Why are so many people turning to #VanLife?

Oct 27, 2021 at 1:00 am
click to enlarge Ramblin' van: Drifter Vans owner Paul Domish. - Kelley O’Neill
Kelley O’Neill
Ramblin' van: Drifter Vans owner Paul Domish.

Business is booming at Drifter Vans, a shop tucked in the back of an industrial park in metro Detroit where owner Paul Domish and his team create custom camper vans. The company, which Domish founded just last year, has rapidly expanded from 1,000 square feet to 7,000 square feet, and now employs about a dozen workers, including an interior designer, a plumber, electricians, and carpenters.

On a recent weekday, a handful of custom jobs can be found in various stages of completion. One is ready for what Domish calls the big "reveal" — a cameraman is going to show off the interior of the van, as well as the reaction of the customers, to be shared on Drifter's social media channels.

The van, a converted Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, is adorable, with an American Southwest motif on colorful throw pillows and a backsplash at the tiny kitchen. There's a loft-style bed over the trunk, and a bathroom with a shower and toilet, with walls that look like they're made of white wood, and an arched doorway with a porthole window. The small space is decorated with framed postcards from National Parks. It almost feels like a small cottage, on wheels.

Drifter Vans is part of the so-called #VanLife trend on social media, where people document their travels and custom campers. The trend has been going for a few years now, with companies like Drifter Vans cropping up across the country. "It's definitely more than a fad," says Domish, a burly guy with a clean-shaven head. "I talk to, easily, twenty to thirty different people a week."

The custom jobs aren't cheap, and can cost anywhere from $60,000 to $150,000, on top of the price of the van. With the supply chain issues caused by the pandemic, Domish says it can be six months before his shop even acquires a van, which he sources from local car dealerships, and then at least eight weeks to complete the build. Sure, his customers could just get an RV like a Winnebago for a comparable price or cheaper, but Domish says the customization aspect is a huge part of the appeal. Before the process even begins, there's a lot of back-and-forth with his clients, who often come to Drifter with inspiration boards made on the social media platform Pinterest, with photos sourced from other #VanLife bloggers.

In the '90s, "living in a van down by the river" was a punchline in a Chris Farley Saturday Night Live sketch about a down-on-his-luck life coach. Now, it seems, for many, it's the new version of the American dream. How did we get here?

Domish says the pandemic created the opportunity for him. Following stints as a general contractor and then working in food trucks, Domish caught the travel bug, and wound up taking a backpacking trip down in South America. "I was supposed to be there for a month, and ended up staying for a couple of years," he says. That was where he met his future Drifter Vans business partner Kim Lucine, a French professional figure skater. (Domish says as an internationally known athlete, Lucine helped him manage the brand.) Domish started a tour business there, but when the pandemic spread early last year he decided to return to his native Michigan to figure out his next move.

A cousin invited him on a camping trip to Colorado, and when they made a stop at Yellowstone National Park, Domish noticed a bunch of people camping in custom vans.

"Just camping out there and talking to people, and seeing what they're doing, and then finding out that there were actually people who built these for a living — I just thought it was a bunch of do-it-yourselfers," Domish says. "And then I started looking into it, and that was basically when I started Drifter."

The project has been Domish's full-time job for the past year. He says he instantly started getting inquiries, and now more than half of his clients come from out of state.

The pandemic led many of his customers here, too, with many people realizing they can work from home indefinitely — or anywhere with a cell signal. Plus, many people have been wary of traveling by plane. But Domish says that doesn't explain the full appeal of #VanLife.

"I talk to a lot of people, and I hear their stories," Domish says. "It was the pandemic that really slowed people down, and that's what I've taken away from this. ... people just got to be still for a minute during the pandemic, and they looked around, they looked at all their shit, they looked at their houses filled with stuff, but they felt empty inside. So really what I took away from it in the end, there was that moment of clarity that people had to sit down and realize, 'I'm not happy with what I'm doing.'"

