Bella Rettenwander ‘16 Researches #VanLife

by Tim O'Keefe

Hometown: Key West, Florida<
Currently Residing in  Durango, Colorado
Education: Current Anthropology major, minoring in Business Administration and Tourism/Hospitality Business at Ft. Lewis College
Occupation: Student, researching #vanlife

You’re currently working on a senior thesis on #vanlife – the trend of people living full-time out of their vans. What drew you into that research?

Since I’ve been in Durango, I’ve seen so many people my age that have started to participate in vanlife, and once COVID happened, I thought, “Van Life is going to boom.” Because of COVID, everyone was working from home and remote access was now accepted. I saw this as an opportunity to explore that trend and see if I could prove that it has increased and that people have inspired others to take up this lifestyle. For my research, I initiated a survey and am gathering data from people who are living in vans.

What type of person is taking up van life and why?

I was shocked that the majority of the people I surveyed are above 50. They are older,  empty-nesters who are mostly retired or working part-time. They have this opportunity to travel where they didn’t for so many years.  Interestingly most are also married couples. Successful marriages in a small, small van happen!

Most people are taking up van life want to be left alone or have a balance between being completely individualistic and have the support of a community. They really want community on their own terms. Foster Huntington coined the term “van life” and through photojournalism has captured profiles of people who live in vans. The recent movie Nomadland has also brought a lot of attention to this type of lifestyle.

What has surprised you most in your research?

One respondent, Brenda, went into depth about the circular meetings that people living in vans attend each month and sometimes annually. At the end of the month of traveling, they will meet up in one place to share experiences and stories. They also share advice about how they overcame various Vanlife struggles.

When did you last visit CRMS?

I haven’t been back to CRMS since graduating but am really excited about coming back for Alumni Weekend this summer.

What did you take away from your time at CRMS that is still valuable today?

Recreationally, when I get out camping, like this past trip to Moab with friends, I see myself doing the things we were taught on CRMS trips. I always prepare and pack well. I do a sweep and Leave No Trace. All of those things make me feel like I’m a responsible camper.

What do you hope to do after graduating from Ft. Lewis College?

I’m not exactly sure yet. Maybe living in a van short-term while taking an internship. Eventually, I could see myself working in human resources, for a non-profit with my interest in grant-writing and fundraising, or the hotel/travel industry. I’m super excited to graduate and build some experience!

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