Words by Eric Twardzik. Images by Adair Rutledge.
Pete Thuli and Taylor Bucher are the couple behind Always the Road, a blog and Instagram where they document their #VanLife, a popular lifestyle trend. After converting a 2004 Dodge Sprinter into a home on wheels, the two set off in December, 2016 from Land’s End’s hometown of Dodgeville, Wisconsin to explore the country. In that time they’ve amassed over 35,000 Instagram followers, published an e-book on van conversion, released an acoustic album and seen a whole lot of adventure.
We caught up with them in the mountains of Northern California after they’d been on the road for about 8 months with no plans of stopping.
Lands’ End: How did you two meet?
Pete: We went to school at the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire. We met at a college bar.
Taylor: Classic love story.
Pete: Traveling is what brought us together.
Taylor: Traveling and music, I would say.
Pete: We traveled to South East Asia for ten months, about a year after we knew each other. We bought a one-way ticket to Bangkok, and then we just winged it. I think that’s where this lifestyle stemmed from.
Taylor: We really liked living that nomadic kind of lifestyle. Never knowing where we were going next, who we were going to meet next.
LE: You have a dog. Has he been with you the whole journey?
Taylor: He has. His name is Snoop. He’s a Pitbull, and he’s 9 years old. And he’s the coolest, calmest, 85-pound lap dog you can ever imagine.
LE: When did you decide to take your life on the road?
Pete: A few months before graduation. We were exploring some ideas that would let us continue our passion for travel, and we came across the #vanlife community through Instagram. It seemed perfect for us. We decided that we were going to buy a Sprinter van and convert it over the summer.
Taylor: Building out our own home right after college excited us. And so we spent five months working full-time, and after work we’d stay up until 11 or 12 at night learning how to convert a van, which we had no idea how to do. Woodworking, adding solar panels: the whole thing was a learning curve. But we learned so much, and ultimately we grew so much as people.
LE: What did you do to make the van your home?
Taylor: We added everything. We gutted it.
Pete: We put hardwood floors in. We put cedar siding and cedar paneling on the ceiling. We have solar panels mounted on the roofs. We have a fridge. We built dressers and a kitchen unit, and we designed the bed. It folds up so that it’s a lot more spacious.
Taylor: We have a portable toilet that we can use. We have a very simple water system.
Pete: We have sweet shelving. Living in a van, everything comes down to storage. If you can have a lot of storage, you’ll have a lot more flexibility. And we also have two guitars, mounted on the wall.
LE: Have there even been times when the van has failed you?
Pete: Our van died while we were driving on the 101. It’s a crazy mountain road on the [West] Coast, and you don’t get a lot of service. We had to drive because there was no town near us, and our van kept shutting off. Luckily, we were with some friends that were helping us out. One constant is that you’re always going to run into troubles.
Taylor: And you never know when. They’re going to hit at the most inopportune times.
LE: What other changes did you to make to transition to this new kind of life?
Taylor: Downsizing. That was huge. It’s easy to accumulate stuff throughout your life, but if you’re living in 90 square feet you can’t have that much.
LE: What was the hardest thing to get rid of?
Pete: Believe it or not, we don’t have a mirror in our van. We started out with a small mirror but it soon fell and broke while driving. Since then, we’ve been living without a mirror and have learned to embrace it. We were never ones to put much emphasis on external appearance but living without a mirror really forces us to care less about our appearance and feel comfortable wearing anything (or nothing). Having said that, you may find us outside using the reflection of our tinted windows as a mirror from time to time.
LE: What do you miss most about your old lifestyle?
Taylor: The promise of a consistent shower. I can live with minimal electricity and I don’t need a microwave, but knowing when my next shower is is a comforting thought. Living on the road, there’s just no certainty. It can be two days or two weeks between full showers. We have a camping shower that we can use, but it only lasts a little bit.
Pete: I think of family and friends sometimes. You have all of your friends who are hanging out, and you might miss a year of that, or more. You go back a little bit. But you can’t see everyone every time you go back. But we have phones, we have the internet.
LE: If you returned to your former lifestyle, what would you miss most about your current one?
Pete: The friends, the connections, the amazing times that we’ve had with people that we’ve met on the road. And I think I’d miss the spontaneity of the life. Where are we going to be in 12 hours? Where are we going to be staying? Who are we going to be meeting? We have no idea. We cannot plan a normal day. That can be stressful. But it can also be exciting.
LE: How do you budget?
Pete: We’ve made a rough budget. If we’re traveling consistently we need about a thousand dollars a month.
Taylor: If we’re staying in one place for a while it’s even less, because we don’t have to pay for gas.
Pete: So we’re very conscious. We don’t impulse buy.
Taylor: We don’t eat out at all. We make all of our meals.
LE: How do you do your cooking?
Taylor: We have a small, energy efficient refrigerator that we run off our own solar panels. We store all of our perishables in it. We have a Coleman two-burner camp stove that we can use to cook inside or outside. All of our meals are made on those two burners.
Pete: We make a lot of hot curries. We make burrito bowls.
Taylor: Basically any combination of meats and vegetables.
Pete: We do a lot of stir fries, soups and salads, too. Up until now, there hasn’t been a consistent income. Every two weeks you get x amount of money. It’s like, okay, we sold twelve books today. Or we sold zero books today. And it’s kind of up to us. You have to balance life and work and travel, and that can be tricky.
LE: Are there any things that you splurge on?
Taylor: For me it’s coffee. If I have the chance to get a really good chai latte or matcha latte, then I’m going to spend the extra four dollars.
Pete: Mine would be surfing.
Taylor: And pizza. Don’t let him lie about that. He splurges on pizza too.
LE: How does life on the road make it more challenging to be a couple?
Pete: We’re constantly together in 90 square feet, about 24 hours a day. And just like any couple, you need your own time and you need your own space. We don’t take offense when one of us says, “I just need some space.” Understanding and having that communication is crucial to having a successful relationship on the road.
Taylor: We can preach communication until our faces turn blue. But now and then we find ourselves getting into little arguments, and we’re not talking. We need to really talk about what’s going on. Unless we do that, we’re just going to drive each other crazy.
LE: Are there ways that life on the road makes it easier to be a couple?
Taylor: The things that you get to experience together. We built this home that we’re living in with our own two hands. And that’s always really comforting to know.
Pete: It’s like that quote from Into the Wild, “Happiness is only real when shared.” If we were doing this alone it’d be beautiful and it’d be an adventure, but sharing that with someone that you love is another thing.