Chris St Jean on Building a Live-in Van and Life on the Road

Nomadic living at its finest.

If you have ever thought that living off the grid, driving cross country, and waking up with the sun was for you, then you have just met your best friend Chris St Jean. After retrofitting a van and heading out West, Chris gives us the skinny on what it is like to live life on his own terms- minimalism and adventure at the forefront of everything. Reading all about his journey has, personally, given me a lot of perspective on my own way of life. We are often told who to be and how to act, but what if we had the breathing room to decide that for ourselves, just like Chris has? What if we imagined life led by our own ambitions, desires, and passions? If that sounds enticing, keep reading…

Chris! Tell the blog a little bit about yourself!

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Hey everyone! I’m Chris (obviously), and I’m currently living full-time out of a Ford Transit cargo van, because isn’t it everyone’s goal to live out of a vehicle after college? I’m originally from Francestown, New Hampshire, which is a tiny little town in south-central New Hampshire with about 1,500 people. Currently, I’m writing this in Flagstaff, Arizona, which is my temporary home for the next 2 weeks. 

A little bit of background about me, I grew up in the woods, which definitely was a driving factor for my love of the outdoors. Basically, ever since I can remember, my dad was taking me hiking, biking, or climbing in the White Mountains. However, it wasn’t really until high school that I found cross country running, which I believe had a profound impact on how I regard life and ultimately led to me becoming a van bum. 

A lot of what I do, including living in a van, comes from a desire to live a life that I will look back on in 50 years and be happy about living. I believe keeping perspective on what matters is incredibly important, and what I have always found to be the most profound memories in my life are the ones filled with amazing people and new, unpredictable experiences. It just so happens that that has led me to be probably the most hippy person you’ve met: living in a vehicle, running ultramarathons, and eating nothing but plants. Sounds like a great life, right?

What was the inspiration behind “revamping” your van and taking it on the road?

I don’t think there is a single moment I can point to and say “That’s when.” I knew I wanted to live an unconventional lifestyle probably since high school, when I decided some time around Junior year that a life of 9 to 5 work on a computer just wasn’t for me. I love moving too much, which is probably a product of falling in love with running.

Although we did a lot of exploration around the Northeast, and the occasional family vacation, I wouldn’t call myself a travel-minded person until relatively recently. Up until the fall of 2019, when I took off across the country in a pick-up truck- which I will talk about later-, I hadn’t really been on a solo trip before, let alone one that didn’t involve hotels and tourist traps. However, I started getting the itch to go explore when I started meeting tons of new people at Babson (including you Ursula), and I realized there are so many amazing people and places even just in this country, let alone the world.

Around Junior year of college, I knew I could take a semester off, and it was kind of on a whim that I decided to take a 3 month road trip of the country, living out of the back of a pick-up truck. It was that experience that really let me know I wanted to do this. Seeing places and landscapes I’ve never seen before, having a couple scary encounters- including one with a bison that was probably the most terrified I’ve ever been in my life- definitely pushed me towards this, but mostly it was the people. There were so many generous, kind, unique people, that I never would have met without getting out of the back woods Northeast bubble, and that’s what set it in stone that I had to keep meeting people and experiencing new things in my life.

How long did it take you to make your van livable and what were some challenges you encountered along the way?

I bought the van back in May, and I officially finished it up on December 31st. Now, that is a timeline that is very specific to my circumstances; i.e. working full time, marathon training, and the slight inconvenience of a global pandemic. Someone who was working less, had more time, and who wasn’t trying to ship everything to the middle of nowhere would be able to do that much faster. The one huge advantage I had were my parents, and I really don’t want to undervalue how lucky I am to have such a supportive family. Having access to their building tools, their knowledge, and just having a second and third pair of hands around occasionally was invaluable to this process.

Honestly, I think the biggest challenge I faced was just simple monotony and loneliness. It was, and still is, a rough time to graduate, and to then take on a monumental project like this was much more mentally challenging than I ever expected. But in terms of the actual building process, it sounds odd, but I think the cabinets were the most difficult piece of that process. You don’t really think about cabinets having so many different pieces, or so much surface area to paint, but jeez, it’s a LOT.

