By: ROB HOFFMAN
Rachel Bujalski was sharing a tiny apartment near Venice Beach with four other girls and paying $1,200 a month before she discovered how to live for free in California. She would still live at the foot of Los Angeles’s famous beach and wake up every morning to look out over the ocean. She’d have a place entirely to herself for an outstandingly slim $400 a month, and if she played her cards right, could knock the cost of rent all the way down to zero. Alternating between her boat in Los Angeles, and traveling the country in a Toyota Corolla where a mattress replaced the passenger seat, she was living what many have come to know as the New American Dream.
Photos (C) Rachel Bujalski
“I had discovered that you can buy a boat and live on it in the marina, still live in LA, but only pay $400 a month for the slip fee. So I went on Craigslist, found a boat the next week for $2,500. When I left for a few months, I just rented it out and it ended up paying for itself.” Says Bujalski. She had spent the last few months on the road, traveling the country and documenting the growing number of Americans who have carved out a new definition of prosperity. She called her project Connected Off-The-Grid.
The threat of climate change and exorbitant housing prices in cities have demanded innovation from millennials. According to one study, 34 percent of the American workforce is currently working freelance. Online communities like Instagram have repackaged fringe movements of the 70’s—living in camper-vans, tiny-homes and off-grid—and made them desirable to the mainstream. “It’s the perfect time to take these old ideas and combine them with the new technologies of today, and live the most free that we ever have.” Bujalski contends.
Photos (C) Rachel Bujalski
For Melanie, her husband and two kids, freedom is anchored far from the golden shores of California’s Morro Bay, on a 49-foot Porpoise Ketch, using small gas powered dinghies to go to work and retrieve groceries from the nearby town. Four 85-watt solar panels and a gas powered generator provides the necessary electricity for most modern conveniences. For now they are stationary, but their intention is clear: finish repairing the boat, pull up the anchors and head south.
There is a growing number of families who are comfortable with pulling out of static suburban life, pursuing off-grid or mobile living situations, and using real-world experience as a backdrop for alternative education. Melanie and her family are one of the few who have chosen to pursue this lifestyle by means of ocean current. But most of these long-term explorative living situations, whether it be a family or millennial hipsters alike, are done by means of rubber and tarmac.
Photo (C) Kristen Blanton and Matt Jozwiak.
The van-life is nothing new by definition. A movement that started in the 60’s with Woodstock and flower-wreathed Volkswagens has simply gained a more flattering connotation. The hippie burn-out has since become the environmentalist. Where isolation was once treated with suspicion, those who live off-grid are now revered for responsible lifestyle choices and upholding values of sustainability.
“Platforms like Instagram have created a community of like-minded individuals who can share and affirm this lifestyle of simple, responsible living with precedence on experience.” Says Gale Straub, who spent the last year exploring America in a Mercedes Sprinter Van, and now documents the female face of this lifestyle on her website, She Explores. “I want to build an even bigger community. I saw a lot of male perspective on longer term travel, and hope to share a woman’s point of view as well.”
Photo (C) Jon Gaffney
Photo (C) Richard Giordano – Desk to Glory
Huntington, who started his blog A Restless Transplant back in 2008, may not have pioneered this lifestyle, but accelerated it with a digestible identity. What began as a hashtag, documenting people living out of trucks and vans, escalated into a movement of millennials prepared to trade their spot on the corporate latter for autonomy and the freedom to roam. “That feeling of excitement is less and less around in our lives the older we get, because we’re paying taxes, and bills, and we have all these responsibilities. And that’s the whole beauty of why I started living in my van—because you can have a flexible schedule and be spontaneous,” says Huntington, whose tree-house home base was recently featured in full-page spread in The New York Times.
But it’s important to remember that social-media success resides on a foundation of selective sharing. Eventually, trends become tired conventions and misconceptions are born. From the success of those like Huntington, the van-life has become shrouded in a fog of glamour—a false pretence that ushers people into a lifestyle they are not ready for, and that they do not understand.
