Imagine a friend called you up and said, “Do you want to drive around in a group of old VW Buses and camp for a few days, maybe surf a bit too?” Well, this happened to me, and I answered with the obvious, “Um, …yeah!” I personally own a van and live in Southern California. This endeavor wasn’t something new to me or considered over-the-top because I live here, but to anyone else this sounds like a “bucket list” trip. The big difference for me on this trip was not the camping in a vintage van in So Cal. The difference is I normally would be planning meals, routes, checking surf forecasts, tinkering with the van, and hyping with my wife and kids or best friends that I typically go on these adventures with. I would be organizing beyond organizing. Packing everything from frisbees to fishing poles. I tend to take a leadership role with this type of trip. Or maybe I’ve just always been the friend or family man with a van, but not this time.
When Julien from GO-VAN.com told me about his idea to take groups of people on “vanlife” trips by renting old VW Buses from Vintage Surfari Wagon and cruise around the San Bernardino Mountains, Joshua Tree, and the Southern California coast, I thought it was a bit intriguing to say the least. I’ve seen with my own eyes how that can be a hell-of-a good time and definitely an experience. Also by browsing Instagram, I can see why people would “like” that type of trip. One glance at @go_van_com and it’s like, “sign me up!” I guess what intrigued me was I never saw it as a vacation that someone would choose, rather more of my low budget dirtbag traveler type of mission. Not your typical USWeekly magazine with a Mai Tai in a lounge chair by the pool type of vacation. I guess when I image what most people think of when they think vacation is relaxation not work. I guess what it means is getting out of your routine. Well, I guess sometimes vanlife can be a bit of work. But that’s why we love it, it’s the journey. It’s not knowing “when” you will get there, it is “if” you get there. It is cold feet and hot tea, oatmeal and frost on the windows. It’s whiskey and marshmallows. And it is also peeing in the woods at 2am, broken fan belts, traffic, dirty boogers. And most of all is the Freedom Vessel that you choose to drive that captivates the vibe.
First of all, vanlife is all about leaving your comfort zone and putting yourself into a new environment without all the “stuff” and making the best with what you have and who you are with. Vanlife is about adaptation, decision making, and problem solving. It’s refreshing and invigorating and it makes you realize more things than you will realize. Next time you see someone wash dishes and leaving the water running or leaving the lights on you will think about it more. Is the battery going to die? Did we fill the water reservoir? Vanlife makes you be resourceful and notice how much you “need.” Whether it be 12 volts of battery charge or how many clothes you actually wear. You will learn valuable life lessons, even if it is just a weekend trip. But for someone like myself and many others, who dive into vanlife quite frequently, I didn’t think I would get the experience Julien was hoping for from his clients/friends/travelers. Well, boy was I wrong! It hit me the night before when I was packing and I realized, I’m not taking MY van, so I need to grab some items that typically live in my freedom vessel and take them out to bring into another persons van. Well, this was my “comfort zone”……my van! Quickly I realized, I didn’t need anything because Vintage Surfari Wagons and Julien from Go-van.com have the whole program dialed in!
It was starting to hit me. Next, when my kids saw me packing a backpack and my toothbrush, they asked, “Where are we camping this time, Dad?” Than my wife says to me, “It must be strange for you not bringing your van, or organizing food, or packing the kids, bringing the dog, or going with people you know.” I paused and looked at my dog and at that moment I realized….I think I am going on vacation! Seems relatively straight forward to me now. I am beginning to get what Julien was aiming for. I’ll bring a headlamp, a Patagonia puffy jacket, my Uggs, some beer, and I’ll be good to go! Cruise control. Julien’s intentions were working on me and I hadn’t even left my house yet!
Well, since I do work at a craft brewery (and we brew a beer with a VW bus on the label), I’ll bring beer. Since I do live nearby and everyone is flying in from Canada, I’ll bring surfboards too. So I began my simple ride up to Costa Mesa to pick up my rent-a-VW van and meet my travel posse. Upon arrival I see the shop and I am drooling. There are buses and parts of buses everywhere! I am in heaven and eyeing up a few bay window buses and Vanagon Westfalia’s.
