It was late and time to call it a day. Nace Pleško pulled his tricked-out van into a strip mall parking lot in nowhere America. He parked near a Dollar General store, the sun-faded colors of the yellow and black sign illuminating the night sky.
Then he heard dogs barking and people arguing.
“I didn’t feel it was the safest spot, so I decided to move,” he said on a call from Hawaii. As he pulled out of his parking spot, Pleško saw police cars rushing into the mostly empty parking lot.
“That was the only place I didn’t feel safe,” he said.
He, and we, don’t know if or how the kerfuffle was resolved. But we do know how Pleško’s prescience played out. He’d decided against buying an oversized recreational vehicle because he wanted to come and go with ease. Instead, he bought a van with a very specific design in mind. He wanted three things: a good bed, the ability to work wherever he was, and complete anonymity.
Standout Thrower Hits the Road
The hulking Slovenian was a track star and a top student-athlete at the University of Virginia, graduating in 2019 with a double major in computer science and mathematics. He’d transferred to UVA from Iowa State before his second year and went on to compete in the next three NCAA Track and Field Championships, throwing either the shot put or discus.
Pleško and a former track buddy, Jordan Young, were living together in Charlottesville in 2021 when Young revealed his grand life plan: He was going to move to Croatia to start a winery.
That got Pleško thinking about his future plans. He was working remotely and could go anywhere he wanted. “There were so many different places, and then I was like, ‘OK. What if I just go to all of them?’” he said.
His plan took shape. He would visit all 50 states in the country – hopefully, all of them this year.
Pleško began van life one evening in January, pulling out of Charlottesville and onto Interstate 64, headed toward Richmond. He had a very loose agenda. He’d decided against creating a rigid travel plan. He liked the idea of being spontaneous.
That’s not to say he hadn’t planned at all. Pleško got that roomy bed, that perfect workspace and the anonymity he wanted. That last thing may have been his cleverest idea.
Had he bought a large RV, there would be windows people could look into. They would be able to see that he was living in the vehicle, opening up all sorts of vulnerabilities. His van was packed with expensive computer equipment and all of his other belongings. The last thing he needed was to be robbed. “If I can make it look from the outside like a normal van, I can literally go anywhere and not get any attention, so I can stay out of trouble,” he said.
From the outside, Pleško’s 2014 American Mercedes Freightliner Van looks like a common work vehicle, the perfect disguise for van life. Inside, he has a very basic sink set-up, fueled by those large bottles found on water coolers. What the van lacks is full-on plumbing – no shower. Here, Pleško hit on another genius idea: He joined Planet Fitness, a chain of 24-hour gyms, all equipped with showers, slotted into strip malls across the country. It was the perfect solution.
Pleško drives to a new state about once a week and lives and works in his van, parked outside Planet Fitness. The benefits are many. Because the gym is open all the time, it’s unlikely he will be the only vehicle parked outside – safety in numbers. Two, he can work out and stay fit to counterbalance all the sitting that comes with working as a software engineer and driving across the country. And of course, there are the gym showers.
On a typical weekday, Pleško wakes up, takes a walk to stretch his legs, works out, showers and then seeks out a nearby grocery store for fresh food. Then he works. His weekends are saved for adventure seeking.
The first three states he visited outside of Virginia were North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida, hopscotching over Georgia. So far, Pleško has visited 25 states, including Hawaii and Alaska, both van-free jaunts.
No Plan Can Be the Best Plan
This is one of Pleško’s favorite quotes:
“Breaks my heart that pirates spend their whole lives following a map, when the real treasure is the friendships they build along the way.”
It was coined by someone on social media who calls himself Jason Lastname. It crystalizes Pleško’s random travel ethic and highlights another benefit of van life, one he’d not immediately considered.
Because Pleško is not sitting in the same office five days a week, he has been able to continue, in person, the deep friendships he forged at UVA and Iowa State. Just last month, he motored to Eugene, Oregon, to watch former UVA teammates compete in the World Athletics Championships, the global track meet that was dominated by United States athletes. “That’s really the biggest advantage, I think, to hang out with people I wouldn’t see anytime soon if it wasn’t for van life,” he said.
With 25 more states to go, Pleško has many more miles to bank and plenty of time to plan his next adventure. “I don’t know even approximately what I am going to do, not even in which country. I’ve been going with the flow my whole life, and so far, that’s been working out amazing,” he said. “I really enjoy this kind of a lifestyle. I like having no plan. If I had a plan, I’d probably be worrying about it and wonder ‘What if it doesn’t work out?’
“Right now, I have no idea what I’ll feel like doing half a year from now. I am sure that the next adventures will reveal themselves as I get closer to the end of the van journey.”