What are some of your favorite features on the van and what is your perspective on minimalistic, nomadic living? Why did you feel it was right for you?

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So, in terms of my favorite features, number one has gotta be the solar panels and off-grid living. It’s just so freeing, and I think it’s really cool to think that all of the light, water pumps, fridge, everything, is just powered from the sun. Basically I’m just trying to be as much like a plant as I can.

In terms of the minimalist lifestyle, the word that leaps foremost to mind is appreciation. When you just don’t have a lot of stuff, you have the ability to appreciate what you do have. At the risk of sounding too philosophical- which is a line I probably already crossed multiple times-, I believe we appreciate the things that we are aware of having. The quickest fix to be aware of something we have is to buy something new. Suddenly, it commands our attention because it’s different than we’re used to. Eventually, however, the newness wears off, and then we get something even newer to get that same feeling of appreciation. What I find in living this lifestyle is that I’m aware of the things around me much more, because there’s simply less of it around. As a bonus, living in a van is incredibly cost efficient, which means I just don’t have to work as many hours, so I can spend that time meeting people, moving around, or just generally not being stressed to be constantly doing something.

That leads into the second piece of the lifestyle that I truly love, which is nomadism. I am such a sucker for landscapes, be it mountains, deserts, forests, oceans, you name it. Living out of the van not only allows for the ability to get to these places, but that there’s nowhere else I really need to be. There’s no home base, so I can stay for as long as I choose, to explore, get to know people, or leave because it’s getting too cold or hot for a guy in a vehicle.

Anything you miss about living in a home?

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Toilets. For sure. Van living is really glamorous a lot of the time, but most people don’t really see the unglamorous sides of it. Shockingly, pooping in a plastic bag is not the most comfortable thing ever. But on a more serious note, I would say having regular people around. One thing that really got old in the truck in 2019 was that there was this pattern of meeting really awesome people, and then basically leaving immediately and knowing you’re never going to see them again. Having friends and family around regularly, especially at school, was something I really didn’t appreciate enough.

What are some destinations you hope to hit over the next few months?

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Right now, I’m in Flagstaff, Arizona, which I will be at for the next week and a half. After that, I’m planning on heading to Southern California, to visit some friends. But after January 31st, the plan is to have no plan! The spontaneous exploration is something I absolutely love doing, so I know I will be on the West Coast, but that’s about as specific as it gets. I love climbing, running, and (of course) landscapes, so Yosemite is an obvious place to go. Other than that, it’s going to be a process of bouncing around places that I know I have people to visit, in California, Nevada, Washington, and Montana, until trekking back east in late May to graduate. And after that, there really is no plan for the foreseeable future, which is both exhilarating and a little scary, if I’m going to be honest.

How do you figure out where you should travel to next?

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A really big driver (pun intended) of where I’m going to go is where I can visit people. A lot of times, I know I have somewhere I want to visit someone, and I’ll go explore places in between where I am now and where I’m ultimately going to see someone. For example, I left home in the van December 31st, and I have a good friend in Santa Barbara that I know I want to visit. But there’s a very significant amount of land in between, basically the entire country. So I now have a reason to go to Vermont, New York, Ohio, and every other state in between New Hampshire and California, which is how I ended up in Arizona right now. 

Other than that, I have a map of North America on my door in the van, with push pins on certain places. They’re color coded, so blue is where I have friends to go visit, green is a place I’ve been to that I want to go back to, yellow is a place I don’t know anyone and I want to go explore, and orange is where I had a very memorable experience (such as staring down a bear in a hailstorm on the Olympic Peninsula or royally pissing off a bison during a run in North Dakota). 

What does a typical day look like for you?

