Vanessa Darius remembers the day she asked her husband, Austin, if he’d be on board with selling most of their possessions, quitting their jobs, and living on the road in a van for at least a year.
“Hell yeah, I’m going to start looking for a van!” he said.
After seeing influencers convert their vans into livable quarters and travel the world, Vanessa started to admire their “not having work be your entire life” mindsets. Vanessa, a fourth grade teacher at Indian Creek Elementary School in Lawrence Township, and Austin, a mechanical engineer by trade, traveled whenever they could, but still craved more adventures.
The solution to their problem: live in a van full-time and travel the country.
Van life, sometimes referred to as “van dwelling,” is a lifestyle of living in a converted van, either full-time or part-time. Oftentimes, these vans have been greatly modified to include basic household amenities such as a bathroom, shower, dining spot, and a sleeping area. According to the 2019 Census Bureau, more than 140,000 people live in vans or boats, which is about a 38% increase from three years earlier. In addition to living in a van, many travelers will drive around the U.S. or surrounding countries to explore national parks or other historical landmarks, which is what Vanessa and Austin plan to do.
Two years after first bringing up the idea, saving as much money as possible and renovating their van, Vanessa packed up her classroom and submitted her resignation in May 2021. Austin took leave from his job; they sold their home in Indianapolis, transferred their remaining valuables into storage, and moved into their van full-time.
On June 2, 2021, they hightailed it to Colorado to start their cross-country road trip with no end date in sight.
Van life for beginners
The first step Vanessa and Austin took to make their van life dream a reality was getting the actual van. After some research, they decided to renovate an ambulance instead of a traditional van because an ambulance would allow their cab area to connect to the box of the vehicle. Plus, it was the sturdier and more affordable option. In the end, they bought their ambulance from a Craigslist posting in Charlotte, N.C.
With keys in hand, it was time to design their floor plan and decide what non-negotiable features they wanted to include. Their ultimate goal was to have a tiny home that was still comfortable while on the road. Austin configured a 3-D model of their space and was able to customize everything to their liking.
Once the remodel was done—which took about two years—their van boasted a full kitchen, complete with a stove top, sink, filtered water, drawers, refrigerator, and a freezer. Vanessa is a self-proclaimed foodie, so having a “spacious” kitchen was at the top of her priority list. The van also contains a full-size shower plus a water heater, a little dining area, a full-sized bed, and a closet. The one thing it’s missing — a toilet.
“We didn’t want to have to deal with emptying an accumulation of waste, whether it be composted or in a tank,” Vanessa explained.
Because they chose to do the renovations themselves, that also meant they’d have to learn a few new trades to get the job done, such as electrical work. It helped that Austin’s background is in mechanical engineering, but he’d still never done anything quite like this—and the same went for Vanessa.
“Austin did some research and then helped teach me how to do electric,” Vanessa says. “He’s taught me a lot along the way. We were not electricians or plumbers, but now we feel fairly confident with it.”
During their renovations, the couple discussed what route they’d take during their journey. They originally planned to hit the northeast part of the country first and go into Canada, but the country is currently restricting travel by U.S. citizens due to COVID-19. With those plans squashed for the time being, they rerouted and decided to hit the western portion of the country first.
So far, they’ve driven from Indianapolis and camped in St. Louis, Missouri. From there, they camped in Maxwell Lake, Kan., and made it to their first destination, Colorado. They intend to stay in Colorado for the next few weeks, visiting Boulder and Estes Park. The plan is to then drive down to New Mexico and Arizona for the Fourth of July. After that, it’s up in the air. However, their goal remains the same — explore as much of the U.S. as possible.
What it’s like living on the road
Austin and Vanessa have been on the road for about three weeks now, and away from family and friends. Vanessa is originally from San Antonio Texas, while Austin is from Travis Air Force Base, California. They plan to see loved ones along the way, as well as friends they’ve made since relocating to Indiana four years ago for work. Still, they added some sentimental touches to the van. For example, their stove is actually a camping stove that was given to them by Austin’s father.
