What It’s Actually Like to Live the #VanLife

This couple created their own little house on the highway. Here’s what they learned from the experience.

In 2011, Paul Cloutier and his wife, Alana, left their home in Emeryville, California, and embarked on a road trip across the United States in a 1977 GMC Motorhome they bought off Craigslist. They renovated the RV with solar panels, LED lights, and a water filtration system designed by the British military for use in Africa. The couple traveled 19,651 miles across 28 states in 240 days and blogged about their journey on 50statesorless.com. Here, they share some wisdom from the road.

In addition to practical renovations, like solar panels, you added wallpaper and even a bar. Why all the frills?
PAUL: RV parks in general are pretty crappy places. It was important for us to create a place that felt like home, since we were going to be so far from home. We chose the same color palette as our chihuahua: black, tan, gray, white, and silver.

How did you decide where to eat?
PAUL: We’re both cocktail nerds, and bartenders know all the food people in town, so we’d ask them for recommendations.

What was the craziest sight you came across?
ALANA: In West Texas we were at a ranch so far from anything that someone took a helicopter to go on a beer run.
PAUL: In Crossville, Tennessee, we discovered a tree house that encompassed seven trees. It had a regulation-size basketball court and a church inside. The owner said he had a vision from God to build it.

Did you avoid tourist traps?
PAUL: It was important for us to mix the obscure and quirky with the big, touristy sights. There is a reason why places like Graceland and Mount Rushmore are icons. Not seeing them is like going to Paris and not seeing the Eiffel Tower. We even went to Disney World. Epcot was surprisingly fun.

Do you have suggestions for online trip-planning resources?
ALANA: I used Google Docs to make a spreadsheet of restaurants, bars, and sights. Travel websites have top 10 lists, but they are not going to tell you to go to a bad neighborhood for great barbecue. However, a website like seriouseats.com will. We weren’t led astray once. The ribs at Central BBQ restaurant in Memphis and the pulled pork at Southern Soul Barbecue on St. Simons Island, Georgia, were the best.
PAUL: We found Allstays to be the best iPhone app. It has a giant database of Walmarts, state parks, and other places you can park and camp.

You camped in Walmart parking lots?
ALANA: I think Walmart figures that if people sleep in their parking lot, they are more likely to shop in their store. And they’re right.
PAUL: In the Midwest, Walmart is a huge resource. It’s the place to buy organic produce in many towns. I had the best peaches of my trip from a Walmart in Tennessee.

Was it hard to find healthy food on the road?
PAUL: We anticipated the challenge and redid the interior with added prep space in the kitchen, a grill, a full-size refrigerator, and an oven. In bigger towns, we’d stock up on groceries. We didn’t eat fast food once.

How did you avoid getting homesick?
ALANA: A trip that long is not a vacation every day. It’s your life, so you still need to do things like empty the sewage tank and grocery shop.
PAUL: We had days we’d stay in the RV and read books and do normal stuff. You can’t plan as if this will be your last road trip, or you will be panicky about what you’re missing. We know we’ll go back and tackle the rest of the country.

>>Next: A Journey Through Mongolia in the Back of a Van Is What Road Trip Dreams Are Made Of

Jen grew up in Pt. Pleasant, NJ (yes, the Shore), escaped to school in Boston, and fell in love with travel when she went abroad to study in Australia. After nearly ten years of eating and drinking herself silly in NYC, she finally reached the west coast. Things that makes her happy: the ocean, books, mountains, bikes, friends, good beer, ice cream, unplanned adventures, football, live music.
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