Van life with a family: The Harteau's

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When you read about Adam, Emily and their two kids, you’ll wonder why you haven’t quit your job and bought either a van to travel in or a cottage in the woods that’s off the grid. Either option would be a win. This family have been travelling in their Westafella VW for four years throughout Central and South America, and are proof that a lifestyle like this can both be sustainable and adventurous.

photos by adam harteau

What drew you to life on the road?

Adam grew up travelling California and the Pacific North-West, living in a converted school bus from two years of age until five. His family then settled at the tree line of the Angeles National Forest where his father built their cabin and they lived off the grid until he was age fifteen. Living with the mountains as their backyard, they had no electricity and used kerosene lanterns for light, and kept warm from a wood burning stove. Emily spent summers travelling the Western U.S packed into the back of the family caravan, exploring national parks and small towns. The ‘family road trip’ is very much in both our blood and these early experiences are essential to who we are.

Travelling around California on our limited college budgets, we dreamed of seeing the world at large. Our first international trip together was to Thailand in 2003, which lit an insatiable desire to see more of this magical planet. We are nomads at heart, and have always found a way to travel within our means. We never had credit cards, cable TV or car payments; investing in the present instead of paying into a system that does not serve us. Pre-departure our lives were filled with adventuring into our own great backyard. California has small corners and wide expanses that are a natural paradise and fed our wanderlust and fueled our dreams of life unplugged. 

You’ve inherited another travelling companion since you began, what is it like living and travelling out of the van as a family of four?  

When we departed in 2012, our plan was to be gone for one year, so the original intention wasn’t quite as large a commitment to ‘raising a family on the road’ as it has now become. Colette was twenty-one months when we departed California. When, five months into the trip, we decided to slow down, it was much easier to grasp the concept that earlier we could not have fathomed. We always knew we wanted Colette to have a sibling and since our life now is on the road, it was a natural decision to have Sierra in South America. 

Raising a family anywhere will have its challenges, whether it be in a Tokyo high-rise, a Mongolian yurt, or a van travelling around South America. We choose to appreciate all the positive aspects that this life affords us like watching Colette lay on her belly to drink deeply from a fresh Patagonian stream and rise exclaiming “THAT is the best water I have ever tasted!” There are too many moments that Adam and I simply look at each other and nod knowingly that this life is exactly right for us. 

What do you look for when choosing your next travel destination? 

Our twists and turns are determined by many factors, both spontaneous and planned, in the grand scheme and on the daily! Weather and finances help determine what activities we do. Tuning into the energy of a place, we decide where to camp and how long to stay. We have a loose idea of where we want to be for, say, a season, or we need to be at a certain place to meet someone in three months, so we adjust our course accordingly. Early on we adopted a standing rule that if one of us does not like a campsite, we move, no questions asked. On the road, you are stripped of so many outside filters and your intuition is your best, most vital gift. 

What’s the best aspect about life on the road? 

The most rewarding aspect of this life is time. We have time to wake up slowly and snuggle with our girls. Both of us parents are present in their daily achievements - both big and small. Teaching through experience, being connected to the patterns of nature, sharing grand vistas and simple moments. It is time that swirls by so rapidly with young children, and this journey is an elixir to soak in the marrow of their sweet youth. Our first child, a boy we named Aaro, was stillborn. Having survived that intangible sorrow, we rejoice in the gift that is life and we aim to exploit every precious moment we have of it. 

Where have you set up camp the longest? 

We spent May to October 2016 at a house in a Peruvian village named Lamay, the Sacred Valley of the Inca. Having spent four years on the road, both Adam and I had some creative projects that required more space than the van allows. It was a wonderful change of pace to live with so much indoor room! The wonderful thing about this life is not some exclusive club we feel obliged to. We love our life in our van and on the road, but when that does not serve us, we shift course.  

It looks like you’re not scared of venturing off the beaten track, how do you cope with the language barrier? 

I took four years of Spanish in high school and loved it, but was a bit reticent to apply it outside of the classroom. I realised I had to use it or lose it! So I slowly started dusting off the corners of that knowledge. Upon departure, Adam knew the bare essentials, how to order a taco and a beer. 

After four years on the road mainly in Spanish speaking Latin America, all four of us are now all able to communicate in Español, but there are many communities we encounter where that is not the most common language. There are many ways to use non-verbal communication and we find that in villages where we do not share a common language, a smile, hand-signals and facial gestures are all one needs. 

How does a typical scenario play out when you have a mechanical breakdown in the mountains of a distant land?  

