#VanLife: On the road with Mother Earth

How one EHS teacher and family travel greener with Vinny

April 22, 2021

#VanLife: with over 6 million posts on Instagram, van life has become a popular nomadic lifestyle for those seeking adventure and embracing an environment that supports a flexible work schedule, economical budgeting, and minimalism. Emmaus High School’s environmental science teacher Kristen Susens is one of these people. 

From the comfort of their renovated 2002 Ford E150, Susens travels across the country, visiting deserts and mountains alike with her family. With every available opportunity, Susens escapes from her small Emmaus home and journeys across the country, making pit stops in states like Colorado, Utah, and Oregon. Living out of a vehicle for months is not the typical lifestyle for most, but it offers its own benefits to those who chose to pursue it.

“Our bedroom is small, but our living room is the world,” Susens said.

Susens and her family visit the San Juan mountains in Colorado.

After spending 12 years in Emmaus, Susens was longing to get back on the road. Throughout her college career, her love for exploring took her to the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and Bozeman, Montana, during her spring and summer breaks. Once graduated from Michigan Tech in 2003, Susens spent a few semesters at the University of Colorado Boulder and Montana State. Later, she attended the University of Alaska Fairbanks, earning her graduate degree in environmental engineering, researching hydrologic modeling, the effects of climate change on permafrost. 

While working in climate research groups watching lakes disappear, the tree lines of forests move, and presenting her findings at climate change summits, Susens decided to go back to school for teaching. In 2007 she moved to Pennsylvania, and received her teaching certificate from Muhlenberg College and later her master’s in science education at Wilkes University. 

Throughout her life, Susens has found a way to step out of her daily routine and find ways to escape into the peaceful reserves of nature. While spending her summers traveling, she came across the van life community on social media. After watching Youtube videos, following Instagram accounts, and reading blogs, Susens and her family decided to embark on their own van life journey starting in 2017. She bought a van and completely renovated it, turning it into her untraditional summer home for relatively cheap. 

Susens began renovating their Ford E150 in the summer of 2019 in preparation for their travels across the United States.

“Most of the stuff you see on Instagram are $100,000 vans with these insane builds,” said Susens. “When you’re actually out there, there’s more people like us with relatively cheap vans and DIY builds who didn’t sink a house worth of money into their van. What’s shown on social media is very different from the reality of life on the road.” 

To start, Susens, her husband Nick Lindsay, and, at the time, 2-year-old son Miles, took their van on a number of trial runs. These trial runs were a week and a half long and helped the family determine what worked and what didn’t; how to make sure the pot and pans didn’t nosedive off of a shelf during a sharp turn, or how to pack for every kind of weather imaginable when your closet is a suitcase. 

Their first stop: Iceland. 

In late November, Susens and her family left for a 12-day trip to“The Land of Fire and Ice,” which is home to beautiful waterfalls, geysers, volcanoes, black sand beaches, and steaming lava fields. In the winter, the temperature reaches a mild range from the mid 30 to 50 degrees fahrenheit; however, after arriving, they quickly realized that they had come in the midst of a major winter storm. With only a rented heater that ran off of the diesel from the engine in the van to keep them warm, it was time to “bundle up,” as Susens put it. Later, during their seven-month trip, she recounted how it would often reach the teens at night in the desert. 

After Iceland, their second trial run was out west to Utah and then finally Colorado. The trips went smoothly, marking the beginning of their plans for the long haul. 

“At that point it was just a matter of finding a van and building it out, like a sort of summer home. Only now we had a bigger kid and a bigger dog so that means a bigger van,” said Susens.

Their van, named Vinny, is officially two years old as of this year. After spending months renovating it to accommodate their life on the road, it was at last ready for the big trip. Susens took a seven month sabbatical and traveled with her family to New Mexico, up to Utah, Arizona, back to Utah, Idaho, Oregon, and finally Washington.  Along the way, Susens and her family usually “hung out,” as she said, in national forests and Bureau of Land Management land rather than the National Parks because of the dog friendly and practically vacant trails. Exploring, mountain biking, hiking, and paddle boarding were the main events of their trip. 

“My favorite is hiking with the paddleboard, climbing up on a mountain and getting to the alpine lakes to paddleboard around, that’s really fun,” Susens said. 