The trend crossed over into the mainstream this summer in a tragic way with the death of Gabby Petito, a 22-year-old #VanLife blogger from New York who had been documenting her cross-country trip with boyfriend Brian Laundrie in a converted 2012 Ford Transit Connect. In September, her body was found in the Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming.

Many have pointed to the case as an example of "missing white woman syndrome," a type of story focused on young, attractive white victims, at the expense of others — and one that seems to have receded somewhat during the chaotic Trump era. But that doesn't really explain the full appeal of the Petito case. Simply put, #VanLife had already captured the imagination of millions of people. There are social media influencers like Maddie Burman, a 28-year-old woman from Grand Ledge, who has more than 742,000 followers on TikTok, where she documents her travels with her husky Daisy. And Nomadland, a 2020 film starring Frances McDormand as an older woman who turns to van life after falling on financial hard times, based on a 2017 nonfiction book of the same name, was a critical and commercial success, pulling $39 million against a $5 million budget and winning Best Drama in the Golden Globes and Best Picture in the Academy Awards.

In the ’90s, “living in a van down by the river” was a punchline in a Chris Farley Saturday Night Live skit. Now, it's the new version of the American dream. How did we get here?

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Domish says despite the popular young van life bloggers, many of his customers are much older. "What's amazing is it's not the people you think that are doing this through companies like mine," he says. "When you look up #VanLife it's a lot of 20-something-year-olds that built their own vans and everything. But what's been really surprising to me is the age range, people between 50 and 70."

That includes Steve and Hallie Pete, an Ohio couple who are in the process of moving to Michigan, which is how they came across Drifter Vans. Though the couple's van isn't expected to arrive until February, they stopped by the shop to look at some of Drifter's latest jobs to gather inspiration and "start the design process and get it rolling," Steve says.

Both hope to retire within three years, which is why they're getting started on their custom van now. The two say they got a taste of van life recently when they rented a van to travel to Nashville.

"We knew we wanted to travel with our dog, and we didn't want to take planes, and we wanted to go across the country," Steve says. "And we didn't want anything too big, so we didn't want to drive a big RV." The van was a perfect drive, they say — but they didn't like the bed, which folded up and was uncomfortable. For their custom job, they definitely want a built-in bed.

But what they say is most appealing about #VanLife is freedom.

"You know, when you get on a plane and you go somewhere for a month, you're committed," Steve says. "With a van you have the ability to change your mind on a dime and just say, 'We're going to go home.'"

"Or when the weather gets bad, you can chase the sun," Hallie says.

click to enlarge Southfield’s Drifter Vans has rapidly expanded since last year. - Kelley O’Neill
Kelley O’Neill
Southfield’s Drifter Vans has rapidly expanded since last year.

Steve works in sales, and Hallie is an engineer. "People kind of laugh because I've already driven everywhere during my career," he says. (He's traveled to every state except for three.) "Like, why would I want to do more driving?"

But the couple says the #VanLife trend is spreading. "Our friends are also getting one," Hallie says. "We had the idea, and they stole it!"

"Like four or five of us go to the same bar," Steve says. "We started talking about it, and they were like, 'Oh, that's a great idea.'"

Roger and Melisa Burnett of Brighton are another older couple who are getting a custom van through Drifter Vans. Roger says they were initially considering doing their own conversion, but hit a snag when he realized the van they bought didn't fit in their garage.

"It's amazing how sometimes something as simple as the van was too tall for our garage door has a way of changing your opinion on what you're going to do," he says. "We bought the van last October, and certainly it's one thing to do a conversion in the winter, and it's something completely different to do a conversion in the winter outside. Once we pulled it in the driveway we realized, 'Oh, geez, this is not going to work.'"

Roger says his interest in van life started years ago. "I walked around my house one year and asked my family what they all would like for Christmas, and everybody said to me that they didn't want anything," he says. "And I walked upstairs, and I sat my wife down and said, 'We've done something completely wrong.' Because when we were kids — she and I both came from pretty modest backgrounds — Christmas was when you got something that you've been hoping you would get all year. And if you got it on Christmas morning, it was the best day ever."

