Former Connecticut natives lead nomadic lives on the road

It started with wanting a break from the typical suburban lifestyle: a break from busy jobs, hectic schedules and taking vacations only when time allowed.

“Coming from the tri-state area … it was just, ‘you wake up and work,’” said former Bridgeport resident Alex Toombs. “Then I did this camper van trip in New Zealand and I was like, ‘No, you travel, you experience, you meet new people, you experience other cultures, and it’s not all about working and being tied to your laptop’ … It was a really pivotal moment in my life where I was like, ‘There’s a different world out there that I wasn’t aware of.’”

For Westport native John Serbell, his first pause from routine came after graduating from Boston University in 2008. Not wanting to enter the the job market during an economic decline, Serbell joined AmeriCorps instead. 


“We were on a team of 18- to 24-year-olds, and they packed us into 15-passenger Chevy vans, and we traveled around and worked at different service projects for two months at a time, and then moved on to the next one,” he said. “I got a good taste for travelling and living in a really minimalistic way.”

Years later, a search for #vanlife on Instagram led him to his new nomadic lifestyle.


From Bridgeport to Canada — during COVID

Toombs’ foray into the mobile lifestyle began when she was living in the Black Rock section of Bridgeport and working at the Fairfield Theatre Company. The New Jersey native and Quinnipiac University graduate had been working in the music industry when she and her boyfriend Sam went on a two-week camper van trip in New Zealand with Sam’s sister. 

“It was the most eye-opening experience of my life,” she said about that trip.

With a bug for travel planted, Toombs said she was originally attempting to figure out how to move to New Zealand, but her plans took a different route after she and her boyfriend visited Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Once again with a camper van, Toombs said this was the trip to convince her to leave the tri-state area. 

“Before we even came back from that trip, we made the decision that we were going to figure out how to make this happen,” she said. 

Alex Toombs and boyfriend Sam left their Bridgeport, Conn. life behind to move to Victoria Island, British Columbia and travel in a van to do so. Pictured is their renovated van in Telluride, Colo.

Contributed by Alex Toombs

After setting their sights on British Columbia, Toombs said in the winter of 2019, she applied for an MBA program at the University of Victoria in sustainable innovation all while they began taking language tests and looking into getting visas. They bought a camper van from a Connecticut seller on Facebook Marketplace, and as they were set to begin the process of overhauling the van in 2020, COVID-19 hit. 

With Toombs furloughed and her boyfriend working from home, they began work on reconstructing the van with the help of a friend staying with them as a result of stay-at-home orders. A “month or two” later, the van was ready for use, but with no word on Toombs’ admission to the MBA program, she said they decided not to put off their travels. 

“I assumed that I was not getting into the program because they were taking so long to get back to me. So I was like ‘Alright, we’re not going to Canada, but we’re not going to stay here,” she said. 

“I’m furloughed, you’re working remotely — why are we in Bridgeport? Let’s go somewhere else; we have the van, so let’s do that.’”

They decided to leave on July 5, Toombs said, and they began the process of notifying their landlord of their move and selling their belongings. On July 1, Toombs said she received an admission letter to the MBA program at the University of Victoria, spurring the duo to rush to submit visa applications and begin their trip across the country. 

Making stops to visit family in Rhode Island and New York before their official departure from the East Coast, Toombs said they traveled through Chicago and Minneapolis before heading to South Dakota, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and Montana, among other stops. Traveling across the country during the pandemic  — and going through three vans in the process — was freeing, according to Toombs.

“We weren’t worried about it,” she said. “We were just out in the mountains…you’re doing hikes, you’re out in nature…we felt so comfortable and safe being out there. It was a beautiful experience.”

By the time her graduate program started in Sept. 2020, Toombs said she and her boyfriend had to stay with her cousin in Lake Tahoe both for the lack of Wi-Fi access and approved visas. When their visas came through, they “shot straight up” to the border and quarantined upon their entry to British Columbia, Toombs noted, and later lived in a sailboat and an Airbnb before securing a lease on a house. 

Now in her graduate program and running her eco-conscious Toombs Creative marketing business, Toombs said pursuing a new lifestyle was worth all the twists and turns along the way. 

