Straightaway, the opening pages of “The Culture of Vanlife” (Lannoo, 272 pages) come off as the book version of the idyllic, hashtagged vanlife culture filling social media feeds.
Surf’s up — or is it?
Staying true to its title, the book digs in to the people and the places and the vehicles inhabiting vanlife. To its credit, the editors also make space for self-reflection and for exploring the real tension between modest living and big ideas. Vanlife is dreamy; it also can be cold, uncomfortable and unsustainable.
The new book is an extension of The Rolling Home Journal, a quarterly magazine collection of essays, interviews, photos and more created by Calum Creasey and Lauren Smith, a couple in England who were inspired by their adventures in a 1996 Volkswagen Transporter — their “Rolling Home” — beginning in 2010.
“Culture,” the second Rolling Home book, is an interesting mix that answers questions about vanlife and where it’s headed, but in balance raises some interesting queries about what vanlife says about holes in the human spirit. “What all of our van stories share is in essence the act of searching and finding that which is elusive in our lives,” write Creasey and Smith. The book’s contributors find interesting contradictions permeating what we see of vanlife. The digital technology (and social media) that has stoked the movement is the same noise that is driving people to ponder real connection and interaction that doesn’t involve screens. Out there. In a van or camper.
The book has fun with words and illustrations, too, with a wink at vanlife people. There is the “digital nomad” who picks up free Wi-Fi from a McDonald’s, or the “hipsters” who wake each day poised to fill their social feeds about the surfing or their latest cold beer.
And “Culture” gets into the vehicles, too — these four-wheeled “catalysts for happiness” — from the possibilities with a U.S. school bus, to the Mercedes Sprinter, which has become a ubiquitous base vehicle of choice for so many. There also is an interesting, detailed dive into the world of Japanese “kei” vans and their versatility: unusually tall with squeezed-in-the-middle appearance — and ideal for off-roading.
Whether vanlife is “staged romanticism,” as one writer ponders, or the road to real happiness and meaning, “Culture” is a good vehicle for navigation.