“He used that camping stove when he went camping with his grandfather when he was young,” she says. “So, it’s just kind of been in the family and it’s really important to us. I love the fact that it’s been in the family so long. It’s kind of like we have a piece of the family with us all the time. Plus, I love cooking.”
The couple also cooks over fire pits, when it’s permitted, and the weather cooperates. So far, they’ve whipped up Indian curries, Italian dishes, and rice and veggie bowls.
When they’re not cooking or exploring, they’re usually driving or resting. Their van runs on diesel and has a 35-gallon tank and gets 12 miles per gallon. How much time they’re spending at the pump really depends on the day.
“It really varies how often we fill up because sometimes we don’t drive very far at all and other times we drive for hours,” Vanessa says. “It just kind of depends on our destination.”
They’ve also gotten lucky and have only had one minor hiccup so far. Their van ended up getting towed in Colorado because transmission fluid leaked from being overheated. Aside from that, they’ve enjoyed free campsites every night with stellar views.
What life was like before the van
Before van life, Austin and Vanessa traveled as much as possible. They jumped at every chance to backpack or camp, and with Austin’s job requiring a lot of travel, Vanessa tagged along when it worked with her schedule.
“Austin, he’s kind of the one that pushes me out of my comfort zone for things like backpacking and camping,” she says. “That wasn’t anything I grew up doing.”
Growing up, Austin and his family would travel around the U.S., while Vanessa on the other hand, did not see as much of the country because she and her family would spend each summer visiting family in Central America.
“I’m excited to see a lot of places that my husband traveled to with his family growing up,” she says. “I’m excited to be outside more, obviously. With the normal 9-5 job, it’s hard to be out in nature. I’m really excited for some freedom for the year.”
Still, when they presented their grand idea to their family and friends, some were skeptical at first and unsure if they’d really go through with it. As the van and their dream came to fruition, those same people came around to the idea, and are now fully supportive and excited for their adventure. Best of all, their employers were completely supportive of their decision.
Throughout her years in education, Vanessa always found herself incorporating her love of travel into lesson plans through shared cultural experiences. As a dual language teacher, she’d often have lessons that included material about different parts of Mexico and Central America, even South America. Her work didn’t go unnoticed because in 2020 she was named the Indian Creek Teacher of the Year.
“Our lesson plan is mostly the United States, but we do have to go into parts of Latin America and visit that,” she says. “Seeing more of the world is what I always talk to my students about, taking those opportunities when they present themselves, and living life to the fullest.”
Returning to the classroom
For the time being, Vanessa and Austin plan to live on the road and in their van for at least a year, maybe more depending on how the first 12 months go. They’re open to staying on the road longer. One of the questions they get the most is what they’ll do after their cross-country adventure.
“All I know is teaching, and so I have no idea what else I would do,” Vanessa says. “After COVID, there are a lot more companies where you can teach online remotely, so I’m looking into that possibly even part-time for this next year. I think I’ll have a really hard time completely walking away from teaching. So, my hope would be after we’re done with van life, be able to find a school district to get back into. Our hope is to live by mountains somewhere in the U.S. and I will probably go back to teaching whenever we decide to settle down after van life.”
At the end of the day, Vanessa hopes to feel more connected with nature, and to learn to slow down and enjoy the beauty that surrounds her. So far, her career has kept her too busy to be able to enjoy the great outdoors on a daily basis.
“With this break, I’ll be able to really have some eye-opening experiences and really decide what I want to do for the rest of my life and how I want to continue living my life in a slower paced fashion, hopefully,” she says.
No matter when and if she returns to the classroom, Vanessa credits this experience to helping her grow as a person. Prior to the renovation, the only power tool she’d used was a drill. Now she’s able to do paneling and build benches, among other things.
“If I can do it, anybody can.”