Van Lifer Jane Salee Shares the Benefits of Living Small in a Home on Wheels

Living in a van opens up more and better opportunities in life. In this interview, Jane Salee from Rock Meets Soil shares how vanlife has helped her pursue her own goals and dreams instead of working full time in a conventional office setup.

So if you are one of those people who dream of living a simpler (and more interesting) life, please continue reading.

Vanlifer Jane Salee

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

My name is Jane Salee. I was born in Wisconsin, grew up in northern Indiana, and have called western Colorado home for the last eight years, on and off. Most of my family is from the Midwest, and my immediate family just moved to Virginia. I have one younger brother who also lives in Virginia. I always miss my family, but they love to visit me wherever I am in the world and we talk on the phone regularly. I make a point to get back to see extended family as often as I can, but have also had grandparents and cousins visit me in Colorado over the years.

As far as a job goes, I have been the production coffee roaster for Bonfire Coffee here in Carbondale, Colorado since 2013. I also have my own business and feature blog, Rock Meets Soil, that I run out of my camper van. I share stories and artwork from anyone, anywhere on the blog and sell various items, photography, and apparel in my online shop. I am extremely grateful for my job as a coffee roaster because it allows me the freedom to travel more than most jobs; my boss and I take turns taking time off, as long as one of us is around to roast the beans.

My hobbies and interests include dancing, camping, hiking, laughing, good food, good beer, going places I’ve never been, being in the mountains or anywhere outdoors, writing and creating, photography—film and digital, good conversation, and enjoying life every single day.

Vanlifer Jane Salee
Van named Tatanka

How did you get into van life?

My love for travel became a passion when I was 17 and moved to southern Spain for a year to be an exchange student. This decision changed the entire trajectory of my life. Coming from cornfields and farmland in Indiana, I became extremely interested in other people, in differences between other cultures and other ways of living. I was and always have been intrigued by what different people consider “normal,” around the world or just down the road.

Traveling gives us so many opportunities to put ourselves in others’ shoes and learn so much about life and the many different ways of living it. Instead of finishing college and taking on a bunch of debt, I decided to continue traveling, spending time in Norway and Costa Rica before finding a home and community in western Colorado.

In the summer of 2015, my ex-boyfriend and I bought a 1979 royal blue Ford van that was mostly gutted and had been used as a party van in the mountains around Aspen for the last who-knows-how-many years. We bought it for $750 and a box full of my fresh coffee. That was the first van. Now our buddy lives in it after we used it as a storage unit during our travels in a different van. Stay with me. We sold the blue van after buying another van off Craigslist and flipped the blue van in 24 hours. The next van was a trade between my ex-boyfriend and his friend. They traded a Nissan Pathfinder for Tatanka, a 1995 Ford Sportsmobile camper van that we lived and traveled in for over a year. Back in Colorado I found Teeg, my current van and home, on my 27th birthday back in January. Shortly after that my ex and I broke up; he had his van and I had my van. Funny how it all worked out.

It is quite expensive to live where I choose to live in Colorado, but this is my home, and there is no where else and no other people I would rather return to. When I am not traveling, I choose to live in my van full-time here at home because it saves me so much money and offers me an opportunity to pursue my own goals and dreams rather than working full-time for someone else’s.

Vanlifer Jane Salee

What have been the most memorable parts of van life?

Memorable moments of van life over the last 20 months: Learning to pee in a cup regularly, failing at co-piloting and sending us up Old Priest Grade on our way to Yosemite and over-heating pretty bad; all of the mornings rolling out of bed before the sun came up and making coffee, then getting right into the driver’s seat to cruise into a beautiful sunrise; packing 13 people into Teeg when I got the keys to her on my birthday and popping champagne; forgetting about the sprinklers at the park and having them turn on in the middle of the night, spraying water into my roof vents; driving past trees that were wider than the van up in the Redwoods; thinking the brakes were going out coming down a mountain pass somewhere in Montana; blasting the heat going up any mountain pass to avoid overheating the old beast; and truly every morning that I wake up in my van is a memorable moment for me.

What have been the most difficult parts of van life?

Winter in the mountains at 6,100ft was by far the most difficult part of the past 20 months that I’ve been living in a van. Many, many people asked us why we didn’t just drive south and forgo Winter like we had the previous year. Well, we figured we’d give it a try and see what happened. Life’s all about experience, right? My ex-boyfriend wanted to ride the mountains and I was focusing all of my energy and money on starting my business. We decided to go day by day and if things got too uncomfortable we would rent a place. That never happened, but boy did those few months change my perspective on comfort. Cold fronts would come through and nightly lows would dip below freezing, and sometimes stay there for a day or two…or more. This caused everything to freeze solid including our water jug, any food, all toiletries, etc. I slept with my laptop and hard drives under the covers with me and used a 20 pound down comforter and down moon booties to survive the nights. It certainly was an experience; one that I’ll never do again, but a great test of my own strength and resilience to somewhat extreme levels of un-comfort. A lot of people thought we were crazy. Maybe they’re right, but at least we’re keeping things interesting, eh? We were interviewed on how we survived Winter in the van by a friend of ours: watch it here.

