Some people spend a week or two in their vans. Adam Sauerwein moved into his.
At first glance, it’s dark outside the bus windows. Another look reveals the purple glow of the predawn sky reflecting on the crisp white of fresh snow. Wood smoke hovers in the air, which is cold and thick with flakes. In the silence of the parking lot, the air crackles gently with the sound of falling snow.
It’s early on a powder day, but no one is here in the Killington parking lot, except Adam Sauerwein. The access road will be impassable for a few hours until the plows come, followed by the lifties and then the powder hounds. Cars will fill the parking lot and lifts will whirr. But Sauerwein is already there. He rolls over in his warm bed and savors the silence. Then he grinds his coffee with a hand crank and puts some water on his tiny stovetop.
Inside his heated bus, Sauerwein gears up as he sips his first cup of coffee. He slaps skins on his powder skis, a pair of Lib Techs, and pulls on his telemark boots. Then, he steps out onto the snow-covered lot and snaps his heel wires into place. Headlamp on, he skins for the summit, methodically making his way up the mountain. There’s no rush, no stress, no impatience, no jostling for powder. With any luck, he’ll earn a peaceful sunrise just as the lifts are starting to whirr, and first tracks before his second cup of coffee in the parking lot. Once he reaches the summit, he skis down through fresh, untracked powder.
For the last five years, Sauerwein has lived out of a converted 2001 Ford e350 short school bus. He’s rebuilt the interior three times, tried heating it with everything from propane to wood before settling on solar, and outfitted it with a television, a bed and an oven. “Sometimes I bake cookies,” he says, by way of explanation.
In many ways, his story starts on a grey morning in 2012, when Sauerwein was driving to work at a prominent environmental company in Buffalo, N.Y..
He was sitting in traffic. Someone hammered on their horn. “I was part of the hustle, like everybody else,” he says. After spending most of his twenties working a nine-to-five job, Sauerwein had become disillusioned. “I was living in this world where money ruled everything. There was drama in my office. It was all driving me crazy.” What he really wanted to be doing was photography. While sitting in that traffic jam, he decided to give three week’s notice.
“At that point, I was doing wedding photography part-time,” he said. The then-29-year-old quickly got rid of his “crappy apartment” in favor of a bus his high school was retiring from its fleet. He spent a few months living at his parents’ house while he shot weddings and stripped and then outfitted the vehicle. Armed with a Mr. Heater portable propane space heater, three pairs of skis and a snowboard, he ventured east with his camera.
From January to March that winter, he skied almost every day. Instead of heading west to chase powder, he chased local legends—the people who give New England’s ski areas their soul. “I wanted to meet the local guys who are like, ‘yeah I’ve been skiing here for 40 years,’” said Sauerwein. People like Killington’s group of cliff-dropping rogue rippers, The Stray Flakes, or Radio Ron from Holiday Valley, N.Y. (“Every Saturday and Sunday, he drives three hours from Cleveland, Ohio to ski bumps for six hours in a one-piece suit with an old AM/FM radio headset and makes a blip noise every time he hits a bump,” says Sauerwein). It’s also helped him meet skiers like Corey Potter of Killington TV and Pat Meehan of Leki Poles, both of whom have steered him to some of the best backcountry and sidecountry in Vermont.
“The bus is a free pass to that group of skiers and riders that exists at every mountain, the keepers of the local intel,” says Sauerwein, a telemark skier who is as at home in the park as he is in the backcountry. Offering someone a great cup of freshly brewed coffee while you’re both gearing up in the parking lot, doesn’t hurt, either. “They’re like, oh ok, you’re not a tourist. You get it. We can share our secret spots with you,” he says.
Those early-morning coffees have led Sauerwein to private stashes of powder on people’s own land, epic sidecountry glades, late night stargazing sessions and early morning uphill jaunts with strangers who have since become friends.
As he says in his three-part web series about that first winter called “The Pursuit,” “It wasn’t about the lines we were hitting. It was about the people we met along the way.”
