Alumni Profiles

On a Roll
Emily King '06 and Corey Smith '08 unpack the secrets of van life.

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Every time Emily King '06 looks up from her work and gazes out the window, it hits her: she's got the best office in America—or at least the best view from her office window, which happens to be the windshield of a 1987 Volkswagen Vanagon. It is, in fact, an ever-changing view—of America itself. A lone saguaro cactus, for example, backlit by the rising sun. Or a wash of deep blue surf curving along the Pacific coast. A cluster of snow-covered peaks. Or a grove of sky-high redwoods. King and her officemate, Corey Smith '08, have been recording all their travels on their blog, "Where's My Office Now?"

"We're living the dream, and we want to share it with others," says Smith, who's usually in the driver's seat, steering the office-on-wheels to its next destination.

King says it all started as an experiment to combine a nomadic lifestyle with 9-to-5 careers. A website developer, she had the perfect job to work remotely, and Smith's work managing accounts for her business was equally portable. And so last January, the pair loaded their van, a Craigslist find, with several thousand pounds of gear and left New Hampshire in a snowstorm on a quest for simplicity and adventure.

A year and more than 10,000 miles later, the duo has nearly 7,000 van-life enthusiasts tracking their progress, peppering them with questions: How do you store your food? How do you work on the road? How do you keep from killing each other? "Everybody has a dream of hopping in their van and driving off into the sunset," says Smith. The fact is, he notes, that van life has its share of downs as well as ups.

For one thing, it turns out that living simply—in precisely 75 square feet—can be pretty complicated. Mornings start with pumping water for cold showers, followed by a complex routine that involves transforming the bed back into a couch, just to make enough room to stand up, turn around, and cook breakfast on the two-burner stove. There's food buying and itinerary planning and, of course, van maintenance. Smith has tackled everything from replacing the fuel lines to updating the moldy plumbing pipes—and then explained it all step-by-step on their blog.

The pair also writes about the challenges of working on the road. When the wireless connection is good, King types while Smith drives. Other times they settle in at the nearest cafe with wireless access. King estimates she puts in about 15 to 30 hours a week, pulling in more than enough to cover their expenses. Smith, meanwhile, is so busy with trip logistics that he puts in only minimal paid hours. But the equation works: a low cost of living means they can spend fewer hours at their "desks" and still save money to help pay off student loans.

The couple, who worked together as kayak guides and then bonded over their love of surfing and travel, say that a sense of teamwork is key: They agree that you can't hold grudges when you live in such a small space; you just have to let things go. Some lessons of the road have been discouraging—the amount of waste they've encountered, the extremes of wealth and poverty. "But it's made me a more compassionate person," says King. "And helped me think about what is truly necessary to survive in this country." It's also strengthened their resolve to live lightly, using less and needing less.

"The thing that's surprised me most, though," says Smith, "is how awesome people in America are. It's a story that needs to be told—it's not what's portrayed in the media at all." He pauses for a minute and considers the stats: "One bad mechanic. That's it. One difficult person in 12 months."

Meanwhile, the pair can't begin to count the number of friends they've made and people who have helped them out. Like the guy on Instagram in Oregon, who responded, well, instantly and offered to store their van while Smith recovered from a broken collarbone. Or the local mechanic who went out of his way to help them after a serious breakdown in Arizona. No power steering. No brakes. On a hill. "It was scary," says Smith, "but it wound up being a 'Sedona moment'—what people there call 'synchronicity.' Everything came together." The travelers stayed seven weeks, made new friends, and created a website for the campground that hosted them. And then there was the girl with the handmade hats, the one who was following their adventure online and just showed up one day with warm gifts for their journey.

Van life is like that—full of surprises. King and Smith say they'll keep at it as long as it's fun. They'll keep passing along what they learn, too. "Not a week goes by that we don't receive an email from a follower on the verge of a daring leap into van life," writes King. Thanks to the duo's online storytelling, those who aren't quite ready to head off into the sunset in their own Vanagon can always hitch a virtual ride.

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