You Can Do Things You Think You Can't
When the sun came up in Salt Lake City, we felt a tiredness deep in our bones. We had left a camp of old and new friends at Joshua Tree the day before and drove into the night towards Utah. At this point, it was already feeling like we’d been on the road forever, but Richard reminded us that we’d only left home less than two weeks before. This project had begun with an open-ended idea: to hit the road and hear stories of van life from people we would meet along the way, but at this point in our road trip we’ve recognized that the stories we’ve heard are people stories, far more about what inspires us and where we find meaning than what kind of gear we carry along with us.
We had already known Trent and Allie before we drove out to Utah to meet up with them. They’re recognizable faces in the world of van life, and their popular YouTube channel has helped introduce many to the idea of living on the road. Like the Fenimore’s that we had just talked with, Trent and Allie’s story starts with a longing for something outside of the normal context. Not content with the tracks they were on, they got in a van and drove it to the bottom end of South America, and decided to film the journey. That trip was the start of their new lives.
We met them at their home near Park City, where we started our conversation around what it was like to transition from life in a van full-time to building their own home, and how they navigate their influence in the online community of van-lifers.
A question to start...this is a new pace of life, what feels the same and what feels different?
I think it’s really easy to put someone in a box when you follow them (online), like we’re van-lifers, we live in a van and we’re destined to be in this box and if we try to step outside it, we’re not supposed to do that. It was an intentional transition for us into building a house in the States, COVID just kind of gave it like a violent shove.
We traveled for two years and we were on our way north from the very southernmost tip of South America, and we were supposed to ship back from Uruguay like two weeks before we ended up having to abandon our van. That was like mid-March so ideally we were going to start building this house by August-ish. And instead we had to start building it in May, because we didn't have a van and we needed a place to live.
But it's funny because I feel like yes, you can put people in a box but also we've intentionally tried to just make videos about us having a good time and doing what we love, and that encompasses mountain biking and rock climbing and hiking, as well as van life travel, as well as building things. We went to Trent’s mom’s farm for a few months, and got goats and chickens and built a chicken coop. It was super fun for us. I think people respond to that authenticity in a video regardless of what it is you're filming. Just this last weekend, I was like, I need a break. This is intense. Like we've just been in the winter for months building this house, and it's going really slowly, we need to get in the van and go for a trip. And we went mountain biking in the van, and it was the best thing ever. And it's like, it doesn't matter to us what box people put us in, because we're just gonna continue to do things that feel like a challenge.
I think people respond to that authenticity in a video regardless of what it is you're filming.
Yeah, when somebody tells you you can’t do something, the challenge for me is like, “you wanna bet?” At first we were like, we should build a tiny house, or maybe we build a real house, and I was like “no, I can’t do that”, but then I realized if you can build a van, you can build a house...and it just gets those gears turning. It’s like the same thing as traveling in South America. I wanted to drive to the very bottom of South America, and people said “you can’t”. There’s all these barriers people put up of why they can’t do it. So I think in our videos, we’re showing people that you can do things that you think you can’t. Like, when things don’t go your way you have to kind of smile and shake it off and keep pushing, and you’ll always hit your target if you never stop.
That’s a good philosophy. Something that’s really cool about this series has been that regardless of who the person is, and how often they spend time in their vehicle, a lot of their motivation is getting outside the rat race. Part of wondering too is, when we had first met you guys were about to take your first break from filming in years—-
We didn’t. (laughing)
So I think in our videos, we’re showing people that you can do things that you think you can’t. Like, when things don’t go your way you have to kind of smile and shake it off and keep pushing, and you’ll always hit your target if you never stop.
And the fight in finding the balance for you guys is, you’ve got to feed the algorithm, you’ve gotta keep going —- building this house, being back in “civilization”, how does it feel to try and find the right balance?
Here where we're stationary, we have (a sense of) security, we never have to worry about someone breaking into the van, and especially being up here in the mountains it’s very rare that someone ever steps foot on your property. So there's a relaxed level of stress. When you’re out on the road, you’re vulnerable, and that can kind of wear on you over time. Here, we don’t have the same stress, but it almost feels like we don’t “punch out”, like when we used to travel in the van it feels like there are chapters where you’re moving from place to place and things are changing. Now, one chapter is building this house and it's gonna take a year. We're just in the trenches.
