The mobile movement of ‘van life’ gains speed
How the pandemic has inspired a new following of freedom-chasers
For the Aspen Times Weekly
10 states. 4 campsites. 56 hours. 2 humans. 1 dog. 3,580 miles.
These were the stats from my summer vacation, which this year was spent driving across America’s Bread Basket to Akron, Ohio, for a long overdue visit and back. While not as exotic as a European holiday per se (I personally was still not ready to take flight, let alone overseas), my guy and I opted for “van life,” renting a rig from our friends at Rossmönster for the better part of August.
We made a trip down to company headquarters in Longmont to pick up the Rossmönster “Telluride” model — a 19-foot Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 4×4 — and returned home to Snowmass Village to gear up for life on the road. The next morning, our adventure officially began as we backtracked over Independence Pass to I-70, the route we remained on until we reached the Buckeye State’s capitol of Columbus, when we turned north for the final 125-mile stretch — arriving in my parents’ driveway just before midnight.
Our two 12-hour marathon days taking turns behind the wheel were broken up with an overnight at a lakeside campsite in Milford State Park, just past Abilene, Kansas where Dwight D. Eisenhower was raised. The Interstate Highway System we traveled on is largely thanks to the 34th U.S. president, who signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act in 1956. This one-way trek was an eye-opening ride, so foreign from our Aspen bubble, through the reality of Middle America (many troubling billboards along the way) and an astonishing volume of truck traffic that relies on the same road bearing his name today.
Eager to reunite with the family and friends we hadn’t seen since the pandemic began, we decided on the most direct course for a fortnight of hometown fun. While we slept in the comfort of my childhood home, we took “Telluride” out on day trips to explore the beauty of my Cuyahoga Valley National Park backyard (including Boston Mills Brandywine Ski Resort, where I worked as a liftie in high school), take my nephews to dinner at Swenson’s Drive-In for “America’s Best Cheeseburger” and pop-up an urban beach picnic with gourmet goods from Cleveland’s historic West Side Market.
But only once we said our goodbyes did we start to get a true taste of van life — we dedicated much more time on the way back to “van camping” at Kelley’s Island State Park in the middle of Lake Erie, downtown Chicago, Devil’s Lake State Park near Wisconsin Dells and Badlands National Park in South Dakota, which despite scorching summer temperatures, was an otherworldly high point of our journey. During the last leg — roughly a nine-hour day of driving back home, not counting quick pit stops in Deadwood and at Mount Rushmore — it was decided: “We have to get our own van!”
The Pandemic Effect
But we’re not the only ones who are dreaming of a simpler life of wanderlust. Better known for its social media hashtag, #vanlife, in the recent news cycle it has taken a tragic turn. Despite these rare instances of darkness, the idyllic, bohemian lifestyle (it’s come a long way from an early-1990’s “Saturday Night Live” skit insult) emerged in 2012, according to The New Yorker in a profile five years later — and has only intensified in COVID times among the homebound.
Rossmönster, which operates a rental fleet of about 15 vehicles (bookable through Outdoorsy, the online platform for nationwide RV and van rentals) and also specializes in custom builds, currently is estimating the interior completion of a purchased vehicle to be as far out as February 2023.
“We definitely, after an initial panic moment of the world shutting down with people canceling all orders, have seen demand came back in full force,” shared Rossmönster co-founder Luke Farny. “There’s definitely even more mainstream attention (on #vanlife) since (dealing with COVID-19) because it’s such an obvious alternative to flying on planes, staying in hotels and being a little bit more self-sufficient and socially distant — we’ve all had to draw back into ourselves.”
The Rossmönster range of rentals and ownership options includes vintage Volkswagen Vanagons, Ford F250 Super Duty Overlands, Ram ProMasters and Mercedes-Benz Sprinter vans — the latter of which has outpaced the market.
“The biggest piece of what we do is building and delivering vans on time, which has just become way more difficult with all the supply chain challenges happening right now,” Farny added. “When we started building vans five years ago, there were maybe like three Instagram accounts of people doing cool work. It has completely changed — we were by no means the first camper van company in Colorado, but we definitely were on the forefront of doing anything remotely custom and are proud to have given birth to this opportunity for our clients.”
A USA Today report on the trend earlier this year cited “Mercedes, whose Sprinter van is the vehicle of choice for many #vanlife followers, appears to be the biggest winner. Mercedes-Benz U.S. van sales soared 22.5% in 2020, even as the brand’s overall sales fell 8.9%.” The base price of a 2021 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van starts at $43,120.
