Two years of living in a van

A nomad’s journey of self-discovery

Today I woke up in the same small California town where I woke up a year ago — Point Arena. At the start of my journey two years ago, I woke up in a Volkswagen junkyard in Asheville, North Carolina. In two years of living in my van, I have woke up in a plethora of places and feel at home everywhere I go.

Two trips from coast to coast. Two times I’ve been up, down, and all around this ground called America. The first time I made the cross-country trip, I did it by myself. For the past six months, I’ve traveled with a partner.

“What are you going to do to celebrate?” A friend asked me about my two-year vanlife anniversary. “I’m going to write something,” I told him. “Well, yeah,” he said in a tone that said obviously my writer friend is going to write something, “but are you going to do anything special?” he added.

Do something special? Had I accomplished something? Does two years of vanlife warrant a celebration? The first apartment I ever rented was 500 square feet. The largest place I ever rented was a three-bedroom house. From squats on suburban blocks to luxurious lofts, I’ve experienced life in many different kinds of boxes. But I wonder… Is a preference for living in a box with wheels celebration-worthy?

Without any ideas in mind, I turned to my girlfriend and asked her how she wanted to celebrate. “I wanna sleep in the van,” Pineapples said. I laughed and concurred. That’s exactly how I want to celebrate vanlife — by continuing to live my life in a van.

The first time my van broke down was July 4, 2016. I found myself stranded in the parking lot of Dad’s Restaurant. This quaint truck stop near the border of Georgia and South Carolina comes equipped with a magnanimous staff and hallmark southern dinning that has become a mandatory stop when I’m traversing through the southeast. My breakdown at Dad’s Restaurant was the first sign of trouble I had — or had bothered to pay attention to — since buying my 1977 Volkswagen Westfalia in March 2016.

The VW community came to my rescue. A local member from that group came out and worked on my engine all day. By the evening, he had it running again. I asked if he thought the engine would make the 90-mile journey I had left to go. “No guarantees,” he told me.

It took nine hours, 10 quarts of oil, and one midnight trip to an auto parts store for a new battery before I made it to my destination. A couple weeks later, two mechanics couldn’t explain how my engine kept running with two cracked heads. I told them I soothed the dashboard warnings with the melodic sounds of a song and dance I know so well. I’m convinced it gave the battle-worn VW the extra push it needed. One of the mechanics became a good friend through the whole ordeal. He gave me a crash course in VW engine repair while I crashed on his couch. We rebuilt my engine inside his living room.

The second time my VW broke down, I was on the way to Burning Man and arrived at burning van 200 miles later. This breakdown lasted for months and I ended up spending a significant time in a VW junkyard in Fairview, North Carolina while shopping for a replacement engine.

My VW’s last trip alive was its maiden voyage with the replacement engine. I went from North Carolina to Georgia to visit with Pineapples (before she became my partner in vanlife). We spent New Years Eve with her family in the sticks of Alabama and I was excited the girl got to ride in my VW. Upon returning to Asheville, N.C., the 40-year-old fuel lines ruptured and my van caught fire again.

The sight of my van engulfed in flames was a heartbreaking affair but it didn’t quench my dreams of vanlife. I got a new van a month later and I finally had a vehicle that I didn’t have to worry about with each ignition turn.

My second van took me on a vanlife tour with Gear Junkie and Kelty. I traveled up the east coast as far north as Burlington, Vermont, then as far south as New Orleans, Louisiana. I made my way as far west as Las Vegas, Nevada before experiencing engine problems again.

Everything in its right time and place, my next breakdown was in the middle of nowhere. I landed in a California desert in a place known for its fear and loathing — a place called Barstow. Compared to the soft landing of my first couple breakdowns, the third breakdown broke me financially. On top of that, I was held up at knife point while my van was in repair.

What all these breakdowns have taught me is that there’s no way to avoid breaking down. Going broke has new meaning for me. Everything is going to break sooner or later. It’s not a question of if but rather when a breakdown will happen. The question I ponder is — how will you keeping moving forward when a breakdown inevitably happens?

“This is my celebration,” I thought to myself as we drove up the road to our first vanlife gathering this past August in Taos, New Mexico. An entire community of tiny homes on wheels came into view. It was visual affirmation to the existence of minimalism. It was a beautiful sight to witness. It was simple humans living simply.

I couldn’t sit still for the last 20 minutes of our journey, which made it increasingly difficult to drive — like when you have to pee but you’d rather get to your destination than stop. My seat was shaking. My heart was racing. A child’s excitement for birthday presents could not compare to the palpable joy I felt arriving at my first vanlife gathering. My enthusiasm was ready to burst out of my skin by the end of our four-hour trek from Denver, Colorado to Taos, New Mexico.

As we rolled into an open space filled with vans, buses, and other boxes-with-wheels next to the Taos Brewing Mothership, I noticed one van in particular. In the distance, I saw words written in chalk on the top of this van that could’ve doubled as a monster truck with its gigantic wheels. “Any Mechanics?” the sign said. I smiled just before hearing a calm and reassuring directive from a voice outside my window, “Park anywhere.”

I knew I was home.

After graduating college, I thought I had it all figured out. I’d made it out of several tight spots — from a high school dropout to wearing military fatigues, to hitting rock bottom on the streets. I went back to school and held down multiple part-time jobs while trying to obtain my college degree. I think I was the only journalist in my graduating class to be hired at an actual newspaper (which is no easy feat when you consider the journalism industry’s public trust is eroding away more quickly than their advertising dollars). I know I was the only journalist to make Georgia Open Records Act case law while still in school.