Adam is an artist by trade, and upon departure had a fair base of mechanical knowledge. Now four years in to living with our Westafella VW full-time, Adam is an expert. So, if or when, we have mechanical issues, he is out of the van and running a checklist of diagnostics. With wifi, he can address almost any hiccup or glitch, and most bigger issues as well! We would still be in Central America were it not for his research skills and mechanical prowess. 

Travelling and living on the road gets tiresome, how do you keep fresh? 

There is a huge difference between vacation and slow-travel. Vacation is filled with eating out at restaurants and trying to pack in as much as you possibly can on a daily basis, so as to not miss anything. Slow travel is as the name implies, s-l-o-w. There is much more of a daily flow, making breakfast at home, dishes, reading, work, chores. If we are exploring an area, we are typically choosing one thing to see a day and perhaps stay for a few days to really absorb a place. Living in our tiny house on wheels, we simply crank in the awning of our patio, close the pop-top and roll to our next destination. The world is full of possibility and we have never had a problem keeping it fresh, the only problem we encounter is that even in four years on the road, there is still so much to see! 

How do you keep continuous travel sustainable? 

When five months into what we planned to be a one year long voyage, as we were departing Colombia entering Ecuador, we had eight weeks to reach Tierra del Fuego before the weather would make it improbable to safely reach the tip of South America in Ushuaia, Argentina. So we opened to the possibilities set before us, decided to embrace a future unknown and the rewards of slow travel. That was the decision that changed it all! We did not have the finances to stay on the road longer, but felt confident that with our hearts open and heads together, we could figure out some way to support our life on the road. When we mulled over the idea for ‘24 Hour Bazaar’ we knew we had found our winner! 

24 Hour Bazaar is a flash sale of curated, fair trade, artisan goods that we gather along the roads less travelled, and host when in craft rich regions. Adam and I work together to develop products with artisans and select works that move us. We offer one-of-a-kind goods for a few days only, from the incredible makers hands, and ship worldwide directly to our customers’ door. To host fair-trade flash sales has allowed us to support the artisans we encounter, while allowing us to remain nomadic. After three and a half years of this richly rewarding work, we have seen the direct impact our purchases make in these rural communities. 

Having the time and interest to do so, we have also diversified our workings to include collaborating with various online and print publications via Adam’s photography and my writing. We also take paid assignments, producing original photo content for global brands. In October 2014, Adam had a solo art exhibition titled “Terra Incognita” which featured over fifty new original collage, photo, painting and mixed-media works. I have hosted two “Puertas Cerradas” pop-up six course vegetarian dinners inspired by our time on the road, cooking for forty-five folks per night, sharing the stories of each course set in an intimate environment.

What are your plans for the future?

Our goal in the next few years will be to overland other continents: Europe, Africa, Asia, Australasia, in a larger vehicle. We have a few creative projects in the pipeline which we envision helping propel the purchase of a larger house on wheels. Perhaps some day we may be less nomadic. One dream situation is to open an eco-lodge with an organic garden, small restaurant, art studio and a perfect wave out front.But that requires being in one place and for now our hearts and life are on the road. California will always be a place to which we return, it is where most of our friends and nearly all our family is. But for now, life for us is on the road, each day is still a thrill. 

What is the best best piece of advice you have gained on the road? 

We have not met him, but a quote which remains with us is: “A dream written down with a date becomes a goal, a goal broken down into steps becomes a plan, a plan backed by action makes your dreams come true.” - Greg S. Reid.

What’s the best aspect about life on the road? 

The most rewarding aspect of this life is time. We have time to wake up slowly and snuggle with our girls. Both of us parents are present in their daily achievements - both big and small. Teaching through experience, being connected to the patterns of nature, sharing grand vistas and simple moments. It is time that swirls by so rapidly with young children, and this journey is an elixir to soak in the marrow of their sweet youth. Our first child, a boy we named Aaro, was stillborn. Having survived that intangible sorrow, we rejoice in the gift that is life and we aim to exploit every precious moment we have of it. 

Where have you set up camp the longest? 

We spent May to October 2016 at a house in a Peruvian village named Lamay, the Sacred Valley of the Inca. Having spent four years on the road, both Adam and I had some creative projects that required more space than the van allows. It was a wonderful change of pace to live with so much indoor room! The wonderful thing about this life is not some exclusive club we feel obliged to. We love our life in our van and on the road, but when that does not serve us, we shift course.  

It looks like you’re not scared of venturing off the beaten track, how do you cope with the language barrier? 

