Is there a bigger testament to a person’s wanderlust than living out of a van? It’s the modern version of riding the rails, but without a bindle and the overriding hobo associations. Not just anyone can take up this vagabond existence, though. It requires a very particular type — someone who’s willing to give up modern comforts for the freedom to roam. That means a life of public restrooms and quick showers; quickly formed communities and occasional isolation.
Christian and Aubry Matney are the youngest vanlifers we’ve ever had on #TheMadOnes. Christian just turned 21 and Aubry is 22. He was 19 to her 21 when they got married. At those ages, most people are figuring out how to scam WiFi from the neighbors and arguing over which dive bar makes the strongest/cheapest drinks for happy hour. Meanwhile, this couple was committing themselves to a minimalist lifestyle — loading their every possession in the back of a van.
As they travel, the duo is recording their journey and making videos for followers on Instagram and YouTube. They even made a video for their YouTube channel addressing the matter of their age — because though it’s quite noteworthy, it’s also a point of insecurity.
Aubry and Christian took a break from the road to talk with us about their relationship, their careers, and how every aspect of their life has been improved through travel. They speak with such enthusiasm about the community that you’ll find yourself cruising van listings on Craigslist by the time you hit the third photo.
How did you two meet?
Christian: We both work for an alternate higher education company, so a little bit unique, and we were both in school. Let’s see Aubry, was this three years ago?
Aubry: Yes. Three years ago.
Christian: I was just about to finish up my degree, but we both started working for this alternate higher education company [Emerit Education]. We did a lot of the coursework for our degrees online, and Aubry traveled full time for her job, or was just about to start that. We met through school. I was working on Capitol Hill up in DC, so I was part of the system, man. I got her to come up and visit me, and we started dating long distance. Then, we did weekend trips in Chicago or Portland or wherever. That’s how things started.
Aubry: We went to school through this alternative higher education company and met at an event in Texas. Christian lived in DC, I lived in LA, and we were all over the place, trying to meet up and see each other. I had been working for this company, and Christian started working for this company, we both moved to San Antonio and got married there.
Christian: She would have to travel to Chicago, so I would try to plan a surprise visit there, and it wouldn’t work, but it was still fun. We went around the country together for a little while, and I think that’s kind of where the love for travel and everything started. We were getting to know each other on the road. Once we went to San Antonio, the travel mindset had already been established. We were already super minimalist, because we had started a relationship like that.
What makes you finally push from minimalist newlyweds to “Let’s live in a van!”?
Aubry: We got sick of going to work.
Christian: I think Aubry got sick of it. (laughs) We were thinking we were going to do something else actually. We thought we were going to be moving overseas to Southeast Asia. We had started saving for that, and we put money away for a while and were doing pretty well. Then, we got the idea to move into a van. Literally, within two weeks, we bought one. From idea to execution was stupid fast, so it was a little bit impulsive.
We knew we wanted to do something, and then had the idea and were ready to pull the trigger, you know?
Christian: Yeah, it was craziness. I would not necessarily recommend that. We drove down to Houston; there was a super sketch guy selling a van, and we’re like “We’ll take it. You’re selling it for so cheap, we’ll just figure it out when we go.”
Wow, what steps did you take to do that transition? Like, that’s really fast.
Aubry: We weren’t living in the van after two weeks. We just bought the van and we were building it, and then we were kind of prepping to live the lifestyle for six months. We bought it in December/January and moved into it in June. A lot of our time and our resources were going to the van, but we were living the same lifestyle that we were before. Because we were super minimalist, we didn’t have to downsize that much more than we already had. So, it actually wasn’t that crazy of a transition for us, or at least, it didn’t feel like it.
Christian: Right. The crazy transition wasn’t the transition to the van, it was the transition on the road. I had a pretty established job and a pretty established career going in San Antonio, and we didn’t leave all of it behind, but we mostly left it all behind. That was a big jump.
Do you guys have a storage unit or something?
Christian: No, man. If our van got stolen, we’re done for (laughs).
Aubry: We had a little bit of furniture, and we ended up selling all of it. We just didn’t want to have anything tying us down to a certain location. If we ever want to settle down again, then we can rebuild. We don’t have to have a moving truck and move all of our stuff. We just don’t love having all our stuff in a bunch of random, scattered places. Honestly, besides the furniture, there wasn’t anything that we left behind.
