Akron family moves into a van, documenting a nine month cross-country road trip during COVID-19

Reporting and writing by Abbey Marshall 

They named their new home Silver, short for silver lining. 

It’s quite fitting for the Wynn-Gippin household, because they’ve found many silver linings in the past few months amid a global pandemic. While the spread of COVID-19 disrupted their lives, income and schooling, photographer Shane Wynn and videographer Josh Gippin came up with a unique response to a content drought and their kids’ virtual schooling.

It began as a flippant, whiskey-laden suggestion in early summer: “We should get out of here and drum up some work. The kids are learning remotely. Let’s do it.”

“The next morning, I asked when we were leaving,” Shane recalls. “My husband started to backpedal, and we talked about how realistic that idea is, but once we really got in the weeds, it became the right answer for us right now.”

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The daydream quickly became a reality for the family that depended on their art — much of which required in-person events and portraits — as income. Shane says she had about a fifth of the work she did prior to the pandemic. The road trip would allow them to use their Small Business Administration COVID-19 disaster loans to further their careers during a time of uncertainty, and there didn’t seem like many other options during the humdrum days of quarantine. Why not make it a once-in-a-lifetime adventure?

“We’ve always talked about wanting to travel the country with our kids so they could learn about the U.S. by engaging with it,” Shane says. “As artists, we have the flexibility and privilege to do this. It’s kind of ironic because it’s given us the ability to do things we always wanted to do.”

The family rented out their Highland Square home for nine months to three University of Akron students (who vowed to take care of their two cats) and began planning for a cross-country adventure. 

On September 10, Shane, Josh, their 11- and 9-year-old children and Josh’s mother piled into their car with Silver — the 21-foot-trailer that would shapeshift between a classroom, a studio and a five-person home — in tow. 

The trip was made possible in part by their Patreon, a membership platform that allows artists to earn a monthly income by providing content and deliverables to their subscribers. Their page, “Where the Wynns Take You,” drums up more than $1,200 a month from 65 patrons, most of whom live in Akron.

“It’s so great to have Akronites support our travels,” Shane says. “I’ve had several people approach me about projects when I come back to Akron. Our hearts are so full. It means so much to us.”

Based on the amount subscribers pay per month, they can get access to a variety of content: blog posts about “the good, the bad and the ugly,” as Shane calls it, of a multi-generational household trekking across the country; vlogs about how they maximized space in the camper with organizational tools; and more. 

The pair has no idea what the art they’re making will become as they document their travels. Shane is thinking of creating a photojournalism piece about how people vacation during the pandemic.

“When we got the SBA loan, the recommendation was to find new ways to work and pivot. We sure as hell did that,” Shane says with a laugh. “I feel like this is the best content I’ve ever harvested. I don’t know what it will become, but we’ll see.” 

As for the familial on-the-road experience, well, that’s still to be determined.

The family is currently bidding adieu to Maine, where they feasted on lobster and hiked across Acadia National Park against the backdrop of autumn foliage. That was what Shane was looking forward to most on the trip, touting it as “everything and more” than she expected. 

They’re now journeying down the coast and will make a stop in Akron for Thanksgiving before venturing out West, where the kids are most eager to see the Hollywood sign. 

No matter where they go, though, Shane says they always seem to find a piece of Akron along the way. In Seneca Falls, NY, they stumbled upon a plaque honoring Sojourner Truth and detailing her iconic speech at an 1851 National Women’s Rights convention in Akron. In Niagara Falls, their son, Mac, was intrigued to find that the tallest waterfall in the world was Angel Falls in Venezuela, which they posted about on Patreon. The Highland Square coffee shop of the same name signed on as a subscriber to their page shortly after.

“It’s just this reciprocal feeling: we support Akron and they support us,” she says. “It’s this amazing experience — all these new things and at the same time, all this love from home. It’s filling my heart.”

Abbey Marshall covers economic development for The Devil Strip via Report for America. Reach her at abbey@thedevilstrip.com.

Editor’s note: Shane Wynn has contributed to The Devil Strip as a photojournalist, but has not worked with Abbey Marshall, who reported this story. Shane did not see the story before publication. 

Photos: Shane Wynn. Used with permission. See more of her work on Instagram @shanewynnphotography.