“Enhance (a Sprinter van) with a custom build-out and you’re looking at an additional $30,000 investment minimum,” explained Kimbo Brown-Schirato, who with her husband Jason Schirato owns locally-based outfitter Aspen Custom Vans. “We’re more accessible in comparison to brands like a Winnebago Revel or Storyteller Overland, which come really decked out ‘as built’ and are going for nearly $200,000 (each company with waiting lists of their own)!
The local operation, too, has seen a surge in business, since the Schirato’s started their company in 2018 after “traditional camping” became more frustrating with a baby in tow. Aspen Custom Vans has recently expanded to a full-service build shop in Basalt with two rental vehicles in rotation (also available via Outdoorsy).
“We’ve had people put deposits down for a build slot in 2020, but they still haven’t got their van delivered (from the factory) — plus, the supply chain issues have been really hard, so we’ve put a little less pressure on ourselves,” noted Brown-Schirato. “We are still dedicated to doing super custom vans and we know who we are — a smaller operation. No two vans are the same and we really cater to builds for young families from personal experience with our daughter (Taylor Grace, now five). Bunk beds, hammocks, kid-safe seating…you name it.”
Try Before You Buy
Since buying a #vanlife van isn’t as easy as it once was and because it’s a big stretch on most budgets (you can try searching Roaring Fork Swap on Facebook or Craigslist for used options), renting one is the best bet whether you’re looking for a western weekend adventure or a ski season parking lot party (seek out RV-friendly resorts like Wolf Creek, Silverton, Taos Ski Valley and more) this winter.
You’ll have to wait until the next offseason when Aspen Custom Vans’ “Grey Wolf” (from $235/night) and “Boxcar” (from $165/night) vehicles become available again. But now is the time to book for next spring and summer whoever you book through and wherever you are located.
“Renting a van has a way more approachable price tag and is a low-risk decision,” Farny noted. “There’s a benefit of letting prospective clients see if they want to commit to a full build and see what elements worked and didn’t work (during their trip). It’s the perfect jumping-off point for a custom design.”
Rossmöster does offer winter season rentals and, depending on staff availability, will drop off and/or pick up the vehicle in the Roaring Fork Valley. The company, which co-founder and Rossmönster namesake Ross Williamson originally launched as a custom furniture and woodworking business in 2010, also has ownership ties to Aspen and has plans to open a satellite rental location in Aspen — and Moab — in the coming year.
Its Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van lineup starts at $275 per night and features complete off-grid capability, beautiful birch wood storage cabinets and countertop, a stainless steel refrigerator and freezer, sizable sink, induction burner stovetop, outdoor shower and dinette. A memory-foam mattress makes for a solid night’s sleep — complete with cozy Coyuchi linens with the option of a fold-out couch seat to sleep up to four. Pots, pans, cutlery and dishes are included, with plenty of add-ons for an extra fee like a battery operated dry flush toilet, bike rack, SUP, hammock stand and more.
Aside from a major grocery run, our Rossmönster rental had everything we needed for one epic escapade on wheels (see sidebar for a few more valuable essentials we brought with us). As luck would have it, we coordinated with Rossmönster’s rental representative Zoe Shuchter (always on call in case renters run into any roadside issues), to save us a few hours and return “Telluride” (clean as we received it) in Dillon, where they were exhibiting at the 3rd annual Adventure Van Expo for the weekend.
After hesitantly handing her back the keys, we made our way through more than 50 different displays and vehicle tours with presenting #vanlife brands leaving us no shortage of inspiration to start planning a custom build to one day call a home away from home — however long we have to wait.
Whether you’re a local van owner or are planning on stopping in Aspen Snowmass this season on your next #vanlife adventure, make sure you know the rules of the road when it comes to parking.
City of Aspen parking operations manager Blake Fitch confirmed: “You are allowed to park your vehicle — whether in a paid parking space, free 2-hour zone or registered with a residential permit, but overnight camping on all streets is strictly prohibited within the city.”
Vans are classified under the RV category, which can be accommodated at the Brush Creek Intercept Lot for 24 hours (moving parking spaces is permitted); the Buttermilk parking lot offers RV storage for multiple days from May 1st to November 1st. For rates and more information, call 970-429-1761 or visit cityofaspen.com.