I remember my initial enthusiasm with my chosen career. Speaking truth to power is not a commitment for the foolhardy or indecisive and, at the same time, what to publish and when or why not requires careful deliberation. Journalism lured me in with its talk of balancing these noble ideals.

“If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.” This phrase is taught by journalism professors in schools across the country. It’s meant to instill a healthy dose of skepticism in cub reporters who are more eager to print what they think is the truth than listen to what truth actually is. A doctrine of journalistic truths — things everyone knows — has replaced the pedagogy of skepticism. Journalism has become a tool for those in power to create and influence popular belief.

Many people think I’ve permanently lost my marbles for choosing to live this nomadic lifestyle. They think this way of life is improper and supposedly stands in the way of you being a legitimate citizen. I decided to try living a nomadic existence because everything else seemed to lack any semblance of life or style. I didn’t know I preferred this lifestyle until I started living it. I still earn money, spend money, and contribute to society — I just place a higher importance on people and experiences over things. I don’t have time for people who are more concerned about things. People who understand this about me have become my family.

Being chained to an unfulfilling career in one geographic location was never my style. I never wanted the obligation of going to work to be stronger than my desire to do the work. It’s the difference between loving what you do and supposedly doing what you have to do to be able to do what you love. One is commitment, the other is compromise. There’s a reason why the old cliche, “do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life,” has remained an old cliche. No amount of money could change my mind. My net worth is beyond a dollar sign. Purpose is worth far more than a career with salary and benefits. And writing every day is doing what I loved.

For a while, my job as reporter fulfilled that need. I thought I’d never have to force myself to get up and go to my newspaper job. I thought there was purpose. I thought I loved it. Ten months later, I realized I was wrong. I still didn’t have it all figured out, but I knew traditional journalism wasn’t the answer for me. I realized it in the fall of 2015 when life-altering events happened…

I was dubbed “Hokey Pokey” after professing in a spoken word poem to a fully engaged audience that the song and dance we were all taught in youth really is what it’s all about. Then I fell in love with a girl who cut pineapples for me (sometimes that’s all it takes). I told this person my ideas of traveling and writing my own ticket. She said it sounded great — and I’ve spent the last two years turning that dream into a reality. For almost the first two years, I drove alone. As of six months ago, the girl who cut pineapples for me, is now traveling with me. (And I call her Pineapples.)

As soon as we parked at the vanlife gathering, I felt all the promise of vanlife freedom. Dogs roamed free. Kids roamed free. We were all free to be.

Seven Wanders the World, a vanlife YouTuber, was our first visitor. He interviewed me about living the vanlife while we were settling in. I appreciate how well-documented this so-called “movement” is becoming. Despite what hashtags and social media would have you believe, living in a van is nothing new. It’s a new label for an old lifestyle that’s been around since before civilization — it’s called nomadism. Nomadic people are just regular people who realize that having a home base rooted in a concrete foundation is a luxury they can afford to go without.

However, the popularity of the vanlife hashtag has helped combat the mainstream stigma that vandwellers are just disadvantaged people who are homeless and/or someone going through a phase or transition. It’s helped spread the realization that nomadism, especially that of the digital variety, is a pragmatic approach to minimalistic living.

It’s helped normalize the dream of wanting to live in a van down by the river.

It was satire on Saturday Night Live in the 90’s. It was Chris Farley’s break out sketch as Matt Foley where he played a motivational speaker who was hired by two concerned parents to warn their children to stay in school and off of drugs, lest they end up like Foley — living in a van down by the river.

Being without a house is often falsely equated to being homeless. Vandwellers are houseless, not homeless. Where someone wants to live is no one’s business but their own. At my last real job as a teacher at a private school, I learned just how disillusioned the real world is in regard to its distrust of nomads. When my dreams of vanlife were discovered, faculty and staff expressed concern about my wellbeing. A colleague questioned my mental health. Ultimately, I was let go.

A couple years later and you can’t turn on social media without running into the vanlife hashtag. Tiny houses and minimalism have made it to the mainstream market. Vanlife has turned into a commodity. Reading the business section reveals vanlife to be a rapidly growing niche market with billion dollar potential. It’s the next version of the white picket fence, the next version of freedom, which is being exploited by unscrupulous advertisers through social media. It’s the next money-making fad that never goes away.

But the truth about vanlife is… it’s not for everyone. And that’s okay. Not everyone can live like you, and you can’t live for the likes of everyone.

As someone who gave a grand total of three speeches as a vanlife motivational speaker, the prevailing perception about vanlife is that it limits your overall capability. While audiences were intrigued by how I lived, many admitted to requiring more convenience. Other folks expressed a desire for security, financial and/or physical, which they believe is untenable with nomadism.

The first six months of vanlife was a tough learning experience but it also showed me what I was made of. It’s hard to discredit any experience, for good or ill, that challenges your ability to be a human being. By the time I’d made it to the first year of vanlife, I’d already burned through one van (and two engines) but knew that I wanted to keep going for as long as I was able.

For the first year and a half, I was traveling alone. For the past six months or so, I’ve been traveling with my partner and the love of my life. I told her when we got together that it wasn’t important whether or not we agreed on everything. I told her it was important that we could cuddle with each other at the end of the day.

I’ve made it to my second year of vanlife and I’m still learning. I’m learning how to idle comfortably. I’m learning about minimalism. I’m learning about living simply, appreciating life daily, and chasing my greatest curiosity — wherever that may take me.

Wherever I end up, I sleep easy knowing that the earth keeps turning around no matter where I wake up.