What It’s Really Like to Live the Roadlife

Photo: Pawel Gluza/Shutterstock

We love a good road trip story. We’re not alone, either. The new American dream seems practically cemented in the idea of quitting your corporate job, finding a Vanagon/Westfalia/Sprinter on Craigslist and hitting the road in search of adventure and new job opportunities. (And don’t you dare try to tell us we won’t instantly score a travel-writing job once we hit the highway. We’re not listening.)

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Yep, the notion of the roadlife is as romantic as they come, as alluring as a fairytale with a few less castles and a couple more bad gas-station burritos. But the reality? Simply put, roadlife is real life, says Gale Straub.

Gale Straub travels the country in a 2004 Mercedes Sprinter with her boyfriend, Huckberry’s Jon Gaffney. Photo: Courtesy of Straub

Yes, she quit her corporate job. Yes, she cruises in a retrofitted 2004 Mercedes Sprinter van. And yes, she’s privy to the fact that life is pretty sweet when your backyard is constantly in flux and your boyfriend is 3 feet away at all times.

Still, as with any fairytale, you occasionally have to deal with evil spells. Or, in Straub’s case, sparse sleeping arrangements.

“The hardest part is finding a place to camp each night,” she explains. “The first few months on the road, we moved from place to place often and with little planning. When it’s 9 p.m. and I haven’t had dinner yet and still don’t know where I’ll be sleeping—that’s when my patience is most tested.”

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Straub is as fascinated with road trips as we are—so much so, in fact, that she started a blog that shares the stories of women all over the country living her same dream, dubbing it She Explores. So who better to school us in the ups and downs of life on the road than Straub? Here, she gives us some rapid-fire answers to help quench our thirst for four-wheeled adventure until we can embark on our own.

sprinter van
Straub and Gaffney hired a woodworker to retrofit their Sprinter using reclaimed barn wood. Photo: Courtesy of Gale Straub

Best van conversion idea?

Straub says her Sprinter was a construction vehicle, so it needed a lot of work to make it livable. After stripping the van bare, rust-proofing it and adding insulation, she and her boyfriend contracted a woodworker to add in amenities like cabinets and a kitchen counter.

“I always wanted to own a little wood cabin and now I do,” she says. “All the accents are finished with reclaimed wood. I helped make our dinner table out of 200-year-old barn board from the town over from where I grew up in New Hampshire.”

Most road-trip-friendly place, and the least?

“In terms of people’s reactions to the van and living in one, Ventura, California, comes to mind as the most rig-friendly,” says Straub. “It’s a small surf town and the street was peppered with all kinds of vans. It made stealth camping easier.”

From a logistical standpoint, Seattle was the least friendly. “The van is quite long and difficult to park and drive in city traffic,” she says. “Seattle had little parking and lots of traffic, which is not a great combination.”

Biggest bump in the road?

“Getting on the road, and even that was a series of small bumps: quitting my job, moving out of my apartment, spending the summer building out the van,” Straub says. “Each was a challenge in itself, and I had a few moments where I wanted to change my mind.”

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Road-trip essential we might not consider?

A tent! “Sometimes you just need a little fresh air or you find out that the best way to experience a place is 5 miles down a trail,” says Straub. “It can also serve as a guest room for intrepid visitors.”

You’ll typically sleep in your van, but chances are you won’t be able to take it everywhere you want to go, so have a backup plan.

Road trip gear we should leave back at home?

Your expectations. “There’s been a lot of romance built up around the vanlife,” she says. “If you plan to live it full time, it’s not a vacation, it’s your life. For it to be sustainable, you’ve got to take it day by day.”

Best comment about your Sprinter?

“It looks like a tree house on wheels.”

Campsite or roadside camping?

Roadside camping. “It’s free and makes campsites all the sweeter,” Straub explains. “Sure, it’s a little sketchier, but if you play by the rules it works out well.”

Fix it yourself or call AAA?

Call AAA. “There’s a reason we sprung for the best plan,” she says. “It saves you the hassle if you’re stuck somewhere and don’t want to lug around too many tools. Fingers crossed we’ve only had to call once for a flat tire; the Sprinter has been reliable thus far!”

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Grocery shopping or roadside food stops?

Grocery shopping. “Most often it’s the economical and healthy choice,” insists Straub. “If I’m in a new city, I’ll make exceptions, though, since it’s a great way to learn about the culture, and there’s a lot of food that I love but isn’t van-friendly. Two words: ice cream.”

Sprinter van
Gale Straub and Jon Gaffney say their Sprinter adventure was a mutual goal. Photo: Courtesy of Straub

Under or over the speed limit?

Over. Straub says one of the benefits of the Sprinter is that it doesn’t struggle to keep up on the highway: “It can comfortably go 80 mph, which sometimes is the speed limit.”

Go-to travel outfit?

“Taylor Stitch T-shirt dress with my favorite hat and boots. Especially when I want to hide the fact that I haven’t showered in four days.”

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Best snack for driving?
“A Honey Crisp apple is perfectly low maintenance. You don’t have to peel it, and you avoid the perils of the pocketknife.”

Best tip for staying awake on long drives?

Have your partner read to you, says Straub. “It’s more engaging than a book on tape. I spent one late night reading my favorite advice column to my guy, asking him what his advice would be. It generated good conversation and kept us alert.”

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