Back in September when we had plans for our “Rad Pads” Issue, Hurricane Irma came through and swept our plans for the MTV’s Cribs-esque theme right out the window. One of the many planned interviews/features was with local van-lifer Kenneth Dulaney, who runs the Instagram page, Vanlife904.
Despite Irma ruining our plans for the issue, we still felt it would be worthwhile to share Ken’s inspiring story of life on the road. So, without further adieu, here is our interview with the 904’s most well-known van dweller … and he only lives in a van down by the river some of the time.
Start off by giving me some backstory about yourself. How did you come to live in Jax, and then work your way into how you got into the van life.
I moved to Jacksonville when I was 3 years old from Puerto Rico (parents divorced by this time). My father was in the Navy and met my mother in Puerto Rico. I grew up knowing Jacksonville as my home, and grew up a navy brat. During my childhood, I remembered moving around a lot, whether it be my dad being transferred to Virginia or back down to Jacksonville.
Watching my father travel the world sparked a curiosity for travel myself as a young boy. When he came home he did his best to take me camping, to parks and showing me an adventurous childhood. My mother just made sure I didn’t get into trouble. However both of them emphasized how important school was.
My mother ended up going to college to become a nurse. I grew up with a lot of change, new schools new friends and neighborhoods. I was forced to adapt and accept my surroundings. It wasn’t always easy growing up making new friends, changing schools and never having consistency of familiar faces. However I stayed determined growing up.
With the instability came trouble, as an adolescent teen I was always getting in trouble in the neighborhood or even in school. My family started to doubt my success and my maturity. However I always held faith in myself.
During my junior year of high school I was forced to leave home due to my troubles and pretty much make it on my own and complete school. I faced many trials and tribulations during those two years remaining of high school but I was determined to see it through.
I moved in with a friend of mine in a rough neighborhood of town with cheap rent and barely money to pay the bills. I faced a lot of adversity and challenges. During my junior year I was always trying to find work. I started an automotive technology program at Frank H Peterson on the Westside. My family and I figured that this would help me get a start on finding a job to earn a living once I finished high school.
I had many jobs throughout high school. I used to joke about being the jack-of-all-trades. I began working in fast food, hotel industry, dry cleaning, landscaping, auto technology at a mechanic shop during my high school work program.
Upon completing high school, I didn’t want to be a grease monkey anymore, as people would say, so I ended up getting a job at Bank of America with the help of a friend. At this time I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do in life. My family tried to convince me to go to the military so that I could have money for college to learn a skill and to also learn how to be a man.
Unfortunately, 911 happened my graduation year, and I was afraid to enlist because of the chance of going to war. So I continued to work at the bank to build more experience so that I might transfer to the Federal Reserve Bank. I thought this was the coolest job and my age.
Again I was so confused as what I wanted to do for a career. So I enrolled at the Florida community college of Jacksonville. After months of browsing majors, I decided to pursue a career in radiography. During the time I worked at the Federal Reserve Bank, I didn’t feel there was much job security.
So, I got a full-time job at Mayo clinic as a CT tech assistant. This allowed me to see a bird’s-eye view of the field of radiography. After a year, I applied to the radiography program at Mayo Clinic 2005 and graduated in 2007. I knew this was going to be a great career for job security, and the economy eventually started to tank.
I started working as an x-ray tech, and by 2010, I had finished my bachelor’s at Florida Hospital College of Health Sciences. In 2010, I bought my first home. During this time, I was starting to rack up student loans. I ended up being laid off from my job … and now had a mortgage to pay. I started to panic and wondered why all my dreams and goals that I had planned for that year all fell through. I collected unemployment for six months.
Eventually, I was able to find a job at the University of Florida Shands Hospital. There, I learned a specialty in radiography. This was known as Interventional Radiology. After a year of experience, I decided to go to graduate school to be a radiologist assistant at Loma Linda University in California.
I eventually left Shands and had an opportunity to do CT scans and to cross train into the cardiac Cath Lab. For graduate school, I was able to stay home in Florida to do online courses and do a preceptor-ship at the University of Florida. Once I graduated in 2014, I found myself in a bit of a slump. I noticed I had a lot of student debt and decided to travel for work.
Over the years, I learned from colleagues that if I ever wanted to make good money, I needed to travel in this field. So I decided to put my house up for rent and pursue travel — very similar to travel nursing. I took travel assignments as cardiac Cath Lab tech.
During my first year of travel, I had worked in California and Texas. After my contracts ended, I always came home to Jacksonville to see the family … but still desired to travel. I ended up brainstorming and wondered how I could save money instead of having to use Craigslist rent-a-room ads. I started following a couple on social media that lived in a van, and said to myself, “I can do this.” So that is where the story begins as a van lifer.
I decided to buy a van and to custom build the inside so that it was a livable quarters. Having this platform was perfect for work because I would take emergency standby calls and had to be within a 30-minute proximity of the hospital in case of emergency. A hobby I really enjoyed doing while traveling the country was photography.
How did you acquire the van, what is it, and if you built it yourself, tell us what that was like.
I saw many people living in their vans, but they weren’t necessarily dependable vans. I wanted a van that had dependability and reliability, so I decided to buy brand new and trade in my everyday vehicle (Honda CR-V). This was the first big step forward in having a vehicle as a home and everyday use. There were only two vans on the market I was interested in that allowed me to stand up straight and to build enough living space for myself. Ford Transit and Mercedes Sprinter.
I ended up choosing a 2016 Mercedes sprinter van with a high roof. I also chose the diesel option. At first, friends and family thought I was crazy — but I had a vision. However some friends thought it was cool but didn’t think that I would pull the trigger on it. Little did they know I was so adventurous and looked fear and the unknown straight in the face.
Where have you been in the van and when do you travel mostly?
