The Grevembergs—Noami and Dustin—are nearing their three-year anniversary of life on the road in a 1985 Westy, although it’s not their first experiment with nomadic living; they became engaged while hiking the Appalachian Trail. Between their frequent hikes and road trips, the couple dreamed of making a life on the road. But as they moved to New Orleans and settled into careers—Dustin as a project manager for a construction business, Noami as an environmental scientist—that dream went dormant.
Noami, however, began to feel a stab of discontent. She enjoyed her job, but didn’t feel like her work was making the kind of impact she hoped—something felt off. Noami texted Dustin that she wanted to talk; he said that he’d actually hoped to do the same. When they spoke that evening, Noami asked if Dustin was open to the idea of living in a van. To her surprise, that was the exact question he was going to ask her. “It was so weird and incredible,” she says. “It was like the universe heard my prayers.” They gave themselves three months to prepare, and then made the leap.
Perhaps more importantly, they’ve found a purpose. During a trip to Southeast Asia, the couple began thinking more deeply about the impacts of travel and tourism. They realized that they could merge their passions for environmental science and green building, and act as conduits for information. Noami and Dustin now use their voice in the vanlife community to share their own path to sustainable living (including their own efforts to go plastic-free and zero waste) to help others along the way. The Grevembergs launched Cacti and Coconuts, a sustainable consulting business, in June last year. Their hope is to share solutions—along with the message that anyone can make small steps toward living, traveling, and doing business more sustainably. “I think that it’s easy to lose faith in everything that’s happening in the world today,” says Noami. “I think it’s really important for us to continue being hopeful that we can make a difference. It makes life worth living.”
Year, make, and model?
1985 VW Vanagon.
Does the vehicle have a name?
So, what’s the “Aurora” in Irie to Aurora?
Noami: Well, Irie means “a state of feeling great.” I’m from Trinidad & Tobago in the Caribbean; it’s a commonly used word there. It’s kind of like an expression of the vibe that we’re seeking on this journey; we’re seeking that state of feeling great. Initially, we were going to drive from New Orleans to Alaska to see the aurora borealis, so that’s why we used “Aurora,” which also means “the dawn.” We were moving into a new place in our lives, dawning into a new chapter.
How did you get Irie?
Dustin: When we started looking for a van, we didn’t know “vanlife” was a thing; we’d never heard that word before. For some reason, the Volkswagon Westy, the Vanagon, just stuck out in our minds as a really great vehicle to travel in. Initially, we were going to do a year in the van, just travel the country. We sought out this van and found it basically almost in our backyard, in Mobile, Alabama.
Noami: The previous owner lived in it up and down the West Coast for about a year. It was in his family for a while, so it was very sentimental for him, which was a huge selling point for us—it told me that he really did take good care of it. He was a little sad to give it up, but had to let go at that time and was really happy to sell it to us. He spent a few hours just walking us through the entire van, all the nooks and crannies. It was just such a beautiful, magical experience to have when buying our new home on wheels. That’s when we knew it was the right decision.
Irie is over 30 years old – has this caused any problems on the road?
Dustin: Yeah, many! It’s not if she’s gonna break down, it’s when. We’d been on the road for less than a year and were up in Oregon for the winter, and went down to Bend on Christmas to do some cross-country skiing. We woke up Christmas day and it was so cold, everything in the van had frozen. I guess the water in one of the cooling hoses froze up and it blew a head gasket.
Noami: We were in this middle-of-nowhere winter wonderland. Mind you, it’s Christmas day. We called every single tow truck company and no one would come out there to get our van and pick us up. It was pretty stressful. We finally were able to convince a very nice lady on the phone. I said, Look, this is our home and we are stranded on a mountain right now and we need to get this van fixed, so please, you have the power to make this happen. I was in tears because it was the first major breakdown.
We were able to get the van to where we were housesitting, and the lady next door let us use her carport to work on the van. We had to do it ourselves because no one wanted to do it at that time of the year. She gave us this painter’s cloth and we were able to wrap the building, as it was a blizzard outside. She gave us unlimited firewood and a big fire pit. I was chopping wood while Dustin was working on the van. I was trying to keep us warm and reading YouTube tutorials to him as he’s trying to take things apart and put them back together. That was the time in our vanlife that I knew that we could do anything.
How is van living more sustainable or eco-friendly for you?
Dustin: [In New Orleans], we had two vehicles, we both commuted to work every day, probably an hour each way. Even though we travel a lot, we put fewer miles on the van than we did combined before. Not only that, but living in a house or an apartment, you’re heating and cooling it all the time depending on the seasons, whereas now, we basically follow the seasons. We don’t have an air conditioner in the van; we do have a heater for when it gets cold, but we use it rarely. Our van is solar powered, so we’re sustainable when it comes to our energy. Of course, we are burning fossil fuels, but less so than before.
Noami: Also, we waste less water because we use less water. When it’s flowing through the tap, it’s easy not to think about it, but now that we have a tank that we have to intentionally fill, we think about it a lot more, so we don’t waste a drop.
Are there any challenges to living sustainably on the road?
Dustin: We have a tiny kitchen, a tiny sink, a tiny stove, so it’s really easy to buy foods wrapped in plastic, buy premade meals, eat out—all of which are really unsustainable. Living a life of travel, the convenience of those things would make it a lot easier, so we have to be much more intentional with our decisions and with our actions.
Noami: One of the biggest challenges in this lifestyle is recycling and composting on the road. Sometimes we ride around with our recycling and our food scrap waste for several weeks at a time because we refuse to send it to the landfill. Dustin and I have created this Irie to Aurora waste management system where we have this canvas sack connected to our toolbox on the back of the van, and we have a basmati rice bag where we collect our food scraps; we hang it to dry in the sun so it doesn’t get all squishy and nasty if we have to drive around with it for a while. We have a dry bag for our actual garbage and another sack for our recycling, and we have this big canvas bag that we just put it all in. We just collect it until we can find a facility to where we can dispose of it properly.
Any suggestions for other van dwellers on how they can live more sustainably on the road?
Noami: Just pick one or two things that you think are doable for you in that moment—like, shopping at farmers’ markets for your food and foregoing packaged foods. It’s just taking small steps. I think that’s really, really important when wanting to live a lifestyle that’s more sustainable—not becoming overwhelmed by wanting to do it all. Just do your best, do what you can do.
Dustin: We always say, set a goal and do one thing every day that moves you closer to that goal. You don’t have to bite it all off at one time.
Like many who pursue the lifestyle, the Grevembergs have since found their own place in the vanlife community. Online, they maintain a popular Instagram account, Irie to Aurora, filled with cheery photographs and thoughtful reflections. Offline, they’re preparing to co-host the first Dirty South Vanlife Gathering with the team behind Vanlife Diaries. They’re also featured in the upcoming documentary, The Meaning of Vanlife.
All photos courtesy of Noami & Dustin Grevemberg