And as Straub warns, “If you look from the outside and see a bunch of pretty photos, you think of it like a vacation. Especially if you’re in your cubical scrolling through those photos. But I had a lot of shitty days. There’s days where you haven’t showered for a really long time, or the van breaks down. I even had a pee jug at one point. It’s not glamourous.”
Rather than gathering worth by comparing house size to one’s neighbours, this culture compares Instagram followers and quantifies experience in terms of “likes.”
The inspiration of Instagram also has a dark side, where community slips into competition. Huntington himself expresses disgust for the “I gram therefore I am” mentality, which dangles a new carrot in front of the faces of misguided millennials. They see the van-life as a launching point for careers in travel-blogging and seductive adventure photography, rather than an outlet for self-actuality and a lifestyle of simple authenticity. Andy Warhol once said that, “in the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” From the desire of reaching this level of social-media celebrity, a new system of false measurement is born. Rather than gathering worth by comparing house size to one’s neighbours, this culture compares Instagram followers and quantifies experience in terms of “likes.” They denounce a society that calculates self-worth by house-size, then turn around and weigh their lives in terms of social-media stature.
There’s a fine balance between sharing experiences to build a community, and showcasing experiences to build a following. And as Straub contends, “It’s become a saturated market and the truth is that it’s a lot harder than people think to actually make a ton of freelance money, or to get discovered as a photographer.” This poisonous mentality has taken away from the core purpose of a lifestyle that was originally developed out of a need, as Straub puts it, “to decide your destiny in a world where the cost to live in cities has become exorbitantly high, and the room for growth in bigger companies doesn’t feel like it’s there anymore.” And yet, despite what one’s Instagram feed might suggest, nothing in life comes easy.
Alternative living situations like vans, tiny-homes and off-grid are not the “way out,” so much as they are just a different way. There is too a freedom in the conveniences of push start ovens, flushing toilets and hot showers; there is toil in the ceaseless maintenance of off-grid homes, rickety vans and the challenge of finding a decent place to sleep each night. The key is knowing what you’re willing to sacrifice, and whether you prescribe most passionately to homey-comforts or rugged experience. And if your choice is the latter, understand that you are not leaving your job to travel—your job has rather become travel. And if you go off-grid to escape corporate life, in many ways, you’re only trading a white collar for a blue one. The difference is not in the amount of struggle, but rather what it amounts to. And yet, this distinction is the dividing line between what many see as the old, and the New American Dream.
If you go off-grid to escape corporate life, in many ways, you’re only trading a white collar for a blue one.
Fulfilment relies on the oscillation between hardship and pleasure, without overstepping on either end into soul-crushing turmoil or stale decadence. Those who seek harmony in self-reliance, simple-living and/or the beauty of waking up to a new view every morning subscribe to an understanding of human fulfillment that resides on a foundation of experiential, rather than material, wealth. The New American Dream embraces a lifestyle that intends to “live deliberately” as Thoreau quipped of his life in the solitary woods so many years ago.
As Bujalski says, “Some people will try it, and then they won’t be able to do it. It’s hard work to live off the grid, and to sustain yourself. But I think that there’s going to be other people who take a hold of it, and really run with it. There’s so many different ways to go about it. Where some people do freelance work like web design, or selling prints, others are weed growers, migrant farm workers or carpenters.”
Photo (C) Daniel Silverman
Struggle has always represented one half of the American dream. The promise that, with hard work, comes the opportunity to watch it pay off. But this half-truth often reserved for winners of a socio-economic lottery system has grown stale in the mouths of Americans who look at a two-garage suburban home and see a waste of resources and time. Anchors in white picket fence encasements, and the relentless boredom of a life of service to material gain. For them, this dream has since withered under the vast shade of self-reliance and a new definition of freedom. A struggle that is sheltered by the promise of self-government. A dream that resides in the warmth of experiential prosperity and a life dedicated to living well.