Miles, Susens’ son, has always been along for the ride. Having spent almost half of his life living on the road, at just 5 years old he has been to New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Georgia, North Carolina, Maryland, New York, New Jersey, North Dakota, and South Dakota, along with an additional 27 National Parks. His first van life was in Iceland in the winter when he was two years old and in his first backpacking adventure, he was four years old. 

“I love to go to Colorado… because… I don’t remember what was in Colorado,” said Miles.

Although spending time on the road isn’t always easy for a kid, like getting a serious case of car sickness or falling on a cactus, seeing the Earth and learning what it has to offer first hand has undoubtedly affected Miles’ appreciation and respect for nature. 

“Taking care of the trash will help keep the Earth healthy and clean,” he said. “There’s [a lot of] trash we need to get rid of.” 

His favorite part of being outside, he says, is the nice weather. 

Miles plays with Legos in the back of the van at Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument in New Mexico.

Traversing the country for seven months out of one van introduces its own types of challenges, especially during a global pandemic.

As with any road trip, stops along the way for items like groceries and bathroom breaks were necessary, but the arrival of the pandemic quickly piled on to the technical challenges with Susens’ sabbatical trip. A quick trip to the grocery store was no longer possible, and a list had to be planned out two weeks in advance to prepare for pickups at stores. Living on the road allowed Susens to quarantine in a different way, from the comfort of their van all over the country.

“Our goal is to get away, so conveniently when, you know, everything kind of shut down with the pandemic. We didn’t change very much about our lifestyle at all,” Susens said. “This is an introvert’s dream, like I am forced to stay away from people… that was the whole goal of the sabbatical trip to not see anyone, so mission accomplished.”

Navigating the ins and outs of vanlife for an extended period of time was undoubtedly a learning experience for the entire family. Breaking daily habits and learning to depend on new ways of living, such as using the bathroom outside, dealing with menstruation in the wilderness, showering in lakes, and disposing of waste properly when there isn’t a trash can for miles are elements that, although unfamiliar, eventually came naturally. 

“Van life is kinda gross,” Susens said. “I thought I was really tan; I was just dirty. It’s not necessarily glorious. There’s a lot of joy in it, but you have to decrease [your] personal hygiene expectations.”

Six months into their trip, while visiting Oregon, Lindsay broke his collarbone while mountain biking. With only one month left of the trip, it was decided that Susens and Miles would finish up the trip on their own, working their way through Washington State and then back home. 

People like Susens and her family are part of a movement of people who are innovating new, more sustainable ways of living with less. This minimalistic lifestyle might become increasingly popular and necessary in years to come, as climate change worsens and finding solutions becomes more imperative. Marie Kondo, a Japanese consultant and rising media personality, has been trending on social media and is one of the names Susens thinks of when transitioning to minimalist living. From Kondo, Susens has gained an appreciation for organization and has learned to phase out things that she no longer finds a use for or, as Kondo says, “sparks joy.” 

“I don’t need to save it because of the past, I don’t need to save it for the future,” Susens said. “I’m okay with letting it go and letting it bring somebody else joy.”

"I thought I was really tan; I was just dirty. It’s not necessarily glorious. There's a lot of joy in it, but you have to decrease [your] personal hygiene expectations.” Kristin Susens

Before embarking on this journey across the country, Susens realized how society has developed a materialistic mindset and understood what living with less could teach an individual. She eliminated all the items she thought were unnecessary, such as clothing that wasn’t worn often, and made room for a minimalist lifestyle. Overall, she finds that making sacrifices is not the most difficult part of minimalist living but rather prioritizing needs. It’s not about surrendering the comfort that everyone feels in their homes or giving up their favorite foods. In her eyes, it’s being willing to adjust. Susens believes that people “tend to be gases,” expanding to fill any space they are put in, even if it’s unnecessary. For her family, she doesn’t find a need for a large luxurious house, rather simply a place to call home and fill with only items that they love. 

“The smaller your container, the fewer stuff you have to fill it with, so you have to make sure that it’s really good stuff. Stuff that you really love,” Susens said.

All photos courtesy of Kristin Susens.
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