Stephan Shay has de rigueur facial hair. He can be found in Southern California coffee shops, sometimes wearing a beanie. He’s tan. He’s fit. He wakes up to the sound of waves playing on southern California sand, and takes road trips up and down the coast.
He also has a 1993 BMW, a job, a bank account, and just found out he qualified for the 2016 US Olympic Marathon Trials.
What’s wrong with that picture?
I got Stephan (pronounced STEF-in, not ste-FON) on the horn to suss out this mythical dude lifestyle. It was worse than I thought. He’s also banking 1000 clams a month by not paying rent, recouped his original investment in a year, and has been trotted out as an example of how to live lightly on this earth. He’s found his mojo, his jam, his chi.
“Getting up and going to work can get sort of groundhog-ish,” he explained. “When you have the same routine, you can get lost along way. Having this vehicle, the adventure of it, has given me new life. I feel like—not that I’m old —but like those experiences I had in college and high school when I was always meeting people and seeing what the day was going to bring, I’m getting that all over again.”
Sensing my disappointment in finding goshforsaken nothing wrong with this picture, he offered that when he woke up to the waves washing over Laguna Beach, it could be chilly in the 1966 Cortez. Sometimes down to 60 degrees. I waited for more. “Well, I don’t take ten-minute showers,” he said. “I get wet and turn the water back off…”
Lots of people, many of them adults, good friends of mine, have this same dream. In fact, in the year he’s been living la vida camper, Shay has become an unofficial ambassador for van life. “I love being able to inspire people, to see people get excited about the possibility of travel and adventure, that it’s not some far-fetched idea. In fact, it can be pretty practical.”
I wrote about Shay’s sweet lifestyle experiment for Outside, but there was a lot of practical stuff left on the cutting room floor. What follows is the nitty gritty of being a working, training van man. Either it turns you off or you’re already scanning the RV listings.
“I knew I couldn’t afford to pay rent and buy the van; it was an either or. But that said, I never put myself in a bind. I could have put it in storage and gotten an apartment if it didn’t work out. I purchased the vehicle for $5,100 and put about $10,000 into restoration. I’ve been living in it for twelve months now, banking the $1,000/month it would cost to rent a studio—it’s already paid for itself.”
“I’d never done anything like this, learned a lot along the way. There was this dingy shag carpet on the walls, the floors, on any flat surface. It was kind of wet and gross. I tore it all out and installed wood floors, painted the walls. The stove had rust on it so I had to get out the sander. The bathroom was actually okay. The coolest part, by far, is the dash on the driver’s side—the steering wheel is like a bus steering wheel, really thin with a good feel to it. The dashboard is a work of art—it’s all original. And the engineering is genius. I’ve got deep cycle batteries in back, so when I turn the bus on, it recharges those batteries separate from the batteries up front. I can run lights for days, appliances, the computer—I’ve never had an issue with them running low. I could plug in the deep cycle batteries to heat up water for the shower, but can I just tell you something really cool? If I turn this valve in the engine, it circulates water from the shower tank through the engine. I can heat five gallons of water in a 20-minute drive, and it stays hot for 24 hours. The engineering on this thing is pretty impressive.”
“It’s got everything you need—storage, a bed, full kitchen. I made creamed spinach the other night. I’ve got photos, a keepsake area.”
“Technically, you have to move your vehicle every 72 hours, but that can mean 200 feet. During the week, I park it at a beach, between Cortina and Santa Ana. Right now, I have two part-time jobs; Monday through Wednesday at the lithium ion battery company and Thursday and Friday at Santa Ana College. Sometimes I park on the street: it’s under 20 feet, so that’s okay. I also have a 1993 BMW that I drive to work. I had that before my van and just kept it because I don’t want to use the van as a commuter. The routine is, I move my RV a couple miles, finish my run at my car and drive the car back to where I moved the RV. Being a runner, it’s no big deal.”
“There’s a 35-gallon potable water tank that you fill with a hose. In California, there are a lot of fill stations. Costs $10 to fill the water tank, which I do every two weeks or so, maybe longer than that because I got a gym membership and shower there. It was the most expensive gym in the area, the Equinox overlooking the ocean in Huntington Beach—costs $115 a month. I feel kind of silly, but if I’m going to splurge, I’m going to splurge on a gym. That Equinox almost feels like a resort. Most of the people there are really wealthy—if they knew I lived out of an RV ... I’m always smiling, thinking about that.”
“You empty waste at those fill stations too. [I said something along the lines of, Okay, there it is. Dream over.] It’s not so bad; you never see anything. You just hook up this big hose from the holding tank to a sewage tank at the fill station. The stove and refrigerator run on propane. People trip out on that—isn’t propane for heat? So that’s $20 every two to three weeks. I have to go to a laundromat every couple weeks, so that’s another expense. And gas, of course [Lolita gets 16 mpg on the highway], but still, I’m using less energy than if I had a house and a car. In fact, some people from Climate Resolve in Los Angeles heard about me and invited me to come to Climate Day as an example of steps you can take to reduce your carbon footprint. That was a cool experience.”
“A typical day? Wake up at 5:50—oh man, my favorite spot is the front spots at El Moro Canyon with this panoramic view of the cliffs and the ocean!—get ready for work, leave about 7:15, drive the car to work. I create marketing inserts, digital marketing, banner ads, that kind of thing. Get off at 3:45, drive home, pull back the curtains, fire up the van, and drive to the gym. From there, I might run on the treadmill or along the beach path, do a light weight set, shower there, and grab dinner: Weekdays, I don’t have time to make dinner. People ask me about the Cortez all the time; I meet a lot of people that way. After that, I drive back to the beach and get ready for bed. That’s pretty much it. Weekends are a free-for-all—I just decide what I’m going to do and take off. Last weekend I went up to Ojai and had a really good time, met some cool people. Yeah, I have to pay for gas, but in the long run I’m still saving a good chunk of change. I can splurge and go on trips every weekend, and I’m still able to save money.”