Since I’ve been living in the van, I’ve been to Washington state, Oregon, British Columbia, Hawaii, Texas, Arizona, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and, of course, good ol’ Florida (home). I typically travel six to eight months out of the year and take the remainder time to spend with family during the holidays.
What are some of the best aspects of living the van life?
Some of the best aspects of living the van life are no electric bills and the freedom to pick up and travel wherever I want when I want. You can turn your backyard into whatever you want it to be. However one of my favorites is practicing the life of minimalism. I knew before I chose to do van life that I didn’t need a bunch of material things to make me happy but necessities. I don’t need an expensive mortgage for a big house or living the everyday rat race of paying bills.
It also allowed me to pay off some of my student debt. The way I look at it is “less is more,” and it allowed me to do some of the things I love without being constrained to the everyday standard way of living. I can wake up somewhere in a nice park, a nice beach, in the middle of nowhere watching the Milky Way and night sky or even sunrise and sunsets. The van life community is rather big in this country and abroad. It’s allowed me to meet like-minded people and to not have hotel cost when I travel.
What are some of the biggest challenges? Anything not so glamorous?
Some of the biggest challenges have been parking in parking garages, finding a place to park legally, not having a big enough fridge for yummy food, not having A/C while you sleep, finding a place to do number two because I don’t want to have to deal with dumping or changing waste for my van and making sure you don’t stand out amongst the public so that your safety isn’t jeopardized.
I didn’t build a standard bathroom or shower in my van because of the hassle and space. I take showers at work because every lab that I work at has a shower for their employees. I also decided to maintain a 24-hour gym membership so that I could have access to a shower and to maintain fitness while on the road. Dating has always been a challenge for this way of life. Some people find it to be unstable. Another challenge is asking myself how long I plan on doing this for until I go back to paying a mortgage and bills. Also, driving gets old.
Where do you typically sleep or park the van while traveling and living in it?
I typically sleep in gym parking lots, 24-hour grocery store parking lots, hotel parking lots, neighborhood parking and basically wherever it’s quiet and dark. I don’t have a problem parallel parking because I got a standard-length vehicle. I’ve parked in big cities and away from big cities.
What are some of your most essential items or things that help to make the van life easier?
Some of the most essential items to help make their life easier, would be my solar panel, LED lights and switches, electrical outlets, my fridge, a stove to cook and a sink for water to clean dishes. Also the storage and design of my van. One of my favorite things is my max air fan, which is remote controlled and allows me to blow air into or out of the van. I always run this while I’m sleeping to keep it cool and aerated. In addition I have an iron to make sure I don’t wear wrinkled clothes.
Any particular great moments that stand out to you since you began the lifestyle?
Having the van has had great moments. Such as hosting small friendly get-togethers in my van and being able to cook them something. Being able to sleep whenever and wherever I want. One of my favorites was living in Hawaii and parking the van right up to the beach and listening to the waves crash, watching the sunrise and watching whales breach right offshore. It was very surreal. If I’m hungry or want to rest, I can make it a dull surrounding or an exciting surrounding. It’s also allowed me to have things easily accessible and to my disposal because I’m never having to go home for it since it’s right there with me. I’ve really been able to enjoy not having to worry how long I have to stay at one place or having a deadline and when to check out.
How does someone get into it themselves? Any tips or advice?
I’ve been asked many questions through my social media about van life and how to go about doing it, and by people I’ve met along my journeys. I basically reiterate to them what are their goals and aspirations of pursuing this lifestyle. Getting into van life isn’t for everyone, however, it’s doable if you have the right mindset. You have to be willing to face fear and have confidence in yourself. I do understand where people think safety is a concern. I’ve never had any safety concerns during the course of this lifestyle. Furthermore, there are people living van life with their life savings and just traveling the country. There are also people who have decided to make it a full-time lifestyle such as myself. There are people who work full-time and live in their van and also people who work from their van. It really depends on what you hope to achieve and how long you want to do it for.
How about your cost of living in the van. Is it cheap? What do you spend most of your budget on?
The cost of living is gas, car insurance and payment (yes, car payment). Most of my money is spent on food.
Cooking in the van, what’s that like? What do you typically eat?
Cooking in the van is actually easier than some think. I have a propane stove top and an infrared cooker — almost like a toaster oven. I can cook pretty much anything you can on a stove top and some things you can in an oven. Essentially, it’s just making the time to cook. I like to eat lean and healthy when I can since being on the road for long periods can come back to haunt you. My go-to breakfast meal in the morning is “overnight oats” or “overnight chia” pudding with perhaps some sort of fruit as well. I enjoy making salmon and veggies when I can. I also eat a lot of salads and snacks.
In general, how is life on the road as a whole? How are the people you meet?
Life on the road has been overall fun! I’ve met a lot of cool people and a lot of weird people. Life is what you make it on the road and home is where you park it. The only downside I don’t enjoy is driving. For the most part people are very interested and inquisitive about my van life. Most of the people who want to know are people with families. I’m assuming they’re living vicariously through me since they cannot have that sort of lifestyle with the kids. However, people who have the same interest and hobbies as myself find it very cool!
Any terrible stories or rough times? How’d you get through them?
Some rough times have been getting knocks on the window at 2 a.m. because I parked somewhere I wasn’t allowed. I honestly haven’t had any rough stories since I tend to mind my own business. There were two instances where I got stuck in sand and once in mud. I just patiently worked it out until I was able to drive out. There was also a time my 2,000-watt inverter went bad on me which made my fridge thaw out and I lost everything inside of it. That displaced me having a fridge for at least a week. I just ate out until the new inverter arrived. There was a time where I decided to rest in Arizona and the temperature was about 110 degrees, which made sleeping in the van miserable! I didn’t stay long and continued to the cooler state next door.