Student Researcher and Writer: Amelia Fontei
Faculty Evaluator: Rob Williams, PhD
University of Vermont
December 15, 2015
When Foster Huntington decided to quit his corporate job in New York City and travel around the United States in a Volkswagen bus for three years, he had no idea that his actions would trigger the formation of a countercultural community (The Atlantic, 2015). As Huntington traveled and documented his on-the-move lifestyle through blogs and Instagram, he developed a group of devoted followers, who would eventually form the base of a movement: the #VanLife movement. Fast forward four years, and his hashtag has blown up, with 321,697 posts populating the Instagram page (Instagram, 2015). But followers do not see #VanLife as a hobby, an art form, or a pastime; they see it as a philosophy, a mission, and a way of life (Zhang, 2015). Akin to the hippie-bus counterculture that emerged in The United States during the 1960s and 1970s, #VanLife rejects mainstream society while maintaining its own 21st-century flair through social media, photography, and mass communication. While #VanLife culture claims to epitomize and promote the concepts of environmental stewardship, fluid gender roles, and detachment from mainstream society, the intricacies and realities of the van lifestyle do not always demonstrate these claims. The #VanLife movement illustrates several contradictions as they relate to America’s 21st century culture of automobility: namely the inconsistency in gender roles, the claim to environmental stewardship, and the alleged detachment from society.
Known by some as a “modern-day Kerouac,” Foster Huntington is the icon and founder of the #VanLife movement (Dorn, 2015). In 2011, Huntington decided that he was fed up with his Manhattan apartment and design job at Ralph Lauren. He was tired of being a cog in corporate America, and in an interview with The Atlantic, he admits: “I felt like I was just kind of pissing away my 20s doing that” (The Atlantic, 2015). On a whim, Huntington decided to pack up his van and leave his life in New York City behind. He traveled for three years, exploring the United States, going surfing, meeting new people, working on his blog “A Restless Transplant,” and putting together a photobook: Home is Where you Park It (Dorn, 2015; The Atlantic, 2015). His actions and the beautiful visual stories that he spread over social media inspired others to leave their conventional lifestyles behind and venture into Huntington’s world: #VanLife.
The #VanLife movement is comprised of an enormous diversity of people with varied stories; some people travel alone, some travel as families, some live full-time on the road, and some merely go on weekend trips in their vans. Despite the diversity of participants, there are several essential characteristics and philosophies that unite vanlifers: storytelling, connecting with natural places, overcoming adversity, and building community. Storytelling is a crucial aspect of #VanLife, and members share their narratives both visually and textually through various outlets including blogs, Instagram, formal web sites, YouTube, and photobooks (Dorn, 2015). Connection with nature and adventure in beautiful places is another huge component of the #VanLife movement, and many vanlifers enjoy integrating extreme outdoor sports into their nomadic lifestyle (i.e. surfing, hiking, skateboarding, mountain biking, rock climbing, etc.)(Instagram, 2015; The Atlantic, 2015). Dealing with challenging situations and the hardships of living on the road is a personal point of pride for many van lifers: “Van life is like sleeping in a WalMart parking lot and looking for a place to go to the bathroom and having your van break down when you’re traveling; that’s van life,” says Huntington (The Atlantic, 2015). The grunge, the anticipation of a van breakdown, and the bare-bones living, while challenging at times, are huge components of the #VanLife existence (see above video clip)(Crayfish Films, 2015). Finally, while #VanLife emphasizes an isolated, plan-free, on-the-road lifestyle, it also supports a vibrant community and a sense of togetherness and companionship. These pillars of the #VanLife movement dictate the philosophies and lifestyles of its members.
These essential components of the #VanLife community are inextricably linked to the hippie countercultural movement that gained momentum in the 1960s in the United States, and the two movements share many ideals and characteristics. Volkswagen buses were developed in Germany, and the United States began importing the vehicles in the mid-1950s (How Stuff Works, 2015). By the end of the decade, the Volkswagen bus had grown enormously in popularity and had developed a reputation as a vehicle driven by vagabonds and non-traditionalists (Burnett, 2002). The hippie counterculture that emerged during the 1960s promoted communal living, use of drugs, sexual experimentation, music, freedom from the federal government, and anti-war sentiment (Richards, 2015). The VW bus and the 1960s van lifestyle allowed hippies to create an alternative lifestyle that included many of these experimental and anti-state elements. According to Burnett (2002) in his thesis on the cultural role of the hippie bus, the bus became a physical symbol of rebellion and detachment: “By living cheaply and itinerantly, hippie vagabonds in Volkswagens rejected the work-and-spend cycle that maintained the American economy, as well as the stable living situation that steady employment requires” (p. 126). The van lifers of the 21st century, with their detachment from mainstream society and their rejection of consumer culture, certainly draw upon the ideology and historic legacy of the hippie counterculture of decades past.