Besides Winter, there were a few difficulties when I first moved into a van, but after a year and a half they seem quite trivial now, or I have adapted to living so small that they aren’t issues anymore. Some of these include simply getting used to life in a small space, downsizing a lot of my possessions to only own what I can fit in the van (which took some time, and I still have some books in storage), and learning how to create a cozy, comfortable home that I enjoy spending time in, all while finding hacks and tricks to keep things in place while the wheels are turning (there’s a lot of Velcro being used!).

Vanlifer Jane Salee
Van named Teeg

Where do you usually park your van?

Parking is somewhat of a game, especially on the road. One of the most important parts of van life for me is not being a burden to others or breaking rules or overstaying a welcome. I choose to live in a van for the simplicity of life; I don’t want to be mooching off of friends or staying parked in the same place for the maximum amount of time. My van is my vehicle and home, so I am constantly on the move. Without giving away too many secrets, parking can vary between campgrounds and BLM land or down a dirt road with a pretty view, residential streets that already have campers, boats or other toys parked on them, a friend’s place, the back-up WalMart parking lot or other extended stay parking lot, or any quiet street by a park without parking restrictions or signs. I never stay anywhere more than one night.

Sometimes you do have to resort to the good ol’ WalMart parking lot for the night when there are no other options, and we did have a funny encounter once in Silver City, New Mexico. It was also the only time a cop has ever knocked on my window. We were woken up in the middle of the night and asked to move from one spot to a different spot across the lot because some weird lady in a minivan was sketched out by us in that particular spot. The cop didn’t care at all that we were there for the night; he was just annoyed with the crazy lady who kept calling the police station. We moved spots and she drove away two seconds later.

Vanlifer Jane Salee

How do you stay organized and cleaned?

Well, I am always organized, most of the time clean. I’m sure a big part of the reason van life and I get along so well is because I am such a clean freak with mild OCD. Everything has a home in the van and is always returned to its home before driving anywhere. I make use of a lot of small baskets, bins and boxes to keep things in place. I use a lot of Velcro to have useful items and knick-knacks always out without flying all over the place — unless you hit the speed dip you didn’t see coming.

One of the greatest things about living small is how short a time it takes to clean my home. I can deep clean Teeg in less than half an hour — and I mean deep clean. That’s a lot of time saved compared to deep cleaning a house. I suppose it’s not at all difficult for me to stay organized because I am always organized. I have always found more energy, more mental clarity and more inspiration in a clean and tidy home, and that certainly rings true living in a tiny one.

Where do you get your food supplies and your basic necessities?

No matter where I am, I am always seeking out the nearest health food store. That’s where I do almost all of my shopping for food and basic necessities, keeping it as local and organic as possible. As far as gear goes, generally the places I seek out on the road are havens for outdoor activities so there is always a gear shop somewhere close by. If all else fails and you’re in the middle of nowhere, I guess you’re either screwed or you’re eating bananas and tortillas until you can find the next grocery.

Vanlifer Jane Salee

What are your top 5 ‘must have’ items inside your van?

1. Lots of comfy bedding and multiple water bottles.
2. My coffee setup. As a coffee roaster it is important to me to be able to make a delicious cup of coffee each morning. I use a gooseneck kettle, ceramic burr handheld grinder and V60 dripper from Hario to make a pour-over every day.
3. BioLite PowerLight Mini. I have multiple lighting options in Teeg, but I love the extended life and brightness of my BioLite light, which can also charge my phone if needed and is great on camping trips.
4. Dry Shampoo and cleaning towelettes — because no, I do not shower every day, and neither should you. I, generally, use a dry shampoo by Aveda and Alba Botanica’s cleaning towelettes.
5. Velcro. Lots of Velcro.

What is your favorite essential gear?

Besides my hiking shoes and Camelback…

My GOOLOO Jump Starter Power Bank that I use daily to keep my phone charged and run my portable USB fan for cooking. It doubles as a jump starter in case of emergency and works like a champ. Also, my JBL Xtreme portable Bluetooth speaker and power bank. Also used daily because I am always rocking out. Doubles as a power bank for more charge and is splashproof when we’re out by water.

Where do you shower?

On the road: Campgrounds, hot springs, truck stop restrooms/showers (which are usually really nice), friends’ or family’s homes, good ol’ river dip, makeshift bucket shower, rec centers or gyms. You just have to get creative. Being one of the most asked questions about van life, it’s really not that hard to find a shower.

