Every digital nomad has its own way to fulfill his dreams. Shelby and Simon, both wedding photographers, left their freezing Ontario to discover what would look life for them south of the border. Each of them also have their own personal goal they pursue and the #vanlife has made them realize so much about themselves already, see what their story is all about!
What is your vehicle ? Did you restore some parts yourself?
Our van is a 1992 Dodge B350 “Travelhome”. It’s a converted van from a small company that no longer exists on the west coast of Canada. It came to us equipped to do powered campsite camping only, so on top of updating tires, suspension and other dated engine components, we also had to convert it to be self contained. This means removing power thirsty appliances like our coffee maker and microwave and equipping the van with deep cycle batteries, charging relays off the alternator, a solar panel system and an inverter. Aside from that, we’ve installed a new table and bookshelf Shelby’s dad made us, extra led lights throughout, some USB chargers, DC powered fans to help us stay cool, straps and tie downs for all sorts of stuff we need to carry around. We’ve modified loads of little things, and we keep on adding and subtracting to the van. It’s a never ending process.
What led you to this van life?
We met in Ottawa just after I graduated university, and we’ve always wanted to travel, but since I’m older we had to wait another 3 years for Shelby to finish school. In the mean time we travelled to New York City, Texas, Florida, Italy, France and Switzerland. One night Shelby came home with a book called “Maddie on Things”, a project by Theron Humphrey where he drops everything, buys a truck, picks up a dog and travels America on an epic photo project journey. It was one of those, “damn why didn’t I think of that”, moments. We discovered the #vanlife on Instagram and saw the vast amount of people creating their own journeys in vehicles. We realized that the community stretched from artists and musicians to families of 4 taking their children on the road. It seems like we’ve always been talking about living in a van, but this night was the point where it all started. As photographers and artists, we wanted to get better at storytelling. We thought that putting ourselves into new situations was the best way to find those stories. We also followed a lot of photographers living all over the world and were envious of all the places they got to shoot from Oregon to Joshua Tree to Iceland. We knew we wanted to see everything. I grew up doing RV trips with my family as a kid so the idea of getting a van came easily to me.
Shelby needed a bit more convincing. She’s First Nations from a small community in Eastern Ontario and honestly hadn’t really seen much of North America outside of her home province. During her university years she became more invested in learning about who she is and where she comes from. To her, this journey is partially about understanding that. She realized that in order to really see any of the other far away places we visit; we must first understand who we are. In short, she’s been searching for an answer to the question “what does it mean to be Indigenous to North America?” In the end, the thirst for learning and experiencing won out over the fear of cramming her life into a van with me. Some days it’s as amazing as the photos that inspired us on Instagram to plan our own journey, and other days it’s as crappy as you’d think living in a van can be. It’s been a journey of extremes.
As wedding photographers, do most of your travels depend on wherever your contracts are?
We take the winter “off” in the sense that we’re still running our company, managing our website, signing on new clients, handling paper work but we’re not shooting any weddings. The idea is that we can spend this time to work on personal projects that’ll push our careers forward. Once we return to Ontario in the summer it’s full time work with a fair bit of travel from city to city doing weddings and a lot of commercial work as well. As photographers it’s a nice compromise since we can make a lot more in the summer and spend the winter traveling so long as we’re budget conscious. We haven’t completely figured out the working and travel balance yet. It’s something we keep refining and changing and the road gives us the freedom to be flexible to situations that arise.
If you ever get married, which would be the vehicle taking you to the ceremony?
Before buying the van, we actually weren’t really car people. We had only owned bikes and had biked everywhere. I’m a year round cyclist, braving the snow and ice and freezing temperatures in the winter to keep pedaling. I also built Shelby a powder blue cruiser for her birthday 2 years ago. So there’s a good chance we’d bike in (on a tandem if Shelby had her choice).
How do you manage to keep your gear safe all the time?
Safety in a camper van is probably one of the biggest concerns we had. The fact that we’re out on the street most of the time really makes us anxious about keeping our gear safe. We installed multiple GPS trackers in our van and gear to let us keep tabs on it, as well as an aftermarket alarm system. On top of that, we keep our gear in a padded, water proof, bomb proof case, locked to the frame of the van. Having a big black dog with a nasty bark helps too though.
What is your advice to other couples that would like to live in a van?
Be flexible. Living in a small space with a significant other will test you in ways you’re never really ready for, understand that living like this is all about being fluid, transient and flexible. It’s about changing all your plans at a moments notice and being okay with that. We’ve always tried to live by the principle that in our relationship one of us has to be the rock and one of us the pillow. Those roles reverse depending on what’s going on. If Shelby’s having a bad day, feeling home sick, down on her luck and taking it out on me, I have to be the pillow that is there for her. When I’m angry at the van because something’s broken again and she brings me some water while I’m out working in the heat. That’s what it’s about. It never works when we’re both being rocks or both being pillows. There needs to be balance. Lastly, we’d also say, think about what you really want. Don’t do anything because other people are doing it or because it looks pretty. At the end of the day, you’re the only people who will be there at 3 am when you’re wet and cold because the ceiling is leaking. None of your Instagram or blog followers will care about that. Create a life that you enjoy living, no matter what it looks like to others and be firm in the conviction that you are totally allowed to change your mind about what makes you happy.
What would the van of your dreams look like ?
We’re on the fence about that. Some days we want a brand new sprinter conversion with all the bells and whistles, but others we just want what does the trick and doesn’t break the bank. Compared to brick and mortar homes, these vans aren’t an investment in the physical sense. They only depreciate and at the cost of some of these campers there’s a lot of money to lose. So you have to look at what you’re gaining: mobility, freedom, months of care free living and life experiences. That’s what matters, that’s the investment. If you can get that for $1000 instead of $100 000, then that’s a lot of money saved to keep you traveling. Before we started the trip, we were really obsessed with the cult of owning the van, the modifications and interior design. Now that we’re six months into the trip, we realize that none of that actually matters. It’s what you experience while you’re traveling that you remember. We’ve been asked before if we had all the money in the world, would we still have the same van we have now. I think we would. Although a big RV would be nice, it wouldn’t give us the flexibility to go into cities and parallel park downtown. Our van is the perfect size to be comfortable living for two people, but small enough to get around. Features we thought we needed, like a shower, ended up being things we haven’t used once. You really can’t know what you need until you’re living and travelling in your van. To make a long story short, the trip should be what you dream about, not the object of the van, which is just a tool for you to see your dreams through.
Can you show us your 3 favorite #vanlife pictures?
1. This is the sightseeing thing we did after moving in. At park omega in Quebec they have kind of a Canadian safari and if you had carrots to treat the wildlife with they’d let you get really close. Somewhere in that park there’s a deer with lipstick on its lips.
2. Jasper Alberta. We had to make a stop because the road was blocked by big horn sheeps. They climb up the side of the cliff to the road just to eat the salt in the winter. Best traffic jam of the trip.
3- First night not stealth camping we had a campfire and some great food in a field near Cornwall, Ontario. Was nice to feel like we could stretch out for the first time after a month in the van.
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