Photo: Elif Koyuturk
Location: Villach, Austria
The open road, the snow-capped peak, and the tranquil forest have always been alluring, offering both freedom and an escape from convention. Yet it’s rather ironic that refuge in nature has become increasingly popular when traveling to cities has never been easier. In a time when a comfy and chic AirBnB in London, Paris, or Berlin is only a few clicks away, what would compel someone to spend the night in a tent or the back of a van? Well, the thrill of it for starters.
The “app-cessibility” of our cities undoubtedly has its benefits: you don’t have to be a local to know which bars serve the best aperitivo, or that the best time to go to the club is actually Sunday morning. But it also leaves one with a longing for adventure, spontaneity, and unpredictable variables. We’ll need to venture away from our cities and towards nature for that—because it’s not exploring if you already know where you’re headed.
Heading into nature isn’t so much a retreat or a return to a more primitive time, it’s surrendering to the forces that are already at work around us. And it’s a sentiment that has never been easier to embrace than now. The older, Jack London-influenced interpretation of the wild pits man against nature, fighting to stay alive in the elements. Nature used to inspire wonder, but also fear. Jack London also didn’t have a down jacket and a camper van, so the experience has changed a bit. Combined with the current wave of environmental activism, we’re working towards an understanding of mankind as a part of—rather than apart from—nature. Seeking solitude in the cozy warmth of a cabin, solace under the stars, or the thrill of the road, we‘re coming to terms with our place in the natural order.
That said, we’ve already seen how a resurgence of interest in the beauty of nature has affected some of our most pristine areas. Horseshoe Bend, an idyllic lookout over a 1000-foot-deep canyon in Colorado, USA, has been visited by Instagrammers clamoring for likes so often that the National Park Service had to close the area to create new accommodations for visitors. In the age of social media, the vapid will find a way to ruin just about anything good. But developing a deep respect for nature can come with rewards that can’t be measured in likes.
By the time The New Yorker reported on the #vanlife trend, our social media feeds were already peppered with stories about couples abandoning traditional life for one on the road. And we still can’t get enough of the idea, just look at Gestalten’s Off the Road or The New Nomads, books that let us live the van life vicariously. An alluring concept for a generation of people disenfranchised by the entire way of life promised to them by the generation prior. Why work an office job if you can work remotely from the internet? Why own a bunch of things if you only need a few to survive? Why live in a home that has to stay in one place? Exactly the thoughts of the van dweller. Foregoing comfort for the pursuit of happiness is a common thread for this new breed of traveler—and likewise the search for authentic experiences.
Part reaction against the digitalization of our lives, and part innate desire to be part of something bigger, we are searching more than ever for offline experiences that enrich us in ways that are completely beyond words. You can see every inch of the Grand Canyon online, but you can only feel like an infinitesimal dot when you’re standing in front of it, a breathtaking view from the Dolomites is only truly earned if you hiked there, and the road is only open if you open yourself up to it.