The Portland-Raised Creator of the #Vanlife Phenomenon Says You’re Getting it all Wrong

"The thing that makes me queasy about modern-day vanlife is that people are totally missing the point."

Vanlife was never supposed to be a thing. But that didn't stop Foster Huntington from inventing it, anyway.

In 2010, the now-30-year-old, who grew up in the Portland area and attended the private Catlin Gabel School, quit his design job with Ralph Lauren and left Manhattan to travel the country in a 1987 Volkswagen Syncro. Huntington later started logging photos of his journey on Instagram under the semi-ironic hashtag "#vanlife," using it to denote the more unglamorous moments of vandwelling.

"The vanlife things started as a reference to Tupac's 'Thug Life' thing, but it was a total joke," he says. "Pissing in a jug was vanlife."

The hashtag ended up taking on a life of its own. It earned Huntington over 1 million followers, and gradually came to represent a millennial lifestyle brand built around sunrise yoga, bonfires and dusty VW buses.

Eight years later, Huntington is conflicted about the bohemian nomad aesthetic he helped popularize. He's certainly benefited from it personally: Home Is Where You Park It, his 2014 book of van photography, is now in its fourth printing. But judging from his recent Instagram activity, vanlife is well in his rearview.

Huntington now lives in a self-built treehouse in Washougal, Wash. He drives a Honda CR-V and spends most of his time making films at Movie Mountain, his stop-motion animation studio best described as a dirtbag's answer to Laika.

Still, the craze has his inbox overflowing with press requests from publications like Cosmopolitan and Reader's Digest that hope Huntington can sell their readers—and advertisers—on the virtues of vanlife. At this point, though, he isn't sure there's much virtue left.

WW: So you went to college, were living in New York for a couple years working for Ralph Lauren, then decided to quit and go in live in a van. When did that light bulb go off?

Foster Huntington: I just realized I didn't love fashion. I was working 70 hours a week. I'd go to work at 8 and leave at 7, rinse and repeat. I wondered what I was getting out of it. I thought, "What's the point of making good money well into my 30s, having some fucking vapid life?"

So I saved up some money, and at the same time I started this photo blog called the Burning House, which is photos of things people would have taken with them if their house was burning. It kinda blew up in the weeks after that. I had The New York Times and [National Public Radio] hit me up, then I got an advance from Harper-Collins, which was more than I was making in a year. So I was like, "All right, I'm done working."

I decided I wanted to photograph a bunch of people for the next book, and thought buying a van and traveling around in it would be a good start. At the time [2010], vans weren't even remotely the thing they are now. I would look at vans on this forum called the Samba, and I would daydream while looking at them. All of a sudden this [book deal] happened and I was like, "OK, I'm buying one of these things." Instagram had just started, and I was like, "Oh, I can take photos and put them on Instagram," which I didn't see anyone doing. People were posting photos of their lattes and shit, and I decided to post photos of this life I wanted to live.

When did you realize you were onto something you could make into a book?

I eventually had hundreds of photos from seeing sweet vans, pulling a U-turn and shooting what I saw. I figured I had enough for a book—I'm more into the creation of things like this than the capitalization. I'm sure I could put on that hat and be like, "I'm the van guy," but I don't even have a van anymore. I have a Honda CR-V.

How do you feel when you poke around the #vanlife hashtag now?

If you're creative, a successful idea becomes cliché at some point. I guess that was four years ago, when I started seeing people do it and really missing the point.

What're they missing?

I always viewed vanlife as a response to the human condition I was in. I went to college because I was told to. I got a job because I thought [money] would make me happy. I realized the economic plight of our generation is fucked. If you look at what's happening with [artificial intelligence], everything is going to be even more fucked.

So my interest in vans at the time was rooted in having this way of seeing the world that was cheaper than being stuck in an apartment with all this stuff. That's why I was drawn to it—because it checked all these boxes for me. No one addresses that anymore. The media has been bamboozled by Instagram influencers and the couple that drives around making money freelancing and using sex to sell yoga mats and things like that.

It's more or less what you tried to escape in the first place.

I mean, I've made money with Instagram as an "influencer," but I transitioned into being a filmmaker last year. It's a hard time to be a young person, and you can't blame those people in The New Yorker article for wanting to make a living by selling Kettle Chips or whatever. It's an easy spectacle to be fixated on by the average NPR-driving liberal who's like, "It's crazy what these kids are doing! They don't have jobs!" What job should they have? Do you know how many people I know who are incredibly educated but not really finding a way to fit into the system?

So I guess that's my interest now—these people who are cultural outsiders. Whether they were in their 30s or their 60s, they were rejecting the norm. It wasn't like, "Oh, this looks great, honey! We should sell our condo and do this." The thing that makes me queasy about modern-day vanlife is that people are totally missing the point. It was this thing that had an amazing impact on me and changed the way I viewed the world by meeting these amazing new people who had such different lives, and I feel like people who miss that are just cheating themselves.

Are these things most outlets don't ask you about?

I try to bring it up when I can, but it's not the sexy story. As a user of hallucinogens, I think it's kinda the same thing as this modern obsession with micro-dosing. They've been with us for thousands of years as this consciousness-changing thing, and now it's being hijacked by people who think it'll make them more creative at their advertising job.

In my eyes it's the same thing as people wearing the Che [Guevara] T-shirts. Here's capitalism spreading its virus and taking things over. Same thing with vans—as soon as it became a thing people realized could make them some money, they totally lost sight of what drew people like myself to it in the first place.

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