'Van life' with James and Rachel of Idle Theory Bus 

BY melissa connell

James and Rachel have been living in a 1976 VW campervan named 'Sunshine' since 2012. Waking up to a different view each day, living with less and working together. It seems like quite a fun and romantic existence and their photos certainly may entice you to throw in your day job and hit the road asap. But what's it really like to live in a tiny rolling home, forever uncertain of what tomorrow may bring?

A big thankyou to James and Rachel for giving an honest insight into 'van life' through their stories and imagery. Website and social media links can be found following the article.  

 All images courtesy James and Rachel

All images courtesy James and Rachel

Where are you right now?

Right now we’re nestled in the San Juan mountains of Colorado. Fall is here and the yellow aspens are dropping their leaves fast. We plan to visit some rumoured hot springs in these mountains, up high, near 11,000 feet, and then start heading south into the lower deserts of New Mexico and Arizona before the weather turns unbearably cold. The first snow fell a few weeks back and we’re dipping below freezing at night. Time to find some warm weather!

Please share an amazing experience from your time on the road

In Arches National Park we hiked to Delicate Arch at twilight to watch the Milky Way rise behind the magnificent structure of geology. There, we spent the evening with a cardio-surgeon named Brian, who was on a solo road trip through the west during a sabbatical. The night was beautiful. The Milky Way shone like polished pearls and our conversation was muted with awe.

Brian followed us down a dirt road late that night to a secret spot near the Green River. We slept there and spent the next day idling by the river. In that one day, Brian became a close friend. One we shared our hearts and thoughts with but never saw again. That’s how it is on the road; friendship is something that comes and goes suddenly, making it precious and more meaningful than if it lasted for years.


Please share an unenjoyable experience from your time on the road

Once, driving back into the United States from Canada, we endured a gut wrenching search of the bus by border patrol. We were asked to pull over, park and enter a windowless room in the detaining office as two armed policeman went through each and every compartment of the bus.

They absolutely trashed our home. Our things were strewn all over the place as we sat inside, helpless to do or say anything. One intimidating cop questioned us harshly, asking us over and again where our residence was and where we worked. It is, apparently, illegal to not have a permanent address.

At the end they let us off with a warning about the apples we had in the back; no produce should cross borderlines. The procedure took 3 hours of our time and left us shaky, messy and frustrated. What a welcome home!


How has your VW bus aided your travels?

There are so many reasons why we love living and travelling in a VW bus.

First off, these buses are sturdy. We use ours hard and she holds up like a champ. We take her up faint stretches of dirt back road and she just chugs along. We feel free to go where we want as we want because our air-cooled engine is simple to work on and we feel we can repair her in a pinch.

The VW community is strong and wacky and lighthearted and kind. When we meet a bus person we’ve made an instant friend. VW people are warm, hospitable, and helpful. But, hands down, the best part of driving a bus is that these vehicles make people happy. When we drive through a town people always smile and point. Orange is a colour of optimism and inspiration and we love spreading smiles as we drive through the country.


if you feel comfortable, please share about how you afford this lifestyle

We earn most of our money working on farms. Our travels follow agricultural seasons. Most of the jobs are fruit harvests; picking grapes, peaches, apples, chestnuts, and cherries. These gigs last about a month, four weeks of 12-hour days. We’re usually exhausted by the end. But it’s good, honest work that allows us to live and work outside, in rural areas, away from cities.

We also do odd jobs found on Craigslist or corkboards of small-town grocery stores. We’ve cleaned windows, painted roofs, dug ditches and weeded gardens.

Lastly, we make some money from our photography and writing. We create short online videos for nonprofits and brands, shoot photos for catalogues and do some freelance writing.

With these varied and new ways of earning income we never are bored at work; each job is a new adventure; we’re always learning skills.


Is work the purpose of life?

Our Idle Theory states that there are three types of time: Work, Leisure, and Idle. It is our goal to balance our time between these three forms of time.

With that in mind, we hold firm to our hypothesis that work is NOT the purpose of life. Our industrialised, capitalist society certainly thinks that it is. Today’s frantic and busy culture teaches us, at a young age, that we are an amalgamation of our career achievements and our contributions to Progress. This attitude stems from the Puritan work ethic, a tradition of industrious Europeans who put progress and wealth accumulation above all else. We think that this work-obsessed approach to life leads to imbalance, social vices, and insanity.

Work is not the meaning of life; merely one small fraction of a whole and healthy existence.

Is there a purpose of work beyond survival?

We need meaningful work to be satisfied and whole. We need periods of hard labour that challenge our bodies and our stamina. We need to provide for ourselves survival essentials in order to live a dignified life. All animals have a desire to create useful things to society. This creation fosters community and gives balance to leisure and idle time.

That being said, we recognise that to some degree surplus is a wonderful thing. What we question is the amount and extent of that surplus. Limiting our material possessions limits the time we devote to work and creates a balanced life.

What steps do people need to take in order to move from living vicariously to actually getting out onto the road themselves?

We always encourage people to pinpoint what makes them happy and to do it with wild abandon. You see, the first step in living life to its fullest is recognising your passions and strengths. There are so many wonderful, dreamy ways to live. Living on the road is just one of them. If what you’re trying to do seems scary, gives you anxiety or gives you resistance, then maybe you should look for a new plan. Pick the low hanging fruit. Do what naturally works.

Search within yourself for what makes your heart sing, and do that. Take that path. You may not know where it’s heading, but that’s all right. If you’re happy, you’re right where you’re supposed to be. Say yes. Go with your gut. Everything will work itself out.

Remember, if you are joyful and on fire for what you do each day, you are living the dream. Carpe Diem.


Recommended reading / watching

If you’d like to delve deeper into Idle Theory, check out Leisure: The Basis of Culture by Josef Pieper or Bertrand Russell’s essay In Praise of Idleness. We also strongly recommend any works by Peter Kropotkin, anarchist philosopher who suggested limiting the work week of each person to 25 hours a week, 6 months of the year. My favorite by him is In Conquest of Bread, published in 1892.

If you’re interested in nomadic culture, listen to the Hobo and Dustbowl songs of Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly and folk singers Pete Seeger and Utah Phillips, who sang for the working class, the travellers, the nomads, the voiceless.

Everett Ruess was a wanderer and artist who traveled the desert southwest of America by foot in the 1930s. His letters are beautiful testimonies to the art of aesthetic and nomadic living. They very much inspire us.

Melissa Connell

lennox head, australia