Peter & Shruthi

For Peter & Shruthi, vanlife was a way to be together throughout their long-distance relationship. It was also a safe haven and a free place to stay when visiting disgruntled parents who disapproved of them being together. Little did they know that over the years the van would become a permanent home and a vessel for adventure.

Vanlife Found Us Before We Found It

Distance brings people together. In fact, it has always managed to come full circle in our story. We are Peter and Shruthi Lapp. Peter was born on Long Island. Shruthi was born in India. We both grew up on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi before moving elsewhere. 

We met in November 2005, got married in October 2012 and in April 2016, we hit the road for a year-long journey around North America in our 1987 Westfalia Vanagon. The experiences we’ve had together since then are indescribable, but the best part of our travels is how we got here.

It all started in February 2006, when Shruthi found out that her parents were moving from Mississippi to Illinois that summer, and that she was going with them—no questions. We had been dating for about a month when the news broke our little teenage hearts. The unknown territory around this wrench in our plans was terrifying, but we both knew we wanted to try. An additional complication was the fact that Shruthi’s parents did not approve of the relationship at the time. Leaving the house to get on a plane and fly to Peter was going to be just a little bit tricky.

Despite our sadness and denial in the months leading up to it, the big move happened in May. In June, while scouring eBay for his very first car, Peter found a beautiful Westfalia wrapped in a majestic coat of Wolfram Grey. It instantly took him back to his childhood fascination with the Mystery Machine. What was this thing?! The more he researched it, the more he realized that it was a magic bullet for our long distance days (as long as he kept it running). It had everything he wanted: a bed, sink, stove, fridge and lots more.

Most importantly, it was a free place to stay which wouldn’t involve negotiations with disgruntled parents.

And with that, we introduce what we affectionately, and ironically, call The Blitzkrieg (Blitz, for short). And, despite her namesake, she is anything but swift and fierce. Cruising to Chicago at 60 miles per hour will get you there, but not very fast.

With that van, Peter made his big move to Nashville, Tennessee, to shave a good eight hours off of the distance between us.

August brought the van’s maiden voyage to Illinois where Shruthi and the van finally met for the first time. The following six years brought many more long drives for us and the van.

Before we knew it, the van became our space to just be together. This was a time in our lives where it felt like the odds were stacked against us. Petty arguments were magnified by the sadness we often felt about the hundreds of miles between us. Well-meaning acquaintances would offer premature condolences with stories about their failed long-distance relationships. Shruthi’s parents were adamant about their disapproval of our relationship, which added stress, dishonesty and sneaking around to the mix.

When it seemed like so many things were trying to tear us apart, the van was one of the few things that seemed on board with us being together.

Distance added to the difficulty of maintaining our relationship. At times, it felt like there was an abyss between us.

Since then, it has transformed from a dreaded and seemingly destructive aspect of our relationship to a redemptive one. It has been both a catalyst and a glue. Distance is now exciting! It is the vessel to being knit closer and closer by all of the new things we discover about each other. With every new place distance leads us, we get to see the awe in each other's eyes. Those moments will stay with us for the rest of our lives.

Because of that experience, the transition from life in our single-family home to 80 square feet felt natural. It’s as if we were picking up right where we left off. The feeling of rolling out of our driveway on April 1, 2016 was unreal. The van has been there for it all: the good times, the tears as we said goodbye to each other, the disheartening conversations and the ones that made us excited to look to the future. It brought us together on the day Shruthi finally moved to Nashville. It’s what took us on an inconspicuous date to the park where Peter proposed.

It was only natural that the van was an important part of our engagement photos and the getaway vehicle on our wedding day.

It is now February 2018, but for the past two years whenever we visit our family, we are greeted with big hugs and warm food by parents who were far from disgruntled. We spend time catching up on travels over meals and piping hot cups of chai.

We didn’t realize it at the time, but distance created the space and motivation for us to begin dreaming. One of the only things that kept us going on the bad days was filling the space between us with hopes of what we wanted for our future as a couple. Text messages, emails, phone calls and video chats made us feel like we had somehow bridged the gap for a moment—especially when things got heavy. This is where it all comes full circle. If it hadn’t been for our long-distance relationship, the van probably wouldn’t have become a part of our lives when it did. Our circumstances made Peter more receptive to the possibilities of owning it. If that hadn’t happened, he wouldn’t have the patience, diligence and knowledge that comes with being a Vanagon owner for 10+ years. What began as the search for a new vehicle became an investment, which eventually allowed us to have more quality time together than we could have ever imagined.

Though it may have taken the long way around, distance finally brought us together.

We unintentionally started a tradition of putting away our savings for one big trip overseas together every year. Our adventures have included a fall honeymoon in Germany and Austria, backpacking/couchsurfing throughout the United Kingdom, various camping trips in the U.S., and a two-week road trip to Colorado for our first taste of van life.

The travel bug hit us full force and we discovered that traveling together was one of our biggest dreams. Flying to Argentina to hang with our friends, Crepe Attack, as they made their way back from Patagonia sealed the deal for us. On the flight back home, we were convinced. We need to do this...and soon. How were we going to swing that? We had no idea, but we knew we wanted to take the plunge.

Not long after that trip, the heavens aligned and we both had the opportunity to take our jobs (Peter as an Information Security Engineer and Shruthi as a Digital Marketer) on the road and work remotely. We have a hotspot-friendly data plan through our cell phone providers, which gives us a bit more flexibility.

Too good to be true? Apparently not.

So we packed our bags, rented our house and here we are on the open road. 

We've stayed with family for a couple of weeks, but otherwise we're in the van full time. We don't stay in hotels or campgrounds, but instead try to find free places to park and sleep for the night. We’ve spent anywhere from a day to well over a week in one location, but we usually average around two days in the same spot. It just depends on what our travel and work schedules look like.

We're not hippies, existentialists or homeless—just people looking for an adventure. We don't have a set plan.

This trip is all about new experiences, facing fears and learning what home really means.

Follow Peter & Shruthi of Holiday at See

Produced & edited by Kathleen Morton of Tiny House, Tiny Footprint.
Photos courtesy of Peter & Shruthi
Lapp, Katch SilvaUlmer Studios and Ashtin Page.