I see Julien and he points me to my white 1995 Eurovan Westfalia. I immediately thought, “Are you kidding me? I want that orange 1979 Riviera with the Tiki interior or that tan 1987 Westfalia! “Bro, I brought beer and surfboards and your gonna stick me in a Eurovan?!” Momentarily, I stepped out of my vintage VW-bus-freak body and realized, wait a minute here, I’ve driven vans like those since I learned to drive. I earned my badge. I deserve this Eurovan! It’s my time to go 75 mph in an Automatic with the AC going and have a conversation with my co-pilot. I couldn’t be more excited about my first ever Eurovan weekend! Finally, my moment has come. Did I graduate? Wait a minute, am I an old man?! Will I listen to Jerry Garcia Band with a peace sign air freshener behind the wheel of a Eurovan? Yup! I’ve reached that point, and I realize at that exact moment, I am that guyand I couldn’t be more stoked on it. Never imagined this day would come, but I couldn’t be more stoked. Unless maybe I had wool socks and Birkenstocks on my feet.
I loaded my four surfboards and shook hands with the soon-to-be-good-friends. We would travel in pairs. My co-pilot, Oliver, was an accomplished surfer from Montreal (no joke, there are surfers everywhere these days). We had a simple connection and vibe. We were both pumped on the modern comforts of the Eurovan and as the trip continued I would be sure to let the group know with heavy sarcasm for the rest of the weekend about how much cooler a Eurovan is compared to their vintage bay window VW Bus.
Heading out of Costa Mesa, one of the older vans had a small hiccup when the belt slipped off. I immediately went to fix it as if was my own, but again, I was reminded that I am on vacation and this is not MY van. Julien and Vintage Safari Wagons has us covered. I stepped back and a quick fix by the local shop put us back on the road in a jiffy. Again I was amazed at the experience I was having already. Less than an hour into it, and it is already an authentic vanlife experience, without even trying.
Heading up to Lake Hemet the Eurovan ran out in front of our pack of VW Buses without me even realizing it. I mean, we were in a deluxe-high-performance-all-the-bells-and-whistles Eurovan Westfalia model, remember! So we pulled over and waited for them to cruise up the long single-lane scenic mountain road. The sun was setting as the air became crisp and clear. Once we saw them all cruising in a row at dusk up the mountainside, I have to say, it sure did look cool. I realized we were doing something cool. We drove down a dusty mountain road to a primitive campsite just as it got dark and the harvest moon began to rise above the tall pine trees.
It didn’t take long to realize everyone was familiar with this lifestyle or they were quickly adapting to it. Everyone took a role upin reaching our camp spot. Like busy bees, we all were accomplishing various tasks to improve our evening ahead simultaneously. Some hung lights from bus to bus, some split wood, some boiled water and cut veggies, while others set up chairs and popped-the-van-tops. Others put on music, cracked beers, and organized their tiny home on wheels. I opened every cabinet in the Eurovan to see what tools and trinkets I had, and it seems like every van was fully loaded with all the “accouterment” necessary for vanlife all the way down to the dish soap.
We woke with the sun and after just one night of hanging out in the woods with our vans sharing a meal and some drinks, we felt like a unit. I forgot how fun it is to talk with strangers who walk a similar path and share the same ideas as to how to live life. It’s so refreshing to get out there and be chopping veggies and scrambling eggs while seeing your breath. By mid-day we were in Joshua Tree National Park. It’s like a whole other planet out there in the wilderness. During amazing evening light we snacked and took silly photos with strange trees. We were just cruising in our Freedom Vessels with no care in the world.
After evening light in the National Park, we opted to camp just outside the boundary on BLM land. It was like being on the moon. We sparked up a fire and parked our vans in a circle. I purposely kept walking away from our camp so I could look back at it from afar. What a joy to sit and share a story with someone as the fire shines flickers of light on the VW buses behind them. Not to mention the plethora of stars.
Again up with the sun, we made coffee and oatmeal and began breaking down camp. We were ready to surf! Caravanning toward Surf City USA we were going to check the waves and have a picnic at the beach. We eventually found some playful waves and oceanfront parking in Newport Beach. We all suited up in our wetsuits and ran into the Pacific. Sharing the stoke of what we had just done along with some chest-high waves, I don’t think anyone wanted this trip to end.
As I reflected on the weekend, I realized Julien accomplished his intentions of the trip. Everyone, including the folks in the group who have spent a lot of time living in vans and traveling the world, were truly blown away by the adventure. We all shared e-mails and hugs and went back to our lives. We will all continue to live the vanlife and cherish the memories shared. This tour was suitable for vanlife beginners, adventure seekers, and even the most veteran freedom vessel captains. There is no better way to enjoy this lifestyle than with a group and by removing yourself from your “comfort zone” to live the simple life. Now, watch this little video the Go-Van crew did of this little trip! And click here to see the expeditions.
All pics by Antoine Cabana Caron