Amelia Rayno spent last night in the back of her Chevy van—this time discreetly parked on an L.A. side street.
“It started raining in the middle of the night,” she says over the phone. “And I woke up right away because it was coming through my vent and pattering on the old tin roof.”
It’s been a long, strange trip since Rayno left the Star Tribune in 2018 after an eight-year stint, first covering college sports and then writing about food and travel in the Variety section. She initially left the Strib to cover marginalized communities in Central America, and she was doing pretty well with her new beat before COVID brought her back to the States in dramatic fashion.
Now she’s decided to cover America’s marginalized communities—everybody from oyster farmers in Cape Cod to auto mechanics in Austin to the homeless on L.A.’s Skid Row, all from the roving home base of her 1984 Chevy van. She says this setup, protected only by the thin steel walls, at the mercy of the day-night cycle, actually has literally removed some physical barriers between her and the communities that she wants to write about. And her physical discomfort has helped her access a deeper empathy.
“I’m so affected by the climate,” she says. “It’s basically like living outside.”
Rayno says she couldn’t have imagined that she would be spending her 36th year on the planet doing independent journalism, both writing and shooting photos, from her own van. COVID altered a lot of well-laid plans, of course, but on paper, the path she took to get here, at least to start, looks pretty conventional. After being born in North Carolina to an accountant mom and a scientist dad, she went to college out east to pursue sportswriting.
“I saw writing about sports as a way to write about people,” she says. “If you’re covering politics, maybe your first assignments are going to be spent at city hall, but with sports, even high school sports, you get to go to somebody’s little hometown and write about how they came to be.”
Living in the van has introduced a degree of difficulty into nearly everything she does—writing, cooking, reading, cleaning, all of it—but now that she’s done it for a full year, she says it really feels like she’s onto something.
“I’m definitely happier than I’ve ever been,” she says. “I think it’s incredibly fulfilling. The ability to really choose what it is that I want to do, where I go, who I talk to, what I’m going to write about, how I want to frame it, how I’m gonna help afterward, how long to stay—that’s amazing.”
Did you see Nomadland?
For anybody who hasn’t: The movie illuminates our elderly who are unable to retire, forced to wander the country in vans, while romanticizing the freedom of the open road. But I see Frances McDormand’s character, Fern, as an American Buddha, imbued with loss, bearing witness to the suffering. What kind of nomad are you?
There’s a bunch of different kinds of van lifers: the low-wage seasonal workers like Fern, who have been squeezed by the economic moment of the last couple decades and the diminishing social safety net. And the largely white, retirement-stage, I-don’t-want-to-die-before-I-see-the-Grand-Canyon cohort. And the hippie–lovable dirtbag types. But you also have the inner-city types who are transitioning out of formal housing and into a stationary vehicle. And the thing that has made #vanlife a hashtag: the digital nomads with these six-figure van builds on Instagram.
As soon as I started following you on TikTok, I started seeing this group.
Oh, they’re everywhere.
Their vans are way more luxe than yours. Where do you fit in with this culture?
One thing that surprised me is that I don’t see more super-low-budget-but-on-a-mission types like me. Independent individual journalists willing to live in a modest way.
So how did you conceptualize this existence?
I had so much growth and so much opportunity at the Star Tribune, but I woke up one day and I decided that I didn’t want to be doing this anymore. I hadn’t wanted to be in Minneapolis that long. And as I was heading into my early 30s, I’m watching my friends get married and have kids, and I was freaked out. Because I was just feeling like this isn’t quite it. At the time, I was writing for Travel and the Taste section. I had a hard time separating the politics of what I was seeing from experiencing the culture.
And how did you plan on making a living?
I started a Patreon right as I was leaving the Star Tribune. And I also had a website sponsorship that just fell into my lap. So those two things, basically, allowed me to tell stories the way that I wanted to tell them.
So that was 2018, and you initially moved to Central America to write about marginalized communities there. How did you come back to the States?
I was basically in Central America for two years after leaving the Star Tribune—that was the long-term plan. And when coronavirus happened, I was in El Salvador, under martial law. The State Department sponsored evacuation flights, so mid-April, I ended up landing here in L.A. And I stayed with a friend for a couple of months, because I don’t have a residence here and, quite frankly, had completely given up the level of income that would allow me to buy an apartment.
You ruled out trying to get a job at another major newspaper?
Oh, yeah, that wasn’t even a question. While I enjoyed much of my time at the Star Tribune, I left corporate media a little bit frustrated. We ask our reporters to do a lot, yet we give them very little time or resources to do it. I look at what I’ve been able to do independently—spending months attempting to understand the complexities of a particular community or a particular social issue—and while it’s not what you would call a stable income, it doesn’t exist in mainstream media. There isn’t a publication in America that would pay me to do things the way I’m doing. I just think that mass media doesn’t allow for the kind of reporting that gives journalists a chance to understand the stories themselves, much less convey them to a wider audience. There’s not enough money anymore.
Did being sexually harassed by the then athletic director while you were covering sports at the University of Minnesota contribute to your souring on corporate journalism?
