Stride Stories: One couple's quest to redefine work (from their van)

[Emily and Corey from Where's My Office Now? are Stride customers and ambassadors. They live an idyllic lifestyle on the road in their van. The number one question people ask is how they find work and afford to keep going? We dug in deep on these topics in this long form interview, the first time they've reflected on many of these answers. In a sea of vanlife wannabes, Corey and Emily have shown an endurance and a willingness to evolve. Here is their story. It should take about 12 minutes to read. Enjoy!]

Stride: How long have you been living in your van?

Where’s My Office Now?: Corey and I (Emily) hit the road in January 2013. For over three years, we’ve lived and worked full time in our 1987 VW Vanagon named Boscha.

Stride: What inspired you to live in your van?

WMON: On a surf trip in Central America, we crossed paths with Foster Huntington, the creator of the vanlife hashtag.  He introduced us to the idea of living in a van; he also told us about a thing called Instagram. Upon returning to the U.S., we began planning. Central America had changed us, showing us a different pace of life, and igniting our desire for exploration, adventure, nature, surfing, mountain biking, and the unknown. Though our memories of Central America fondly lingered, we realized that we hadn’t even explored our own country! Somehow, it felt like we needed to see America in day and night to understand our cultures and ourselves. The combination of our desires plus today’s technology enabling remote work, allowed the idea to grow into reality.

We had no idea what to expect in regards to living with a lover in such a small space. And we wondered what working on the road would be like. Questions persistently floated around my mind. Would my clients be okay with this? Will WiFi be reliable? Will we be able to generate the income needed? Will I be happy working from the road? Corey, on the other hand, always has faith that work will be here for us, which helps me see through my fear and remember we have nothing to lose.

Stride: What were you doing before living in your van?

WMON: I’ve lived a lot of lives since graduating from the University of New Hampshire (BA Business). I tried the traditional 9-5 career and really gave it my all.  For three years I worked as the marketing director for a real estate agency, developing web skills and putting my degree to the test.

Looking back, I was overly ambitious, trying to work 9-5 AND freelancing for The New York Times. I thought I wanted to move to NYC and get a big advertising agency job, until a nagging feeling entered my being - creeping stagnation and a restless unease that grew into something many of us face… ANXIETY. I began practicing yoga a lot, and with it came clarity – I saw that everything I was doing was what was expected of me. Eventually I just couldn’t do it anymore, and I quit. With a few small website clients to keep me fed, I began pursuing acting, which terrified me, forced me into the present moment, and allowed me to explore storytelling, theater, video production, and myself.

Corey’s story is different. He majored in pre-med biology at the University of New Hampshire with the intention of becoming a physician’s assistant.  After assessing his own desires and what makes him happy, he decided that wasn’t the path for him, and for years he worked as a kayak guide and shop manager for Portsmouth Kayak Adventures.

Stride: When you packed up and shipped off, did you have a time limit in mind for this trip/project?

WMON: When we hit the road, we envisioned “a year or so” in our minds, but were open for anything.  We worked hard to a) have a clear vanlife vision (still evolving!) and b) maintain a sense of detachment from the outcome. We see that when our minds are too attached to something, our narrow focus obstructs infinite possibilities… we do not see surrounding opportunities that may be more in alignment with who we are.

Vanlife can be exhausting, and our longevity has resulted from the practice of being honest and listening to our needs. We pace ourselves based on our energy levels. For example, while editing our modern nomads web series (available now on our YouTube channel), we lived in a house for a month. Currently, we are house sitting for a month as we plan our 2016. If we had been attached to driving every day for three years all over North America, our health would’ve suffered and we may have sold the van.

Stride: How were you feeling about capitalism & traditional work when you left?

WMON: Frustrated and confused. I grew up with two hard working parents and a strong grandfather figure who was the Admiral of a merchant marine academy. There was always pressure to work hard and achieve. Subconsciously, I knew I didn’t want anything to do with a traditional job, but I felt conflicted because I wanted to make my family proud. Today – the fact that we’re using an alternative lifestyle to explore a traditional concept like work – we’re able to bridge the gap between different demographics, from hippies to people committed to careers and a traditional life.

When we left, part of me felt like I was escaping. However, being honest with myself, I knew this wasn’t true. Although we are location independent, we are tethered to capitalism because vanlife costs a lot of money! From purchasing the van, to fuel, gear, and food – money is necessary on the road.

Stride: What allowed you financial security to take the leap? Did you have savings? Did you save specifically for this project?

WMON: A few months before leaping, I entered into a contract with a marketing and communications agency in New Hampshire. I was needed for 15 hours/week doing website development and content management work. This was a huge relief, as we only had $5,000 each in our savings account after purchasing the van (which we had specifically saved for van life). We hit the road knowing we had consistent work for at least 6 months. It’s worth mentioning that I still have a large amount of student debt, and that was (and still is) a layer of financial pressure. Corey, on the other hand, owes no money.

Stride: What jobs were you both working when you started living on the road?