I took four years of Spanish in high school and loved it, but was a bit reticent to apply it outside of the classroom. I realised I had to use it or lose it! So I slowly started dusting off the corners of that knowledge. Upon departure, Adam knew the bare essentials, how to order a taco and a beer. 

After four years on the road mainly in Spanish speaking Latin America, all four of us are now all able to communicate in Español, but there are many communities we encounter where that is not the most common language. There are many ways to use non-verbal communication and we find that in villages where we do not share a common language, a smile, hand-signals and facial gestures are all one needs. 

How does a typical scenario play out when you have a mechanical breakdown in the mountains of a distant land?  

Adam is an artist by trade, and upon departure had a fair base of mechanical knowledge. Now four years in to living with our Westafella VW full-time, Adam is an expert. So, if or when, we have mechanical issues, he is out of the van and running a checklist of diagnostics. With wifi, he can address almost any hiccup or glitch, and most bigger issues as well! We would still be in Central America were it not for his research skills and mechanical prowess. 

Travelling and living on the road gets tiresome, how do you keep fresh? 

There is a huge difference between vacation and slow-travel. Vacation is filled with eating out at restaurants and trying to pack in as much as you possibly can on a daily basis, so as to not miss anything. Slow travel is as the name implies, s-l-o-w. There is much more of a daily flow, making breakfast at home, dishes, reading, work, chores. If we are exploring an area, we are typically choosing one thing to see a day and perhaps stay for a few days to really absorb a place. Living in our tiny house on wheels, we simply crank in the awning of our patio, close the pop-top and roll to our next destination. The world is full of possibility and we have never had a problem keeping it fresh, the only problem we encounter is that even in four years on the road, there is still so much to see! 

How do you keep continuous travel sustainable? 

When five months into what we planned to be a one year long voyage, as we were departing Colombia entering Ecuador, we had eight weeks to reach Tierra del Fuego before the weather would make it improbable to safely reach the tip of South America in Ushuaia, Argentina. So we opened to the possibilities set before us, decided to embrace a future unknown and the rewards of slow travel. That was the decision that changed it all! We did not have the finances to stay on the road longer, but felt confident that with our hearts open and heads together, we could figure out some way to support our life on the road. When we mulled over the idea for ‘24 Hour Bazaar’ we knew we had found our winner! 

24 Hour Bazaar is a flash sale of curated, fair trade, artisan goods that we gather along the roads less travelled, and host when in craft rich regions. Adam and I work together to develop products with artisans and select works that move us. We offer one-of-a-kind goods for a few days only, from the incredible makers hands, and ship worldwide directly to our customers’ door. To host fair-trade flash sales has allowed us to support the artisans we encounter, while allowing us to remain nomadic. After three and a half years of this richly rewarding work, we have seen the direct impact our purchases make in these rural communities. 

Having the time and interest to do so, we have also diversified our workings to include collaborating with various online and print publications via Adam’s photography and my writing. We also take paid assignments, producing original photo content for global brands. In October 2014, Adam had a solo art exhibition titled “Terra Incognita” which featured over fifty new original collage, photo, painting and mixed-media works. I have hosted two “Puertas Cerradas” pop-up six course vegetarian dinners inspired by our time on the road, cooking for forty-five folks per night, sharing the stories of each course set in an intimate environment.

What are your plans for the future?

Our goal in the next few years will be to overland other continents: Europe, Africa, Asia, Australasia, in a larger vehicle. We have a few creative projects in the pipeline which we envision helping propel the purchase of a larger house on wheels. Perhaps some day we may be less nomadic. One dream situation is to open an eco-lodge with an organic garden, small restaurant, art studio and a perfect wave out front.But that requires being in one place and for now our hearts and life are on the road. California will always be a place to which we return, it is where most of our friends and nearly all our family is. But for now, life for us is on the road, each day is still a thrill. 

What is the best best piece of advice you have gained on the road? 

We're not sure, but a quote which remains with us is: “A dream written down with a date becomes a goal, a goal broken down into steps becomes a plan, a plan backed by action makes your dreams come true.” - Greg S. Reid.

What are your top tips for anyone wanting to set off in a van for an extended trip? 

Dream; research, read, make lists, repeat with focused and inspired abandon.
Work; buckle down and make all your time focused on your goal. Work more; both on earning money to travel, and also preparing for your trip.
Go, do it! Even small doses of life unplugged gives great rewards. 

More from the Harteau's:  www.ouropenroad.com  /  @ouropenroad