Forest Parker Scott Watson has been living the dream in his live-in van, named “Lucy.” (Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer)

Steve Bates drove from Northbrook to Forest Park on July 10 to attend a “vanlife roundup,” convened by Scott Watson.

Bates, a former Forest Park resident, explained that a roundup is a meeting attended by those interested in buying a vehicle, like his 21-foot 2019 Winnebago Travato GL self-contained camper van, and in hearing about his nomadic journey, which began in February 2019. Since then he has visited 40 states, lived in his van, and worked full time online from almost anywhere that has access to Wi-Fi.

The eight people from all over the Chicago Metro area attending the roundup had all caught the vanlife bug and were at various stages of turning their fantasies into reality. Bates, for example, had been a tent camper for many years but at this stage of life was interested in transitioning to something more comfortable.

Last winter he rented what is called a teardrop — because of its profile — a 4-by-4-foot camper trailer and headed out to Yellowstone National Park. He laughed as he reported that it snowed while he was there. “Those camping in tents wished they had even a small camper like mine,” he said, “while I wished that I had a bigger camper like the van Scott has.” 

Seated around the table at Louie’s was the whole spectrum of vanlife enthusiasts. A woman named Deborah had just started exploring the possibility of buying a van while a man named Greg already owned a van similar to Watson’s Winnebago. JB and Christine presently have a Winnebago Solis with a pop top roof and are thinking about upgrading.

The roundup turned out to be less a lecture by Watson and more of a seminar with all of the attendees chipping in their insights.

On the road 

Many were interested in Watson’s model of working while on the road, which required the nomad to have a job that can be done online. Suma couldn’t do that because she is a veterinarian. 

Two participants reported that hospitals tend to be short of nurses and will agree to commitments as short as three months, and that some even have electrical hookups in their parking lots to accommodate people living in campers. When Suma brought up the challenge of licensing in different states, she learned there are third-party companies that can do it for you.

Bates mentioned that on his recent trip to Yellowstone, it seemed like every business had a “now hiring” sign in its window.

Regarding electrical power, Watson raved about the ability of lithium batteries to hold a charge. Campgrounds like KOA have hookups but charge something like $30 a night to park. In addition, some campgrounds don’t allow generators to run after a certain time in the evening. Malcom Smith was interested in buying a piece of land somewhere off the grid and parking a van or trailer there for long periods of time, so he asked questions about solar power.

There are campgrounds, of course, but at $30 a night the cost can mount up. Some towns allow parking on the street while others, like every municipality in Michigan, will give you a ticket. 

With freedom come periods of being alone. Watson’s solution is to be outgoing. When he parks in a campground, he immediately gets to know his neighbors, and discovers right away that they have vanlife or a variant thereof in common. When visiting a town, he introduces himself to the people in the diner or gas station or library and has learned that many locals like sharing their stories and show interest in his lifestyle.

As it turns out, there is a whole online community of vanlife enthusiasts which can be plugged into. Watson posts two stories a week on his website, “Go Small. Live Large!” and on YouTube under the same name. The subtitle on the website explains the content: “Sharing stories about interesting places, fascinating people, Vanlife in a Travato GL, and working as a digital nomad.”