For as long as she can remember, Renee Hahnel has been on the go. After getting married, Renee and Matthew moved to Colorado, where they base the majority of their travels. For six months of 17, however, the couple’s home has been a 15’x16’ vintage, burgundy GoWesty Westfalia camper, affectionately called “Ruby.” Back then, they went on a client project to visit all (then) 59 U.S. National Parks in a van.
On a small ranch in Melbourne, Australia, she and her sister spent their childhood riding horses, which fostered a love of the outdoors. Encouraged to explore on family trips, and inspired by her travels during college with her boyfriend (now husband) Matthew, Renee has never wanted to stop adventuring.
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Though they’re still on the go, Ruby’s age (30 years) has put some restrictions on their speed — Renee laughs when she says that the camper can’t go much faster than 65 miles per hour, but admits that the tempered pace of travel has allowed them to appreciate the scenes that pass by their windows.
Another unexpected benefit of van life? Good sleep. While Renee and Matthew make the occasional stop in a motel to freshen up or do laundry, they always marvel at how much they prefer sleeping in Ruby.
Make no mistake, though — life in a van is not always glamorous. Ruby contains a single table that just fits both Matthew and Renee’s computers, and space can be tight as they edit in tandem or work on their blogs. Renee wouldn’t have it any other way.
Until last year, she was a qualified speech therapist, pursuing photography quietly as a hobby on the side. When she realized her potential and the opportunities that existed through Instagram to travel while working with brands, she left her job, and so did her husband.
They’ve been busy — and lucky. While Renee says that they haven’t had a day off since the beginning of April and that the pursuit of freelance photography jobs is much harder than her last occupation, it’s also more exciting.
Part of the thrill of life now is getting to experience trips like the seven month National Park tour they’re currently on — Renee and Matthew are photographing for a beverage company — EVOLVE — that donates part of its profits to the National Parks Association.
They’ve been enchanted by the sights they’ve seen, and were particularly enamored with Lake Clark and Gates of the Arctic National Parks in Alaska. Both were pleasantly surprised by Big Bend’s beauty in Texas and the U.S. Virgin Islands National Park in Saint John. Yosemite, Mount Rainier, and Grand Teton will always be Renee’s favorites. She is proud that they’re getting the opportunity to document these special places.
And while they’re constantly on the go, Renee experienced a few days of stillness on a recent stop at Lake Clark National Park in Alaska.
They took a small floatplane into the park onto Upper Twin Lake, an expanse of almost unimaginably blue, turquoise water. Their cabin was located on the banks, entirely off the grid, with no electricity or phone service. Renee had to walk down to the lake to get drinking water, and rose every morning with the sun. She and her husband canoed on the lake, hiked along the mountainside, picked fresh blueberries, and caught and fried fish from the lake for dinner.
She’d never been to a place so quiet and so peaceful.
“It’s places like these that really matter,” Renee thought. “They need to be seen, protected, and treated with respect.”