WMON: I was in contract with the communications agency (mentioned above), and about 15+ personal and small business websites that I managed. Initially, the vision was to build up our website development business. Corey would work as the account manager, and I the developer.  This worked well for a few months on the road, but we realized that we seemed happier and more efficient if I managed all the computer work, and Corey managed the van, cooking, cleaning, and driving. We let go of trying to build up the web development business; instead, I focused on our existing clients and sharing our journey on social media.

Stride: How have your jobs/roles changed over the years? Where do you see them evolving in the future?

WMON: Over three years, my contract ebbed and flowed between 15-30+ hours/week. Corey became very knowledgeable about the van maintenance and repairs. He also became an amazing van chef, providing us nourishing and grounding food that we believe has played a significant role in our longevity on the road. Corey has also taken random jobs like mountain biking guiding and working for a television show. This past August, my contract ended, and we spent a month working on an organic farm. Since my work ended, we’ve lived off of our savings on a strict budget.  

Although I greatly appreciated the remote web work, stepping away from it has given me clarity of its effects on my well-being. We live a dream lifestyle with incredible flexibility, but I now see that my work closely paralleled the 9-5 office job that I consciously quit. My bodily reactions were the same – high stress levels, high blood pressure, anxiety, and ultimately spending thousands of hours (and three years) doing something that I didn't deeply desire to do.

For my entire life, I’ve ambitiously emphasized DOING (even in yoga, there was often a goal for me). Very rarely have I allowed myself to simply be a human BEING. Perhaps it isn’t the work causing my stress, but my addiction to over-doing. Since August, I’ve been practicing being, through modalities like yoga, meditation, journaling, and breathing.

I know now that my purpose is not to be a website developer. I recognize my skills as a developer are valuable, but I want to focus my limited computer time on projects that I desire to grow. It’s not perfectly clear how our work will evolve, but I’m uncovering my deep desire to help people reconnect with their body and heart to a live a more fulfilling life. I feel our social media posts have already shifted in this direction organically, and we have started generating income on our YouTube channel. Our challenge now is to maintain authenticity while exploring ways to generate revenue… of which there seem to be many!

Stride: Have you had additional help to keep Vanlife going? Parents? Sponsors? Friends hooking you up with random work? Or just yourselves and the good ol’ hustle?

WMON: When we left New England, we had no idea community would play such an integral role in our life on the road. We wouldn’t be where we are without it. We’ve had support from our sponsors, in the form of products that enable our lifestyle, from sandals and hiking shoes, to the best toothpaste ever, organic clothing, and van parts and upgrades. It’s been incredible to build relationships with companies who we have admiration for, companies that are using the power of work to be an agent of change.

All of our work opportunities on the road have come through friends or business relationships. For example, the large contract I had was a result of a business relationship that I cultivated in college; Corey’s mountain bike guiding gig came from a friend he knew in San Diego that had moved to Sedona, AZ; and the farm work came from friends of Corey’s cousin.  

The modern nomad web series that we recently completed was crowdfunded through Kickstarter. It was initially our vision, but it became a community project that we organized. We cannot stress enough the importance of building relationships in this world with values of integrity, honesty, joy, and love.

Stride: What is the worst part about working from the road?

WMON: The most difficult thing about web work on the road is often internet connection. Sometimes it works perfectly, even while we are driving. In this case, I work while Corey drives. However, more times than I can count, I’d have an urgent update and service would be dropping, so we’d drive to the nearest town and find a cafe. We always made it work, but not without extra time and effort.  Another challenge with computer work is power, which is dependent on our auxiliary battery system and if the sun is out to charge solar. Sometimes, we have to leave a beautiful place to simply drive and charge up our battery. However, these challenges are minor when we remember the lifestyle that we are able to live!

Stride: What is your least favorite part about running your own business?

WMON: Time management has never been my forte. In school I was a procrastinator, but completed things because there were hard deadlines. Now, from the freelance web development work to our Kickstarter-funded web series, we are often the ones creating the deadlines. Sticking to them is challenging for me… especially with the lure of beautiful waves or the sun-kissed red rocks beckoning me to go play. Corey has helped me immensely with time management, always reminding me to prioritize tasks and calling me out when he sees me procrastinating. In our case, teamwork has made the work work.

Stride: What kinds of new work opportunities have you learned about being on the road? Have you worked any of them?

WMON: We didn’t realized the plethora of seasonal farm work. Our friends James and Rachel of @idletheorybus shared with us some of the existing opportunities, many of them WOOFING or work-trade. Our friends Matt and Josh of @thevanwithnoplan have found many odd jobs by simply searching for them. We’ve met painters, writers, photographers, IT workers, and personal trainers who have all found ways to work on the road. We even met a guy who had built a knife sharpening shop in his Vanagon! One thing is clear, all modern nomads have redefined the concept of work for themselves.

Stride: Would you feel comfortable sharing how much money you made in 2015? Do you want more or less in the future?

WMON: In 2015, I believe we generated about $20,000, which is crazy, because in 2014 it was about $60,000+.  Making less money this past year has been a great learning experience for us to create and stick to a budget. The amazing thing is, we feel so rich with experience, nature, and friends that sticking to a tighter budget has been relatively easy. In no way does our freedom and happiness seem compromised.

