You may get called crazy.
You may spend nights in strange places you didn’t anticipate, get used to living out of cupboards and taking hours to do the dishes.
But you'll also meet some amazing people, see places you never could have before, and empower yourself in a way you never thought possible.
It’s the Van Life. And it’s made its way to Collingwood.
To put it simply, Van Life is an alternative lifestyle adopted by nomads looking to live a less conventional way of life, having the ability to travel around with freedom and ease. But there is so much more to it than meets the eye.
According to Madison McNair, there are many different reasons why people may opt for a life on wheels.
“Everyone you meet has a new version you hadn’t thought of before,” said McNair.
“There is no one thing that brings people into this, and I think that’s what makes the community so fascinating,” she continued. “It’s every age group, every background, both blue collar and white collar, and everything in between. Alberta is, by far, seeing the biggest boom right now, but Ontario is starting to surprise us.”
McNair and her husband, Raynor Vickers, moved into their self-converted 170 wheelbase, high roof, Mercedes-Benz Sprinter two years ago, and after a year of living on the road, they started their own business doing custom van conversions. With over 90,000 km and counting under their belt, the couple continues to travel and provide onsite services and consultations coast to coast in Canada.
“I like to call it an adVANture. We get to join everyone else’s adVANture for a little bit.”
For some, it’s a solution to the ever-increasing housing crisis we all face, others, it’s for the independence of working on the road or simply the ability to love your holidays more. For Shannon Mathieson, it’s an escape from winter.
Mathieson, a Collingwood native, removed the back seat from her Hyundai Veloster before road tripping to visit her sister in Seattle a few years ago. Before she reached the city limits, she was hooked.
Upon returning home, Mathieson already decided she had to buy a van, but it took a turn of fate before she finally took the plunge.
“I started looking and a year later I still hadn’t jumped on it, I was nervous to fully commit. But I narrowed it down and knew exactly what I wanted. I finally called the dealer to tell him to keep an eye on the auctions and he said ‘have you seen the lot? There is one sitting right here.’ So I traded in my car and I got it right then,” said Mathieson.
Shortly after purchasing her new temporary home in January, Mathieson broke a rib in a biking accident. All she could do was watch YouTube, and so she did. She learned everything she possibly could about converting her Nissan NV200 into a home on wheels.
Mathieson dedicated every weekend throughout the spring and into the summer, and slowly, step-by-step, created her home away from home.
“I walked out of Home Depot in tears before, and I nearly lost it when I was putting the stereo in. But except for a few minor details, I did it all by myself,” Mathieson said.
Throughout the process, Mathieson filmed it all. She shared her journey online and was surprised by the surplus of support and advice she received from the digital community.
“It surprised me how interested people were. There were other people with vans doing the same thing, and I was shocked by how much there was to talk about.”
McNair would agree.
“You get us quite happy. Any Van-er, if you show an interest in our van, you won’t be able to get us to shut up. I call it geeking out on vans,” said McNair.
Mathieson and McNair chatted back and forth on Instagram a few times throughout Mathieson’s build. Both of their vans, and their motivation for converting their vans, may have been completely different, but they were able to connect over a common goal.
“I think that’s the piece that everyone can relate to in all of this. How do you find your happiness with it?” said McNair.
Mathieson dreams of one day living in a van full-time, but knows when that day comes, she’ll have to upgrade to something bigger.
She feels more equipped than ever to tackle that project when the time comes. For now, she has her adventure rig, and she’s happy.
Mathieson said she’s not sure if her van will ever be completely “ready,” and she currently faces the task of getting it equipped for the winter. Mathieson’s number one priority is biking, so she’s built her van to be able to take her and her bike on adventures even when the snow hits the ground here.
Over the summer, Mathieson tested out her new wheels on little weekend trips whenever she could get away. She’s had the freedom to join her friends on a vacation in Virginia without having to rent a place to stay, and has been back to visit her family in Seattle.
“When I got to my sisters I said I could just stay in the van, and my sister was like, ‘well, the kids might be in there with you.’ They jumped in and were locking their parents out within five minutes of me getting there,” Mathieson laughed.
A full-time transitional support worker at E3 Community Services, Mathieson appreciates having the van to make the most of any time off.
“I love Collingwood. In the summer, I love it here. But when it’s cold, I don’t want to be stuck here, I want to go. It doesn’t have to be far, just somewhere I can ride my bike,” said Mathieson.
The van gives her that freedom.
And to most people, McNair said that’s the biggest appeal.
A van can be up-fitted for whatever your hobby or lifestyle may be. A lot of people don’t have the luxury of working on the road, but with a van they have the ability to make the most of their days off. For others who do work remotely, it can mean taking off at a moment’s notice, and never having to say no to a new adventure.
Earlier this year, McNair and Vickers even helped a couple install a bread baker into their van, because their “priority was that they loved baking bread.” They were able to give that to them.
“For a lot of people, this is the path to get to where they want to be. You see a lot more self-employment, entrepreneurship, innovation, investors and tinkerers. As a society, we really want those people to be able to chase those things, because if you’re hoping for new and different things in society, living in a box isn’t how we’re ever going to get there,” McNair said.
That’s what she’s always loved about Collingwood. It’s a community of so many people who are self-employed or have passion projects on the side, and there is a lot of respect for anyone who is trying to do the same.
“This area has always amazed me for its level of support,” said McNair.
“Collingwood embraces the weird,” she continued. “People here, compared to other places we’ve been, when we talk about our lifestyle and what we’re trying to do with our business, they don’t seem to have as much of a leap. They get it, it’s that outdoor love, adventure love, that brought us all to Collingwood. People understand that if you can’t afford the house, but want to have all the fun here, it’s setting yourself up to do that.”
For that reason, McNair thinks the community of Van-ers will continue to grow in Collingwood, whether it’s for part-time adventuring or transitioning to a full-time lifestyle.
“This community is in its infancy. It still has a lot of maturing to do. People are making mistakes, and it puts a bad name on all of us. Everything you do is not just a representation of yourself, but of the entire community, so you have to be smart,” said McNair. “I want the community to understand that you want these people around.”
It’s not easy living, McNair warns, but for her and her husband, the pros far outweigh the cons.
“It’s an exciting opportunity for seasonal workers and increased traffic to our local businesses. There will be growing pains, I know, but my confidence is that Collingwood is one of the towns that will be able to figure out its path for it,” she said.