How a yearning for adventure led one young photographer to discover a community on four wheels
If you’re frequently on Instagram, you’ve likely noticed the phenomenon that is #vanlife. And if you’ve ever browsed the hashtag, you’ve likely seen James Barkman and his 1976 Volkswagen Type 2 bus. The photographer, storyteller, surfer, etc, is a lovable character with a real talent for capturing genuine experiences that make you want to quit your job and hit the road too. Like all the best stories, James didn’t set out to become an Instagram famous personality, he sort of just stumbled into it, and is likely all the better because of it.
Growing up in the eastern U.S. state of Pennsylvania James dreamed of adventure. As a kid, he was told he had to read two nonfiction novels or biographies before he could watch a movie. And so he did, focusing primarily on the golden age of worldwide exploration — an especially influential title being Endurance by Ernest Shackleton. He remembers itching to one day set out on his own great adventure.
There was already this crazy subculture, so it was really rad to stumble into it.”
As time went on James’ interests shifted to the Volkswagen Eurocar movement, driven by a “Do It Yourself” mentality and thirst for experience. James and his high school pals dove in headfirst, spending every spare second and cent on Rabbits and other easily modified rigs. But his yearning for adventure eventually won over, and at the age of 20 James sold his collection of cars and made a purchase that become to define him, whether he knew it at the time or not — a 1976 VW Bus.
Amazingly enough, at the time James didn’t have social media, and in fact wasn’t even deeply aware of the #vanlife movement — though he now boasts over 80k followers on Instagram. As he tells it, “when I got the bus all I knew was that I had a bus, it was sick, and that I wanted to learn how to fix it.” Though meeting people through social media is almost natural now, things were different then. “I would meet other van owners just driving on the road,” he says. “I’d see a bus coming down the hill and I’d whip around and follow them to where they lived, and meet people like that.”
Such encounters taught James a ton about maintenance and expanded his sense of community, but it wasn’t until he came across a rig permanently parked near a local campground that he realized living in his van was a real possibility.
“Whether in the van or on the back of a motorcycle, I don’t really give a shit. I just want to do what I love.”
“There was this sketchy Ford van by a river (a van down by the river haha) and the chick who owned it worked nearby, had a wood stove, and was fully living in it. And I couldn’t believe it. That was when I realized there were other people around doing it.”
Soon James and a friend were puttering around the Northeast, testing the waters for a half year or so. He eventually got on Instagram, found others like Foster Huntington — who is largely credited with establishing the #vanlife hashtag, and in 2013 published a photo book titled Home Is Where You Park It — and realized his calling. “When I started finding out about others it was epic, because it felt like I was a part of something,” he says. “There was already this crazy subculture, so it was really rad to stumble into it.”
Just a year after initially playing with the idea of living in his van full time, he decided to uproot and head west. An awaiting internship with famed photographer Chris Burkard only stood to increase the draw.
Now 23, James is professional photographer and committed van lifer. Working with Chris afforded the opportunity to get to know the Pacific Northwest, while gaining experience as photographer and, though it may feel funny to admit it, developing his personal brand.
But for James, his van, though now recognizable to many, is not all the end all be all. It’s the mobile lifestyle that matters most, not the likes — inspiring countless people around the world to get out, explore, and be free is hugely fulfilling too. The whole identity has allowed him to travel extensively from the central coast of California north through Oregon, Washington, and into British Columbia, Canada. He’s surfed empty waves, made friends where he would not have otherwise, and woken up in too many new places to name. Ah, the life of a modern nomad — not bad, eh?.
To me the van is just an avenue towards this sort of lifestyle”
While some get too caught up in appearing authentic or conforming to what social media has outlined as an authentic van life experience, James is more focused on having fun. For it’s these experiences that come from living an unstructured, free flowing life on the road that he’s really there for. “To me the van is just an avenue towards this sort of lifestyle” he explains. “Whether in the van or on the back of a motorcycle, I don’t really give a shit. I just want to do what I love.”
True to form, this fall James plans to temporarily trade his van for a Suzuki DR650 dual sport motorcycle, and the Pacific Northwest for Patagonia. Over the course of a year or two he and a friend aim to ride from Alaska to the tip of South America, climbing some of the more respected mountains along the way.
But don’t worry, his famous fading orange bus will be patiently waiting somewhere in the PNW for when he returns.
Follow James on instagram @jamesbarkman