The North Face ambassadors, Juliana and Richmond, tell us their about their whirlwind romance and the events that led to them shedding most of their material possessions and moving their life into a sprinter van.
Exactly one year ago, I was sitting with my partner Richmond in the shell of our Sprinter van. It’s Valentine’s Day, and he’s surprised me by whisking me away to one of our favorite coastal spots off of Highway 1. It’s an unusually warm, winter day and our ocean view is bathed in golden light. Our van is hollow, except for a table and two chairs that Richmond brought along for us. He lays out a tablecloth and some guilty pleasures: red wine, sweet baguette, various smelly cheeses, and olives (marinated with chiles). We eat, sip wine, and watch the waves, as our imaginations fill the blank canvas of our van with ideas of what it could be.
365 days later, we’re now living full-time in our van. It’s taken hours, days, months, and many weekends, but we’re finally almost ready to hit the road. Many people wonder why we’ve made such a drastic life change, what about nomadic life for us is so appealing, and why we’d want to live in 50 square feet of space together in what used to be a plumbing truck.
It all started with a spark. After exchanging messages over both Tinder and OkCupid (yes, it spanned two dating apps) the two of us quickly discovered that we’d found something special. Over drinks at Two Sisters in San Francisco, we talked about everything: where we were from, what we loved doing, our philosophies on work and life, and where we wanted to go. Our dreams of adventure and leading simpler lives quickly bonded us. It was a conversation that left both us feeling like we’d known each other for years.
From that first date on, we couldn’t go long without seeing each other. We spent hours together, sharing our visions of adventure and life on the road. As the days went by, they started to merge. The relationship was still blossoming; we’d only been dating for a couple of months, yet we started to talk seriously about turning our wanderlust dreams into reality.
But at the time, those dreams couldn’t have been more different. Travels with Charley, written by John Steinbeck, has always been one of my favorite stories. I read it in high school and something about it, something about John Steinbeck picking up life with his poodle Charley and traveling across America, stuck with me. When Richmond and I met, my plan was to adopt a canine companion (probably a big one) and drive off into the sunset to explore the American West. That’s how I saw it going, anyway.
Richmond had a similar calling, but he was drawn toward the sea. Growing up in a surfing family on the Oregon coast, he was raised in and on the water. His father was a commercial fisherman, and he loved living the coastal life. It’s such a part of him now that he feels anxious when he goes a few days without seeing the ocean. He’ll take any opportunity to re-watch The Endless Summer, and his adventure plans involved driving south in search of surf and solitude. After college, he bought a blue, pop-top Eurovan from a man in Berkeley and named it Bella. He’d already had a taste of van life by the time I met him.
As far as Sprinter vans go, I’d never even thought about one as an adventure-mobile. I’d initially wanted some kind of rugged Land Rover or Jeep that I’d just attach a roof-tent to. But Richmond had other ideas. He had seen converted Sprinter vans, with high ceilings and completely custom interiors. He didn’t want to just buy any vehicle that you could live in, he wanted to build it. At the time, I really had no strong opinions about it. To me, on the other hand, the vehicle was just that: a vessel for the adventure. I just wanted to go.
We were four months into our relationship but somehow, it felt like four years. We couldn’t shut up about our dreams of adventure, our dreams of living a life on the road to enjoy the outdoors. We both were longing for more than our 9-5 jobs. We were desperate to climb, hike, and surf more than just once or twice a week (if at all). It was clear that we had to stop talking and had to start acting.
And just like that, the van was purchased. It was November, and I got a call from Richmond at my office one afternoon. “Come outside, I have a surprise for you!” I didn’t have to reach the bottom of the stairs to see it: the large, white utility van sitting in the parking lot. Richmond was in the front seat, wearing a cautious smile. I stepped into the hollow van and suddenly, it all felt so real.
It’s a moment I’ll never forget. I was ecstatic. But inside surged waves of emotions: love, anxiety, excitement, hope, fear, and uncertainty. Again, this was four months into our whirlwind romance and we were committing to build a home together, in a van. We were committing to picking up our lives and becoming nomads. We were committing to doing this together, as partners. This was what I’d been craving and yearning for for months, but I was afraid. I suddenly felt so defensive and protective of my heart, of my dreams. Now that it was actually happening, I was apprehensive of letting my dream become our dream. I was worried. What if it all falls apart? Will my dreams fall apart too?
For a while after the van was purchased, I struggled. A lot. It’s hard to talk about, even now, but it took many an inner monologue to coax my guard down. Of course in a way, I’d already done it: I was in love with this man. But a little voice in my head was constantly questioning me. Is this the right decision? Are you ready to take this risk?
Throughout the struggle, Richmond was patient and supportive. He listened, trying to help me work through things, even when he didn’t quite understand why I felt the way that I did. Ultimately, the way that he handled my emotional struggles brought me to the light. The way that he unconditionally loved me, dissolved my anxieties. I could finally face my doubts confidently, saying “This is someone that I can go through hard times with. This is someone who will be there, who will love me even at my lowest points. This is someone I want to build my home with, no matter where it is.”
I moved into his apartment to ease the transition, and the following months became all about the van. This was real: we were chasing the dream. It was hard and stressful at times to prioritize life outside of the workshop. We were eating, sleeping, and breathing the van. When we weren’t working our salary jobs or socializing or traveling, we were gathering supplies, designing, and building. During meals, we planned. At night, we’d lie awake and imagine what it would be like living a nomadic life.
You could easily call it obsession. But we soon found that, in order to turn this dream of van life into a reality, we had to operate on that level. In order to meet our aggressive timeline of setting out the following winter, we had to work aggressively.
Richmond, an engineer by trade, had experience building and the project was easier for him to work through. For me, the interior quickly became one of the biggest design challenges of my life to date. Never before had I made cuts with a Skilsaw, or a Jigsaw, or cut through metal, or drilled into it. I’d hardly given any of these things much thought at all. Most days I spent sitting behind my laptop, designing web and mobile interfaces.
Of course, as in any working relationship, we’ve had ups and downs. The romance made it a tad more complicated at times, but we managed. Through all of our frustrations and stresses during the build, we came out on the other side, each with new appreciation for the other. Our contrasting working styles eventually gave way to a rhythm and balance that I could have never imagined. We tirelessly pushed forward, and today, we’re three weeks away from our start date and putting on the finishing touches.
Over the past year, the van has gone through an incredible transformation. It’s not just an empty box anymore: it’s our brainchild, our collaborative art project, our love, and our home. In the end, every nail and washer and screw and splinter of wood in the van is a small piece of the big dream that we set out to create.
At times, it hasn’t been easy. But looking back, it’s been worth it. More than worth it. Together, we’re stronger for it. Together, we’ve successfully worked through all of the ifs and buts, all of the emotional chaos, all of the design challenges, all of the questions and answers, all of the arguments and frustrations. And we haven’t even left yet.
On this Valentine’s Day, Richmond’s got another surprise cooked up for me. It makes me happy to say that I can’t wait to spend it, not just in a van, but in the home that we’ve built together.
Juliana is a designer, photographer, and lover of all things outside. When she’s not behind her laptop, you can find her hiking, climbing, or teaching herself how to do something new. She spent a good chunk of 2015 building out a Sprinter van with her partner to travel the North American West, which sets sail in March 2016. Follow their journey on Instagram @homesweetvan.