From the beginning, it was apparent that Charlie Newmark and Emily Race’s love story would be anything but conventional. The two fell in love at first sight after passing each other in a hotel hallway, and less than a year later, they were engaged and hitting the road for an epic van life experiment. Since then, they’ve done three full round-trips around the contiguous United States—taking different routes each time—and they got married along the way! Hear from Emily and Charlie on living the van life and how they navigated their own relationship journey:
It sounds like your relationship has been an adventure since the start, but how did the idea to hit the road arise?
Charlie: Our love story is somewhat magical. We walked past each other in a random hallway in a hotel lobby. It sounds cliché, but we both turned around at the same time and caught each other’s eye. At that moment, I knew that was the woman [with whom] I would spend the rest of my life. I even recorded it in a voice memo on my phone. A few months later, we bumped into each other again, and after we went on our first date, I felt we were supposed to have a family and be together forever.
Emily felt the same way, but there was a caveat: she wanted to go on a van trip [before settling down]. That was never in the cards for me, but I offered to go, too. We started dating in August 2018, got engaged in February 2019, and then in May, we packed up a van we borrowed from a friend.
Emily: I initially thought I’d be going solo with a dog, but Charlie’s my friendly companion now [laughs]. Initially, my vision was to cut ties with the distractions of the modern world. To be in nature, simplify my life, get rid of everything I don’t need. That kind of informed our itinerary for the first trip, and was the reason why we eventually bought a national park pass.
Charlie: Our trip kept getting longer and longer. After six weeks, we called our friend [who owned the van] and asked if we could stay out another few weeks. Then it turned into another month. Eventually, we ended up buying it and staying on the road for the better part of two years.
What type of van was it?
Charlie: The van is a 20’ RoadTrek Zion Ram ProMaster camper van outfitted like an RV. It has an indoor-outdoor shower, bathroom, king-sized bed, and a kitchen with two burners and a full refrigerator. Our friend bought it in 2016, used it for about five months, then put it in storage. The whole thing was about 70 total square feet, so it was really tight quarters. One of the questions we got a lot was: “How do you not kill each other?” I always say we fell deeper in love in 70 square feet. When we got into a house, it felt too big.
What were some of the things you learned on that first run about living the van life?
Emily: Our first trip was a foundational trip where we spent the most time on the road. One thing we learned is that it helps to have a trial run. You’ll discover that each person has their own distinct needs, especially if they’re working from the road. Also, another thing to understand is whether you’re living in the van or out of the van. About 70% of the time, we were staying at RV parks and campsites or sleeping in a parking lot. Other times, we would rent an Airbnb, but it was often hard to park the van on the street.
Charlie: Occasionally, I would be at a campground and lose my sh*t. I learned that there are times when I need luxury. We’d be in the middle of Louisiana, and I would look up the closest five-star hotel. We would beeline there and pull up as raggedy unshowered people, then get a really awesome room for two nights. We would blast the air conditioning, order room service, take really long showers—you start to appreciate these things on a whole new level. Once we got that out of our system, we would get back on the road.
Looking back, what stands out as some of the best parts of your travels?
Charlie: For me, some of the greatest highlights were the 8- or 9-hour drives we would take with no music playing. Emily and I would just talk the whole time, and we wouldn’t realize it until we got to our destination. For 24 hours each week, we would shut off all technology. With no radio, no distractions, no phone, you really get to know someone on a profound level.
Emily: We were filling that space with our dreams, considerations. The biggest gift was being able to do that so early on in our relationship. There are a lot of stressors on the road, but you’re learning so much about yourself and how to communicate, how to understand the other person’s point of view.
How did living the van life benefit your relationship or further that deep learning about each other?
Charlie: When you’re on the road, you become someone different. If the toilet needs to be cleaned, you really don’t have a choice. Things break down. You’re cooking in a much smaller space, and then you clean the dishes with a hose outside. It’s not like you’re on a camping trip for the weekend—you’re living like this.
As such, you start to do things you wouldn’t normally do. It slows you down and makes you reflect. One of my big takeaways was realizing I don’t know who I really am, but ultimately becoming okay with that and allowing the other person the space to be who they are.
Emily: It felt like one big long first date—you’re constantly waking up to someone you don’t know and vice versa. The road trip was an embodiment of that in such a short period of time. I didn’t realize how much I was holding onto certain concepts, like “I’m the outdoorsy one, and you like the nice hotel.” It was about stripping ourselves [of those preconceived notions]. We each have our own individuality, but how are you defining that? What do you hang tightly onto versus allowing yourself to be all of it?
What did your work life look like?
Emily: I had just started a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion consultancy with a friend, and I was facilitating workshops from the road. I’d be leading sessions with hundreds of employees from an RV park in South Dakota. What that taught me is that I need flexibility in my work—I can’t imagine not being able to go in the van and immerse myself in nature.
Charlie: I tend to talk really loud, which gets interesting in 70 square feet. There was a constant dance with work, our schedules, and taking calls. We couldn’t talk when we were driving because the van was really loud, so we always had to be parked for meetings. Campgrounds would say they had good Wi-Fi and then there would be one bar, so we would have to scramble to move. We had quite a bit of adventure—we learned a lot of lessons and got masterful at when to schedule calls, when to drive.
When we got to a location, we would open the door and set up a canopy and outdoor rug, then we would put our laptops outside. I’d take phone calls walking along the riverbank. I remember one Tuesday when we were hiking in the middle of Wyoming and I kept checking the cell signal because I had to take a major business call. People thought I was in an office.
What practical tips do you have for aspiring van lifers?
Emily: We typically planned our days based on driving distance. After some 14-hour driving days, we made it a rule to do eight hours max. Three-hour driving days are nice! We would often choose where we stopped based on where there were Whole Foods Markets.
Also, in the beginning, I got really nerdy and made a packing list spreadsheet—I think we used 30% of that stuff. You end up wearing the same jacket and pants most of the time. Less is more when you’re planning.
Charlie: Try to plan your trip around seeing friends and family around the country—it really brings you closer together with people. There are even apps that notify you when other friends with RVs are passing through the area. Now when I think of America, I think of it as my town; [vanlife] makes the whole country feel smaller.
Any parting words of wisdom on living the van life?
Emily: Don’t wait until you retire to do a trip like this. Being able to get out of your day-to-day routine and bubble is so healthy and necessary. Van life is great therapy and a great way to kick off your relationship.
Charlie: There’s a great quote by Bill Murray where he says that if you fall in love before you marry someone, you need to travel with them. If you still want to marry them when you get back, then that is your person. Living in a 70-square-foot space was a true test, but I would assert that we have more disagreements when we’re living at our house than on the road.
Emily: You’re always a team, but on the road, we become an extension of each other. You’re constantly supporting each other. If one person loses their sh*t, you help them breathe through it and get to the destination.
Charlie: Now I try to convince everyone to get a van. There is something so freeing about being able to sit and have an urge to go somewhere. You don’t have to book a plane ticket or hotel room, you can just go. Sometimes we would pull out of a place and just make a turn without knowing where we’re headed. Let’s visit the “World’s Largest Chair!” Let’s go jelly tasting!
Emily: Whenever we get back in the van, we instantly feel like we’re in the right place.