Last month, I sat cross-legged on a patch of red dirt just outside Moab, Utah, completely fixated on Kit Whistler’s every word. I was there to participate in Project 16x, a summit of sorts for women—artists, writers, athletes, entrepreneurs, activists—carving various paths in the outdoors, and Whistler was explaining to us her “Idle Theory.” In it, she posits that while most of us furiously strive to balance work and play, we’re missing a third crucial element—the practice of idleness.
Whistler’s talk stayed with me throughout the rest of the summit, during my long drive back to Los Angeles, and in the weeks that followed. To me—and to so many others—idleness is synonymous with laziness. Shouldn’t I have more than naps and Netflix to show for my life? But I had to admit, having just reached the frayed edges of a near-burnout caused by a potent mixture of personal loss and an excruciatingly heavy workload, maybe she was on to something.
“Work and leisure are both active states, but idleness is a passive state. What you’re doing in idleness is allowing your senses to guide you; you’re allowing input from the outer world to come in. And I think in our modern culture, passivity and receptivity is certainly not valued, right? It’s not what it means to be a strong or successful person. There’s a lot of negative connotation with being ‘passive’—none of us want to be described that way,” explains Whistler. “But you know, through my ‘Idle Theory,’ I argue that all of us need this passive time to learn about what’s in the world and what’s inside of ourselves.”
Whistler, who is a writer, has had plenty of time to hone her theory—and to explore both her inner life and the world around. She and her partner, photographer and filmmaker J.R. Switchgrass, have been on the road full-time since 2012, living out of a tiny, but happiness-boosting bright orange 1976 VW Westy named Sunshine. While they now primarily make a living as freelance creatives (with frequent dips into seasonal farm labor, something she says helped them drop all judgment on the relative values of different kinds of work), their first year of full-time vanlife was completely unstructured as they explored Whistler’s theory, so deep into a practice of consciousness and self-exploration that they didn’t read a single book or listen to any recorded music during that time.
While Whistler says that she hasn’t yet unlocked the perfect balance of work, leisure, and idleness, she has inched ever closer during these last seven years on the road. Ultimately, she hopes that her own explorations of nomadic living and what it means to pursue a more conscious life—to receive both the world around you and your own self with open arms, to both question and reimagine how we spend our time—can be helpful to others.
“I think that there’s something here with this movement of people getting in their vehicles and wanting to live outside,” she says. “It’s not just a lifestyle of hedonism; it’s actually something that’s giving back to the world, whether in wisdom or in some kind of service. And I think that the group of people who are doing this, we’re certainly capable of making a lot of change.”
Year, make, and model?
1976 VW Westfalia Camper Bus
Does the vehicle have a name?
We’ve been traveling in Sunshine full-time for seven years. We’ve actually owned the bus for twelve years. It’s the only car J.R. and I have had between us as adults—first car, only car. It was our daily driver before we hit the road for those five years. It holds a lot of sentimental value because we were, what, nineteen years old when we got the bus. All of our adult memories are in there. She’s like our family.
How did you get it?
I went to school in Boone, North Carolina. There was a Kmart in Boone; I would pass by it all the time, and Sunshine was sitting in the parking lot with a “For Sale” sign for almost an entire year. For me, it was a love at first sight thing. I called J.R.—he was going to school in California—and I was like, “There is this orange car…” I didn’t know what it was! This was before iPhones and I had a really old disposable camera; I took a selfie with it, got it printed out at Walgreen’s or something, and sent it to J.R. in the snail mail. I was like, I’m sending you a picture of this car and whenever you and I have some cash, we should get this. When J.R. came to visit me in the spring, he had saved up some cash and I was like, Okay, we’re taking it out for a test drive. He fell in love and that was it. He bought it and we drove it across the country.
We weren’t looking for a camper—J.R. needed a car. There was no “vanlife” then as it’s called today. It was like a spiritual connection, which sounds kind of funny, but it’s true. For some reason, these vehicles, they all have their own personality and often the owners kind of do feel a spiritual connection. Maybe that has something to do with the fact that you’re under it working on it so much that you know it so well!