I definitely had soured on corporate journalism, but the harassment situation that I went through really had nothing to do with it. That was a really unfortunate period in which I was a young journalist trying to find my footing. But I feel like I seized my fate with that as much as I could have and moved on. And definitely, that was not in my mind when I left the Star Tribune.
Were you empowered by your decision to tell your story?
It wasn’t something that I felt powerful about. I wish that it could have been. I felt like I was handed a lot of bad choices because of our society’s sensitivity for rocking the boat against a powerful white male. I told my story because I felt compelled to ensure that it wouldn’t happen to someone else. The aftermath of that was not fun. I received quite a bit of online bullying and in-office bullying at the Star Tribune because of that. I know a lot of people are quick to believe that’s why I switched beats, or that’s why I left the Star Tribune. I wouldn’t give it that much credit.
So, you see this independent, nomadic journalist gig as a model that you can sustain and that others could adopt?
Yes. And because I have this instinct to get involved in marginalized communities, I’ve sort of unintentionally gotten deep into mutual aid work. And I feel like people support me for that as much as my writing. For example, the story that I just did for the Star Tribune—the op-ed on the public housing process and Gangster Granny—did not begin as a story.
I’ve gotten to know Gangster Granny since I started coming to Skid Row a year ago. And I do so much fundraising in Skid Row, and I’ve found that I have a knack for it. I was in L.A. for the holidays, spent 15 days in Skid Row, and I raised $8,000 bucks for food. We cooked every night, we built a firepit, we got a bunch of tents. Then I left and came back in early January with the intention of staying a week. Gangster Granny, who has lived in Skid Row for over a decade, was moving into her new apartment, and I realized through conversation the apartment was totally vacant. Didn’t have anything in it. And it was just this holy shit moment of our systems really not working. We raised about $6,000 for her, and that’s just in monetary donations, and somebody else donated a brand-new refrigerator and stove, and I organized all that. So, through the process of getting involved with her, I realized that there was a story to be told.
So “mutual aid” implies that you’re helping each other, that there’s an exchange there.
I mean, that is what I’m talking about. I don’t want to separate those things anymore. I don’t want to report a story unless I can feel involved. I’ve raised over $50,000 for various causes. And it’s all grassroots—just people giving 10 or 20 dollars. So, while I’m making less than $25,000 a year, the mutual aid organization has been, I think, quite successful.
Do you think people expect their journalists to also be activists?
Do you think so?
More so now than ever.
Maybe so. You know, traditional media is generally not allowed to get involved. You sort of have this arm’s length that you’re supposed to hold between you and your sources. For me, the mutual aid work I do wildly surpasses the original journalistic initiative.
How did you learn how to actually live out of your van?
There was no manual. I really learned this as I was getting into it. People started sending me videos, and it was just dejecting. You’re like, “That’s not what I’m doing, guys. I don’t have $150,000 to spend on this—we’re looking at maybe $4,000.” I bought the van in North Carolina where my folks live and took it down to Atlanta, where a friend helped me build a bed platform over the wheel covers. And I’m extremely thankful that my mom is super crafty. But I have to redo my curtain system; it’s a disaster.
How much did the van cost?
It’s rusted and it’s got holes in it, so $3,500. Bertie is the name, by the way. Short for Roberta.
She spoke to me.
So, you’ve done all of this for under 10 grand?
Oh, yeah. Under five. I will say, I was fortunate. I’ve got a super supportive community. Somebody donated an electric cooler and a couple of solar panels to me. So I have a modest amount of electricity. Enough to power the cooler about half the time. I leave it on during the day and turn it off at night. And I have string lights for lighting, and I’m able to charge my cell and computer and camera that way.
And your parents were watching all this and said, “You go, honey”?
My parents are conscious, caring individuals, remarkably unconcerned about material things or money. And I think they definitely imprinted that on me. My sister lives on an income-sharing farm commune. We both shit in buckets, and the Raynos are proud of us. It’s amazing.
You’re 35 now. You’re eating canned foods; it gets cold at night and hot during the day. So do you see yourself as being able to sustain this way of living for years and years? When will you retire?
Wow. What a question.
Do you think you’ll be an itinerant in your 60s, like Fern?
OK. Let’s talk about one year before we talk about 30 more years. [Laughs.] I don’t know the answer to that. I think it would be hard without having breaks. I am fortunate now that I’ve been sort of hanging out in L.A. more or less back and forth for a few months on this go-round. That I’ve got good friends here that have let me use their apartments sometimes when they’re out of town, and I get to stay in their apartment for a week. That’s massive for, I think, just my sanity and mental health. Because living in the van is very hard. It’s hard. It’s hard, man. It’s the hardest thing I’ve done. You just have to live in a really different way.
I don’t ever want to make promises, because surprises happen in my life all the time, but I think that I want to do this for years. I’m simultaneously sort of embarking on the hardest thing I’ve ever done and I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. And the combination of those two things is incredible. The emotions that I go through—these moments of defeat and exhaustion and also awe and just gloriousness of being in the wilderness, alone—the ups and the downs are super high and low. But, you know, it feels like life.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Originally published in the May 2021 issue.