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Going nomad: How these 'van life' veterans are redefining freedom of the road

May 29, 2016 (Photo Credit: Courtesy of Leo Jenkins)

After building a successful business, former Army Ranger Leo Jenkins bought one to drive from Alaska to the Dakotas so he could drink a beer.

Navy aircraft mechanic Rob Morgan bought one as he was preparing to leave the service so he could surf and camp his way down the entire length of the West Coast.

Military spouse Stephanie Straub got one as her husband was getting ready to deploy for a year so she could explore the Pacific Northwest with their toddler while he was away.

The one thing these three very different people have in common is the simple van. Well, maybe not so simple.

Maybe you’ve noticed those incredible #vanlife-tagged photos on Instagram. From renovated old Volkswagen Westfalia campers and EuroVans to the big passenger and cargo vans creatively converted for roughing it comfortably, ​a rolling renaissance is underway in small, self-contained homes away from home.

For current and former troops alike, getting behind the wheel of one of these vehicles often means a chance to reconnect with the country and the great outdoors while also decompressing from the tribulations of service through the vicissitudes of travel.

“Being in nature in general is an incredibly necessary and cathartic experience for veterans. It provides crucial time for much-needed introspection,” Jenkins says.

Expeditionary vehicle

More like small live-aboard boats on wheels, these vehicles pack much of what you’d typically find in any modern RV ​— bedroom, kitchen, lounge, storage​ and even rudimentary showers and bathrooms in some — ​all packed into the tiniest of spaces.

Indeed, if RVs are the luxurious land yachts of the highways and campgrounds, these are the rough-and-ready road trawlers of the ​byways, beaches and roads less traveled, ​engineered for ranging far and roughing it in style.

And because of their smaller, ​nimbler size, they are able to go more places and offer greater flexibility than their larger ​cousins ever could.

For Straub and her husband, a Navy officer, getting a 1997 VW EuroVan last year ​gave them a chance to connect before his deployment to Djibouti. Stationed on Whidbey Island near Seattle, the ​avid backpackers found camping problematic after ​the birth of their now-3​-year-old daughter​. The van provided a perfect solution.

“Before he left, we did a two-week road trip down the coast to northern California and then back up through central Oregon. When we wanted to stop, we just found a spot by the ocean or some state park. It was great not having to worry about hotels and just going wherever we wanted to go. That trip alone made getting the van worthwhile.”


Navy spouse Stephanie Straub with daughter, Nora, explore the beach on Bainbridge Island, Washington.
Photo Credit: Jon R. Anderson/Staff
Their van has an accordion-style pop-up tent built into the roof, along with a two-burner stove, fridge and heater, all fed by a propane tank so they can be used ​without running the van's engine or using ​its battery. There’s a little sink.

With a bed built into the back, it’s all just big enough to fit the family of three and their dog​.

After her husband deployed, mother and daughter continued to explore ​the region, ​from​ Mount Rainier to winter camping on remote Neah Bay along Washington state's ​watery border with Canada.

“The weather was freezing on that trip, but that propane heater worked amazingly well. It was so nice to be able to go out in the middle of winter and be able to cook and sleep comfortably and still feel like we were camping.”

The new nomads​

For veterans already adept at moving​, living in tight spaces, and adapting technology to a mobile life, even a modestly equipped van can mean ​a ​lifestyle in stripped-down simplicity​ — ​a full-time life of traveling and exploring.

It’s what Jenkins calls “embracing the art of nomadicity,”​ in which the ​right person with the right mindset​ can ​truly live anywhere​. Even in the back of a van.

“It is often romanticized on social media​ but is not all picturesque sunsets and frolicking with sloths. It can be downright grimy at times, but that can be amazing as well, if you maintain the proper perspective,” Jenkins says.

Jenkins left the Army in 2007 in search of a new perspective, eventually becoming an entrepreneur and building a successful gym and fitness business in Denver.


“We don’t really look at this as a trip, rather a lifestyle,” says Leo Jenkins. “We could have a steady home anywhere in the world and accomplish our career goals, but that isn’t who we are. Experiencing all the world has to offer is our priority.”
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Leo Jenkins
He wanted to travel more, so in ​February 2014, he sold everything he owned that wouldn’t fit into his backpack and hit the road, first bouncing around Central America to surf and explore, then hitchhiking and hopping coal trains across the United States with an old military buddy, and eventually landing in Alaska with the intention of buying an old van and driving back down to ​Central America.

But first​ he wanted to make a detour to the Dakotas so he could scratch off the last two states on his beer-drinking bucket list to knock back a cold one in all ​50 states.

Within 24 hours, he bought an old red Dodge 2500 van with 80,000 miles on it​ — ​and a bed already built into the back​ — for $5,000. He named his new ride Falcor and ​was on his way south the same day.​

Soon​ he added ​a few special modifications​, including ​solar ​power, refrigerator, stove, roof rack, cargo box, pull​up bar, awning and more.