One of his most memorable days was five years ago at Mount Ascutney. “I was in Killington on a weekend powder day, with no lift ticket, and walked into one of the local shops looking for advice about touring,” said Sauerwein. Merisa Sherman, the author of the blog, “Tales from a Female Ski Bum,” described Ascutney as a magical, abandoned ski resort. He drove over and stayed in the parking lot for three days, meeting strangers and doing lap after lap.
The Middlebury Snow Bowl was similarly inspiring. A group of ski patrollers readily offered their favorite spots on the mountain. On another venture, he and Corey Potter discovered cut glade after cut glade on the back side of Killington. “There is so much skiing to be done there, you could get lost,” says Sauerwein.
To him, that’s what exploring the East is all about. “No one cares about your backstory. You show up at the same place every week, and you’re here to ski and you will, whether it’s rainy or windy or cold. And whatever the conditions, you’re going to have a great time. You get psyched about stuff that other people wouldn’t look twice at. You find what you can. It’s this diehard skiing culture that I don’t think you quite get on the West Coast.”
#Vanlife: The Movement
Sauerwein is just one of many people across America choosing to retrofit buses and vans to live out of them. The trend has spawned a lifestyle movement, meticulously documented via social media through the hashtag “#vanlife.”
A scan of Instagram reveals 3.8 million posts tagged with #vanlife. Most feature decked out vehicles with tanned, fit young people in striking settings across the western United States. There are jagged snow-capped mountains, the red stone of Utah’s deserts, misty scenes from the Pacific Northwest, all places with lots of public land and, presumably, free camping.
The idea, as one #vanlifer told The New Yorker in April 2017 for their story “#Vanlife, The Bohemian Social Media Movement,” is to strip away financial obligations like rent, live a seasonal lifestyle around outdoor recreation, and participate in the gig economy. No commitments, no hassle and lots of adventure.
To pay his way, Sauerwein pieces together three endeavors: a business called SH Wedding Photography that he co-owns with a friend, his own adventure photography and videography business, Adam Sauerwein Photography and a gig as the equipment lead for Silverback Enterprises. He tries to take January, February and March off from work to ski, which he affords by hustling at three jobs the rest of the year. Come summer, Sauerwein rolls his home back to Buffalo, or wherever else his work takes him.
Five years into bus living, he says people are often surprised to find that he works most of the year and has a career. “I ran into an old high school teacher who was like, ‘Are you ok? Do you need any money?’ and I was like no, I’m great, actually. This is a choice,” says Sauerwein.
At 33, he’s seen a lot of friends get married, start families, buy homes since he bought his first bus. “I have one friend from growing up who has a wife, a couple of kids. He owns four houses in Buffalo. The other weekend, we were catching up and he was like, ‘Man I’m so envious of what you have, of your freedom.’ And I was like, ‘But I’m envious of what you have. You have so many assets, a family, a great life.’”
Sauerwein says the van lifestyle isn’t his forever plan, but it’s a great way to live while he’s young. He hasn’t gotten a whole lot of pushback from his parents (his dad spent time traveling the country in a Volkswagen bus back in the ‘70s). “So he gets it,” says Sauerwein. But, as he points out, he’s also not your typical traveling dirtbag skier. He’s built a career around the bus-living lifestyle. “People think I am postponing life, just passing through places, but I have a great business and a career. I have a photography studio. We have an office. I’m contributing to society. Believe it or not, I have a savings account.”
A Home on the Road
Sauerwein bought his first bus, a short school bus on a 2000 Chevrolet 3500 frame with 100,000 miles on it, for $1,000. “School districts usually run their buses to 150,000 miles and then dump them for fairly cheap. They tend to turn over vehicles every 10 to 12 years,” says Sauerwein. He put about $500 into it and hung some blankets up for insulation.
His first winter was miserable. The skiing was great, but the propane space heater caused intense condensation that would cover his belongings and freeze when he turned off the heat during the day. “It was just a gross space,” he recalls. He woke up every day to wet clothes and frozen water bottles. But then he’d get first tracks.
The bus rusted out by the spring with 130,000 miles on it, and he spent the summer living with his parents until he found a new school bus, a short bus on a 2001 Ford e350 frame, also with 100,000 miles on it, the following October.
