It’s hardly a secret that we love vanlife, which at this point has become just as much a social media aesthetic as a social movement. Are we always down to scroll through images of beautifully outfitted vans parked next to exciting vistas? Sure. But we also feel a kinship with the neo-Bohemian commitment to living more freely with less.
To dig into the draw of vagabonding, in general, and vanlife, in specific, we turned to Noël Russell — a true wandering soul and one hell of an Instagram follow. Russell and her husband, Johnnie, both work in homeless services in the Bay Area of California. Any time they can take away from work is spent outdoors in their van, which is primarily what Russell documents on her Instagram account. The feed is a beautiful collection of images from some of the West’s most picturesque locales, coupled with beautifully worded captions.
Read on for Noël’s insight into the allure of the open road, her philosophies of van living, and why she thinks the community is so appealing.
How did you get started with vanlife?
I got married to a pragmatist who was like, “Absolutely not. That’s an extra thing that breaks down and needs work, and we are not doing that.” One night, we were camping in the high desert, and it was roughly 25 degrees. We were sleeping in a tent because we tent and backpack religiously, and we always have. But it was freezing, and Johnny put two pairs of pants on and he was using a third pair of pants as second sleeves for his arms. He had tied them at the ends around his gloves, and while we were sitting, we saw some lights shine on the tent, so we undid the seam. A couple in a Westfalia pulled up next to us and turned on their cabin lights. The man proceeded to grab a kettle and put tea on the stove and his partner kicked her feet up on the dash and started reading a book. They were wearing one layer of clothing. Johnny looks at that and looks at me and says, “We’re fucking getting a van.”
I didn’t have to win that argument. Thank god this couple won it for me. And that was when we decided to start hunting seriously for a van. Secretly, I’ve been hunting for ten years.
What were the non-negotiables for you with the van? Like if this is something you’ve spent your whole life wanting, when it finally manifested, what is your van like?
My husband would laugh that you just asked me that. I like every van. That was the worst part, right? My husband was like, “I’m not so sure about this,” and then all of a sudden, we opened up Pandora’s box. I’m like, “That one! That one! That one!” Honestly, what mattered to me most was that it had no rust and that it was running well. Everything else you can make on your own, and you can redo it and do it again. But it’s still a car, right? And it does need to get you from point A to point B with the least drama possible. So whether you’re looking at a vintage vehicle or a new vehicle, the most important thing is always a well-running car that is relatively rust-free.
With vanlife, it seems like the whole point is getting from A to point B and having somewhere to sleep. But when you’re not driving, you’re climbing mountains and hiking.
Yes. You live out of your van, not in your van. The whole point is that it gets you to these amazing spaces and you don’t actually have to wear three pairs of pants at night, like that night.
Some people spend a whole lot of time inside, and obviously, their needs are a little bit different. But I will tell you, even at van meet-ups, when the sun comes up, everyone opens their doors and sits outside. That’s your living room, and for us and people like us, that’s even our kitchen. So a good vehicle should always be key.
It’s kind of like when people ask pregnant people, “Are you hoping for a girl or a boy?” And they say, “I just want it to be healthy.”
Just a healthy baby, yeah, exactly. Let’s get a healthy car, and then you’re good.
So you talked about van meet-ups. Do you go to vanlife events?
I have. I’m not a regular. I wish I was. It’s hard for us to get anywhere farther than a five to six hours max radius from our home because we work so much. When they’re nearby, we go. We’re big fans of the Descend on Bend, which happens in Oregon, even though it’s a little outside of our radius. It’s just the coolest meet-up. Kathleen from Tiny House, Tiny Footprint also does Van Life Diaries, they put on some really cool meet-ups. We’ve been trying to go to the things that we can go to.
What’s we’ve gone for are impromptu meet-ups, where I think that van talk is an immeasurable magnetic force. I’ve literally pulled up someplace and told one of our friends, “Hey, we’re here.” Then, they come, and I’ve got random messages from people like, “We just drove by your van, I think.” We’re like, “Then come.” All of a sudden, five hours later, we have five vans and it’s a mini meet-up.
I think that’s the cool thing about the community; you know your people. You can see them. When you pull up to a spot or there are two vans parked by each other at a barbecue spot on the side of a highway, you get to talking and you find out you already have way more in common than with most people. It’s fun to spend some more time with folks when you can.