In an interview with The Atlantic, a vanlifer named Ryan discusses how his family’s involvement in the #VanLife movement has allowed him to personally “accept the role that is sometimes not viewed as the masculine role in the household” (The Atlantic, 2015). He discusses his unorthodox role as a stay-at-home dad, and how both he and his wife are able to defy gender norms and stereotypes by removing their family from mainstream society. While these fluid gender roles may indeed be present within the #VanLife movement, the YouTube videos, Instagram posts, and blogs published under the #VanLife title tell a different story. Many vanlifers travel as couples, and the social media postings that document their adventures often illustrate the division of roles by gender that these couples experience. In an interview with a #VanLife couple, the woman, (Emily) describes the method that she and her partner (Corey) have devised to avoid fighting: “Fortunately, we have fallen into defined van life roles which helps keep conflict at a minimum” (Korduroy Blog, 2013). This division by gender is historically rooted in the early 20th century “masculinization of automobility” (Seiler, 2008). The motorization of WWI “confirmed the vehicle as an instrument for the extension of an aggressive masculinity” (Seiler, 2008, p. 59). These historical connotations still exist to this day; the male van lifer’s role undoubtedly involves becoming a Vanagon mechanic, being the driver, and handling the fuel and maintenance of the vehicle, while the woman’s sphere is the interior of the van. Female vanlifers are frequently captured on camera performing domestic tasks: cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, decorating the van, or taking care of children. Later in Ryan’s interview with The Atlantic, he summarizes this separation of roles in describing how he and his wife interact in sticky situations: “It’s like, you deal with the kids, I’ll work on the van. We might just be sleeping here tonight” (The Atlantic, 2015). In another video interview with vanlifers Simon and Shelby, Simon gives the viewer a tour of the mechanics, solar power system, and appliances, while Shelby shows off the kitchen, the bedroom, and the closet (Exploring Alternatives, 2015). This seemingly ubiquitous separation of tasks and labor by gender is at odds with the #VanLife movement’s emphasis on liberation and their progressive ideology.
Another interesting contradiction that emerges within the #VanLife movement is the ideology of environmental stewardship and conservation. So many van lifers claim to be living a “green,” environmentally conscious life. “The best part for me is connecting with the natural rhythm of life,” says one #VanLife enthusiast, and his blog post goes on to describe his simple lifestyle that conserves enormous amounts of energy and water (The Cleanest Line, 2013). This ethos of environmental awareness and stewardship is common among van dwellers, however, their entire way of life is predicated on the consumption of two environmentally disastrous products: automobiles and oil. In 2010, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) established rules that would ostensibly decrease the U.S. fleet’s greenhouse gas emissions by roughly 5% annually, and would result in the average vehicle achieving 34.1 mpg by 2016 (NHTSA, 2010). However, the aging 1990 Volkswagen Vanagon (a popular model for van lifers) achieves only half of this new standard: 14-18 mpg depending on road conditions (U.S. Department of Energy, 2015). In their book Carjacked, Lutz and Lutz Fernandez (2010) describe the mechanisms that are necessary for building a sustainable, connected transportation system in the United States: “reducing our individual dependency while increasing our collective alternatives” (p. 208). The #VanLife movement ignores both of these directives by emphasizing individualism (rather than collectivism) through personal van ownership and encouraging dependency on automobiles in all aspects of life. As we progress into a post-peak-oil era, the abundance of oil and fossil fuel resources will continually decline, and the purchase and use of these low fuel economy vehicles will merely support our automobile-centric culture and aggravate greenhouse gas emissions (Oxford Dictionary, 2015).