This time, he decided to invest in creature comforts. Over six weeks, he insulated the vehicle’s interior with three-inch-thick foam board and covered that in wood paneling, leaving most of the windows exposed. He built cabinets and put in a countertop, a couch, a bed with a full mattress like what you would put on a regular bed frame, complete with sheets, pillows and a comforter.
He even installed a Kni-Co Trekker Camp Stove, a light-weight wood-burning stove ($143.80) and chimney (he cut a hole in the bus roof for it and used fire-resistant caulking and license plates as heat guards on the wall behind). He had a tiny platform and a tiny maul for splitting tiny pieces of wood to feed his fire. “It was amazing, but I don’t know if it was legal,” he confesses of the stove, though he never had any problems with cops. “It helps that I’m straight edge, which is convenient when you look like you’d reek of weed. When I occasionally get pulled over out of curiosity, I get it.”
Then, there was the oven: a propane-powered Camp Chef Outdoor Oven ($259.99) with two gas burners and stoves. He installed countertops donated from a friend’s home kitchen remodel. He also upgraded to a pair of good batteries with Renogy RV solar panels.
Finally, he painted the bus black, and lettered “The Pursuit” in the label at the front where a route would typically be denoted. When asked what he’s pursuing, Sauerwein says simply, “experience.”
Today, he has a Webasto Air Top 2000 ST parking air heater. It runs off of the bus’s diesel tank and keeps the vehicle at about 60 degrees, even while he’s out skiing. The bus has no shower or toilet so Sauerwein typically relies on gyms and public restrooms (ski area restrooms are typically open from about 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.) He has few belongings and tries to keep his space uncluttered. He has rigged a horizontal Thule box on the back of the bus, where he keeps his skis and has a bike rack. “You can’t stash things in a closet, so you get creative,” says Sauerwein. “And you learn you don’t need as much as you thought you did.”
He enjoyed the remodel so much, he recently purchased a short school bus for $500, remodeled it, and sold it for $7,000.
This winter, Sauerwein is excited to return to Vermont for ski season. He’s eyeing a new Sprinter van, but otherwise says he’s got his systems in the bus pretty dialed. At this point, he estimates he’s invested about $3,500 in his rig, money he says is well-spent. “It feels like a home,” he says.
He doesn’t see himself settling down any time soon, and he says he doesn’t miss having an apartment to call home. He has, however, picked up a gym membership so he’s less reliant on friends for showers, which he notes as though it’s a sign of his age. He’s growing up.
He’s always eager to meet the next person, find the next secret, north woods powder stash. Or spend a day hitting the park in the rain with friends. “At the end of the day, money can be taken, houses can be taken, but you can’t take experience from someone. If I’m 70 and on my deathbed, I’m gonna look back and be like, ‘Those were some of the best days of my life.’”
The Faces of #Vanlife
Living out of your van (for a week or a year) in New England isn’t always easy, but it can offer you access to adventures that you might miss in a car.
This fall we invited van-dwellers from across the region to share photos of their travels, their redesigns and vehicle makeovers for a photo competition. Here are a few of our favorite submissions to our #VanLifeVTChallenge.
Name: Meg Simone Home: North Conway, N.H. Vehicle: Temerity the Earth Cruiser FX. Must-Have Gear: New England Gazetteer. Favorite Campsite: North Beach Campground in Burlington, Vt. Coolest Modification: None needed. The Earth Cruiser comes with a water filtration system, full solar power, a shower, toilet, two-burner stove and refrigerator. The Earth Cruiser FX starts at $190,000. Best Adventure: Camping, hiking and getting beach time at Hermit Island Campground, Phippsburg, Maine.
Name: Alec Distler Home: Williston, Vt. Vehicle: Eileen the 1977 Volkswagen Bus Must-Have Gear: All of his camping gear stocked in the van at all times. Favorite Campsite: Elmore State Park, Lake Elmore, Vt. Coolest Modification: (Other than replacing the engine) was replacing the pop-top canvas for one with windows and refacing the cabinets with new veneer. Best Adventure: Road tripping through the Adirondacks to Meacham Lake in Duane, N.Y. From the campground, you can access a lake or hike Debar Mountain, a 4.7-mile round trip route that gains 1,751 feet of elevation and earns you great views of the lake.
