Last year, I built a van and traveled across the country for seven months by myself.
When people hear about van life today, it’s usually through the lens of a fairy-tale series of Instagram posts where everything is perfect. I didn’t want that — I wanted to be truly nomadic. I needed to disconnect and step out of my comfort zone!
I’m a personal trainer in Austin who felt cut off from this planet, absorbed in the rat race of life. So I bought a van, learned to use power tools, transitioned my personal training business online and set a date for May 1st to leave.
My dad passed away when I was very young. He was a jack of all trades around the house. I wanted to be that person for my family and friends but had no one to teach me. So it only felt right to build a van from scratch and travel the world.
I learned how to measure and cut plywood for furniture, as well as basic plumbing and electrical! Every day, I would build something only to notice small inconsistencies the next day. The van had issues on the trip, so I spent hours diagnosing and problem-solving.
My dad would have loved to be part of this project, and I would have loved his help. Now when I see a house or van, I think about the process and team that brought it to life. It gives you a greater appreciation of how things come to be.
Along the way, I also learned some other important life lessons from my travels.
This was the hardest lesson to learn, in part because I had to unpack what that really meant. Today, we’re constantly fed expectations of trendiness, love and success. The challenge is sifting through the information overload and learning to discern your choices from society’s expectations.
At the same time, the thought of sharing this trip with the world was exciting! With every place I visited, I wanted to tell a story about it. The validation I felt from the feedback was intoxicating. During the first couple of months of the trip, I looked forward to hearing feedback about the place more than actually enjoying it.
This wasn’t my original goal, and it started to come to my attention when I hit the Great Smoky Mountains. I had no signal at my campsite and most of the park. I spent the next four days off the grid, and it was liberating. This intimate experience was mine and only mine.
Time alone will make you think thoughts you wouldn’t normally have time for. I was forced to face my demons and think about how I was presenting myself to the world. Was this the real me or just a version of me I wanted people to see?
After that moment, the rest of the trip was pure bliss. I shared certain things with the world but 85% of my day was to myself. It wouldn’t have been possible unless I found a way to isolate myself and get uncomfortable.
How much do we really need to be happy? Did I need six pairs of shoes or clothes for multiple weeks? I didn’t think so, but I had the room for it so I just kept collecting stuff in my apartment.
Switching to the van changed this. There was no space for anything but essentials. Despite having minimal clothes and gear, I felt completely comfortable the entire trip. What I had was good enough, and it had no impact on my happiness. I had shoes on my feet, clothes to wear for the elements and places to be!
I wouldn’t have discovered this truth had I not only lived off everything in my tiny van. You don’t have to be a minimalist to enjoy life, but ask yourself, how much do I actually need to be happy?
As a trainer, I thought this was would be the biggest hurdle. Working out daily with a mix of machines and free weights was my routine. I cooked the same foods daily and always tracked my calories. When the trip started, I got a Planet Fitness membership but wasn’t in town enough to use it consistently. I had a stove and sink but not enough space for elaborate meals.
“Less is better” became the motto of the trip. Staying active was the priority. My legs were taken care of from hiking 12,000 to 15,000 steps a day. Upper body strength was handled by a pair of adjustable dumbbells kept in the trunk. Once a week, I’d drive through a town to get a pure strength lift at Planet Fitness. With this less stringent routine, my physique and strength were exactly how I wanted them to be.
Dieting posed a bigger problem. It didn’t take much to fill the mini fridge, and the sink didn’t have enough space for many dishes. So I got creative and used a single pan to toss vegetables, rice and some kind of protein. It never looked pretty but tasted great and fulfilled my nutrient need.
You don’t have to work out heavily and follow your diet to a T every day — you just need to do something consistently. Eventually, I got into a groove of lifting weights two to three times a week. My daily meal goal was to eat at least one fruit, one vegetable and lean sources of protein. It wasn’t perfect, but I stayed realistically active and healthy!
This is one of the most important lessons. I was raised in the suburbs of Illinois with cornfields and concrete towns. I’d go camping a couple of times a year but then quickly retreat to my suburban lifestyle.
Then, I moved to Austin which is the most outdoor-friendly city I’ve lived in. Even still I found it hard to get far enough from the urban sprawl to feel alone. When we isolate ourselves in concrete jungles, we forget we are of this planet, not just on it.
Something happens when you spend the night in an area with dark skies. You feel small. You see the sky flooded with stars and constellations you forgot about. You remember the stories attached to them and can look at stars in awe the same way our ancestors did. Suddenly, we don’t feel like individuals — we feel like one species surviving on this one planet we have.
We already know or have heard a lot of these lessons, yet we brush them off and return to our busy lives. It’s not until we isolate ourselves that these lessons come to life. You don’t have to build a van and travel the country. Just find a way to get out of the city occasionally to recharge.
About the Author
Billy Bosco is an Austin-based personal trainer who sells his own fitness supplements. The world is full of deceptive marketing and fast-track approaches to health. It’s his mission to cut through this and help everyone become realistically fit.