Our biggest expense has always been food. We use food for enjoyment and medicine and are often purchasing expensive superfoods and sometimes supplements. Learning to simplify our eating habits has helped us a lot. Avoiding things like alcohol and sugar maximizes the efficiency of the healthy food we eat.

I’m currently diving into my relationship with money, asking myself hard questions about money’s role in my life. If my relationship with money isn’t clear and positive, then no matter what my work is, I may always feel stressed. I don’t know what the perfect amount of money is. We are working towards establishing residual income to pay off my student debt, purchase nourishing food, and perhaps set up a home base and travel more internationally.

Stride: Do you desire to save money for things like having kids or buying a home someday?

WMON: Vanlife has a funny way of cultivating new perspectives for us! We believe that if we are meant to create life, it will happen. However, saving for a child is the last thing on our minds. Paying off college debt is the first priority, as well as continuing to create our dream life. A home? Possibly, but we’d prefer a tiny home in the woods, something that we build ourselves and doesn’t chain us to one location with a mortgage or home maintenance. Perhaps a yurt, or multiple yurts… and plenty of space for our nomadic friends and family to visit!

Stride: You two represent a rebellion against traditional definitions of work and the American Dream. Has your view of capitalism & traditional work changed even more since you’ve been out there away from it for 3 years?

WMON: After ejecting myself from traditional work, the cyclical nature of work and spending in our society became clearer. We work hard to make money to support ourselves and pay bills, but the work takes up most of our days, so we don’t have the leisure time to do things that are intrinsically motivating. Then, we end up spending money for a quick happiness fix like dinner out, shopping, or entertainment.

Whether we like it or not, our needs cost money, and work is our energy output in obtaining this money. To eject ourselves from the system is not impossible, but it is very very hard. Plus, there is immense power in social media, so if we completely remove ourselves from it all, we are neglecting perhaps the most powerful tool there is for creating this positive shift.

It’s become clearer and clearer that we must align ourselves with natural cycles and work to simplify and be happy, from the inside out. The Earth has given us everything we could ever need and more. The more we connect back to nature, the clearer it becomes that capitalism itself isn’t the problem, it’s the disconnect of people from themselves and Earth… from their own true nature. For the sake of our survival, we must be open to redefining everything, including concepts like traditional work and capitalism. We must look within to ask ourselves if our work is working for us. Are we happy? Is our planet thriving?

Stride: What has been the hardest part of staying on the road for this long? What has tempted you to stop most?

WMON: Gosh, I don’t feel there’s anything hard about staying on the road… we just keep going with the momentum that we’ve built. It seems easier to continue than to stop. However, the allure of growing our own food and being easily grounded for at least a few months per year has been creeping into our awareness again and again.  

Stride: Are you really going to live in your van your whole life? If you had to guess what would end vanlife, what would it be?

WMON: One day we’ll have a home base, but we don’t see our vanlife ending until we are dead. To be stuck on it being full-time exactly as it is now is against the only truth we see – that of change! As we grow through different stages in life, our needs change and eventually full-time vanlife will transition to part-time. However, vanlife is like surfing… like the ocean pulsing through our veins – our heart will beat the rhythm of the road for the rest of our lives.  

Stride: Theoretically, if you quit vanlife today, where would you be living and what would you be doing?

WMON: This is tough. There’s a piece of land in the woods of New Hampshire near our families that’s a possibility. It would be nice to see family more. We’d spend our time growing food, surfing, mountain biking, practicing yoga, and exploring the Northeast through vanlife. It would be amazing, just different.

Stride: Would you ever do an office job again?

WMON: Never again. Never 9-5, in front of a computer, doing work that I am not passionate about. It’s not worth the sacrifice of my well-being day after day. Corey never has and says he never will.

Stride: Do you feel like you’d be letting your followers down if you went back to a more traditional way of life? Do you feel a pressure to keep going?

WMON: First and foremost, the story of our lives is ours to write, and although we are deeply inspired by community to continue driving, we will make decisions for ourselves. Vanlife to us means a whole lot more than living in a van – we see it as a perspective from which we approach life, an attitude of openness for the only constant, change. We see it as a value system, choosing experience over physical stuff, everyday. Van life is the expansion and evolution of our consciousness, it is inseparable from nature and ourselves, and is characterized by the commitment to the journey within.

Stride: What do you appreciate most about Stride?

WMON: We are so grateful that Stride has come around to revolutionize our relationship to the health care system. The fact that Stride caters to nomads, is humbling and exciting. We love so much about Stride, from the unbelievably easy user experience on the website, to the support team’s responsiveness and the attitude of caring. Rather than a feeling of frustration (what Corey and I have experienced dealing with our health care in the past) we feel excited and appreciative of the personal connection that Stride offers. Thank you Stride, for not only listening to our story, but for actively participating, enabling, and valuing the role that our personal and collective stories have in our world.

[To learn more about Where's My Office Now? visit their websiteInstagramFacebook, and YouTube]