“I’ve always had the idea that you have to put yourself in uncomfortable situations to get the desired outcome, and in this case [living in a van], the unknowns were somewhat uncomfortable. I planned out certain things but I knew there would be some unexpected things. Like running, you have a game plan and try to execute it, but if it doesn’t go as planned, you try to stay calm and change your goals along the way, so you’re still satisfied in the end. That’s what I’ve been doing all along. Being prepared but being open to getting through the rough patches, so when the shit hits the fan, you can still embrace the experience. This has taught me a lot about how to roll with the punches.”
“For example, once I came home from work and the Cortez was stuck in neutral. I had to have it towed to a storage unit, and worked on it with the previous owner for a month. But I always seem to find deals—the storage unit had this first-month-free deal so all I had to pay was tax, like 25 bucks. The repair cost $350 in all. Knock on wood, I haven’t had to repair it other than that. Oh, and I’ve gotten two parking tickets.”
“I mean, it’s not for everyone. Maybe they have a different mindset of what’s successful. Maybe they have kids or they don’t have money saved up. For me, it seemed like the perfect fit. I’m willing to give up some comfort. But dealing with things that come up, it breaks up the monotony of just getting up and going to work. It makes every day like an adventure.”
“Most people who have the money don’t do it because their lifestyle won’t allow it. They work themselves to death for stuff. I’ve saved up a lot more money than people who are driving nice cars and living beyond their means. It’s true, there’s a social stigma attached to it; living out of an RV, you’re seen as being poor or uneducated, or homeless. I’ve learned not to judge a book by its cover. Actually, here in Southern California where buying a small house can be $800,000 or more, middle class people are realizing that living out of an RV might make sense. I don’t look down on people who own a house—it comes down to what you value. I value being able to get out and enjoy living in California, traveling up and down the coast and meeting people. That’s what keeps me going.”
“It’s cool to see people get excited about being able to travel. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to start the restoration business [Shay recently launched Epoch Restorations and Adventures, or ERA]. Usually people see the Cortez and start talking about the van and how I restored it, but the conversation usually turns to lifestyle. If I can inspire people to think about it—I don’t want to be too cheesy or anything—but it’s like a dream job. It’s like running—being able to do something I love and make some money.”
“The plan is to restore vintage RVs. I’m in talks with this company called Trailermade—it’s like Airbnb for RVs, trailers, and buses. I plan to restore vehicles, rent them out on Trailermade, and eventually sell them. For now, I posted Lolita on the site. If someone books it, I’ll crash with friends, give them a kickback. I’m not selling Lolita though.”
“I think my brother’s death probably plays a bigger role in my lifestyle choices than I’m even aware of. [Shay’s older brother, Ryan, was a top distance runner when he died suddenly of a heart attack while competing in the 2008 Olympic Trials.] It allowed me to really think about what I wanted out of life, and that was to hold onto the mindset that life is a journey. Prior to my brother passing away, I felt like I was more concerned with other people’s perception of my successes and failures, whereas now I make sure the goals I pursue are things that will truly make me happy, fulfilled. That isn’t to say I didn’t take that approach before, but I think I’d become a little complacent—go to school, get your degree, work in that field.
“As many people find out, interests change as you get older. I got my degree in kinesiology, but I’ve been doing marketing for four years, and now am in the process of starting my own business. Before my brother passed away, I would’ve likely played it safe and stayed in kinesiology. And maybe that would have worked out great. But since I’ve really looked at where my interests lie, I discovered I get a sense of accomplishment, and like running, a great deal of gratification from inspiring others. I guess my brother’s passing has taught me to be more open-minded about opportunities and experiences. Good or bad, I feel like I’m actually living life when I have to navigate through uncharted territory.”
[On December 10, the International Association of Athletics Federations and USA Track & Field raised the Olympic marathon qualifying mark to 2:19, meaning Shay’s qualified for the February 13 US Olympic Marathon Trials held in Los Angeles. He gets a small stipend and equipment from Skechers.]
“I get in 85 to 90 miles a week. Monday through Wednesday I start work pretty early so I run after work. I start at 10 a.m. on Thursday and Friday so I can get in a longer run before work or a track session. My training has been a little more marathon specific now, 20 milers and the like. I haven’t ruled out the track trials [the Olympic Track Trials are held in late June].”
“You’re only young once. I’m not going to be able to run this fast [he has a marathon best of 2:16, and qualified to run in the February 13th US Olympic Trials Marathon] at 45, and I don’t feel like I’ve hit my potential with the marathon. I want to see what I can get out of my body, and not wonder about it down the road. If it doesn’t work out, I’ve still achieved quite a bit. And I’ll keep running no matter what—that’s the beauty of it. It’s about testing your limits at the time; you always want to improve. It has nothing to do with setting a PR or breaking records; it’s about getting outside and enjoying the journey.”
“I’ve had a taste of adventure, and I’m not ready to move on yet. If I met someone that I really jibed with and they were not keen on living in a bus, well...all that matters is if they thought about it, just entertained the idea.”
Photos courtesy of Stephan Shay/Cayle Christian.