“The best thing about first meetings on someone else’s Tinder date is telling people this fact and watching their reactions. In 2014, Alex and I found ourselves sitting across from each other at a sticky table in a Boston dive bar. Alex’s girlfriend at that time was best friends with the woman going on this date. I was friends with the woman’s friends from a retail job. These were still the early days of Tinder, and the nervous jokes about being murdered were what brought us all together in support of this app date.
Their date ended up being a fantastic success. The couple ended up marrying several years later and recently welcomed their first-born. That night, however, I was more focused on the man across the table. ‘My name is Alex,’ he told me. He worked at a local comic bookstore but was truly a musician at heart. His beard was scruffy, his eyes were bright, and the woman sitting next to him was… my heart hit the floor. She was his girlfriend. I was immediately confused as to why he waited a whole 10 minutes and a confirmed Facebook friend request to tell me this tiny detail. ‘I think I got in trouble for flirting with you later that night,’ Alex always adds with a sheepish grin when we recount the story.
We didn’t connect again until February 18, 2017 (yes, I have the exact date) when I received a direct message through Instagram. I rushed inside the coffee shop and stopped when I saw Alex. His beard was longer, his hair was shorter, but his eyes were as bright as I remembered. Time slowed, for both of us. We were hopelessly, wonderfully entangled, and we both knew we would spend the rest of our lives together. Alex called his mother after our date and told her, ‘I’m done, Mom. I found her.’
We easily merged our lives together and discovered what was most important to us: traveling and wanting a very clear work-life balance, emphasis on the life part. It didn’t take long for us to see it would be difficult for us to travel, carrying as much debt as we were at the time. Both from student loans and credit cards. This was a sinking ship we had to take care of and fast. Many tears were shed over the course of six months as we took a long, hard look at everything we owned and sold most of it to jump-start our financial health.
We thought we were living as we should. We had a great apartment close to work. There was plenty of room in the two bed, two bath apartment for us and our puppy. We had two cars. We were planning a wedding, after which was the vague notion of owning a house would soon follow. For all intents and purposes, we were on the ‘right track.’ Yet, we didn’t feel happy, we didn’t feel fulfilled, and we didn’t feel as if we held any power over the paths before us.
As we tried to adjust to the fact this was just reality, we stumbled onto something amazing: tiny living. The whole ‘future house’ problem, being that we knew we could never afford a mortgage, became a home that would be a tiny, but affordable, solution. It would have been the perfect for-travel piece. After seeing a few slices of the world on vacations while we dated, we needed to see more. I still remember when I turned to Alex and said, ‘Do you just want to live in a van?’ Thus, we found #vanlife and nothing has ever been the same.
Building a house with your new husband would already be a huge challenge. Trying to fit said house into a curvy, bumpy, metal van elevates it to another level. Alex and I worked for 10 months on turning our new blank slate into our dream home, only able to dedicate time during nights, weekends, and holidays. There is a tendency, especially with social media so entrenched into our society, to gloss over adversity and describe it in general brushstrokes helped along by hindsight. For us, tackling this project was a nightmare.
Nothing went smoothly. If there was ever a roadblock for us to run into, we hit every single one during each project. On top of all the difficulties of building, Alex was going through several surgeries. Between the summer of 2018 and the winter of 2019, he went through five different surgeries. Both his knees needed a meniscus repair, his shoulder had a bone fragment in his muscle from an old motorcycle accident, his wisdom teeth needed removing, and he had to reconstruct collapsed nasal passages and a deviated septum. The emotional toll these health concerns took on us all while we struggled with fitting a home into a vehicle pushed us close to the edge.
Once we married, we declined a honeymoon and dove right into the build in October of 2019, working through a freezing New England winter. We really couldn’t have made this more difficult for ourselves if we tried.
The hardest part of the build was striving for perfection for the other person. We would find ourselves rising into fights and shouting matches that eventually de-escalated into us sharing, ‘I was just trying to make you happy.’ A lot of time and effort went into designing the most economical use of the small space to make it feel like home. But we quickly learned no matter how good we felt about any decisions we made on paper, it would have to change once put into practice in the van. As you can imagine, this is frustrating when experienced day after day.
The number one, single most important thing building a van taught us was how to work together. This is probably the best thing a couple can learn if they’re about to move into a space less than 100 square feet. We are proud, not only of what we were able to accomplish in terms of the tangible but also of what we built between each other. Building something like we did inside of what essentially is a giant tin can on wheels introduces a new level of problem-solving that isn’t usually experienced within relationships. Because the van has no right angles, flat surfaces, or any sort of elements helpful to building a home, you have to think on your feet and stretch your creativity all while working with your partner. Neither of us had ever felt so challenged in a relationship before.
Who we are now is so different than the two people who started this project, and even our cross-country journey. We are even different from the couple who participated in TinyFest. The road acts as a mirror and reflects back to you the deepest truth of yourself. When needing to solve the problem of finding clean water, there is no room for artificial pretense. The little things we worry about daily don’t revolve around petty insecurities, but instead, basic survival needs. This internal shift has taught both of us so much, it seems impossible we were ever any different from these new people.
Nearing the 6-month mark of us living full-time in our van, Olivia, Alex and I know, without a doubt, we have found our answer to the question we had at the beginning of all this. We have a beautiful home that works for us. We have the ability to travel together and enjoy seeing new things and meeting other people. We have the best version of a work-life balance to spend more time outside in nature with each other and our dog. We have found a way to do all of this with a low overhead to save money, to continue to work on our financial health. The road we took to get here was long and arduous, but because of what that path taught us, we are all the more grateful for it.
Every morning, I wake up to Alex. His beard is much longer, his hair is messy from sleep, and his eyes shine with a light that brings me back to all I felt in the coffee shop in 2017. We are able to see each other and to look around and see what we’ve created. The strength of our relationship is built into every bit of wood, every nail, and screw, within our tiny home. If we can conquer the massive uphill battle of building a home and traveling the country all within the first year of our marriage, we can conquer anything.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Nikki and Alex Griggs, with puppy Lucy Gray, living in Olivia the van. You can follow their journey on Instagram and their website. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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