Have you ever sat outside, shortly before sunrise, with a hot coffee, poring over a map?
The coffee seems to taste better. There's an anticipation in that morning chill. You know that eventually the sun will fully rise, warming up the day and you'll be headed off to whatever route looked best on the map. You're not really sure what that road holds. The destination isn't as important. But it sure isn’t an office and a cubicle. It won't be a 5-year lease and rush hour traffic.
It won't be routine.
“We were done with the normal day-to-day routines. We were done with America's status quo. We were burnt out, to put it plainly. The political climate was bad and still is. We were rushing the kids in the morning and night. The schools were rushing the kids most of the day with little outside time. We began to question how we were living and none of it made sense,” Danny Louten tells ASN.
And so they moved into their van and left their home in Maine. And that's where they are today, driving around the country with their boys River, 9 and Landon, 4.
If any part of our travel and outdoor culture has become tired, it's the whole vanlife experience, millennials over-curating their photos of living in a vehicle. But to the Louten family, this is not just a hashtag.
“Leaving was the hardest part. There were a few tears,” admits Tamothy. “But on the open road we are trying to take it one day at a time. Is it easy every day? No. There are two adults and two children sharing 80 moveable square feet who have very passionate ideas about how the day should go. Yet, we often have a ‘family meeting’ and talk about compromise and taking care of one another.”
The trip was inspired by the purchase of their 1985 Volkswagen Vanagon from a furniture dealer in New Hampshire.
“He garaged it every winter and did extensive mechanical work on it. It came with a rebuilt 1.9 stock engine and the transmission was rebuilt just a few years ago. All the hoses and wiring had been replaced when he first took ownership. The van was in pretty good shape from a buyer’s perspective. Since we've owned it we've done tie rods, brakes, flushed and replaced all fluids, new rear coil springs, wheels and rims, and curtains," says Danny, "We bought it and immediately bolted to Vermont for a week with the boys. We had an amazing trip. In a Vanagon, you sit up high in captain's chairs with 360 degree panoramic views. It makes for a great traveling experience. After that, every free weekend we would take off for two or three nights to get outside.”
Then came the idea to share the experience with others. They prepped the van and in early 2018, launched the site “Back to the Vanagon”, offering the van as a rental. Most of the first inquiries were from other van owners who wanted to do the same, which was cool, but didn't really get them clients. They listed the van on a third party site.
“In order to truly have a great experience and get out there, you need at least a week of van riding. We found a few tourists who just wanted it for a few days. Not being mechanically inclined proved the biggest challenge. If problems did arise we would need to have our mechanic address the problem with only a half day between renters. The vision began to dim a bit and we started asking ourselves ‘What would it be like to simplify our lives and travel as a family for a year?'”
They put their home up for sale and in the next five months sold off most of their belongings. In August, they said some tearful goodbyes and hit the road on a southwest heading.
“We're following the warm weather and the sunshine. We've had a few 35-degree nights and we've packed out wet a couple of times. We hope to keep going for at least a year and are staying open minded to where this may all lead us,” Tamothy says.
They had a list of places to see but the most memorable experiences have been the sites they just stumbled onto like Onondaga Caves in Missouri, Palo Duro Canyon in Texas, and Oak Creek Canyon in Arizona.
“The highlights are rolling over that hill and around the bend to see that next landscape reveal itself. This country and the people we've met along the way have been so friendly. Certainly the America we have seen is not the one on your television set. There is no blue and no red out here, but a great respect for each other as human beings,” Danny says.
When they arrived at the Grand Canyon, they made the boys close their eyes. They held their hands and walked to the edge of the South Rim.
“When we got to the rim edge we said ‘Open your eyes!’ They both just started hollering and yelling in amazement as they looked a mile down to the canyon floor. Moments like this are priceless,” Tamothy laughs.
Priceless is a good word. For parents, childhood flies by. These are unique moments and memories that the family will have forever.
“We hope the children will remember bits, if not all, of this year of travel. We also hope they will realize that not only does the landscape come in many different shapes and colors, but so do the people who make it up. Patience, love, compassion, understanding … Aren't we all trying to practice this every day and pass it on to the next generation?”
Before they left, Tamothy found Homeschoolers of Maine, a volunteer-based organization dedicated to preserving and promoting homeschooling who have helped direct the Loutens.
“Just about every day he has some written assignments. We have to document his work in detail and it will need to be submitted back as proof at the end of the school year. We all have fun with his schooling though. We took a day and learned everything we could about the Rolling Stones. Did you know that their first album the one that made them famous was all cover songs? What?! Summiting a peak counts as gym class. We've toured Lincoln’s house, stopped by the Women's Right Museum, popped over to Harriet Tubman's home, took a rickety elevator up to the top of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, and spray painted Cadillacs in Texas. We think this exposure and way of life has profoundly influenced our family in a short period of time,” said Danny.
“We have no idea where we will end up. We hope to be a bit wiser and more settled in life. We will always have the itch to get up and go. Danny would like to never stop, and find creative opportunities in the places we pass through. Yet we realize eventually we will need to re-enter the work force, get the boys back into school and find another community to call home … or maybe not. You're never too old to ask yourself, ‘What do you want to do for the rest of your life?’ This year is truly about taking that risk to explore who we are as individuals and as a family,” says Tamothy.
“We needed a rotor cap in Pennsylvania, some new coolant hoses tightened in Illinois, and a new steering rack in Oklahoma. We knew what we were getting into when we signed up for this. It still beats the old mortgage payment though,” Danny muses.
For now, the plan is to spend some time in Southern California. They're getting antsy to be in the ocean. From there, they will be on the North Shore of Oahu for December and then hopefully flying to New Zealand to find another van to explore both the North and South Island. They plan to be back in the spring, heading up the West Coast to the Pacific Northwest.
“Our children are so curious about the world that this makes the trip even more exciting. We have had an endless number of sweet moments with them,” says Tamothy, “Yet, at the same time there is very little down time as an adult. This can make it that much more challenging, especially when your 4-year-old decides to outgrow his naps. Danny and I are often talking about what is working and not working for the group. How do we save physical, mental and spiritual time for ourselves along with being available for our children? This is an honest and real challenge if you are considering living in a small camper van with children. It's easy to have a melt down before the morning bagels are toasted.”
You can follow the Loutens at @backtothevanagon.
More Vanlife content from ASN here