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Zen and the Art of #VanLife Influencing


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For the past year, I have been trying to buy a conversion van. My reasons are silly and expected: pandemic claustrophobia mixed with pandemic romanticism about the outdoors. About 10 years ago, I was a competent-enough surfer, but I can barely paddle out in waist-high waves anymore. A conversion van, I reasoned, would allow me to drive the 40 or so minutes to the beach, where I could learn to surf again and type while staring out at the water. When my daughter grows old enough to swim in the ocean, I imagine long camping trips up and down the Pacific Coast, everywhere from La Jolla to Westport.

It’s highly unlikely that any of this will happen — so many conversion vans just take up space in a driveway — but I am an optimist, so I have spent an unusual amount of time surveying every listing for a conversion van in the state of California.

This impulse to drop everything and comfortably hit the road has many market-tested names, whether “glamping,” or, more recently, #vanlife, and it’s certainly not contained to middle-aged men who may or may not be feeling a bit nostalgic about their days of reading “On the Road.”

In 2017, The New Yorker published a dispatch from #vanlife, a hashtag that features dozens of millennial couples documenting their lives in their stylish conversion vans. The aesthetics of #vanlife roughly matched up with the softly lit, lightly tousled influencer trends at the time, but with a slightly crunchy edge: Swap out the “vintage” Eames shell chairs and itchy midcentury modern couches for an orange Westfalia Vanagon with a Hudson’s Bay blanket draped over a bed and some cute hooks for hanging Japanese neoprene wet suits and you have a general sense of it. The people in the vans looked like they had been crafted to sit among these things. As Rachel Monroe, the author of the article, wrote:

There is an undeniable aesthetic and demographic conformity in the vanlife world. Nearly all of the most popular accounts belong to young, attractive, white, heterosexual couples. “There’s the pretty van girl and the woodsy van guy,” Smith said. “That’s what people want to see.” At times, the vanlife community seems full of millennials living out a leftover baby-boomer fantasy: the Volkswagens, the neo-hippie fashions, the retro gender dynamics.

The publication of that article coincided with a record year for R.V. sales. New R.V. sales for 2021 are projected to be 33.8 percent higher than last year, which would set records. These numbers actually undersell the actual growth in mobile homes because they don’t account for conversion projects, rentals or a white-hot preowned market. For the most part, the majority of R.V. buyers are on the older side. The average age is 48, but several market indicators, including reports from R.V. companies like Winnebago, suggest a trend toward millennial buyers. According to Outdoorsy, an R.V. share app, millennial R.V. rental bookings went up 70 percent from 2019 to 2020.

Abigail Martin, a 20-year-old photographer and influencer, started watching #vanlife videos when she was in high school. By the time she graduated, she realized that she had no real interest in going to college to start what she called “the path to a nine-to-five.” She didn’t have a particularly solid plan on what an “alternative path” would entail, but she still felt the allure of all those glamorous vagabonds she had watched on Instagram and YouTube.

The problem was the cost. “I started working four different jobs at once,” Martin told me. “In the morning, I would work at a coffee shop from 6 a.m. to noon, then I would walk across the street to a boutique from noon to 6 p.m. Then I’d go waitress at a restaurant from 6 p.m. until closing. On off-days, I was running my own photography business.” Martin, who was living with her parents at the time, saved up $18,000 to buy a 2017 Ford Transit with 54,000 miles on it. The conversion, which included installing a kitchen, bed and all the requisite electrical work, cost her an additional $10,000.

She set out on the road and spent the majority of the next six months driving around and posting updates on TikTok, where she has 730,000 followers. These videos are mostly filmed in the van itself, where Martin sits in the driver’s seat or at the counter of her kitchen and cheerily details the day’s events, answers questions from commenters or gives motivational talks, which float somewhere between a restless Zen that urges her viewers to stop caring so much about the future and more traditional “you can do it” mantras.

Martin recently signed with a management company that set her up with sponsorship deals to hawk brands on her social media channels. This has brought her an influx of money, which she’s spent on skydiving lessons and the like.

It’s not hard to understand why she has gained such a following: There’s an undeniable appeal to clearing away the demands of life and finding meaning in Instagrammable vistas and the mystique of the road. Martin and her tribe aren’t exactly a new generation of Jack Kerouacs urging their fellow youth to seek out the mad ones, nor are they Robert Pirsigs, who want to tell you about chautauquas and Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance. They’re also not Chris McCandless walking off into the Alaskan wilderness to go dig up tubers and think deeply about Russian literature.

The #vanlifers fit much more in line with the aesthetics Monroe laid out in The New Yorker red-cheeked youth who would fit right in at an L.L. Bean catalog shoot; pragmatic textiles; the outdoors as a commodity. (Although, it should be pointed out, there’s probably nothing all that pure about finely maintaining a classic BMW motorcycle, either.)

