Photographer William Woodward on capturing America in a VW Vanagon Westfalia
For the past six years, William “Willie” Woodward has been living and traveling across the United States in his 1990 Vanagon GL. A travel, adventure and commercial photographer, Willie has taken his two-wheel drive, maroon companion, dubbed “Ruby,” on a series of wild adventures – from the backwoods of Montana to the rocky hills of California and slick-rock canyons of Utah.
His social media account and blog, both entitled Where to Willie, serve as a photo journal of the pair’s escapades. Willie says that embracing van life in Ruby has allowed him to recognize and capture moments in their purest form and allowed him the freedom and flexibility to pursue his dream of becoming a full-time photographer.
“Ruby is the vehicle that got me to where I am today – both figuratively and literally,” he says, laughing. “It’s become such a deep-seated part of who I am.”
The Illinois native and former mechanical engineer took a leap of faith when he moved to the West Coast and purchased Ruby in fall 2014.
“I was getting tattooed by a guy in Portland, and the artist shared with me that he owned a Vanagon, named Ruby, and he would use it to travel to the Oregon coast to surf with his son,” he says. “To me, it seemed like such a unique way to travel and reminded me a lot of my own upbringing.”
The nostalgia took hold, and Willie began actively looking for a boxy Vanagon of his own. Soon after his search began, the tattoo artist offered him the opportunity to purchase Ruby. He jumped at it and, in tribute, kept her name intact.
It wasn’t long after purchasing Ruby that Willie made the decision to embrace van life full time, living on the road while zigzagging the country, capturing different people and places through his lens. He announced his lifestyle change on social media on April 1, 2015.
“Everybody thought it was an April Fool’s joke, but the joke was really on them,” Willie says. “Years later, we’re still going strong.”
Over time, Ruby has gone through three large makeovers to accommodate Willie’s van life needs, culminating in the recent overhaul: installing a high top, a full interior rebuild, LED headlights and floodlights, a 12-volt refrigerator, sink and stove, and additional interior seating for friends.
“Vanagons were built in a way that just makes them so much more capable than you’d ever expect,” Willie says. “I surprise people constantly with her ability to get into some of the more remote places I shoot and enjoy spending my time in.”
He’s had the opportunity to work with his father, a high-school woodshop teacher, and mother, a gifted seamstress, on updates to the van.
“They’ve helped me make it feel like more of a home on wheels than a space,” Willie says. “She’s now officially part of our family forever.”
The access and affordability of the Vanagon has also provided Willie the opportunity to better know and capture the places and people he is photographing, which in turn, he says, has enriched his work.
“The van helps me feel less like a spectator and more like a neighbor in the community I’m spending time in and increased my ability to share people’s unique stories and walks of life through photographs,” says Willie. “My best work has come out of getting to know a place more deeply by being able to stay there for an extended period of time.”
The Volkswagen community has also been a key component to Willie’s success on the road. During the pandemic, he built a social bubble that consisted of eight other Vanagon owners for several months in southern Utah, right outside of Zion.
“When I bought Ruby, I didn’t really understand that I was joining a community. But I quickly realized that when you own a Vanagon, you instantly become part of a family,” Willie says. “Some of the best friends I have today are people I’ve met through the VW world, and I can’t imagine doing this adventure without them.”
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