So the Burnetts decided not to do Christmas gifts anymore. Instead, they started going on more family vacations, including trips to the Grand Canyon, California, and Hawaii.

"What I said to them was, 'Experiences are more important than things to me,'" he says. "And coming from not having much, you think when you don't have things, that having things will make you happy, only to get things and realize they don't make you happy. So let's just go make memories, because those are more valuable than anything that you might hold on to."

Burnett says his family found even the most rugged experiences to be enjoyable. "We slept outdoors under the stars," he says. "It was god-awful hot, 115 degrees every single day. But if you asked me if we would go again, I would say, 'When do we leave?' It was a life-changing experience. Even my youngest son said, 'Dad, I feel different now.'"

Burnett says on the plane trip home, his wife, who works for Google, decided they should invest in a camper van. "She said, 'We can work from anywhere. Why are we waiting?'" he says. Within months they had bought the van.

"It was one of those things that sounds like we made a rash decision," Burnett says. "But in reality, we've been pondering this just for forever. She had put in, I mean, hundreds of hours of research into other van lifers, what vehicles they were using, why they chose them, how they converted them, what they look like. I mean, it was the same thing she did with our house."

Of course, a custom van is a material object, too — one that happens to be a vehicle that delivers experiences, but an object still. And in the social media age, even experiences become things, in a sense, to post on social media, to garner likes and shares. Burnett embraces that aspect of van life to the fullest extent.

"We're doing the thing, man, we're going all in, we're pushing all our chips," he says. Burnett has already created a website for his #VanLife journey, PRKtopia.com — "the idea is anywhere you park is utopia," he explains — and plans to create YouTube and Instagram accounts too. "So van lifers are a thing, right? A lot of people would say that it's kind of an overdone category, and that we're kind of late to the game. And to a certain degree, as a guy who does branding, I agree. It's like, I have a podcast, and people will be like, 'Well, why? What makes your podcast special?' It's like, well, nothing. There's millions of podcasts."

Burnett says he wants to treat their van life journey almost like a reality TV show.

"Ultimately, you have to decide what's your lane, and why do you want to do this," he says. "And for us, you know, we're 50-plus, and most van lifers are young, they're DIYers. Melissa is in sales, I'm in sales, and we are not going to stop working. So the premise of what we're going to present is ... can other people our age replicate what we're doing, if they have a similar lifestyle? And I think that's going to be interesting."

Burnett says they're already lining up sponsorships.

"This is influencer marketing 101, it's just you're not used to seeing a 50-year-old doing it," he says.

“We’re doing the thing, man, we’re going all in, we’re pushing all our chips,” says Roger Burnett. He has already created a website for his #VanLife journey, and plans to create YouTube and Instagram accounts too.

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Burnett adds that he plans on documenting everything — proverbial warts and all.

"Really what we hope is like, we're going to tell this story authentically — like if we're not getting along, we're not going to cut that out. We're going to leave that in," he says. "Maybe it sucks, trying to do this and to be honest about it. We work from home on opposite floors of our house, because she says I talk too loud. So how are we going to do this in a van? Like, that's the real beauty of it ... can somebody else replicate this experiment, and not kill their spouse in the process?"

Petito, now quite possibly the world's most famous van life blogger, was likely killed by her boyfriend on the road; a coroner declared her death to be homicide by strangulation. After she was killed, Laundrie drove the couple's van home to his parents' home in Florida, alone, and refused to talk to police, and has since been declared a person of interest in Petito's death. On Friday, the FBI found Laundrie's remains in a Florida park.

