Van Life: Molly & Dan Set Off to Live Off the Grid

“So, when did Molly know she wanted to be an engineer?”

My mom recounted what her boyfriend had asked her the previous day. He had two kids in high school, and they were thinking about college, future careers, and trying to figure out what their best path forward would be.

The answer? I did not. Ever.

From the age of 10, I had only wanted to be a marine biologist, and I knew the exact moment I decided that.

My 10th birthday was coming up and up until this year we had only ever taken family road trips. This year, my mom wanted to do something incredibly special. She said I could pick anywhere in the world to travel to and we would make it happen. My destination of choice was Hawaii. All these years later, I cannot remember exactly why, but it probably had a lot to do with my slight obsession with Lilo and Stitch.

The moment we arrived, I fell in love. From the smell outside the airport to the sunshine to how kind everyone was. Aside from accidentally stumbling upon a nude beach, there is one memory in particular that stands out among the rest and it happened at a place called, Turtle Cove.

We were on a snorkel excursion and nearing the end of the trip. My mom and I are both fish. Cold water fish at that so, we were the last ones in the water, no wetsuits on, with a little bit of time remaining. There I was, checking out some of the wildlife below me when I heard my mom make a noise, I looked up, and she was excitedly pointing behind me. Immediately, I turned around, and came face to face with a green sea turtle! We locked eyes for what was probably a few seconds but to me it felt more like minutes before he slowly swam away. And thus, my obsession was born.

I wish I could say that moment decided my career path, and if I had trusted myself and listened to my gut it might have been, but in reality, it was simpler than that.

In high school, I had a bad experience in a marine biology class which ultimately made me step back and question my passion for it. Talking to my mom she suggested photography, another hobby of mine. But, unfortunately, growing up we did not have a lot of money and I felt it was impractical so instead it was, “I guess I like bridges, so I’ll be a Civil Engineer.”

Summer Job Views

After the first couple semesters I quickly realized I had zero interest in engineering and I found

myself counting down the days until I could go home for the summer. During those summer

months I had a job as crew on a whale watching boat where we would monitor the whale

behavior, food in the area, and trash in the water. It was my dream job, and returning to campus

every year dumped me into a serious, deep depression. I was away from my whales, I was

away from the ocean, and I did not like any of my classes. It felt like I could not pursue any of

my other interests, I felt stuck. Needless to say, my four years of college were miserable.

However, by this point, I had already invested the time and I did not want that to go to waste by

dropping out and starting somewhere new. So, I pushed through, finished out my degree, and

settled for a job back home as an engineering consultant.

Surprise, surprise, after hating all my classes, I hated this job too. But this time, there was no

graduation date to look forward to. Every day was the same 8-5 schedule. Most of the day was

just sitting at a desk, indoors. On top of all that, I was the only female engineer in the office and

unfortunately, dealing with sexism on the daily. It was absolutely miserable, and I found myself

constantly longing for the outdoors.

My only relief was the downtime at my desk where I would Google places to visit. Slowly but

surely, it grew into elaborate excel spreadsheets full of trips to other countries I wanted to take,

local hikes I could complete on the weekends, and places I wanted to photograph.

Car Camping Setup

Once fall rolled around, my boyfriend, Dan, and I had gotten in the habit of setting up a bed in the back of his jeep and disappearing into the mountains every weekend so we could chase down foliage in our limited time off.

We fell in love with the lifestyle but there was one big problem, and it is a pretty boring one, storage. Every night we had to move all of our camping gear and supplies from on top of the bed to the front seat. Since we often parked on the side of the road for the night, we became concerned that if we needed to have a quick getaway, we would not be able to do so with all the bags up front. It did not take long before we started looking into trailers and racks to set up before we started exploring the idea of purchasing a whole new vehicle.

Van life had become so popular and I had been seeing it all over Instagram on the days I had idly scrolled at my desk. It was everything I ever wanted. Time freedom, location freedom, and the ability to spend all day outside if I wanted to. To feel like I was in control of my life again.

As soon as we said it, we looked at each other, and it was decided. We knew we wanted this to be long term and were not entirely sure that a van would be the right fit. Largely because of Dan’s height. Finally, after many discussions we decided on a skoolie.

Wild to think that what feels like such a short conversation on a weekend camping trip is the one that changed the progression of my life.

Our School Bus

A couple of months later we bought our bus and are now working on the conversion! Thanks to COVID it was a little delayed, but our goal is to be able to leave our jobs and use the bus for travel by summer of 2021. Not only will the bus allow us freedom to travel but we are also building it to be completely sustainable and off grid so that we can reduce our everyday resources.

It is likely that if I had not hit such a rock bottom at my engineering consulting job, I would never have done something so drastic as the bus build. Ultimately, in a way I am incredibly grateful for the experience.

One thing I have found is that the stereotypical career advice is true, it does not matter how smart you are, you will not succeed in a place where you are not happy.

If you would like to follow along with our build you can check it out on Instagram or on our website at!

Molly Shanahan | New Hampshire, United States | Instagram


Fast Five

1. Three hours early to the airport or running to the gate? I like to be early, but it never happens, and I always end up running to the gate.

2. Pretzels or Lotus Biscoff cookies? Biscoff, but only if I have tea!

3. Excel planned trip or just wing it? Excel, all day!

4. Favorite continent? Most of my travel has been in North America so I have to go with that!

5. Dream destination? The Galapagos or Tonga for the whales!


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