The different sides of van life in South Lake Tahoe |

The different sides of van life in South Lake Tahoe

Claire Cudahy
Arvydas Rajackas, Kela Bowman and their dog Kiva have been traveling in their custom-built van since June.

For the last seven months, Arvydas Rajackas, Kela Bowman and their dog Kiva have been living and traveling around the United States in their Chevy Passenger Van.

Wanting to make the most of the gap year before Bowman starts dental school, the couple set out to experience as much of the country as they could — so they moved out of their house, gave away their furniture, and downsized their closets.

They gutted and built out the inside of their van with a platform bed, hardwood floors, tiny kitchen, solar panels and storage space, including a safe for electronics and dog hutch for Kiva. The back of the van is decorated with decals of their Instagram handle, @vanlifevibes, and a motto: “Keep It Simple.”

“We had one year to do the craziest thing we could think of,” said Bowman. “We didn’t have a lot of money, so this was a way we could travel all the places we wanted to go on a budget.”

Since leaving Salt Lake City, the 24-year-olds have traveled all over the West. They’ve camped at Crater Lake, experienced Burning Man for the first time, swam in Havasu Falls, and trekked through Zion National Park.

“When you’re in a house, you’re so comfortable. But being in the van, in our spare time it’s not fun to be in a small, crowded space so we want to go hiking or go out and meet people,” said Rajackas.

Now the pair has set up camp in South Lake Tahoe for the ski season, working gigs they find through Craigslist, like cleaning vacation home rentals.

A year of living small has changed how they think about their future.

“We don’t need a big house,” said Bowman. “I’d rather spend our money on travel. We love climbing and hiking and biking and kayaking. So instead of investing in a place, we’d rather invest that in experiences and good memories.”

Rajackas and Bowman are part of a growing movement of people who choose to downsize and turn a van — or any vehicle for that matter — into their home. For some it means quitting a job and traveling full time, and for others, it’s a lifestyle change revolving around remote work, short-term gigs or getting paid for creating on-the-road content for brands.

Many choose to share their travels on Instagram with the hashtag #VanLife, which has over 2.3 million posts. It’s one of the ways the community stays connected and meets other van lifers to meet up with on their travels.

South Lake Tahoe local Ryan Harrison met Rajackas and Bowman after spotting their van — and their Instagram handle — parked at Regan Beach. He sent them a message, and they met up later for beers.

Harrison has lived on and off in vans — and now in his converted Suburban — for over two years.

The 27-year-old is self-employed as a handyman and also works night crew at Heavenly Mountain Resort.

“It’s funny because I chose to do this at first, but now this time around I thought I’d give it a try and even if I wanted to get a place, it’s just not even an option,” said Harrison. “There is no way I could afford it.”

Harrison built a bed platform in his Suburban along with storage for his skis. He insulated the windows, put in a rug and made curtains. He has an ice chest and a two-burner hotplate on a milk crate that he cooks on with the window cracked.

“I didn’t start noticing how many people actually live in their cars until I was living in mine. You start noticing things that people do, like the shiny bubble wrap insulation on the windows or the foggy windows,” said Harrison.

“What I’ve noticed is the people who have the nice rigs usually are the ones that are choosing the lifestyle. But about seven out of 10 times I meet people that are living out of their car, it’s because they have to. I know some people who live in some pretty beat-up cars.”

But for Harrison, that doesn’t dull his enthusiasm for the freedom that his “van life” affords.

“I can hop on a plane and go wherever I want. I don’t have to worry about a house. I don’t have to worry about rent or bills. I can get up and just leave,” he explained.

In the summer he takes long bike trips, and all he has to do is park his “home” at a friend’s house. Though he’d prefer to have a non-mobile home in the winter, he doesn’t see that happening anytime soon.

“I’m hoping to move up into a school bus,” he said.

Whatever the reason for choosing van life, Harrison says there is still a bond among the community.

“Everyone seems to get along,” said Harrison. “We all wake up cold in the morning. We all make our coffee on the little Jetboil stove, and we all have our ways of living like we do.”

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