The apparent murder-suicide betrays the idealized version of the relationship that the couple showed on social media, which included plenty of videos of the two laughing and enjoying their van life journey. It was only after police bodycam footage was released from an Aug. 12 domestic disturbance incident on the road in Utah that a glimpse into the true nature of their relationship was revealed. According to the police, a witness saw Laundrie slap Petito, while another witness saw Petito strike Laundrie. When police pulled the couple over, Petito, crying uncontrollably, claimed that they had been arguing over her excessive cleaning of the van, which she blamed on obsessive-compulsive disorder (though Petito's father later said she had never been diagnosed with it). Laundrie, meanwhile, told the officers that tension had been building during their trip. "Brian explained he and Gabrielle have been traveling together for the last 4 or 5 months," the police report reads. "That time spent created emotional strain between them and increased the number of arguments." Both asked the officers not to press charges, and the police wound up separating the two for the night.

If there's anything we've learned by now, it's that clearly, social media can cause people to do some pretty irrational things. Despite the Petito story dominating the national media, none of the people Metro Times spoke to for this story brought it up. "That was kind of an extreme case," Domish says when we steer the conversation there. "I guess picking better partners is what I'll say in that case."

Domish says Drifter Vans has a number of safety features they can install, including a lockable pocket door that separates the living quarters from the front of the vehicle, alarm systems, and even video cameras.

"I would say that 30-40% of our customers are single women," Domish says.

That includes Diana Stetson, a 67-year-old from Lima Township. She retired in December, sold her house and farm, and is waiting for Drifter to finish her custom van.

click to enlarge Drifter Vans does custom camper van conversions that feel like a small cottage on wheels. - Kelley O’Neill
Kelley O’Neill
Drifter Vans does custom camper van conversions that feel like a small cottage on wheels.

Since then, she downsized to a one-bedroom apartment but ended her lease in August. Now, everything she owns is in storage, and she's traveling around the country by car — a modest 2007 Toyota Corolla — with her pet dog while she waits for her van.

"When I sold the farm and moved into a one-bedroom apartment, I became very aware of everything I used, which is not that much," she says.

Stetson says she's been dreaming about traveling the country since 2015, when she was driving back to Michigan from San Francisco and saw what she believes were Basque-American shepherds in Nevada in old-fashioned wagons — "with a canvas top, and the stovepipe poking up through the front," she says. "It was something about that image that was like, 'Oh my gosh, I would like to live like that.'"

Once she returned home, she started doing research. That led to her finding van life bloggers. "Once you go into 'van world' and you go on YouTube, you can deep dive forever," she says. "I just went from YouTube video to YouTube video and saved everything that had something that I liked."

She says she plans on living in her van, traveling the country, until one of her two children settles down, in which case she'll follow them.

"I hope it's going to be less expensive than having a home," she says. Her van is a Ram ProMaster 3500. "Nothing super fancy," she adds.

Still, she admits she's not exactly roughing it.

"I am not Nomadland," she says. "I have money." (She says she is a big fan of the film. "I love it," she says. "I read the book too.")

"I'm choosing this," she adds. "Because I sold my house, I have the money to do the luxury build."

We speak by phone, while Stetson is pulled over in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, walking her dog down a bicycle path along a river.

"It's gorgeous," she says. "And I didn't know this was here. I was just driving through town and happened to look to one side and saw the path. I've been walking on it for over an hour. This is what I like: no agenda, no time schedule. And just if something's interesting, I stop and do it. I love it."

Stetson says she's not fearful of traveling alone. "I've had nothing but wonderful experiences. I felt completely comfortable and safe, more than happy at every place that I've camped," she says. "In general, people are good and helpful, and the number of people that would actually want to do harm are extremely small. And I have a big dog with a big, loud bark."

Stetson says she knows there will be a learning curve to living the #VanLife lifestyle. "I'm expecting that there will be things that I didn't think of ahead of time, and I'm going to make mistakes," she says. "It's no problem. I have time. I have no place I have to be. I'm just looking forward to learning. And that's what I've learned from this trip. I absolutely love exploring, driving to new places, having the freedom to take a side turn, find out what's there — and if I enjoy it, stay."

If she feels uneasy about a place, she says she can just move. "That's the great thing about a van," she says. "Just get in, start it up, and drive away."

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