Vans, for several years either utilitarian or creepy, have become somewhat cool, and maybe a bit of a new American Dream for outdoorsfolk in their 20s and 30s—if you do a search on Instagram or Twitter today for the hashtag #vanlife, you’ll get tens of thousands of results. For many of us, “#vanlife” means the freedom to roam wherever you please, sleeping in a bed in the back, with all your outdoor gear packed along for the ride.
I lived on the road for almost three years, first in a car, then in a converted 2005 Chevy Astrovan that I bought after I got sick of cramming myself into the back of a small station wagon. I would be lying if I said it wasn’t amazing.
I’ve woken up surrounded by the Tombstones in Moab, the Sierra Nevada out my back window, the blood-red walls of Zion Canyon above, on a cliff above the Pacific Ocean, and dozens of other beautiful places. I’ve climbed and mountain biked all over the American West, rambling through 15 states, driving more than 85,000 miles through wide-open spaces and big cities alike. But it’s not some sort of permanent vacation.
The reality is, if you don’t have a winning lottery ticket, inheritance, or a rich and generous uncle, you have to work. I’m a firm believer in the road trip, and that everyone needs at least one good one in their lives, even if it’s only a week. I just got used to mine being indefinite.
In 2011, my girlfriend and I broke up right before I left on a five-week climbing trip, and at the end of my vacation, I realized the company paying me to “work from home” probably wouldn’t notice if I wasn’t working from an actual “home.” My apartment lease had ended and my stuff was temporarily in storage, so I thought I’d just keep up the temporary homelessness as long as it was fun.
I took conference calls in the front seat of my car on a street in Jackson, Wyoming; in the parking lot of an Arby’s in the middle of nowhere; in Starbucks coffee shops and friends’ kitchens; on days I hadn’t showered for a week, and on other days when as soon as I hung up the phone I bolted out the door with my backpack and went climbing for the rest of the day.
I work hard, running my own freelance writing business. I read somewhere you’re more creative if you have less routine—not doing the same thing every day, going into the same office, going to the same place for lunch—and I hope that’s true. In three years, I popped open my laptop to “work from home” in almost 200 different coffee shops and slept in more than 300 different places. I got my 40 hours of work every week (but most weeks it was more like 50 hours) in libraries, airports, fast-food restaurants, roadside rest stops, laundromats, in the back of my van, and wherever else I could get wifi or a cell phone connection.
Sometimes it was a bit of a pain—shaving in a coffee shop bathroom, trying to find decent food, trying to find a place to shower—but every weekend, I could be in someplace new: Joshua Tree, Red Rocks, the Sierra Nevada, the Cascades, the Pacific Coast, or Rocky Mountain National Park. If you have no place to return to, there are no limits on where you can go, because you don’t ever have to be “back” anywhere by Monday morning.