It's hard because this has been a dream that we've talked about for years. Like, what if we built our own house in the mountains, that would be so cool. So it's amazing to see it come to life. But traveling, for me, ended up being something that I felt like I could really contribute to, like, I learned Spanish and I learned how to navigate in different countries. And I felt like a very big part of not just the videos, but of the travel itself. And here, obviously, my skill set is not catered to building a house. And it's been a hard transition for me just to figure out how to take a different role, maybe filming more, instead of doing as much and what that means in terms of our relationship, as well as how it looks in the videos, as well as how it feels mentally and emotionally. It's just a very different world for me.
When we used to travel in the van it feels like there are chapters where you’re moving from place to place and things are changing. Now, one chapter is building this house and it's gonna take a year. We're just in the trenches.
When we came back from traveling, I was so excited to be stable and rooted and grounded to one geographical spot in the world. And now it's like okay, it's been a year, I would love to go on another two year trip, or let's take the van to Alaska, let's do something crazy again. I'm getting antsy, but it's nice. It'll be fun to do that again in the future after doing this, and just kind of flow.
This started as chasing the things you guys love to do, and you built into this whole thing... do you feel like there is an aligned set of values in the life you have together? What’s the North Star?
I would say I'd never do this with anybody else. And I would never do this by myself. I have huge respect for people that do this on their own, because it's extremely overwhelming, and you're super self critical constantly. So the fact that we can bounce those criticisms off of each other and help deflate situations where we're like, oh, my gosh, I don't like the way this is happening...yeah, it's special that we can do that together.
And now it's like okay, it's been a year, I would love to go on another two year trip, or let's take the van to Alaska, let's do something crazy again.
And if we look back on it, what got us here, we were like anybody else that hates their nine to five job and wants to quit, but is scared. We were those people too. It's not like we knew it was gonna work out. Our north star is freedom, togetherness, and happiness. As long as we can attain those things with whatever we’re doing then we’re always happy. And Youtube gives us the opportunity to basically never be without each other, we’re just at each other’s side. You tell that to some people and they’re like “oh, I would kill my husband if I had to be with him all day every day”, and it’s like, well, that’s the only way we want to be. And YouTube gives us the freedom to kind of do whatever we want and lets us take our path and challenge ourselves and that's how we grow over time and, I wouldn’t do it with anybody else either.
It's not like we knew it was gonna work out. Our north star is freedom, togetherness, and happiness. As long as we can attain those things with whatever we’re doing then we’re always happy.
For anyone that looks at your lives and is like, what a dream...I'm curious, if someone were asking you guys about wanting to try this, what would you caution them?
Well, I think everyone should try it. It's a great lifestyle, it's super fun, and there's a way to enjoy it for pretty much everyone. It just might look a little bit different. But I think the biggest cost that we experienced is burnout, because there is no clocking out. You're just working 24/7. You're either filming or editing or planning or researching the next video or the next part of the build or the next place you're going to travel to, responding to emails, responding to comments. We think that engaging with our community is really important, so we spend a lot of time responding to those messages. And it's important, but there's really like, no one to tell you when to stop, there's no boss. So you have to be your own. For a lot of people, you have to be your own boss and say, take a break and go to sleep, it's okay. You can pick this up tomorrow. And that's really difficult for us, still.
I think the biggest cost that we experienced is burnout, because there is no clocking out.
In order to have success, you’re working seven days a week. Even when we’re having fun, we’re working, because we’re making videos about it. And when we’re not having fun, and punched out, we’re still spending hours and hours editing content off of the camera. You’re giving up your privacy, and that’s probably a downside, but Allie and I have no problem giving up the privacy and sharing our lives with the world if it means we don't have to split up and go do jobs that we don't like so that we can pay the bills. So that's the trade off.
As we were wrapping up our conversation with Trent and Allie, they told us that while they’re enjoying the new chapter of building a house together, their van (which they lovingly call Pamela Vanderson) feels like the first home that they built together. From our talk, it was easy to see the love and adventure that guides them towards new challenges, and the amount of work that it takes for them to create the life that they have made. We realized that the cliche of van-life, the adventure and bliss and wonder, isn’t the whole picture – and while those moments of joy do exist, there’s a balance that has to be found. And ultimately, by finding yourself in places that you’ve never been before, you can find a place where you learn to be yourself.
At least, that’s what we’re beginning to understand now, with the benefit of being able to look back on the experience. In the moment, we were looking for some food and a little rest, knowing we had more pavement to pound and a couple more people to meet up with out on the road, before the road would bring us back to where we started.