If ​Jenkins' name sounds familiar, you might recognize it from his first two books. ​"Lest We Forget​" is a memoir about his deployments as a medic in the 75th Ranger Regiment. ​"On Assimilation​" follows the struggle that comes with reintegrating back into civilian life. His was also featured in the documentary "Nomadic Veterans."

His third book, "First Train Out of Denver," just released in April, was written from that van he bought in Alaska, which he’s been living in for the past 20 months.

“I love writing from the road,” he says. “I am helping an Army EOD veteran, Mary Dauge, write her book from the road now.”

He’s also working on two more books of his own, one of which is already titled "Ten Ways to Go Nomad."

“It's 10 different in-depth case studies of how people afford a full-time life on the road as well as their story. I have a nomadic tattoo artist, nomadic designer, nomadic corporate investigator, nomadic filmmaker, nomadic students, nomadic fitness/wellness instructors, and a few others,” he says.

Building the boat

After eight years in the military as a wrench-turner on Navy jets, with deployments to more than a dozen countries across the Mediterranean and the Middle East, you might think Navy veteran Morgan would have had enough of traveling for a while.

“I kept meeting these people overseas, and they’d ask me what it's like at Yosemite or some other national treasure, and I was ashamed to admit I’d never been to them,” he says. “I decided I needed to go see these meccas and experience what it was I’d ​actually been defending.”

About a year ​before his enlistment was up, he bought a ​15-passenger 1995 Chevy Sportvan G20 for $3,500.

“It was an old, ugly white van with 122,000 miles on it​ but ran perfectly.”

He spent about $1,500 installing ​solar ​and building his own bed, kitchen and cabinet system.

“I did all the work myself, because if you build the boat, you can fix the boat.”

He named his new vessel ​Vanawhite.​


Navy veteran Rob Morgan with his home on wheels for the past 10 months.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Rob Morgan
He spent his final months in the Navy taking weekend shakedown trips to test different configurations. When his last day finally arrived on Aug. 11, he was headed south to San Diego in search of all the best surfing spots along the way.

“It took me three months to get there because every day, there was a new amazing discovery. I was finding breaks that aren’t even on most maps. I surfed with whales breaching next to me on the Oregon coast, sea otters popping up trying to figure what the hell I was, entire herds of deer passing by on the beach behind me as I paddle out,” Morgan says.

Ten months ​— and 27,000 miles — ​later, he’s still living on the road. He’s crisscrossed most of the western states, backpacking the national parks while learning how to rock climb.

“I’ve always been deathly afraid of heights, but at one point I decided I didn’t want to live in fear like that, so I walked into Camp 4 in Yosemite, which has some of the best climbing in the country, with a case of PBR and a bottle of whiskey ​and asked if anyone could teach me how to rock climb.”

Before long, he was on his way to other iconic climbing locales with a caravan of his fellow “van dwellers” to continue his training.

“It’s been truly amazing to see how the van community looks after and takes care of each other. It’s not necessarily a long-term lifestyle, but doing this is without a doubt the best decision I’ve ever made.”

To sustain himself, he’s taken odd jobs along the way and is now back in Washington state ​working as a backcountry wilderness ranger ​for the ​Forest Service, helping patrol Olympic National Park.

“You don’t need a lot of money to do this. About $500 a month is plenty if you're not ​driving a lot, much less if ​you're hunkered down for a while and not spending as much on gas.”

A never-ending story

Now engaged, Jenkins says he has no plans to settle down anytime soon.

“We started traveling in and living out of Falcor within less than six months of meeting each other. She crossed nine international borders ​with me in the first year of our relationship. Sure we fight, but living in a tiny home forces us to work it out. There is no going to another room to cool off and ignore each other with the TV on. It’s not easy, but we are better for it.”​

While Jenkins continues to write and work on other projects from the road, his fiancé is completing her ​master's degree through a distance-learning program with Columbia University.

The hardest part, he says, is just keeping things organized.

“Two people with a half-dozen hobbies each living in a 38-square-foot domicile will turn your life into a Rubik’s Cube. Move the climbing gear to access the cupboard, to move the pots and pans, to get to the cup, just so you can get a drink of water. Now the climbing gear is in the way of where you keep your extra surfboard fins, which now you need. Put the pots away first, though. Everything is a process. It has been an amazing tool for me, though. The process forces me to focus on my patience.”

He’s not sure when he’ll stop. But it doesn’t look like it’ll be anytime soon. The couple just bought a new vehicle, a Ford F-350 with a camper, offering just a little more breathing room ​than Falcor provided.​

They’re on their way down to Mexico ​for a while ​and then back up through the U.S. to promote his book.

“We don’t really look at this as a trip, rather a lifestyle,” he says. “We could have a steady home anywhere in the world and accomplish our career goals, but that isn’t who we are. Experiencing all the world has to offer is our priority.”

As for Falcor, Jenkins handed ​over the keys to a Special Forces veteran he met online, who has ​his own plans for taking the road less traveled.

“From what I could tell, he is using it the same way I did, as a center point for therapy, traveling through laid-back towns and learning the cathartic power of surfing and being in nature.”

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