It’s a story often told these days, though not as often done. Twenty-something grows tired of the rat race, bores of spinning the wheel constantly, a niggling feeling creeps in, wondering what else is out there and when they’ll actually get to see it. The knowledge that another, less predictable, less stable, but more interesting, adventuresome, and, hopefully, soul-filling life is out there, and it pulls them.
So they leap. Like Alexandra Ulmke did a half-decade ago. Quit her job and decided to cast her fate to the wind. Bought a van and made it her home base. She’d grown up in the Pacific Northwest, the daughter of well-traveled parents; maybe there was something in her blood that whispered get out there. She began tooling around the wilds of Alaska, a woman traveling and camping alone, figuring out life on the road, and writing about it. Owning a badass van sure didn’t hurt.
Year, make, and model?
2000 Volkswagen Eurovan.
Does the vehicle have a name?
She does, her name is Penny and she’s the best van in the whole world.
How did you find Penny?
I actually saw the van in central Washington on a Christmas Day. It was just sitting in a car lot waiting for service, and I was on the way to the movies with my parents. I shouted at them to stop the car so I could look at the van, and I ran up to it and knew right away. I started yelled that this is the van I want! My mom prompted me to call the dealership to see if it was for sale, and I just brushed it off. So she called (why do moms always know best!?). A week later she called me and said the owners were willing to sell and here’s the number. I finagled the whole deal from Seattle with a little help from my parents going to go look at the vehicle for me. A week later she was mine!
How did you modify it?
God, the modifications never end, I’ll tell ya. I added a Thule box, ladder on the back, painted the bumper with LineX, lifted the van, and got the biggest tires I could. My dad helped build me a table for inside, I reupholstered all the seats, and I added solar for power.
There are also a million mini modifications that just make life easier. I installed a magnetic spice rack, I have lots of little Tupperware containers that hold oils and sauces, and I have a little organizer next to the driver’s seat for cables and chargers.
How many states have you and dear Penny visited?
I’ve traveled primarily in Alaska, the Yukon, British Columbia, and the whole west coast of the United States. So maybe 12?
What sort of traveler are you? Is this a weekend deal for you? Are you a full-time vanlifer?
I was full-time by myself for a year. Then I met my partner Charlie and now we are part-time. We both work for 6 months out of the year and then travel in the van for another 6 months. I did save for about 2 years in order to live full-time without working for an entire year. It’s all about balancing what you want.
How has traveling affected other areas of your life when you’re not on the road?
I think that when you get a taste of a certain type of lifestyle, and you find real value in that, it gets hard to settle down. I’ve been living back in Washington for the past 7 months and I’m anxious to get back out there on the road. Life isn’t easier on the road, in fact, it’s much more complicated. Basic needs like where you’re going to sleep, safety issues, figuring out where to shower, and where you can just relax and watch a show for a few hours becomes your reality. It gets exhausting because you can’t go into autopilot.
Now that I’m in one place for a time I see myself getting into a rhythm—I know what time I have to get up, what yoga class I’m going to go to, how my day is going to look. I find moments for reflection and stillness that I would never have found on the road. But then I realize that 7 months has already passed! Time becomes more precious on the road, there isn’t a lot of day-to-day because every day is changing. I’m not sure which way is better yet. I’m not going to lie, having hot running water is amazing. I plan on heading back on road at the end of 2018 for a while. I’m excited to tap back into motion and wonder, but I think maybe I’ll miss my house as well. I guess the jury is still out.
Overlandia is the art and science of driving in the dirt.