For the New Yorker, Rachel Monroe followed Emily King and Corey Smith as they traveled up and down the California coast with their vintage Volkswagen and 156,000 Instagram followers in search of contentment—and content—through the “vanlife” movement. While her feature looks at the highs and lows of choosing to live your life through the internet, there were a few threads that I couldn’t shake loose while reading it. It’s easy for a writer to paint a target on her subject, especially anyone who is trying so hard to achieve a certain image, (for another masterful dissection of what lies beneath the “lifestyle” brand, I’d suggest Kyle Chayka’s profile of the creators of Kinfolk for Racked), but throughout the piece, Monroe is both savvy and sympathetic to the dynamic that keeps King and Smith going, and the often-invisible labor that keeps their relationship afloat while making life and work happen seamlessly in front of a demanding audience. I spoke with Monroe recently about what it takes to report about social media celebrities.
Can you tell me a little about how you first encountered vanlife?
I live in Marfa, Texas, a town that seems to be on every professional road-tripper’s itinerary. We get a lotof travelers passing through, and at some point I began to notice that some of the vehicles in town had proprietary hashtags and decals on their windows that advertised their social media accounts. At the same time, I was thinking about how to build out the back of my pick-up to be more comfortable for long-term travel. After a little research, I came across articles about #vanlife.
Like any celebrity, or wanna-be celebrity, social media influencers have an agenda. How can you tell if an influencer will also make a good subject for a piece?
For this feature I was specifically looking for a couple—since that’s the prototypical vanlife unit—who were making money through brand partnerships and social media because I wanted to learn more about how that world worked. It was also important to me that the people I profiled have significant experience actually living full-time in their vehicle. Emily and Corey had been on the road pretty much full-time for the past four years; I knew that meant they’d have stories and experiences that went well beyond creating branded content. They were also willing to be very open about the realities of their lives with me, which was crucial to make the story work.
You mention that vanlife is a nostalgic throwback to a sixties lifestyle: “the neo-hippie fashions, the retro gender dynamics.” It seems that women are putting in more of the effort to bring in the money, providing the majority of the support for the vanlife lifestyle, both on and off the road. How did those gender dynamics reveal themselves over the course of reporting?
In terms of the specific dynamics between Emily and Corey, the couple I profile in the piece, I witnessed them in a bunch of different modes. We were living in a very confined space together for a week, a space that’s their home, workplace, and their vehicle. They live together, travel together, take care of their dog together, and run a small business together. For that to work with a minimum of drama, it seemed like there needed to be defined roles and responsibilities. And what I observed in their relationship was that Emily was always the primary breadwinner while Corey made pretty much all the executive decisions about where they’d go, how long they’d stay, what route they’d take to get there. This seemed to be a relatively common dynamic, a slight scramble of the traditional model in that the vanlife man is in charge of the domestic sphere, which in this case is also a machine.
I was also struck by the number of men-only conversations I witnessed within the vanlife community about engine configuration, repairs, et cetera. Obviously there are plenty of women who know how to work on vehicles, but in the vanlife universe they definitely seemed to be in the minority. There was something about the overall dynamic—the women are photographed while the men bond over their shared, specialized mechanical knowledge—that seemed old-fashioned and kind of depressing to me.
And of course there are fewer solo women travelers than couples or solo male travelers. Vanessa Veselka wrote about this really well in her essay about female road narratives. It’s also one of the factors why vanlife is so white: Part of the “freedom” that the vanlifers are always talking about, the freedom of traveling alone and carefree through rural remote areas, is certainly more accessible to some people than others.
Did you start to encounter more people involved in vanlife after the article came out?
While I was reporting, I felt like vanlife was everywhere. I learned about a friend’s cousin who gets paid to travel around the world making branded content. And I started to be hyper-aware of the vans passing through Marfa, particularly the ones with hashtags plastered on the side. But this happens every time I get fixated on a story—I start to see signs of it everywhere—and I never know if that’s the world validating my interest or just me being a little obsessed.
It’s easy for a writer to skewer a subject for not living the life they attempt to project. How did you find compassion for your subjects?
I saw Emily and Corey as people who are in many ways living out their ideals, while also in some ways not. Like all of us! That’s one thing that troubles me about influencer marketing: It encourages you to think that only certain aspects of your personality are worth showing the world, the most marketable aspects, I suppose. But I’m always much more fascinated by the parts that don’t fit as neatly.
Did you get a sense there’s an endgame for vanlifers? What’s the ultimate destination?
Vanlife definitely seems to be both a generational trend and an expanding business. Corey and Emily say they can’t imagine staying put full-time, but they also occasionally fantasized about buying some land in New England near their parents and building a tiny house by the river to live in at least part of the year.
I think that full-time traveling is tough, and expensive, as a forever-dream, but the idea of incorporating longer stints of rootlessness, even if there is a home base to come back to, is something that appeals to both professional vanlifers and people who are watching the trend from afar. That’s something I hear from a lot of people—it’s maybe even my own ideal—to have a life that somehow combines a solid home base with occasional extended stints of exploration.