Christian: No, we prepared for a while. One of our main principles in our life is this minimalist principle: it’s not about how much stuff you have, it’s about really utilizing the things you have. If you’re not utilizing it, then it’s basically a waste. In our own personal lives if we’re like “Hey, we’re going to be traveling, and we’re not going to be using these things for a year, or two, or five, or ten, I don’t know, you know, why would we keep it?” I don’t know, it just didn’t really make sense.
If you have a limited number of decisions you can make, and a limited amount of brain space that you have in a day, that just seems like an unnecessary allocation of brain space, and stress, and everything. We wanted a clean slate. Everything we have is here with us in Everett, Washington. We live here as much as anywhere else, and we’ve never been here before. (laughs)
So, you get the whole van life going, what makes you decide to document it on YouTube and Instagram?
Christian: That’s a good question.
Aubry: I have always been active with social media. I work full time, remotely, and work in social media, specifically community-building. I love it. And I’ve been doing it for another company, I still do it for another company, but I really love doing it. I wanted to see what would happen if we did it for ourselves. To us, this is an aspect of documenting it because we like to look back.
It’s been really really cool. We didn’t expect this necessarily, but it’s been amazing to experience the community that we’ve been able to build. We get to meet up with people who follow us on Instagram or watch our YouTube videos all over the place. Every time we roll into a new city, we post that we’re there, and we get five to ten messages from different people who are like “Hey, this is the best place to park, you’re totally welcome to in the driveway. Hey, let’s go to this bar, it’s my favorite one.”
On the road, we don’t necessarily have a local community, which can be kind of lonely sometimes. But, I don’t feel like we miss it that much because everywhere we go, there are people who want to be friends and meet up. It has become even less about documenting our lives and building a following and more about building a community. The people that we meet up with feel like instant friends because they’re watching our content because they share our same values, and they have the same values in life.
Aubry: We have so many things to talk about. That’s probably the main reason that we keep making videos.
Christian: It’s really important to us that just the van life community as a whole gets well represented. We’re not doing this for money; that’s not the intention. We’re doing this to give back to the community. Social media is where this community is being connected, but it’s really where the values of the community lie, right?
So, through our channel, like Aubry was saying, we’re plugging in all over the place with people. But, it’s never been our intention to just like, make a bunch of money off of it, or to do this for a following, or to be the faces of it. I think everyone that’s in the community just wants it to be represented really well, and it’s just a beautiful way to connect with people that have your same values, whether that’s minimalism, or travel, or veganism, or sustainability.
Aubry: We get people all the time who comment or message us and say “You’re showing me that it’s possible to live the life that I want to live. And to do the things that I want to do. And that I can actually do it right now. Like, I don’t have to wait five years. I can literally make those decisions, make those changes right now.” We would not have jumped into van life if we hadn’t watched videos about people who had done it and, you know, kind of watched people live through the different things that you have to do, the different challenges and the build and all that. We wouldn’t have had the courage to do it, and so it’s really fun to give back and see that people are being inspired to live this lifestyle, and understand that it’s possible. Like, you could totally do it.
In terms of making it feel like something that’s possible, how do you manage it financially, because that seems to be everyone’s biggest stumbling block?
Christian: That’s definitely the most common question we get. I think that our situation isn’t necessarily replicable. Aubry has a really good job with this company that’s called Emerit Education, and we’ve been working with them for a while. Aubry’s been working with them for four years, and I’ve been with them for about three. Aubry has a fully remote job, Social Media Marketing, and I am a contract employee, but I still work in a role similar to the one I did previously.
It’s not necessarily something that anyone could walk in to, but at the same time, it’s something we’ve built. Aubry’s job didn’t exist until Aubry was here. Right? She made a job for herself. My job didn’t exist before I created it, and I worked on site first. For us, we both work remotely, we have consistent incomes coming in, we make a little bit of money from YouTube, we do a little bit of contracting, but basically it’s through our two full time jobs.
Sometimes that’s discouraging for people, because they feel like “Hey, I don’t have that.” Honestly, we built these, and I think a lot of people can build a remote position if they build trust with a company. It does take time and investment. I don’t know if this what we’re going to do long-term, but for now, it’s just amazing, and it totally sustains our lifestyle. This lifestyle costs so little, that it really doesn’t take a whole lot of money to sustain it.
