Parker Hilton had been dating Jenelle Kappe for about two months when he asked her to live in a van with him. A travel writer and photographer, Hilton had built out and outfitted a vintage van for an epic adventure across the country. Still… it was a little soon to talk about moving in together. Especially into a 20-square foot-space with no end date in sight.
Parker knew it was a big “ask,” but he was crazy about Jenelle and didn’t want to lose the chance to be with her. At the same time, he’d been planning his trip for years. It became a moment of truth… What would she say?
“Her response was, ‘Can my dog come?’” Parker says with a laugh. “That’s all she was worried about.”
“We’re kind of a package deal,” Jenelle explains of her Australian Shepard mix, Emma. “Leaving her wasn’t an option. I said, ‘I will definitely come if my dog comes too.’”
The negotiation didn’t get any tougher than that. The adventurous trio (Emma included!) set off across the country to take photographs, sleep under the stars, and fall ever-deeper in love.
Jenelle and Parker — who recently married — have always been drawn to travel and adventure, both separately and together. Both photographers, they met through social media, following one another because they were fans of each other’s work.
When they first connected, Parker was stranded in Ecuador after a van trip from Montana to Patagonia had ended disastrously along the Columbia/Ecuador border. The van had broken down and he didn’t have money to fix it. Instead, he decided to hole up for a spell in the village where the van died.
On one of these quiet Ecuadorian days, when Parker saw Jenelle post that she was heading to Cambodia for a trip, he risked a comment.
“That place will change your life,” he wrote.
That simple moment changed both of their lives. Jenelle responded asking for travel suggestions, and they realized they were both originally from New Jersey. Months later, they ended up back in the home state at the same time for a visit. A first date followed soon after.
“I said, ‘Can I buy you a drink and talk to you about photography?’” Parker says. “She said, ‘Of course.’ Three years later, we’re married.”
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Okay, it wasn’t quite that quick. Before that, they lived for several months in a van, touring the US. They swung down south from NJ, all the way to the Florida Keys, before turning up and heading west. It’s not easy to be enclosed in a tiny space with anyone on a trip like that, let alone a person you’ve just started dating. Still, Jenelle says she always had a sense that it would be okay. It’s why she said ‘yes’ in the first place.
“It’s a very hard thing to explain,” she says,” but nothing was work between us. It was just nothing like I’d ever experienced before… It was always kind of ‘Yeah this’ll be fun. This’ll be an adventure.’”
Living in a van together, both Parker and Jenelle tell me, is like a crash course in intimacy. There’s no privacy, nowhere to take a break… it’s the ultimate test as to whether or not you’ll make it. You have to be able to communicate, work together, and make each other laugh.
“The question of where are we going is never-ending,” Parker says. “It’s always a part of the conversation. You wake up in the morning and that’s what you start talking about. Where are we going and what do we want to do between now and then.”