As Chandler answered my phone call, I heard Leo squeal in the background: “Mommy, come swimming with me!” “I didn’t bring my swimsuit baby,” she answered. “Where are you parked?” I asked, hearing the muffled crash of waves as she spoke. Chandler told me about “Old Airport,” and as I sat in my Minneapolis apartment on a sub-zero winter afternoon, she described the abandoned landing strip with a beach on one side, and a garden trail on the other. “I’ll either park on the side where the beach is, or I’ll park on the side with the trail— Leo likes to ride his bike around or lay on the rocks and pick flowers.”
Chandler and her three and a half year old son, Leo, have lived in a converted van on the Big Island of Hawaii for the past year. “We’ve had a van since we moved to the island, but back then we were renting out this little studio. We would leave at 7:00 a.m. and come home at 7:00 p.m., we hardly even knew the place.” When she realized they were paying $1,400 a month for a bed, she knew their lifestyle needed to change. “We didn’t even want to be home, we wanted to be out and about— I mean, it’s Hawaii.”
Chandler contemplated moving into the van full-time, though she was skeptical. “People would say things like: you have a baby, why would you do that, that’s not safe.” Despite this, she persisted. “I went straight to the source itself and asked Leo if it was something he wanted to do. His eyes got so big and he said: ‘I want to sleep in the van!’” A year later, the mother and son are still living this minimalistic lifestyle— sleeping oceanside, hiking Hawaii’s valleys, and practicing veganism in a thriving plant-based community.
Though the “van life” is ever present on social media, in documentaries, through travel magazines, what does it look like with a family involved? How does it affect both motherhood and childhood? I sat down with Chandler to uncover the challenges, joys, and liberations her lifestyle brings.
Olivia: I’m curious about how you handle “everyday tasks” in a van, especially with a child— things like cooking, showering, or laundry.
Chandler: We live in Kona which is really small and tight knit, everything is close together, so if we’re hungry we’ll go over to the health food store. It’s a really cool place, it has high energy, and friends we have here in town are in and out of the store all day long— so we go in and see everyone we know and love and it’s just a cool experience. They have an organic deli where they make the food everyday and most of it is vegan. For six months we were eating raw so we would go in and get avocados, tomatoes, celery, kale, limes, lemons, papayas— that was a really simple way of living.
I also have a lot of friends who live in houses and they’re always letting me know we can come and shower or come and cook food or prepare meals for the week. I’ve done that as well which is awesome, but we’ve gotten super comfortable with going to the health food store.
O: From the way you’re describing your lifestyle, it seems community is a huge part of living in a van.
C: Yes, it really is. For the first six months I kept saying “no thank you” to everything people offered. But the experience has taught me how to accept and say yes and know that it’s okay to lean on people. In the past I wouldn’t even take a bite of someone’s food if they offered it, but now I know that if someone is extending an offer they truly care and want to help.
O: What are some of the challenges that come with raising a child in a van, and what are some of the joys?
C: The biggest challenge is when it gets dark in the evenings. It gets dark around 6:30 p.m., and Leo doesn’t go to bed until 8 or 9:00 p.m. So when it gets dark and there are those two hours in the van, it’s a journey figuring out what to do with him. He really likes reading books and I’m teaching him Spanish, so we read a lot in the evenings.
Another con is that you don’t exactly have your own space or your own energy except for inside your van. In Kona, everyone knows each other and we see people all day long that we know. People will recognize our van and just come up and put their energy into it. But if I’m not feeling good or having an off day it’s really hard for me to let people know that I want to be in my own space.
Pros, we’re always outside, we always have the air and nature. Leo’s playtime isn’t inside of a house where there are million toys and a TV that I’m trying to distract him with. We just open the van door and jump out and he has so much fun, that’s amazing. Another pro is that we can go wherever whenever, we can just travel around and not have to worry about anything.
O: Do you think your lifestyle has made your relationship with Leo stronger? You mentioned you’re not trying to get him distracted by toys or a TV. I would assume that because you’re always outside and present with him, it has deepened your relationship.