At home in Colorado: Either getting a hot springs pass, rec center pass, or trading friends good beer or dinner for a shower. I also get house-sitting gigs every now and then, which grant me the opportunity to deep clean myself and my van.

Vanlifer Jane Salee

Based on your experience, how much does van life cost?

That’s a good question. At home, it costs very little. I have basic expenses such as vehicle insurance and a phone bill and basic costs of living and eating well. On the road, there are more expenses to consider. Gas for constant travel, oil changes and other mechanical issues that may arise, entrance fees or passes to National Parks or campgrounds, etc. I’m not sure if I can put a number on how much it costs because everyone does it differently based on their priorities and lifestyle.

To be honest, saving money is not my strong point. But I work hard when I am home in Colorado to put money away to hit the road again, and over the last year I have been pouring most of my energy into Rock Meets Soil to be able to have an income rolling in without having to return to work and save.

How do you beat boredom or whenever you’re lonely?

I really don’t get bored or lonely, and I mean that. Boredom doesn’t exist in my life with such a beautiful world to explore outdoors and so many people to meet and talk to and endless thoughts and projects coming out of my head wanting to be manifested. I don’t think I’ve been bored in ages. I’m, generally, wishing there were more hours in the day because of all of the activities or projects I’m trying to do.

And loneliness? I suppose I know the feeling of being lonely, but if life has taught me anything so far, it is how important it is to love myself and be comfortable being alone. I enjoy spending time by myself…out in nature, in my van cooking or reading or writing, exploring new towns or areas I’ve never been to, etc. It’s a beautiful thing to be completely comfortable with just yourself and your thoughts.

Van Lifer Jane Salee
Inside a hard-top Tiger conversion

What is your best advice for van-life newbies?

The most important thing about living in a van, or living small in general and enjoying it is making your space a home, whatever size you have to work with. Bring your comforts into this space and learn to adjust them to fit the needs of your situation. If you’ve been in my van, you know how important this is to me as my van is a very cozy, comfortable place to be in. I host movie nights in my van…with friends who live in houses. If you don’t enjoy spending time in your small space, you won’t last very long.

I’m not sure what others do wrong, but being flexible and open-minded and willing to adapt to any situation is a positive mindset to be in to avoid making trivial issues bigger problems. Just go with the flow and let go of a lot of what society tells you is “normal.” Make your own normal. What is normal anyway?

Can you list down some instances that show that you also miss living in a typical house?

I love living small in a home on wheels. And I am a bit obsessed with my van specifically. So I honestly do not miss living in a house at all, with all of its distractions and extra expenses. The only things that I miss about a house are bathtubs, ovens, and being able to have a garden and grow my own food. Other than that, I am 100% content with my lifestyle right now.

Vanlifer Jane Salee
Jane with Teeg

What will the future bring?

In the words of Dwight Schrute, “There’s nothing on my horizon except everything. Everything is on my horizon.” I can’t tell you where I’ll be next month, because I’m not even sure what I’m doing tomorrow, but I can tell you that at some point this Fall I will be hitting the road solo in Teeg to clock some more miles on the road. As soon as hiking season ends here in the mountains, which is all weather dependent, I will be going East to visit family and friends back in the Midwest and out to Virginia to see my parents and brother. After that, the roads will guide me and eventually bring me back to Colorado when things warm up. I’d love to follow the Gulf Coast back West and knock some more states off the list that I haven’t visited yet, and I’ve got multiple friends who live in vans that will be caravaning to a few places this Winter that I might meet up with. That’s my tentative plan today.

There are a lot of exciting projects and ideas for Rock Meets Soil that are in the works. Right now, I sell my 35mm film photography online and out of my van, as well as stickers and postcards. Within the next few weeks, I will have apparel (shirts and hats) hitting the shop, and I am constantly collaborating with artist friends on some Van Life ideas that are manifesting themselves quickly. A personal goal of mine is to finish the coffee table book of my film photography before I hit the road this Fall. After the first big trip I took in the van, I’ve been focusing most of my energy on creating a business that can help me be self-sustainable on the road…the elusive income while traveling. I’ve been pouring a lot of energy into this goal lately and am excited to see what this coming year holds.

I have no doubt that the future will bring many more happy, adventurous days, and I continue to pour out gratitude for all that life has thrown at me so far. I am so thankful for the opportunities, both expected and unexpected, that van life has offered me, and never would have guessed that it would connect me with such an amazing community. I am truly thankful for the people, places and experiences that I have encountered along this journey, and cannot wait to see what the future has in store for me and Teeg.

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One Comment

  1. I am so proud of my niece Jane Salee. She is beautiful, strong, thrill seeking, brave, compassionate, and down right amazing. What a great interview. Thanks for sharing Janie.

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