Aubry: Also there’s just so many jobs now that can be done remotely, or maybe you need to come in like once a month, or once a quarter, or whatever, so we always encourage people. Hey, if you work a job that truly can be done just with an internet connection, ask your boss. Just see what happens. My dad did that actually. He wanted to move away from his office and move somewhere else, and work remotely. He just asked them, and they said yes. If you have a good relationship with your company, that’s kind of been our experience. It’s just so possible now. We’re always working in coffee shops; we have unlimited data. We can work in our van; it is so easy to get work done. A lot of people are digital nomads, or work remotely, and it’s getting more and more possible because companies are starting to become more and more open to it.
Christian: Yeah, literally every year it gets easier. Every six months it gets easier.
What were you surprised by when you first started? Cause you’ve only been doing this for what, four months?
Christian: Well, we’ve been in the van for about six months. But we’ve only been on the road for like, three. Funny you asked that. Before you called, I was editing a video about our surprises. Just good timing. I would say one of the biggest surprises was the community, which we just touched on, and that the community is so supportive. I feel like a lot of people tend to feel really isolated, and I was kind of afraid of that too, but people are so down. And, they still want to help you out.
Christian: It’s interesting because the government hasn’t exactly done a lot to create space for people who want to make this a lifestyle. I think they’re afraid of people trashing places and living out of their RVs and stuff, but which is a real bummer for the community. We rally have to come together to make up for the fact that there are a lot of legal limitations. So, if you can’t exactly park and chill somewhere, a stranger might say, “Hey, you can come over to my house, just park in my driveway, no strings attached.” It’s a part of the community and it’s no big deal. I say that’s my number one surprise would be that, wouldn’t you say Aubry?
Aubry: I think you definitely value community; you want friends a lot more. Honestly, I think the biggest thing for me, as a woman, has been that it’s as easy as it is. I feel like females take a lot of things for granted, like having a bathroom and a mirror. It’s been a lot easier to let go of some of those nicer things in life than I expected. It’s been a really good experience to learn to live with less. It’s a little bit less comfortable, but it’s been so worth it.
Christian: I don’t think it’s that much less comfortable though. I mean, in a way you’re plugging back into your roots. It hasn’t really been that long in history that people haven’t been spending a ton of their time making food in a day, right? For most of human history most of what we were concerned with was eating, so it’s a new phenomenon for people to be like, “Yeah man, I only spend an hour of my day worrying about food,” right? It’s kind of interesting as you’re stepping back from modern conveniences — not fully but somewhat — and now food takes an hour per meal. It really does.
And you have to clean every single day, but you have so much more space because you’re not working as intense of a job. You walk these patterns where the day-to-day is a lot more enjoyable, and cooking a big meal is really fun, and all of a sudden you’re way healthier. This is the healthiest you’ve ever been. This is the best our relationship has ever been, and hands down, the most happy and healthy and satisfied we’ve ever been. It’s because you’re making healthy meals, you’re facing your day, you’re spending time with other people in real connection, you’re meeting other real people in coffee shops, and just having a better pace of life.
There are a couple of things that are less comfortable. Like, if you have to pee late at night, and you’re like “Oh crap.” It’s tough, and I’ll figure something out. But, for the most part, it’s just been such a wonderful pace of life.
Aubry: We have so many more opportunities to go to a National Park or go on a hike for a Saturday because we’re just going around all over the place. It’s been really good for me personally to be forced to slow down. When you have this beautiful, gorgeous mountain in front of you, then all the stress of life, all the work things that you have to think about, all of those little things float away. You don’t think about it anymore. Your focus is this beautiful mountain. It’s almost like you have no choice but to slow down. You have to. You can’t watch TV all the time, and you’re like, looking at nature, and it’s beautiful.
What’s the plan moving forward then, are you going to keep it up?
Christian: Yeah, hands down man.
Christian: I feel like a lot of people have a totally valid concern that this lifestyle will slow their careers down, at least that was a huge concern for me. But the interesting thing is being on the road, you’re meeting such different people that it actually opens up your career possibilities. Just a few months on the road, we have so many opportunities in front of us, whether that’s other businesses we could start, people we could join in business, or other jobs we could take on. Plus it just gives us so much more space to explore what we want to do. I don’t think career-wise it’s slowing anything down. We’re just having so much fun, I mean we’re going to keep doing it until we don’t have fun. That’s kind of the idea. As long as we’re taking care of ourselves and we’re having fun, we’ll be out here, don’t you think. Aubry?
Aubry: Oh yeah, absolutely.