One of the pillars of #VanLife culture is detaching from society: seeking out unexplored landscapes, living simply with few material possessions, and disappearing from the corporate hubbub of mainstream America. As Kunstler explains in his book, automobiles (and in this case vans) serve as “a symbol of freedom; it embodied the elemental need of living creatures to flee adversity and seek a new home where they might thrive” (Kunstler, 1994, p. 96). However, this idealized, liberated, detached imagery is rarely achieved by the average van lifer, who’s lifestyle is “created by the margin of two historically different paths—the blend of an adventurous nomadic lifestyle, with a traditional 9-5 business career” (Korduroy Blog, 2013). While Foster Huntington, the original van lifer, decided to reject the 9-5 lifestyle and live a life free from long-term plans, many newcomers to the movement are attempting to merge their employment with their on-the-road lifestyle. Thus, one of the major elements of the #VanLife movement is lost as people desperately seek out WiFi networks and spend the majority of their time working and participating in corporate culture (Exploring Alternatives, 2015). Furthermore, a huge percentage of #VanLife members connect frequently with social media (i.e. blogs, YouTube, Instagram) to recount their adventures and share them with the world. “The use of Instagram is particularly troubling for the VanLife community at times, because it is such a mainstream phenomenon,” says Joseph Dorn (2015) in his thesis on storytelling within #VanLife. On this amorphous Internet platform, a poster can reach hundreds of thousands of people with the click of a mouse, and the desire to post and share an adventure can eventually dominate a trip. According to Rachel, writer of a prominent #VanLife blog, “Experiences become less meaningful when they are constantly shared to the world,” and van lifers need to strike a balance between posting everything and posting nothing (cited in Dorn, 2015). The detachment from society so important to the #VanLife community is made extremely more complicated by a new, emerging work-on-the-road culture, and the constant connection to social media.
There are several cultural, scientific, and media shifts that help to explain the complex contradictions within the 21st century #VanLife community. Firstly, since the movement is so closely connected and similar to the 1960s hippie bus community, van lifers tend to emulate the hippie counterculture, without regarding modern scientific and cultural developments. According to Burnett (2002), the separation of gender roles was extremely prevalent in the 1960s hippie bus culture: “Adhering to the framework of traditional gender roles, men generally owned, operated, and maintained buses, while their wives or girlfriends rode as passengers” (p. 122-123). This gender separation within van life continues to this day, but it clashes with the modern notions of gender equality and defiance of gender roles promoted by progressivism and the feminist movement. Similarly, the environmental movement was far less prominent in the mid-twentieth century than it is today. It was not until 1977 that scientific opinion began to converge around the risk of global warming (American Institute of Physics, 2015), and it was even later that people began taking personal actions to quell their fossil fuel emissions. Thus, the “home-is-where-you-park-it” philosophy was not considered an environmental risk in the 1960s, but today, constant dependence on fuel-inefficient cars and gasoline represents a disservice to the environment. Thus, as the #VanLife movement attempts to strike a balance between antiquated hippie culture and the modern pressures of 21st century America, several cultural contradictions emerge.
Another explanation for the paradoxes within the #VanLife community is the enormous media shifts that our culture has undergone in the past few decades. This cultural transition around media generates confusion, hypocrisy, and contradictory situations. For example, an epistemological shift from word to image has transformed adventurers like Kerouac and Steinbeck (of the 20th century) into the Foster Huntingtons of today (Action Coalition for Media Education; Dorn, 2015). Instead of keeping journals and writing about their travels, the van lifers of today prefer to capture their experiences using images. Furthermore, these travelers are impacted by a personal shift from mass media to participatory media, in which anyone has the ability to contribute to online platforms and social media (Action Coalition for Media Education). Finally, a technological shift from analog to digital has allowed for the widespread use of personal computers and mobile devices (Action Coalition for Media Education). All of these transitions within our media culture have pushed the #VanLife community to take images, post them online, and utilize their technological devices. These media-related actions are largely responsible for the contradictions surrounding societal detachment in the #VanLife movement.
The #VanLife movement is a relatively recent phenomenon, and thus, is bound to demonstrate fluctuating, contradictory features. While the community portrays and communicates a liberal, detached, fluid, and environmentally conscious image of themselves, their publications (including photos, videos, and written work) often illustrate rigid gender roles, apathy around their carbon footprint, and constant networking within the technological mainstream. These hypocrisies can be explained by the historical legacy of the 1960s hippie counterculture, and the complications created by modern social and environmental movements. Continuation of the hippie movement becomes less straightforward when concepts like gender equality and climate change enter the picture. Recent shifts in media have also contributed to the seemingly paradoxical visions embodied by the #VanLife movement. Like any infant countercultural movement, #VanLife has expanded, morphed, and wobbled in the past four years since its inception. However, it’s underlying intentions have remained constant: “It’s people who value quality time spent, who are humans being” (The Atlantic, 2015). It’s an adventure, and we’ll have to stay posted for whatever may lie ahead.
Amelia Fontein is an avid traveler, outdoorswoman, and ukulele player who plans to graduate from the University of Vermont completing her degree in Environmental Studies and Spanish.
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