C: Yes, absolutely. There’s more communication between us, talking about the beach or the trees or the fish. We get to bond over experiences rather than just stare at a TV. Of course this way of living isn’t as convenient as just putting him in front of the TV so I can do my own thing— but I always just think about the fact that he’s growing up so quick, and he’s not going to be three or four or five forever. I think the bond between us is very strong, and I’ve had a lot of people tell me they see something different between him and I.
O: How do you think the van life has influenced Leo? Is he unique in any way because of it?
C: I feel like it has allowed him to express himself more, and it has allowed him to be more content with simplicity. He’s happy with anything. He’ll fuss, he’s a toddler and has his moments of course, but he never acts like he “needs” things which is really important to me. I don’t ever want him to feel like he “needs” anything. I can already see his contentment with simplicity at such a young age— he doesn’t need anything and he is so happy.
O: Have you ever been met with judgment or criticism for the way you’re raising Leo?
C: The only judgement I’ve received has been from my mom, and she’ll still give me judgment and tell me that it’s not safe, that I’m not giving him a real life. Other than that, I’ve had so much confidence and known that it’s what I need to be doing. I’ll meet someone and they’ll say: “Do you live here in Kona?” I’ll tell them that I live here in my van with my son and people will be shocked, really shocked. But they’ll respond with things like: that is absolutely amazing, how cool, that’s a way different life, tell me more.
O: Diving deeper into your mom’s response— have you ever had concerns with safety?
C: Towards the beginning I was definitely nervous and I would lay awake at night. We had someone knock on our window and we had the police tell us we couldn’t stay somewhere. This was when we were still figuring out the best places to park the van. But it totally went away— when I just had confidence in what I was doing it all went away. So I know that no one is going to be bothering us, I know that we are protected. I have an intuitive feeling that this life is good for Leo and I right now.
O: What does a typical “day in the life” look like for you? What do you do, what’s your flow?
C: It can be a number of things. We’ll start the day by going to the health food store, I’ll get a tea and Leo will get a soup or an avocado or a smoothie. I’ll probably drive to “Old Airport” where we are now and clean up and make sure things are organized [in the van]. Leo will play or look at his books or flowers while I’m tidying up. We really like to go to Kua Bay, a beach 20 minutes north— it’s a beautiful beach. We might go to the humane society and hang out with all the animals, or go to the beach again and take Leo’s scooter and ride around outside.
Or I’ll wake up in the morning and be like: let’s go to the health food store, get a bunch of stuff, and go to the valley— I’ve been loving trips to the valley. We’ll drive there, park, then hike down to the valley and hang out until it gets dark. We’ll just walk around and play in the trees, that’s the ultimate bliss for both of us. It is an hour and a half north, so we have to dedicate a day or two to it.
We also see friends a lot. Last night we went and saw live music in town. We met my friend who has a baby a few months younger than Leo and they danced to the music for three hours. There’s always something to do.
O: What advice do you have for those curious about trying the van life? Where do they begin?
C: Start spending more time outdoors, camp outside more often, it will give you an opportunity to see what it’s like. A lot of people think the van life will make them feel lost in the world, like they don’t have a place in it— I felt that myself the first month. But you have to understand that wherever you are is home. Wherever you are is home because the earth is everyone’s home. You don’t have to be in a little box on the hillside to feel like you are home and like you have a place in this world. Just know that wherever you are is home. When I realized that, I didn’t have fear anymore.
O: What does the future look like for you and Leo? Do you think it’s in the van?
C: When Leo was really young we went to Washington State and I met this woman, a single mom, and at the time her son was two. After we left I stayed connected to her through social media. She took a whole year and traveled to every US state with her son, living in her van. I was in complete awe, it gives me chills right now even thinking about it. I’ve been dreaming about taking Leo to the mainland and traveling. I think about the Grand Canyon, gem hunting and looking for crystals, going to different humane societies and volunteering together.
Another thing I really want to do is get property for Leo— land for him to grow plants and seeds and just be. But I feel like no matter what I’ll always have a van, and we’ll be living this lifestyle for awhile longer.
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About the Author:
Olivia Wickstrom is a writer living in Minneapolis, MN. Skilled in travel & culture journalism and creative non fiction, she is passionate about questioning our world views, social behavior, and cultural norms. Olivia is the founder of Createhers Co., a community for female bloggers & writers to gather, connect, and grow.