Honestly, day-to-day life is pretty average. Those big experiences or amazing landscapes are definitely not the standard. One big thing is that I tend to get up and go to bed with the sun, because a lot of time is spent outside and when there’s no sun, there’s just not a lot to do. On days that I’m not driving somewhere, usually I wake up around 5am, have some breakfast and coffee, drive to somewhere with WiFi and do some work, go for a run, do some more work or van chores, and maybe go climb or do something to meet new people. Each day is very much dictated by just what needs to be done that day, so days that I need to get to a new state look very different than days where I’m in a place I’ll be in for a bit. What I really enjoy about this lifestyle is that you have full control over where you are and what you do. Again, your house is your car, so wherever that car is, your entire life is.

What are some pieces of advice you have for people looking to do something similar to what you have done?

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Do it. Don’t hesitate. There will always be a thousand reasons not to, and it’s impossible to predict and account for every piece of your life that will change. Decide to do it, begin the process, and figure things out when you get there. With that said, I definitely have some tips. 

  • Keep track of receipts! Not only will this help with budgeting, but even more so with insurance. Insurance companies tend to be a little hesitant to insure self-built vans, so knowing exactly how much it costs helps a lot.
  • There are amazing resources online, utilize them. I’m a business major who codes websites, I have zero education in how to build a house. But I am far from the first to do this, and lots of people have documented their stories online. Check out www.faroutride.com for an extremely comprehensive build journal, outlining insulation, electrical systems, water systems, and general building advice, from people who also do not have a background in carpentry or anything like that.
  • It’s a huge project, way bigger than I thought it would be when I started. Be careful not to get overwhelmed. Take it one step at a time, just focus on the next piece to get done. 
  • Have fun with it! Get some friends to come help, and to provide new ideas on how to accomplish certain things. Getting ideas from other people was incredibly helpful, there is no way I would have been able to do this on my own. That being said, this is your house, so keep that in mind as you consider different options
  • Take. Your. Time. Everything will go more slowly than you think. I originally thought I would be done by mid October. There will be things that don’t work as planned, or just take way longer than you think they would. Don’t get stressed trying to get everything done fast, because that leads to sloppy work or trying to take shortcuts that will come back and bite you later. If you have a choice between speed and quality, always go with quality, even if it is tediously and frustratingly slow.

How has this experience changed your perspective on life?

Honestly, I think this has actually done the exact opposite. It has helped me keep my perspective on life, and not let it get changed by things that seem important in the short term, but don’t really matter much when you get right down to it. As a business student, I saw the allure of flashy titles, bigger salaries, and the social status competition of working more, sleeping less, cutting more out of your life to be able to work more and more. I had this tugging voice in the back of my mind whenever I took part in that, that just kept saying,

“This isn’t worth it. You know what makes you happy, this isn’t it.”

What the road trip in 2019, and this process of building and moving into the van, has taught me is that that voice was, for the most part, right. I don’t want to pretend that money, jobs, and hard work are meaningless, they are very necessary to life, as frustrating as it can be sometimes. But I see them as a means to an end, not an end in themselves. And this is a lesson that can be applied to many things that don’t involve becoming a nomad. I wouldn’t be able to run and climb if I didn’t have the means to support that. I wouldn’t be able to visit friends, make memories. There was a lot of hard, tedious, and if I’m going to be honest, really lonely work involved with getting to be able to do this. It’s important to keep perspective, and realize that your work should be a means of achieving the lifestyle you want to live, and not let work become the lifestyle itself.

What excites you about the future?

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Honestly, the fact that I don’t know what excites me about the future is what excites me most. There’s so much possibility, things to do, places to see, people to meet, that just the raw openness of it all is the most exciting thing. It’s a lot like when you graduate middle school, and then high school, but it’s so much more poignant now. To think about it all at once is somewhat futile, like to think about everything I could possibly be doing a year, or two, or five, from now is just impossible because there are so many variables. It’s a feeling that’s not that well suited for words, but it’s something I wish everyone could experience. 

However, if I were to name one thing in specific, it is to meet people that live totally differently than I’m used to living. I’ve lived in New Hampshire my entire life, except when I went to college in Massachusetts, which is not that much different. New Hampshire is not known to be the cultural hub of the Northern Hemisphere, and to be able to experience different ways of living, even just in the United States, is just an incredible opportunity that I hope I never take for granted. And eating new foods. Because food is great.

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