Name: Max Littlefield and Hannah Van Wetter Home: Tupper Lake, N.Y. and Denver, Colo. Vehicle: 2000 Dodge Ram 3500 van with a built-in roof-topper. Must-Have Gear: Inflatable stand-up paddleboards. Favorite Campsite: The Vallee Bras du Nord Secteur Shannahan, Quebec. Strangest Experience: Waking up to a field mouse that sounded like someone trying to break in through the bottom of the vehicle in Skookumchuck, B.C. Coolest Modification: A wood-burning stove and a solar system comprised of one GoalZero solar panel and a GoalZero Yeti 400 Portable Power Station and 400W Battery Powered Generator Alternative with 12V, AC and USB outputs.
Name: Kelsey Christensen Home: Springfield, Vt. Vehicle: 2008 Sprinter Van Must-Have Piece of Gear: Apple CarPlay Console and Dometic three-burner propane oven/stovetop. Favorite Campsite: Waterhouses Campground and Marina, Salisbury, Vt. Coolest Modification: The bed is a full mattress lifted three-and-a-half feet off the bus floor with a container underneath it that stores three 200-amp batteries, plumbing for the van’s two by two shower and plenty of gear. The compartment can be accessed through the rear doors, where Kelsey keeps yard games, and fully-packed hiking packs, tools, a canopy and general outdoor gear. She and her partner did all of the work themselves with no construction experience. Favorite Adventure: Camping on Lake Dunmore in Salisbury, Vt, where you can rent boats or hike into the Moosalamoo National Recreation Area.
Name: Jim Papadonis Home: Brewster, Mass. Vehicle: 1981 Volkswagen Vanagon Must-Have Piece of Gear: Surfboard and Hawaiian-print neoprene seat covers. Favorite Campsite: Nickerson State Park, Cape Cod, Mass. Adventure: While camping by one of the National Seashore Beaches on Cape Cod, seeing a 15-foot-long Great White shark breach fully out of the Atlantic.
Name: Tiaan and Lindley ven der Linde Home: West Burke, Vt. Vehicle: 1959 Chevrolet Viking Short Bus, purchased for $50 from a field. Must-Have Piece of Gear: Bicycles Favorite Campsite: Any on Mount Desert Island, M.E. Coolest Improvement: Retrofitting the interior in 1920s Bohemian style with guest quarters for two. Best Adventure: Dropping their kids off at her sister’s then going on a 24-hour parents-only adventure to Mt. Desert Island and Acadia National Park, where they biked 57 miles of the dirt Carriage Roads around the island, which were built by John D. Rockefeller between 1913 and 1940.
The Ultimate Van: The EarthCruiser
If cost is no obstacle and you want to bypass having to upgrade or renovate a vehicle yourself, EarthCruiser makes customizable luxury vehicles designed to be rugged enough to get you off the beaten path and onto dirt roads and to keep you warm in the elements—off the grid.
The Earth Cruiser FX is specially designed for long distance, remote travel and uses similar construction materials to that of long-distance cruiser yachts on a Mitsubishi Fuso chassis. It comes with interchangeable rear bumper mounting options that fit specific gear, a system that allows you to draw fresh water from a lake or stream, filters it internally, and then runs it out through the kitchen tap.
The FX model also comes with under-bed storage and a multitude of other internal containers specifically designed for outdoor gear. The interior is a modern-looking mix of white, shiny chrome and black, complete with a DC air conditioner, composting toilet, microwave oven, queen-sized bed, external shower, ceramic cooktop, refrigerator, electrically operated awning and more.
At upwards of $175,000, these are serious luxury vanlife vehicles.
Featured Image Photo Caption: A social media movement is inspiring some young ski bums to hit the road. But what does #vanlife look like from the inside? Photo by Adam Sauerwein