van life that fits me and my desires. After Alaska, I want to customize a shipping container that can transport my bus. I figure I can put it on a container ship, and then travel on the ship with it around the world. Stop off and spend time on every continent. It would make an amazing reality show. Also, the time alone on the freighters would give me time to write the book.