I think that’s awesome, ’cause you’re only doing it part-time, but it sounds like that’s a non-issue in the community.
I think that there are definitely people who have very specific ideas of what van life is, and then there are other people who say van life is what you make it. It’s one night a week. It’s seven nights a week. It’s living in your old Subaru or in a 2018 Sprinter, right? It’s more of a philosophy of life and less about hitting specific marks. That’s how I’d hope that we fit in the community, and then there are ways that we don’t. We don’t live in our van. And there are challenges that come with living full-time in a van that we are not aware of. If we are aware, we have not experienced them for extended periods of time.
I have the utmost reverence for the communities that are full-time van lifers. We love being able to be a support. Sometimes that means that we get to come with extra provisions, right? We have extra beer. Or we can bring whatever could be missing because people have been out on the road a long time. Sometimes we book a campsite that has a bathroom. We’ll call friends that are local, and that’s what we can offer. We booked a campsite because we needed a place we knew was open, so come and park in our level parking spot and plug in your battery and take a shower, right? So we try to be part of the community in a way we can also help and share whatever resources that we have.
You said it’s kind of a mindset or philosophy. Obviously, you’re not the spokesperson for all travelers, but what is your personal interpretation of what that philosophy would be?
I will tell you just my experience. Okay, so I think my experience of the travel and vanlife community is people that have a really deep love for the outdoors. I think that there’s a really deep love for shared space and communal property, and I mean that on a philosophical level, too, right? When you live in your van, you are spending time in spaces that don’t belong just to you. And I think that there are a reverence and respect in that. So most (I’d hope for all, but I’d say at least for most), believe in caring for the land that you travel and making sure that you’re leaving no trace. And you have to be willing to flex, to bend needs or demands of the community, right? Sometimes you’re parked right next to some of them, some of them you have miles in between. I think that there is an appreciation for simple living and self-sufficiency, which I think in all areas of life is really important. It calls us to a place of humility and a place of seeing ourselves only a little part of something big.
It’s beautiful to connect with people like that, right? When you share those values right off the bat, there’s a lot to talk about. I’ve always said the most beautiful souls that we’ve ever met sleep in cars. I don’t mean that it’s because they sleep in cars, but I think if you’re willing to put yourself out there and step out of your comfort zone and live with less, it informs your soul’s make up of so much more. It teaches you so much more, and it causes you, I think, to act in the world in a way that is transformative and different.
I love the way you use words. It’s part of why I follow you on Instagram. Your posts come with the best stories ever. What prompted you to write the kind of Instagram captions that you do? It’s not the general pattern that other people follow.
No, and you know what? I’m super blessed to have happened upon it. If you scroll back through my Instagram, you’ll realize I wasn’t always that way. Often time, you come across information about what performs well on social media and what doesn’t. I had it in my mind always that long captions were not what people wanted to read. People wanted short quips, something funny or whatever. So I did my best at the “woke up like this” comments. One day, I wrote something long form, and I realized it doesn’t have a negative effect on engagement. And there were a lot of people that said, “Oh me, too!” or “Oh, I feel that way.” or “Oh, I’m so glad you said this.” And I went, “That’s weird.”
Then, I tried again. I tried again, and I realized, people are reading what I’m writing and liking it. And that is really lovely. I am not a photographer, and I never will be. I’d like to learn more and am always learning. I’m thankfully friends with a lot of really fantastic photographers who will help me fix the settings on my camera, but I’ve always enjoyed writing. And I love writing. So, it’s been really great for me to realize that sometimes the photos can be a little bit grainy, or a lot grainy and not well composed, but maybe that’s not all that I’m searched by. Maybe there are some people that are reading something that resonates with them or encourages them or inspires them. A lot of them do establish kinship in a way that gives them hope. And I can do that part. I think that the photos are just there to give me a reason to write something.
I think that feeds into the people who follow you though because that’s obviously what they’re looking for. You’re providing them with something they need.
I mean I’d hope so. Half of everything that I write is something that I needed to hear, but also half of most of what I write is what I wish everybody could hear every day. To be able to be that for people is the biggest blessing on the face of the Earth. I am constantly humbled, inspired and overwhelmed with hope when I get to share a little bit of what I needed to hear, what I wanted to share, and then be able to engage with so many amazing humans about it.
