Chris Pochiba and Sara Aho"Van life" YouTubers travel America, use Chattanooga as home base

Mar. 1—Call them what you will: influencers; digital nomads; YouTubers.

Chris Pochiba and Sara Aho — known as simply "Chris and Sara" to their thousands of social media followers — are living their best lives in the cozy confines of a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van.

What started as a one-year adventure to see America for the Chattanooga-based husband-and-wife team has turned into a lifestyle. Since buying and customizing their first van in 2018, the two have visited all 50 states and amassed more than 110,000 social media followers, who can't get enough of their "van life" and travel videos.

Their popular YouTube channel, populated with titles such as "Hiking Maui's Best Trail" and "One Day in Austin, Texas," is booming, say the self-described "best friends and business partners." A video tour of their original Sprinter van — they now are on to van No. 2 — has amassed 5.2 million views.

During a 2020 pause in their travels due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the couple decided to buy a house in Chattanooga (Sara's hometown) which has become their home base. They are on the road for months at a time then come home to recharge in St. Elmo. Most recently, they bought one-way airplane tickets to Mexico City just to scratch an itch for international travel.

Chris, 34, owns a graphic arts and web design company, while Sara, 30, who formerly worked for a Florida-based nonprofit, is now promoting and monetizing their travel posts. They have formed business partnerships with such companies as Sony, Disney and B&H Photo. Destination cities sometimes recruit them to visit and post videos.

Recently, Chris and Sara sat down at a picnic table in Coolidge Park with Chatter Magazine for a wide-ranging interview about their lives and travels. Below is a condensed and edited version of the conversation.

Chatter: Talk about your couplehood. You met in 2014, right?

Sara: Yes, we were biking from Seattle to New York for a nonprofit. There were about 18 of us, and it took us about eight weeks. We started "talking" about week two.

Chris (laughing): She just couldn't resist the spandex.

Sara (smiling): We started dating, and we were long-distance for a year. I was finishing up school at the University of Georgia. We had a year dating in the same city, Raleigh, [North Carolina]. Then, we moved to Seattle and got married.

Chatter: So, when you started traveling in your van in 2018, you were sort of in the vanguard of the "van life" movement, right?

Sara: We call ourselves "digital nomads." I guess it's the the term people are using now (for people who can work remotely). "Van life" is a complicated niche. There are people who do it out of necessity, and people who do it as weekend warriors. Then, there are people like us who are working professionals on the road. When we first started out, we were one of the few (van life couples) on the East Coast. Now, I'd say in Chattanooga alone there's at least a dozen of us, maybe two dozen.

Chris: We bought our (first) van in May 2018. We started living in it full-time in October 2018. We didn't know what COVID was going to do so we bought a home here in Chattanooga as well (in 2020).

Sara: I grew up here. I was homeschooled. We were here most of last year (2020). This year, I'd say we're here about half the time.

Chatter: How did your YouTube channel get started?

Sara: It started out as one little YouTube video, a tour of our van and it ended up going viral.

Chris: People were so interested. It had two iMacs (in the van), a full work setup. We'd open the sliding doors at campgrounds and people would look in, and be like, "What's happening in there?"

Chatter: What is your social media footprint now?

Sara: Collectively we are at about 110,000 (followers) on Instagram and YouTube. YouTube is over 90,000 now. We are about 18,000 on Instagram.

Chris: When you get to 100,000 YouTube gives you a plaque. If we had never uploaded our (first) video and continued the whole YouTube thing, we wouldn't have had the experiences we had so far. We've gotten to meet amazing people.

Sara: We are more social on the road. When we come to Chattanooga, we rest. We have all these friends in all different parts of the country. It's so fun. We really do love it. We have visited a lot of places because people have reached out and resonated with our story. I'm very introverted, but it's really fun. Doing this is so different from what I thought I would be doing.

Chris: We'll get messages all the time, and people are like, "You've inspired us to get our own van."

Chatter: How did news coverage of the Gabby Petito/Brian Laundrie deaths affect the way people look at the "van life" phenomenon?

Sara: It's drawn a lot of attention to the mental health side of it. A van is just a tool to get from place to place. Living in such a small area is not necessarily healthy. We try to be honest and say, "Hey, it's not always easy."

Chris: It can be romanticized online. You look at a photo of someone somewhere amazing and you're like, "Wow, I want to do that, too." But if you actually do that, you're stuck in a small space with someone else.

Sara: When we first got in our van, another couple who were older than us, and who had done the whole van thing years ago, said the best thing they did for their marriage was to buy noise-cancelling headphones. Beyond that, we take time to ourselves and go for runs. We sleep, eat and cook in the van, but whenever possible we are outside the van.

Chatter: When you start a new tour, do you have an itinerary or just go with the flow?

Sara: We have a rough outline. Sometimes we plan by events, or we know we want to do one specific thing. Last summer we knew we were going to Seattle and wanted to travel the sunny way home through California and the Southwest.

Chatter: Is there anything you've discovered about living in a van that would be good for others to know?

Chris: One, it costs more than what you think. We have college students reach out and say they are going to live in their van and go to college. We are like, "No you're not. It's not going to work."