22 Apr Van Life 101: Can It Be Truly Sustainable?
Rowan is a 3rd year Queen’s student who decided to take time off school, impulse buy a van, fix it up, and lived in it for almost half a year. You may have seen him in Queen’s Class of Facebook groups, or know him from his Instagram account @phoeobes_vanstagram where he documented his five month van road trip with his puppy, Phoebe, who was under a year old. Rowan travelled from November 2019 right up until COVID-19 took over at the end of March 2020- spending over 75% of his time in Mexico. In his words, he wanted “to live as freely as I possibly could in a way that minimizes the impact on the communities I travelled to.” From one scroll through his Instagram page you can catch little glimpses of where he went, what he did, and of course the transformation of the van. From the outside, that may be all that is seen, but as someone who knows Rowan quite well, I know that this trip was planned and executed through a critical sustainability lens, where he started his journey by asking himself: is van life truly sustainable? This trip was also influenced by mental health and friendship, and was about so much more than just living in a van.
The light bulb moment for this trip happened in winter of 2019. Rowan had previously had to get his appendix taken out and had recently broken his wrist, he was working two jobs averaging 25 hours a week, and was in school full time (with little enjoyment) as a Global Development Studies major. When reflecting on this time in his life, he realized he was overwhelmed with the responsibilities of life. All of these factors put him in a bad place mentally. Upon reflection, Rowan realized this was not the lifestyle he wanted to be leading, and he asked himself the question: what am I working towards? When struggling to find an answer, he decided to make a change, and that started with the impulse decision to sell his car and purchase a 1979 Dodge B200 van, that would end up sitting in his driveway for a few weeks, until he could pay to have it insured in order to start building.
Aside from his passion for surfing, nature, and adventuring outdoors, Rowan is also passionate about sustainability (both environmental and economic). How he travelled, spent money, and engaged with communities was all strongly influenced and guided by his desire to strive to be as sustainable as he possibly could. The biggest environmental consequence to van life that stuck out to Rowan was the amount of gas needed and used in order to travel the distances he wanted to go. Upon doing research, he decided that the trade off would be to cut out meat (excluding fish he caught himself) as well as shopping locally. When researching further, he focused on the transport chain, which he explained to me by illustrating how when you buy produce from the grocery store, the amount of gas used to transport the product adds up quickly. On average, the transport chain usually involves a plane ride, two truck rides, and your car ride home from the grocery store. Rowan strove to eliminate the transport chain by purchasing his produce and food products directly from farms, eliminating the middleman, or going to local markets with local vendors. When that was not possible, he was extremely conscious of food packaging and the plastic used to preserve food. In terms of his waste, he used biodegradable garbage bags and had his own compost, which he would hold on to until he came across somewhere to dispose of it, where it would be composted properly. Overall, after calculating his carbon footprint, he came to the conclusion that his independent carbon footprint would be lower than the average student, gas factored in and all.
Rowan also strove to be economically sustainable and responsible when he travelled, ensuring that locals benefited from as much of the money he spent as possible. When we talked, he mentioned Oxo, a large convenience store chain in Mexico, which although cheap and accessible, did not put money directly back into the local communities, so he made a conscious effort not to shop there. According to Rowan, little fruit stands on the side of the road had much better quality fruit anyway, and in addition, the people were often incredibly friendly and pleasant to talk to.
The last big factor that Rowan considered, saving the best for last, was his seven-month-old puppy Phoebe, the namesake for @phoebes_vanstagram. This trip was structured around Phoebe: what he thought she would enjoy, open space where she could roam, as well as going to more rural surfing spots so she could be off leash and explore the beaches. Prior to embarking on this trip, Rowan says that he had never felt more alone in the world, but Phoebe was a being who, though low maintenance, depended on him and a companion that he could depend on as well. He chose to make compromises and sacrifices on his trip in order to have Phoebe as his travel companion, and he would not have had it any other way. Their morning started by waking up and going for a walk nearby, so he always tried to park and sleep somewhere rural so they would have a nice place to walk in the morning. They would then drive to a nearby town, find a dog park, and spend a bit of time there so Phoebe could be social and play with other dogs and Rowan could be social with other dog owners.
At the end of our conversation, I asked Rowan if he could tell me one or two things he learned from his van trip. He brought up two. The first thing he talked about was how this trip contextualized his positionality within society. He recognized the privilege he has as a cis-gender straight white male, which allowed him the freedom, safety, and comfort to travel alone in a foreign country, something that not everyone would feel safe, nor be safe, doing. Rowan feels incredibly lucky to have been able to take this trip at that time in his life, without any significant barriers or dangers to himself.
The second thing he told me he learned was how to spear and fillet his own fish to eat, which was (mostly) the only meat he consumed on his trip to Mexico, which I’m hoping he will do for me one day.
I’d like to leave you with a quote from Rowan. He describes his tripe as “incredibly peaceful.” He “was alone but rarely lonely.” This trip was a glimpse of the lifestyle he hopes to lead, where there will be many more minimalist trips like this one. Follow @phoebes_vanstagram to keep up with it all!