Making Black History Now: Celebrating Black Vanlifers, Travelers, and Adventurers on the Road

Written by: Noami Grevemberg
Sponsored by Go Power! Solar

My vanlife journey started in New Orleans in 2016. It was an old dream that got lost in the grind of corporate culture after college. Pre-vanlife I worked as a coastal biologist. As a Black-identifying queer woman in the field of science in the deep south, I faced many challenges that impacted my ability to thrive in my career and led to depression and anxiety. I was searching for a way out. Eventually, I decided to reevaluate my life’s trajectory by digging up an old dream of traveling the country in a van and visiting all the National Parks. Vanlife felt like the perfect opportunity to reconnect with nature.

Leaving behind a career I’d worked so hard for was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever had to make. But it was and continues to be one of the most transformational journeys of my life. Living vanlife I am able to create space to pursue my passions, reinvent myself, and fulfill my dream of travel and entrepreneurship. It’s also been the vehicle for me to heal from the impacts of corporate grind culture and reclaim my identity. And since that spring day in 2016, I have traveled across America numerous times, visited dozens of National Parks, and experienced vanlife in four countries.

Though my road travel journey hasn’t come without its challenges – loneliness and isolation, difficulty finding and maintaining community on the road, and the whitewashed narrative of #vanlife depicted in online media that would ultimately exclude the stories of people like me – BIPOC, LGBTQIA, etc. The romanticized version of vanlife in the media created a false narrative of who was welcome in the lifestyle and who was not. And the barriers to entry that formed as a result, left folx from these often excluded groups vulnerable to violence and erasure. From a place of frustration, this narrative led me to create Diversify Vanlife in the fall of 2019. A social media platform turned community organization, Diversify Vanlife redefines “community” in road travel and the outdoors by celebrating diversity and intersectionality. Diversify Vanlife is a space where often excluded groups (BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, fat, folks with disabilities) can celebrate their belonging in road travel, build community, share resources, and network with like-minded individuals.

The need for safe spaces like Diversify Vanlife is not new. The Negro Motorist Green Book, first published in 1936, was a guidebook for African American travelers to find safe places to eat, sleep, travel, and build community on the road with dignity during the era of segregation when sundown towns, policing, and other forms of violence made traveling by road a risky proposition for Black people. Green Book author Victor Hugo Green and his wife Alma Duke Green, and other trailblazers like Robert Robinson Taylor, road trip enthusiast and the first African American to earn a degree in architecture, have paved the way for generations of Black road travelers. They continue to inspire us and we celebrate their legacies.

Today, Black vanlifers, travelers, and adventurers like myself are making their own mark on the road. As allies and accomplices, you can support them by engaging and amplifying their stories, supporting their businesses and journeys with financial compensation, and using your voice and platform to speak up against violence, racism, and other forms of oppression and erasure. Educate yourself on the experiences of Black people and other people of color. Use your privilege and resources to advocate for inclusive spaces where everyone can feel safe and celebrated. And support organizations like Diversify Vanlife.

My journey as a Black-identifying, mixed-race, queer immigrant road traveler and outdoorist is only one story. There are many unique Black stories on the road, and we continue to celebrate all these stories and individuals who are making Black history on the road today. Below are a few more, but I encourage you to do your research, diversify your feed, and continue to uplift Black voices beyond Black History Month.

Black Trailblazers:

Lily @morningstar.the.van

Tell us a bit about yourself and your journey as a Black road traveler.

My name is Lily, I’m a first gen Cuban American artist with Afro-Chinese heritage.
I’m Queer, I’m thicc, and I love living on the road and living every day like a new adventure!
I started my nomadic Journey in Miami, FL, and have dreamed of living on the road since I was a kid.
My love for travel and adventure comes from my mom. When I was young she worked for a Cruise line and we would ride the ships on standby and go all over the Caribbean. We could go to all the islands except one, but being out there swimming in the warm waters of the Caribbean sea was close enough.

What has been one of your most joyful or profound moments on the road?

Living on the road gives me that same sense of closeness to feeling home. I love meeting new mountains and rivers and dancing with them, greeting them, and laughing with them because now my family’s love and laughter have resonated with trees and nature in new places. My favorite moments are frolicking through ancient trees on the Olympic Peninsula with a hula hoop and listening to the wind.

What piece of advice would you give your pre-vanlife, younger self?

I would tell my younger, pre-vanlife self to hang in there and love yourself. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Enjoy the beautiful moments and listen to your intuition. Follow all the dreams.

James @the_ethnic_explorer

Tell us a bit about yourself and your journey as a Black road traveler.

So far, my road travel journeys have been so dope. I have not experienced any negative energy at this point in my journey. People are always so curious and inquisitive about my van being in a place that doesn’t see a lot of vanlife. I hope to meet other diverse nomads out there soon, I’d be so stoked!

What has been one of your most joyful or profound moments on the road?

One of my most joyful moments is being able to park somewhere on a mountaintop and watch the sunset dip below the hills, sleep in a comfy cozy bed, and watch the sun rise above the hills in the morning!

What piece of advice would you give your pre-vanlife, younger self?

I would definitely advise my pre vanlife self not to be so shy when meeting other nomads and just connect with the community more.

Zoya @zoyayaseka

Tell us a bit about yourself and your journey as a Black road traveler.

I quite literally took a leap of trust into vanlife. My partner Matai has always wanted to try it but never really had the opportunity to dive in. So when Cam Lindsey, told us about Kift at an NFT LA event as we were in the process of moving out of our place in LA, we felt very much in alignment.

Matai was in disbelief that someone was putting something similar to his dream into action and for me, there was no reason not to try. Kift invited us to help them market the NFT that provided members with the ability to vote on decisions being made within their DAO and we decided to try out vanlife with the proverbial training wheels that Kift provided through their community and resources.

Joshua Tree was our first house because we needed to be close to LA for work. So we went from being at the Joshua tree house with just Cam and a few Kift members coming in and out while we helped to craft the message for the hypothetical and visionary side of things, to getting to help with hosting, inviting more people into the community in real life, and getting to contribute to the equity, inclusion, wellness and belonging initiatives of the community.

What has been one of your most joyful or profound moments on the road?

One of the most joy-filled experiences I’ve had on the road has been pulling up to a modeling job with a dream client with our trailer. A close second to that has been the magical experience that traveling through Baja with Kift. This has been our first time completely off-grid for an extended period. Traveling as a group has taken away so much of the anxieties that I’m sure would normally come with traveling alone. It has also made Matai and me so much more confident in our ability to go on our own adventures without the crew, seeking out all the adventures our hearts desire.

What piece of advice would you give your pre-vanlife, younger self?

To my younger self, I would say: Success is something you define for yourself. No one can tell you what makes your heart sing, but one easy way to find out what does is to be present with the things that bring you joy – to be, give and receive. Take that leap of trust in what brings you joy, my love. Joy, as Deepak says, is the only measure of success.

This article is sponsored by Go Power! Solar.
Go Power! is a proud supporter of the Diversify Vanlife community.