Professional baseball pitcher Daniel Norris says music inspired him to live on the road.
Growing up in Johnson City, Tenn., Norris was captivated by singer Jack Johnson’s songs about quirky camping adventures in a VW bus. The music left such a strong impression that Norris, at 18 years old, purchased his own 1978 VW Westfalia microbus with money earned from his first professional baseball signing bonus.
“One of [Johnson’s] songs talks about him and his wife in London, and they had an old VW,” said Norris, now 26. “That inspired me at an early age to form my own rendition of that lifestyle.”
Even after years of steady employment in professional baseball—first with the Toronto Blue Jays, and moving to the Detroit Tigers in 2015—Norris swears by van life. The pitcher still makes time outside of his busy baseball schedule to camp out of his van, nicknamed “Shaggy,” for weeks or even months at a time in the offseason.
“I really just enjoy the solitude of it,” he said. “It replenishes me before a big season.”
For Norris, it’s a ritual of his own; the athlete grabs his surfboard, the bare essentials, and hits the road. He’ll sleep on beaches, in Walmart parking lots or deep in the wilderness. The minimalist lifestyle might clash with affluent stereotypes about professional athletes, but Norris says his trips keep him centered while juggling a lucrative career and major league stardom.
“I wanted to hone in on staying true to who I was,” he explained. “Now that I have more, I want to have less.”
Norris first met Shaggy by connecting with an owner two hours from his home. The car was not originally for sale, though Norris couldn’t help but try to buy it anyway. He loved its soft cream-colored coat and was particularly impressed by its drive-ready condition with minimal rust.
“Everything was original, which I really dug about it,” he recalled. “It was a no-brainer.”
Norris made a persuasive offer and renovated his new car into the travel-ready home he dreamed of. From Tennessee, he drove Shaggy to Florida for spring training. Instead of taking a hotel room with the rest of his teammates, he’d find suitable accommodations around town—that is, those that tolerated his scrappy lifestyle.
“I would get kicked off the beach quite a few times,” he said. “One time, I decided to park at the Blue Jays’ complex. Probably, at like 11:30 or 12:00 that night, I get a knock on the window, and it’s the cops.” Luckily, the encounter ended amicably.
“There were five cops, and they all started laughing when they realized who I was. Asking me questions like, ‘Why do you do this?’” he said. “It was kind of funny.”
For years, Norris and Shaggy were nearly inseparable in the offseason. To the amusement of his teammates, Norris insisted on driving Shaggy down for his seasonal Florida trips. But even though the decades-old car endured year after year of cross-country marathon drives, Norris knew Shaggy would soon reach its limits.
Shaggy broke down three times during a 2015 trip from Tennessee to Oregon. The second time, Norris blew the third cylinder in Kansas. He found a mechanic in Denver who could fix it, but to get there Norris had to drive his beloved car for eight hours at 35 mph. Shaggy lasted one more day before it failed again.
“It was pretty gnarly,” he remembered fondly. “I’m very fortunate for those experiences. I think they’ve helped mold me as a person.”
As he’s tacked on more miles, Norris has gotten handier, too. He handles quick fixes with duct tape and zip ties while learning more about Shaggy’s long-term upkeep.
“I like the idea of fixing it myself,” he said. “My dad’s the hardest worker I’ve ever met, so he’s inspired me to relish those opportunities.”
Now in his eighth year with Shaggy, and fifth season with the Tigers, Norris takes his Westfalia to the shores of South Carolina, a five- to six-hour drive from Tennessee. He’s got the system down—he downsizes more than he used to, and knows to perform maintenance checks before each major drive. Trips have shortened in recent years, though Norris doesn’t plan on abandoning van life anytime soon.
“I plan on having it my whole life,” he said. “It helped me find myself in many ways. It means a lot to me.”