Okay, so considering she’s over 40 years old, have you had any major mechanical meltdowns or other issues with Sunshine?
We’ve had a lot of breakdowns and meltdowns over the years. I always tell people this when they ask about getting a vintage car or an old vehicle—you are making a commitment. Finding mechanics for these things is not easy. Through dozens of times of being stranded on the side of the road, every time it’s kind of an opportunity to learn about a new system—and we’ve learned a lot. Because the engines are so old, they’re easy to work on because there’s no computer and everything is mechanical. Even if you don’t have a part, you can usually jerry-rig something.
Our most recent breakdown was really bad, but it actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise. We were down in Florida this winter and J.R. went to do a valve change; he couldn’t get the feeler blade through, which is really bad news. What that meant is that our cylinder head was out. That’s a really, really hard part to source—they don’t really make new ones that are of good quality because the engine isn’t made anymore. There are two guys in North America who still machine them, and usually to get that part, you have to be on a waiting list for a few months because they can only make so many.
In a crazy string of events, a guy reached out who was like, “Hey, you can use our canoe if you want while you’re in the area.” He happened to be a bus guy and he ended up hooking us up with this part that would be really hard to find because he knew the guy who made the part. Another guy who was his friend came out and together, we basically took apart the entire engine and put it back together in this guy’s yard. He let us camp there all week and helped us do the work. He actually engraved his name onto one of our engine parts. That’s just a testament to something I love about these vehicles—you know how there’s “trail magic” when you hike a long trail? There’s “bus magic” that happens on the road. There’s something about the bus that creates this really strong community of people who just want to help each other.
Have you made any modifications?
In Westphalia, Germany, [these kinds of buses] got outfitted by an aftermarket company with all this camping gear—they came with a canvas camper pop top, and with a sink and cabinets. We took out the sink, but the cabinets have been enormously useful. Everything is just designed really well in the Westies. The German engineering is immaculate, so every square inch is accounted for in storage. It’s kind of a small home on wheels in comparison to something like a Sprinter, but for the size, you really can’t get something that has a better use of space. We couldn’t have designed it better if we tried, so it’s pretty original inside.
Sunshine is pretty cozy—how have you and J.R. figured out how to share such a tiny space for seven years?
In the beginning, when we worked less than we do now, in many ways, it was like we were on an extended vacation. We call that our “honeymoon phase,” because we didn’t struggle with being together that much because everything was new. We were just so happy about what we were doing. We were outside of the bus a lot more than we are now because we did no computer work at all at that time—we worked on farms for five years total, including that first year. The most interesting transition for us as far as sharing space has been the transition into working in the bus together, because now all day we’re in there, plugged into our devices.
We’ve done a few things in the last few years that have worked really well. We got noise-canceling headphones that are really high quality. It was a big investment for us. That’s our safe space, so if one of us has on our headphones, you’re not allowed to talk to them. Another thing that we’ve done is we will choose to do different activities, and we’ll agree on a time to be picked up. Also, we’ve made it so that we have storage that’s separate that the other person cannot go in. That sounds so silly, but in the beginning, we would put our clothes in with each other’s clothes, but then we found that we would criticize each other’s clothing choice, like, Hey, you haven’t worn that shirt in three weeks. Why are we still carrying it?
We have gotten to experience every part of the country, so we understand where a lot of people are coming from culturally when they say the things they say or hold the beliefs that they hold. I think that that has been so valuable in not casting judgment on people, especially in today’s political landscape. I have found it much easier to empathize with people who don’t hold the same view as mine because I’ve sat across the table with them at dinner. I feel like it’s taught us to listen before we talk to people, especially if they come from a background different than our own.
You don’t really have an ongoing community that you connect with if you’re always in a different state. It’s the inverse of the “pro” I shared of knowing something about every culture—we don’t feel like we’re quite part of a culture of our own. “Lonely” might not be the right word, but sometimes there’s this feeling of missing out on having friends or even family who we talk to or see on a weekly basis.
What have you learned from seven years on the road?
Something I’ve learned living life this way is that if you let things happen and you follow what you’re pulled toward, things will usually work out better than what you could have planned. Maybe that sounds to some people like a fortune cookie, but it really is true.