Americans sold ‘van life’ dream by influencers reveal nightmare of living on road, including no showers, heat, the difficulty of dating and risk of huge debt if a mechanic is needed

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Written By Maya Cantina
  • Siena Juhlin, 23, bought a van in August, intending to make it her forever home
  • She has since sold it. Her story is similar to others who have taken up the lifestyle
  • She spoke to The WSJ for a piece on the not-so-scenic realities of the subculture

‘Van life’ practitioners are laying bare the harsh realties of their unconventional lifestyle – and a great deal is harsher than influencers lead you to believe.

Take Siena Juhlin, a 23-year-old who bought a white Ford cargo van this past in summer, and has since sold it after intending to make it her home.

Her story, like others who have perhaps prematurely taken up the lifestyle, is one that consists of the occasional shower, sweltering heat, and a dubious dating life – and a $5,000 bill from a mechanic that made her rethink the entire thing.

First, however, everything went according to plan, she told The Wall Street Journal, featuring Juhlin and others in a piece Saturday centered around the not-so-scenic realities of the viral subculture.

Juhlin and Caleb Smith – a 29-year-old who lives out of his Isuzu Outback in Park Slope, Brooklyn – were among those to speak out, though both were quick to say they still consider the sometimes rough lifestyle worth it.

Siena Juhlin, 23, bought a white Ford cargo van this past in summer, but has since sold it after intending to make it her forever home

Juhlin and Caleb Smith - a 29-year-old who lives out of his Isuzu Outback in Brooklyn seen here - spoke to The Wall Street Journal Saturday centered around the not-so-scenic realities of the viral subculture

Juhlin and Caleb Smith – a 29-year-old who lives out of his Isuzu Outback in Brooklyn seen here – spoke to The Wall Street Journal Saturday centered around the not-so-scenic realities of the viral subculture

‘Everything is 10 times harder,’ said Juhlin of the way of the life that’s recently caught traction online. ‘But everything is also amazingly beautiful and rewarding.’

She went on to recall how she hit the road in August after a breakup, captivated by the idea.

It was enough for her to drop her waitressing job in her native Missouri to explore the West Coast – setting off to live on her savings for some uncertain amount of years.

That dream lasted just two months, she said.

In California, her transmission died, leaving her stranded some 2,000 miles away from home.

Not letting her dream die, she’s worked three jobs including one as a social media coordinator for an outdoors brand that often posts van life-related content ever since – looking to regain the $5,000 lost to get it fixed.

That dream came to an end two days before, her posts on social media show – with one aired Thursday revealing how she sold her customized creation that likely cost her well north of $30,000 in favor for a truck and camper.

Juhlin, who hit the road after a breakup, explained to The Journal how the lifestyle is not for everyone

Juhlin, who hit the road after a breakup, explained to The Journal how the lifestyle is not for everyone

'Everything is 10 times harder,' said Juhlin of the way of the life that's recently caught traction online. 'But everything is also amazingly beautiful and rewarding'

‘Everything is 10 times harder,’ said Juhlin of the way of the life that’s recently caught traction online. ‘But everything is also amazingly beautiful and rewarding’

It was enough for her to drop her waitressing job in Missouri to explore the West Coast - setting off to live on her savings for some uncertain amount of years. That dream lasted  two months, she said, after her transmission died in California, leaving her stranded 2,000 miles from home

It was enough for her to drop her waitressing job in Missouri to explore the West Coast – setting off to live on her savings for some uncertain amount of years. That dream lasted  two months, she said, after her transmission died in California, leaving her stranded 2,000 miles from home

While less mobile that a van, the combo, she explained, will allow her to continue to explore the country without some of the unforeseen actualities of living in a confined space for months on months.

‘An end of an era…’ she wrote to her some 3,500 followers who have kept up with her travels.

‘The van sold, truck is bought, truck camper soon to come.

‘Sad to say goodbye to my sweet home,’ she went on. ‘She took me everywhere and kept me safe. We seriously went through so much together.

‘From having no brakes one day, to off-roading in the desert, to no transmission the next… [s]he took me from Missouri to the mountains, all the way up and down the coast. 

‘One hell of a ride and the best van… but she also needed a lot of love lol. 

‘Excited to make a truck and camper my more permanent and reliable home,’ she eventually added. ‘Life is too short to let logistics get in the way.’

‘Love, Your favorite lil van and ur (maybe) favorite lil lady’.

Her story – one marked by young people needing housing amid an unprecedented cost-of-living crisis – is not unique, The Journal found, honing in on fellow ‘Vanlifer’ Smith.