“There are so many positives,” she said. “For me, it would be getting closer to creative my favorite and best life. It was like COVID was the band aid being ripped off — it didn’t give us an option. We were like, ‘OK, there’s this thing we’ve been talking about for five years, we’re going to do it now.”

But “learning to let go of control” was among the things she needed to get used to, Toombs said, along with accepting the “messy progress” of the journey. But for her, van life shouldn’t be about glamour — and certainly not about social media.

“It’s not going to be perfect, and if you want it to be perfect, it’s not going to work out for you. Everything you see on Instagram is all staged…they’re getting paid for it to look really beautiful, but if you’re in Moab [Utah] or Colorado there is sand and dust everywhere…You’re going to have to get dirty to get out there,” she said. “Hopefully you’re busy out there enjoying it. You’re getting dirty and you’re going on these hikes and swimming and so things are wet and then getting dry — you don’t have a washing machine or a dryer, so you know things are going to get dirty. It definitely isn’t always glamorous, but you can make it really comfortable and fun for yourself.”

Looking back on her journey, Toombs said, “It’s not easy, it’s not clean and it’s not simple, but it is worth it.”

A ‘huge adventure’

Serbell met his wife, Jayme, in the AmeriCorps program, and they moved to her home state of Missouri where Serbell said he settled into a “corporate 9-to-5 position” in the financial services industry. Working opposite hours forced the duo to settle for watching Netflix as a time to connect. All while, their wanderlust kept growing. 

“We’ve always been huge travelers,” he said. “With limited time off, we just couldn’t really do any attempts traveling, so we’d often fantasize about quitting our jobs, and just going off and traveling somewhere.”

They first considered a backpacking trip through Europe for a year, Serbell said, but adding a dog to their lives changed their plans.

“We wanted to bring her with us,” he said. “We said, ‘OK what sorts of traveling opportunities are available in the U.S.?’ So we started looking into basically tent camping and driving around and visiting national parks, or just kind of traveling around the U.S. in a vehicle for a year.”

John Serbell (pictured) and wife Jayme left their suburban life behind to travel the U.S. in a van from 2017 to 2019. Pictured is John working on the interior of their van. 

John Serbell (pictured) and wife Jayme left their suburban life behind to travel the U.S. in a van from 2017 to 2019. Pictured is John working on the interior of their van. 

Contributed by John Serbell

In early 2016, Serbell said a friend suggested they search the hashtag “#vanlife” on Instagram. Their travel plans solidified. 

“As soon as we saw what people were doing with vehicles, we just instantly realized that’s all we need to do,” he said. “We can have a place to live. We can take it anywhere. And this just seems like relief … there’s only … what you can fit in this vehicle and and being able to go anywhere, anywhere. So that’s that’s how we got started with the whole van life idea.”

They began selling and donating their belongings — a process that took about six months — all while searching for a vehicle and working side jobs to earn extra money before hitting the road. They landed on a 1996 Chevy Express, Serbell said, and spent another few months turning it into their “rolling tiny home” before hitting the road in early 2017. 

“We were just kind of driving really, but we were generally headed to the West,” he said. “The western U.S. is much easier to van camp in because there’s so much public land…the West is just open for this kind of lifestyle.”

Their first destination was Taos, N.M., and they made stops and stays through Utah, South Dakota, Montana, California and Washington (among others). As they traveled, they documented their stops on Instagram and Serbell provided information on van living on their company website, Gnomad Home, for others interested in pursuing the lifestyle. 

By 2019, Serbell said their “full-circle” moment came when they settled into an off-the-grid home at their starting point in Taos. Looking back on their van travels, Serbell said living in a van comes with positives and negatives, but it’s “a huge adventure.”

“Just being able to wake up in the morning and have complete control over your day…it’s a whole lot of fun,” he said. “And in that small space, there’s nowhere to run from things that you might be wrestling with within yourself, and it gives you that space for a lot of personal growth.”

Among the drawbacks: trusting social media’s depiction of the lifestyle.

“We’ve seen a lot of people who put a lot of stock in what they see on Instagram, and then they get out on the road and realize that vans get run down or that it does cost money to live on the road, or they’re just not prepared for all the discomforts,” he said. “You’re dealing with weather. When you’re in a house, you’ve got the climate control system and in a van, you can do some things to adjust that, but oftentimes, you are at the mercy of the environment.”

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