Summit Mt. Elbert
Jill Rennicke, Alumni Coordinator

Many of us daydream about chucking the 9-to-5 job, decking out a van, and hitting the open road but Kaylee Thornley (CS2) and her partner Ian didn't just dream it. They did it (and are still doing it). From Alaska to the wide open spaces of the American West, the "Vanimals" as they call themselves are doing what most of us only dream about and then blogging about it. Here, in her own words, Kaylee tells us how it all came about (warning: after reading this you may want to quit your job and buy a van).

"In January 2017, my partner, Ian, and I bought a Sprinter cargo van. We spent three months converting the empty van into a cozy tiny home with solar power, a bed, a kitchen, and bikes and backpacking gear in the back.

Our little home on wheels has allowed us to explore the incredibly diverse landscape of North America.  We’ve spent nights in thunderstorms on the Kansas prairie and woken up to the surprising beauty of the forests of southern Illinois. I climbed my first fourteener in Colorado, and we’ve backpacked through the Ä’äy Chù River valley of the Yukon. We’ve driven on remote highways surrounded by miles and miles of lonely muskeg in British Columbia and Alaska and through silent forests of Joshua Trees in California and Nevada.

We’ve visited 16 national parks, but we’ve spent even more time on other types of public lands like BLM lands and national forests. In a year of travel, thanks mostly to the large areas of public land in the western US, we’ve never had to pay for a night in a campground.  Although these less visited public lands and spaces may be less majestic than Yosemite Valley or the arches of Utah, being able to spend a night in quiet pine forests or along a twisting road through the desert makes us feel so fortunate.

We’ve also discovered countless state and city parks. Without our van, we likely never would have explored these smaller gems of public land, because they aren’t the kind of places you’d put on a vacation itinerary.

It would have taken a lifetime and many plane tickets to vacation in all the areas we’ve been in a year. Buying and converting our van actually cost less than a year of rent in the Washington, DC apartment where we were previously living. We’ve learned to live with a lot less. We’ve met so many interesting and kind people through travels. We are so happy that we decided to take this “pre-tirement” now rather than deferring these experiences until we are in our 60s!"

For more information and to follow the Vanimals blog, go to

Mountain Hike

Overlook of Kaskawulsh Glacier from Observation Mountain in the Yukon


Camper Van

A cozy home for adventures. Interior of their van.


 Cooking dinner in the Shawnee National Forest


Hiking near Seward Alaska with KayDee Johnson (CS1) alum.

Sprinter Van in AK

Home with a view. Bridger-Teton National Forest

(photos submitted by Kaylee Thornley)