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No turning back: How living in a van has led John Demer to extraordinary places and people

John Demer has learned over the course of the past year that life doesn’t always go the way we want it to. But nonetheless, he decided to make the best of some unfortunate circumstances and has now met hundreds of people who have helped him remember that the worst of times can sometimes lead us to the start of a beautiful journey.

Demer has been traveling the country in his remodeled 15-passenger van for months now. While visiting the Outer Banks, The Coastland Times met up with Demer to see what van life is like and where the journey has led him so far.

Demer, 25, was born in South Carolina and decided to join the Army as a teenager, where he spent five years met his wife while serving. In August 2019, just two weeks before Demer was set to get out of the Army, he and his wife separated.

“I went out to St. Louis and I really hadn’t had any money for a year at that point,” Demer told The Coastland Times. “But that’s where my traveling started.”

While staying in St. Louis with a friend, Demer and his wife made amends. He moved back to Fort Bragg for a couple of months before setting off for Tampa, Florida.

Earlier this year, while the pandemic whipped through the world, Demer’s relationship ended. He fell into a deep depression after having no solid roots for quite some time and having his relationship end.

He ended up moving back to South Carolina right after the split, and while driving in Columbia one day, Demer’s car was totaled by someone running a red light. At that point, he had hit rock bottom.

“That was the low point,” he admitted. After just having bought a brand-new truck with his wife, Demer’s credit was in bad shape and a new car was not on the horizon.

However, the start of a new adventure was just around the corner.

Demer, with the help of his mother, financed a 15-passenger van that he named “Chuck.” Demer decided to gut the inside of the van and turn it into his mobile home. Chuck became Demer’s escape, a way to find himself again while traveling the country.

“It’s just been a response,” Demer said. “I was fed up with everything and decided I was just doing this for a couple of years.”

Chuck looks like a typical solid white van from the outside, with a roof rack and some stickers coloring the back doors. Inside, however, Demer has made the mobile space a cozy abode.

Furry material lines the ceiling of the van, which Demer recalled installing while sitting on the beach one day as people wondered as they walked by why in the world someone was cutting a fluffy rug to attach to the interior of a van.

A bed backs up to the rear of the interior of the van, with storage space underneath. Colored LED lights lie beneath the surface of the cloud-like ceiling, while supplies and food are stored away for the journey to the destination of choice that day.

Demer uses his membership at Planet Fitness to take showers while on the road and visits local grocery stores daily to pick up his meals while on the road. His surfboard and camera are never far from reach.

While still with the Army, Demer had taken on freelance work with several companies, creating content for their social media pages. He had also created personal accounts, one of which is on the TikTok platform. After posting a video of his van purchase, the video “exploded,” and received millions of views.

“People starting asking me to come out to meet them,” Demer said. “People started inviting me on the craziest adventures.”

Demer found himself in New Orleans and met friendly people who showed him around the city. Another gracious acquaintance took him sailing, while others have asked him to join them on float trips out in Missouri, white water rafting in California and boating in Utah.

Demer has always loved traveling to the Outer Banks. He enjoys surfing and takes to the waves whenever he visits the area. While here on his most recent trip, he stayed at Ocean Waves Campground in Waves and met up with some friends. Demer stayed on the Outer Banks for a few days before making his way back to Columbia, South Carolina.

“It’s so cool how kind everyone is. You see the world as this really crappy place, but you get out there and . . . everyone’s just genuinely kind.”

Demer described his experience on the road thus far as a “knee-jerk reaction.” He said, “I haven’t planned any of this and I haven’t written any of this down . . . People just gifted me fur blankets. People have donated what they could . . . super kind people who just want to help somebody.”

Everyone who has donated something to Demer has made their way onto the walls of Chuck. With his label maker close by, Demer has printed out the names of those who have helped him and lined the inside of his van with them.

One company Demer works for is a snowball/shaved ice company. He is currently traveling up and down the east coast to look for places to start setting up franchises. While traveling, he uploads vlogs of his journeys to a YouTube channel and keeps up with those who have followed along with his journey through social media, such as TikTok and Instagram.

As for those who have helped Demer, he said he is beyond grateful. “I have no clue why they do it. I’m not sitting on a corner asking for money, people are just that kind and it’s absurd. I’ve never seen kindness like that anywhere in my life until I got this van.”

As for what the future holds, Demer said he plans on spending more time traveling with Chuck. Demer said he hopes to open his own franchise next year, but wants to enjoy the journey he is on now. So far, the countless memories have led him to beautiful places, filled with the kindest of people.

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