Al and Mindy Matarazzo were destined to get a van. They just didn’t know what they wanted yet. As they were planning a family trip to Yosemite a couple years ago, their son Zach recommended they rent one. That trip gave them a vision of what their own van life could potentially be.
The Matarazzo’s, both 48, active hikers, bicyclists and rafters, made a conscious move two years ago from Philadelphia to live in Whitefish, Montana, where they’d vacationed for years. They’d done “everything you could imagine” outdoors on the East Coast, according to Al, and were excited about exploring all the West had to offer.
After a little research on trips near their new home, they found ROAMERICA and decided on doing a quick loop in Oregon. That sold them on van life for good. In 2018, they bought a Mercedes Sprinter with a 144-inch wheelbase and had it customized by Van Specialties in Portland. We caught up with them to talk about their early van life days, what they’re up to now and what the future holds.
What appealed to you about van life?
We’d been following a number of van-lifers on social media and we came to the conclusion that social media is great but we knew that it was not reality. Every parking spot is not on a cliff overlooking beauty. But we did wonder about the freedom it would allow us. We knew looking at a van was in our interest but that we really needed to rent something to know if we could exist in 60 square feet together for extended lengths of time (laughs).
How did you decide to go with ROAMERICA?
We liked that they were more adventure-based and we like dealing with local, family-owned businesses versus a big RV dealer. And we didn’t really need to think about what we needed to take; it was really obvious that it was turnkey. We were looking at Sportsmobiles (to purchase) anyway so we were excited to check out the fit and finish. It was a perfect setup for people to have fun and not worry about babying a $200k schwank-mobile going off-road to a trailhead.
We only did three or four nights but we had an awesome experience. We went out to Cannon Beach, down through Tillamook, we went up to Mount Hood and hiked the saddle and spent some time in the Gorge. It was a quick loop and we figured out we definitely wanted a van.
We had such a great experience with ROAMERICA that we recommended them to my sister-in-law and her husband for a road trip with us this summer. We had two vans going and had a fabulous time. It was their first van life experience and they loved it. They were thinking of getting a trailer but I think they’re now sold on the van. They loved dealing with Gretchen and Taylor had a great experience top to bottom.
How does van life fit into your life now?
Living outside the west side of Glacier (National Park), you often have to go around to get to the east side. Even going through the center of Glacier is just as slow as going around. So if you want to get on the trail at 7 am, you almost need to be sleeping there.
We have probably 15,000 miles on our new van and we only got it up-fitted in March. The two-week trip we took to Oregon this summer was 3,000 miles. The last big trip was Moab and we also went out to the Sawtooths. We’ve done dozens of little one- or two-night trips too. We want to spend a lot of time in Vancouver in the future and the big one would be to spend a month on the road up to Alaska.
What’s the hardest part of van life?
We think a lot about where the hell we’re going to sleep. We have an app with every possible State Park, BLM, Forest Service and camping-friendly Wal Mart we could camp at, so that helps out. If we need a shower we’ll go to a State Campground. There are a lot of places where we can pull off and get some rest but ideally we’re looking for some sort of campground or area that’s known to have free camping.
Why does the lifestyle appeal to you?
The freedom in knowing that no matter what you’re doing outside that you have a warm, mobile room to come back to. It feels like home. I’ve got my whisky, my heater and we’ll make dinner. That mental awareness that you have a home to come back to counts for a lot. I’d much rather stay in my van than a crappy hotel.
Cheers to that. Thanks for talking, Al!
Words by Will Taylor
All photos courtesy the Matarazzo Family