Vanlifer Caleb Smith is seen in photos from his Instagram page. , when he's not traveling, the 29-yearold lives in a ritzy part of Brooklyn, parked between two brownstones

Vanlifer Caleb Smith is seen in photos from his Instagram page. , when he’s not traveling, the 29-yearold lives in a ritzy part of Brooklyn, parked between two brownstones

However, last summer - his first spent in a van - put the native Kansan's mettle to the test, when a record-breaking heat wave hit the Big Apple and made sleeping next to impossible

However, last summer – his first spent in a van – put the native Kansan’s mettle to the test, when a record-breaking heat wave hit the Big Apple and made sleeping next to impossible 

He soon found himself so desperate that he spent $120 to get a window-unit AC installed in anticipation of next summer - even though he has to run an extension cord into a nearby building

He soon found himself so desperate that he spent $120 to get a window-unit AC installed in anticipation of next summer – even though he has to run an extension cord into a nearby building

He parks his cargo van home in a driveway between two brownstones in the affluent part of Brooklyn – all for the cost of $460 a month. 

However, last summer – his first spent in a van – put the native Kansan’s mettle to the test, when a record-breaking heat wave hit the Big Apple and made sleeping next to impossible.

He soon found himself so desperate that he spent $120 to get a window-unit AC installed in anticipation of next summer – even though he has to run an extension cord into a nearby building.

‘I love my spot right now,’ Smith still instead Monday, as the average rent in New York still sits at more than five times his monthly.

‘I’m gonna stay there as long as I can.’

He, like some others interviewed by the paper, used to be a homeowner in his home state – but now he sleeps in his back seat.

He also works as a systems specialist for a company that sells camper vans and outfits them to make them up to the task of being both a way of transport and life, where he works alongside friend Robert Walker.

He also works as a systems specialist for a company that sells camper vans and outfits them to make them up to the task of being both a way of transport and life, where he works alongside friend Robert Walker, seen here outside his Ram ProMaster, which he has since sold

He also works as a systems specialist for a company that sells camper vans and outfits them to make them up to the task of being both a way of transport and life, where he works alongside friend Robert Walker, seen here outside his Ram ProMaster, which he has since sold

He told the Journal how he took took the lifestyle after a bout with colon cancer. Once beating the disease, he said he had an undying desire to travel

He told the Journal how he took took the lifestyle after a bout with colon cancer. Once beating the disease, he said he had an undying desire to travel

Still, the 35-year-old aspiring engineer told the publication it's not something he can see himself doing for the longterm. 'It¿s not like I want to live in a van forever,' he said

Still, the 35-year-old aspiring engineer told the publication it’s not something he can see himself doing for the longterm. ‘It’s not like I want to live in a van forever,’ he said

Juhlin told the Journal that while living in a van is not for everyone, it can be a rewarding experience, and that is still beats being an apartment dweller

Juhlin told the Journal that while living in a van is not for everyone, it can be a rewarding experience, and that is still beats being an apartment dweller

Not letting her dream die, she's worked three jobs including one as a social media coordinator for an outdoors brand that often posts van life-related content ever since - looking to regain the $5,000 lost to get it fixed

Not letting her dream die, she’s worked three jobs including one as a social media coordinator for an outdoors brand that often posts van life-related content ever since – looking to regain the $5,000 lost to get it fixed

That dream came to an end two days before, her posts on social media show - with one aired Thursday revealing how she sold her customized creation that likely cost her well north of $30,000 in favor for a truck and camper. 'End of an era,' she wrote in a post to Instagram, where she continues to chronicle her exploits

That dream came to an end two days before, her posts on social media show – with one aired Thursday revealing how she sold her customized creation that likely cost her well north of $30,000 in favor for a truck and camper. ‘End of an era,’ she wrote in a post to Instagram, where she continues to chronicle her exploits

Also a ‘Vanlifer,’ Walker, told the Journal how he took a Ram ProMaster van five years ago, following a bout with colon cancer.

After beating the disease, he said he had an undying desire to travel.

‘Cancer for me was, like, “What if I died from this,”‘ recalled the 35-year-old, wjoe works as a freelance contractor at Brooklyn Campervans. 

‘I haven’t been anywhere, so the idea of having the van, even if it was just driving upstate to go see a waterfall…it was the best of both worlds.’

He said he also recently sold his camper to buy one that’s brand-new – a roughly $38,000 Ford E-350 cargo van. 

He, like Smith, parks each night on the street in even more ritzy Williamsburg, but conceded that finding a space can often be a nightmare.

He said he likes the lifestyle, but added that it’s not something feasible for the longterm – citing factors like the ups and downs of gas prices and return-to-office mandates making endless roaming more and more difficult.

‘It’s not like I want to live in a van forever,’ he said.

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