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Nomads no more, U.S. 'van lifers' locked down by coronavirus

by Carey L. Biron | @clbtea | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 4 May 2020 11:00 GMT

Samantha Johnson and her cat outside their van near Big Sur, California. Handout photos by Samantha Johnson.

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The community has suddenly found its way of life rendered impossible by a pandemic which has shut off all support

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By Carey L. Biron

WASHINGTON, May 4 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - It has been years since American 30-something Samantha Johnson stayed put in one place for more than a couple of nights – but now the coronavirus has grounded her nomadic 'van life'.

One of the free spirits who roam the land - living an outdoorsy life in converted campervans and hipster trailers - she has been forced to give up the open road.

"This month I've been hunkered down for COVID, this is the longest time I've stayed still," Johnson told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

When coronavirus grounded her in mid-March, Johnson and her cat had to find some sort of a refuge, so she parked her van in the desert scrub outside the closed Joshua Tree National Park, a beauty spot in southern California.

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The one-time itinerant is now part of a small band of static 'nomads' — a group that grew to five vans and a smattering of pets as lockdowns curtailed their wandering.

It is not the carefree, traveling life she craves.

Until 2018, Johnson had worked in the mortgage industry in Portland, Oregon, but has since been living out of her van, equipped with everything she needs for a peripatetic life.

"I get to spend less time in traffic and more time connecting with people and experiencing new cultures," she said.

She is part of a national community — dubbed "van lifers", "roadlifers" or simply "nomads" — that close observers say has grown up over the past half-decade, spurred by a desire for freedom and minimalism, and facilitated by the remote work and stronger social connections offered by Internet technologies.

That community - size unknown - has suddenly found its way of life rendered impossible by the pandemic, as the virus has shut the campgrounds, parks and support services it needs.

Johnson was in Mexico as the virus first spread, so she and other vans lifers raced north to cross the border and find a safe place to park — in their case: barren, federal land.

They go into town every two weeks to get food, water and do laundry. But mostly they wait — and try to plan a next move.

"It's been pretty hard for people. My van is my home, and the outdoors and public lands are my home, but now that you don't have access to those, where do you go?" said Kristen Bor, a writer who runs a blog popular in the van life community.

Small towns are asking people to stay away; once welcoming neighborhoods and many parking lots are shuttered, she said.

"A lot of people weren't sure what the best move is," said Bor. "If you have a family on the other side of the country who says you can come park there, is it better to drive across the country or better to camp on public lands?"

Converted camper vans congregate near Joshua Tree National Park in California amid coronavirus-related closures. Handout photos by Samantha Johnson.


There are no statistics on the number of van lifers.

Bor says hundreds attend annual festivals, and dedicated social media accounts draw hundreds of thousands of followers.

"All of a sudden with the coronavirus, that lifestyle that once felt very free, now feels very unsettling," said Megan Kantor, who runs a wedding photography business, traveling the country and living out of a vintage trailer with her husband.

The two of them were parked on federal land in a popular recreation area in southern Utah in mid-March when local health authorities ordered all restaurants and campgrounds to close, almost without warning.

The couple was lucky, Kantor said. They headed to her in-laws' home in nearby Colorado but were worried about friends and acquaintances they knew had no similarly safe place to park.

So they put out a call on social media, urging people to let them know if they had a driveway or backyard where nomads could park until the pandemic blew over.

They were inundated with offers, Kantor said, and compiled a quick online spreadsheet called "Space for Roadlifers".

similar resource operates through Facebook, called "Displaced Nomads and Full-Time RVers Relocation Resource".

When Kantor spoke with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, her directory had some 150 active offers, with numbers fluctuating significantly as spaces filled.

She plans to keep the directory live for the foreseeable future.


The pandemic has severely affected businesses that operate off of the allure of van life, too.

Bill Staggs runs VW Surfari in Costa Mesa, California, where for the past 17 years he has rented out vintage Volkswagen buses and vans to people keen to get a taste of van life.

"There's something that happens with these cars," he said. "The biggest impression I have is how many people have taken trips in our vans and then gone out and bought one."

Now, his business has completely dried up.

"We are dependent on people's ability to travel — that's shut down. We don't have any place for people to go camping."

Summer is high season, and more than a third of Staggs' business comes from overseas tourists.

"It may end up being too late for us to find a way out of this," he said.

A campervan glows at night in the California desert. Handout photos by Samantha Johnson.


For some, the pandemic has underscored a central fact at the heart of the van life community: while nomads can make great strides toward self-sufficiency, they remain dependent on grocery stores, gas stations, public land and more.

"We can't exist without all of this infrastructure," said John Serbell, who with his wife, Jayme, runs a popular van life blog, Gnomad Home, and organizes a yearly festival for the community. This year's is now canceled.

"It's definitely getting tough out there, with a lot of state and national parks closed ... a lot of places are inaccessible," he said.

That recognition has prompted many in the community to take seriously their potential impact on the small rural towns that nomads often frequent, said Serbell.

"So our advice is if you have a place to go, go there ... now is not the time to be road tripping," he said.

As to when to hit the road again, the Serbells tell van lifers to abide by recommendations from health officials.

But they are optimistic for the long term — and say the pandemic may even draw more people to their lifestyle.

And for nomads like Johnson, the forced slowdown of recent weeks has come as a surprising relief.

"For myself, this is going to have a long-term effect," she said. "It's starting to change my rhythm, and I like it."

Johnson will keep up the van life, she said, but may look to spend more time stationary and less time on the road.


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(Reporting by Carey L. Biron, Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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