Gabby Petito’s tragedy sheds light on the dark side of van life



When Nikita Crump, a popular van life blogger, found out she had the exact same white Ford Transit van as Gabby Petito, she shuddered.

“It’s a feeling knowing that your living quarters have identical bones – identical square feet,” Crump, 30, told the Yosemite National Park Post. “I felt like I probably would have ended up meeting her if it hadn’t happened, as I go the extra mile to connect with people who have the same vehicle.”

The van life community is reeling from the homicide of Gabby Petito, the 22-year-old Long Island native who never made it home after a road trip with her fiance Brian Laundrie. Petito’s remains were found at a Wyoming campground on September 19, and Laundrie, a person of interest in the case, is missing. On social media over the summer, Petito posted smiling photos of herself and Laundrie in front of beautiful scenery, but such photogenic moments seemed to have hidden darker truths about her life on the road.

Popular van life blogger Nikita Crump recalled encounters on the road that left her “scared for my life.”credit: nikitacrump / Instagram

Van life has grown amid the pandemic, with young people detached from office work and looking to travel by car. On Instagram alone, there are 11 million posts tagged #vanlife, many of which feature young nubile travelers in front of beautiful landscapes. But community members quickly notice that lifestyle isn’t all it is on Instagram, with a dangerous tummy lurking beneath it.

“People say, ‘You are living the dream, you have the best life.’ And it’s like, ‘No, there are struggles,’ ”said Crump, who has been on the roadtrip for about two years and has 1 million subscribers on TikTok. “It’s not all happy.”

Petito posting to Instagram from Canyonlands National Park on July 30, calling the experience "calm" and writing that she was "so happy to be there ..."
Gabby Petito, posting on Instagram from Canyonlands National Park on July 30, called the experience “quiet” and wrote that she was “so happy to be there…”

The 5-foot-5, 115-pound Crump, who travels mostly solo, has suffered a number of incidents with creepy men making rude comments and threatening her, leaving her scared for her life. She sleeps with her keys close at hand, if she needs to get out quickly.

About a year ago, she was shooting a video for BuzzFeed when a sketchy guy appeared to be driving around in her van, then walked up to her and asked her directions. After finishing the video, she fled, watching over her back. “I looked at every vehicle and every person to make sure it wasn’t him,” she said. “I considered calling the cops, but I wasn’t sure if it was dramatic and a waste of time. Looking back, I absolutely should have called them.

Billie Webb, 22, discovered life in a van a year ago and was the victim of a threat in the middle of the night.
Billie Webb, 22, discovered life in a van a year ago and was the victim of a threat in the middle of the night.

Most recently, she was traveling with another young woman, Billie Webb, a 22-year-old from Indiana. They were both parked in St. Louis and Webb forgot to cover the windows of the van at night. At 2 a.m., she was awakened by a blow.

“This guy pulls his genitals out and rubs them against my window,” recalls Webb. The two made the quick decision to start immediately. “It was one of the scariest experiences I have ever had in my life.”

Other van-lifers note that they are constantly on guard. Sunny Flaherty, 24, who has been on the road with her boyfriend Jordan Summerlin, 26, for five years, recalled a terrifying incident a few years ago. She and a trailer of friends were gathered around a campfire in the Arizona desert when a threatening man approached the group. He took out a machete and “threatened to burn the camp buses,” she said. The group quickly fled. “We have a rule that if one of us had a weird feeling, we would all leave,” Flaherty said. “I still use this rule to this day to stay safe.”

Fending off creeps and psychopaths isn’t the only concern.

Amber, author of Always Adventure, Calls Van Life "hard," corn "worth it."
Amber, author of Always the Adventure, calls the van life “difficult” but “worth it”.
Courtesy of the subject

“During the day there is a subconscious stress on your shoulders – you worry about where you are going to shower and use the bathroom that day. . . or if you have a flat tire, ”Crump said. But create content for Youtube and other sites require her to sport a happy face.

“It’s difficult and weird to have a job that expects you to be this shredded person all the time,” Crump said. “I’m not always in the mood to film myself and show parts of my life – it’s stressful and boring and it hurts a bit. It’s one thing to work in retail and be a cash register shredder, but it’s different to be in your space and tamper with your happiness.

Amber, author of the popular Always the adventure blog, okay.

Blogger Sunny Flaherty is living her best "van life" with her boyfriend for five years.
Blogger Sunny Flaherty has been living her best “van life” with her boyfriend in five years.
@ thenomadicsunny / Instagram

“Van life can take a toll on your mental health if you’re not good at handling it,” the 27-year-old Montana native told The Post.

“[It] is so trendy now, but most people don’t. . . publish on bad days, ”added the blogger, who asked not to use her last name for security reasons. “You look at the van-life hashtag on Instagram, and these are all these beautiful beach photos. You don’t see the nights in the Denny’s parking lot because you can’t find another safe place to sleep.

She recalled a case where she and her six-year-old boyfriend had to dig up their 6,000-pound pickup truck of red clay in the New Mexico desert without cell service. “It was one of those more intense life situations, but we got through it,” Amber said.

Gabby Petito and her fiancé Brian Laundrie are posting idyllic snaps from their cross-country ski adventure this summer.
Gabby Petito and boyfriend Brian Laundrie shared idyllic snaps from their cross-country adventure this summer.

Such cases and van life in general can be particularly taxing on relationships.

“If you’re in a small space with someone, that’s a recipe for disaster,” Flaherty said. “It can certainly be difficult to do with a partner. Imagine when your car breaks down and you have no place to live. There are times when you’re just sleeping in a Walmart parking lot.

Amber, who has traveled with her boyfriend for the past two years, spoke about police body camera footage of an emotional argument between Petito and Laundrie taken in Moab, Utah on August 12.

“The images are realistic. I get it – I have these really stressful days when nothing is going right. You just had a bad week and everything is bad, ”she said. “Things can look like this and you can find yourself on the side of the road crying.”

Billie Webb had "one of the scariest experiences I have ever had in my life" with an unwanted intruder last year.
Billie Webb had “one of the scariest experiences of my life” with an unwanted intruder last year.
courtesy @billiewebb

She cautions those who plan to hit the road themselves: It’s not just desert views and mountain peak sunsets.

“People come into van life trying to get away and think it will be a life escape. This is not the case, ”she said. “It’s just a different way of experiencing it. It’s highs, highs, and lows.


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