The final thing that I am curious about is the reality of van life in contrast to the perceptions. There seems to be a belief that vanlifers are just rich kids indulging themselves, but everyone I have talked to is hustling hard.
Oh, yeah. Thank you for saying that. I posted something I think last week or the week before about how we work and don’t just work, we work hard. But everybody we’ve run into on the road — oh my god — their hustle. It is so strong. I’ve always admired my friends that edit podcasts, write books, manage websites, and produce photographs for hundreds of clients a year. And do this all while also needing to find a place to sleep that night. You’re kidding me. That’s amazing.
Someone posted recently that the average amount of time it takes to post is 30 seconds or something. It’s not a lot. An Instagram story is 12 seconds. Sure, someone walked into our shelter the other day, we were doing an event, and they said, “Gosh, you are always on the road.” I said, “Oh, hardly. I’m always here. I practically live here.” The other day I was leaving the shelter and the kids were like, “Where are you going?” And I was like, “Home.” And they were like, “But this is your home.” And I was like, “You’re so right.”
You post the things I think you believe are noteworthy. In my case, I post what I think looks beautiful and lovely. When I’m having a tough day, looking at something beautiful really sparks a little light in my soul. I could certainly post the time lapse of me at my desk all day, which would be the boringest thing in the world. I’d rather post a sunset. I think everyone is just doing their best to post things that they think are lovely and they hope reflects loveliness to those around them. I don’t think it should ever be judged as the way it is.
I’m always surprised when I post. We don’t just work our full-time jobs at a shelter. My husband and I both work second jobs, and it’s because nonprofit doesn’t make you rich. Neither do second jobs on top of the nonprofit, but we can cover our bills. People are like, “Oh, god. I’m so relieved. I thought that my life sucked and that yours is the best.” And I’m like, “Whoa, I need to reiterate this more often or something because I want everyone to understand that much like the commercials that you see, or the magazines you read, or the movies that you see, that’s not real life.”
Instagram is real life, but it’s usually the loveliest bits of life. And they take 12, 13, 14 seconds to capture. Followers don’t know whether or not right after I filmed that sunset that my tire blew out on the side of the road. We spent the night next to a dump. A literal dump. You don’t know that. I could share that. Maybe I should. I don’t know. I definitely wanna make sure we’re always being as honest as possible.
Well, some people document some of the harder parts of van life, but it’s sort of a catch 22. On one hand, you’re criticized for crafting a narrative that is perhaps not 100% accurate, but on the other hand, who is lining up to follow people that are just posting a litany of depression?
That’s true. I make sure that none of the things that I’m doing on Instagram are things that I’m doing for followers or for likes. I’ll be honest about that. That’s the way that I check myself. Performing for other is not real, it’s not genuine. I’m always posting honestly what I need at that moment, that day. I wrote something this morning because I suffer from chronic pain, and today was really, really bad. I needed to get myself out of bed, and sometimes my best form of self-talk is written. I know if I am able to put that out there, there’s probably one other person that had a hard time getting out of bed, too. That’s my way of checking myself. The day that Instagram becomes for other people and not about me, I want to step away from it because I have a big, big lovely life going on that deserves my focus.
Literally, if you spend all day with me every day, you’re not going to hear me complain very much about things. And I’m not gonna talk about depressing things. My husband says I drink a big gulp of hope every single morning, and I do. What you see is what I feel is hopefully gonna be experienced as something lovely or inspiring or beautiful. It is not meant to reflect my entire day.
My sister has this beautiful son who is the most wonderful nephew in the world. And she is never posting pictures about when he smeared poop around the room. Right? She posts pictures about his first day at school, where he had his hair gelled to the side and he’s smiling. I don’t know what else happened after that photo, but 15 years from now I want that photo still, right? And I don’t necessarily care if he smeared poop all over.
Also, keeping that in context helps me remember the bad things that I experience every day are not bad. They aren’t. And I know that. To spend time talking about what’s lovely or trying to inspire and encourage is where I think I can best put my effort, and hopefully help people who are in a moment of less lovely.