#VanLife Lesson 1: The Happiness of Living in a Van

Vanlife

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.

Vanlife2

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.

Vanlife3

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.