For the past decade or so, I’ve been anticipating some dropout movement in which thousands of young people went off to live in communes, formed splinter societies or, at the very least, built their own little punk-style communities. The reasons seem obvious enough to me: These kids will certainly have fewer opportunities than their parents, and many have a relatively sophisticated understanding of everything that’s in their way. For the most part, though, some great departure hasn’t taken place, at least not in the way I had envisioned.

It should be said there will always be high school graduates who take a year or two off before college to go sit in a hostel in Patagonia and have very serious conversations about what’s authentic and what’s not. I don’t think #vanlife, which takes most of the insights and aesthetics of a Wanderjahr and puts them on four wheels, constitutes some new path. Even if R.V. and cargo van sales for millennials and Gen Z keep going up over the next few years, there’s nothing particularly radical about, say, “working from van” instead of working from home. But as I watched Martin’s feed, or the hundreds of other young people who detail their lives in their cars on social media, I saw them more as one part of a diffuse, largely unrelated morass of young people who have concluded, perhaps justifiably, that there’s no real path for them in the traditional economy.

This movement — if it even deserves to be called that — isn’t political or coherent, and, as a result, today’s dropouts do not get the same attention as their counterparts in the ’60s, mostly because they are not the kids who left, say, Harvard to go hang out in the Haight in 1969 or to protest the Vietnam War. But if you look at the teenage GameStop options traders, the sports cards resellers who have exploded a long-nascent economy and created thousands of small fortunes and small ruins, or even cryptocurrency shills who scream at you to flip your Dogecoin into Shiba Inu coin, you sense a shared, implicit refusal to enter into the working world.

As countless breathless polls have told us, the No. 1 career choice for American youth is YouTuber/Influencer. This data has been met with a great deal of pearl clutching about the narcissism of Gen Z and their general lack of motivation. But what links the vanlifers, the influencers and the get-rich-quick kids isn’t laziness or dreams of going viral, but rather a sense of precarity that they see all around them, whether in campgrounds filled with the homeless, in the ongoing climate disasters and now in a pandemic that has isolated them from their friends.

There is, of course, another type of #vanlife. If you drive to nearly any underpass in Oakland, for example, you’ll see rows of old R.V.s where unhoused families live. These are not the $220,000 Mercedes Sprinter Vans with walnut cabinets inside and carbon offsets written into the sticker prices, nor are they the Vanagons that dot the Berkeley Hills. There’s nothing glamorous about any of this type of poverty, especially when contrasted with the outrageous wealth that surrounds it.

Martin says she sometimes comes across other young people and families who are just living in their cars. “If you’re in the middle of Boulder, Colorado, you’re gonna see a lot of people who are choosing to live in high-end vans,” she said. “But if you’re in a place like Ocean Beach in San Diego, there are a lot of people who don’t have an option. That’s just where life put them. It’s two completely different situations and two completely different lives.”

Martin is correct, but that doesn’t mean we should simply dismiss the isolation and desperation that middle-class or even upper-middle-class kids might be feeling at this moment. Martin purchased and converted her van at the height of the lockdowns. She says she started a TikTok account to help her get over the intense isolation she felt as schools closed and everyone stayed home. Given the uncertainty of the future for any of us, who can really blame young people for putting down their test prep books, picking up their phones and embarking on some new path that isn’t quite Dharma Bum, but might be something close?

It’s occurred to me that #vanlife might have two separate audiences. The first are just young people who want to figure out what to do with lives whose possibilities have been reduced by growing income inequality, impending climate disasters and the pandemic. In their minds, being a crunchy camping influencer might not sound like too bad a gig. The second, and perhaps much larger audience, are older people like myself who attach all sorts of spiritual baggage to the act of dropping out and riding waves or climbing rocks or whatever. The latter are much more concerned about the meaning of these actions, or, say, the particular aesthetics and politics of the throw blanket a #vanlifer bought at a roadside stand in a Native American reservation.

Martin, for her part, has a much simpler take: She doesn’t really claim to be living some life of deep spirituality or communion with nature. She doesn’t so much criticize the traditional path through college and a career and retirement except to say that it’s just not for her. This is more or less her job now. Perhaps it’s premature to ask, but I wonder if “dropping out” still survives as an idea, if living in a van, pooling your resources with those of your friends to move to a place with cheaper land prices, or “making content,” which, at least on the surface, might feel like the only industry where truly anyone can make it, will simply become a normal option for middle-class kids.

In a recent video, she sits behind the wheel of the van. In response to repeated questions about what she will do with her life in 10 years, she says: “The future doesn’t exist. Like nothing in the future exists. The only thing that exists right now is right now.”

Jay Caspian Kang (@jaycaspiankang) writes for Opinion and The New York Times Magazine.

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