9 Things I Learned from a Year of Van Life
This is the honest truth …
My husband and I left out lives in Boulder, Colorado a year ago. We had good jobs. We enjoyed our lives. But we wanted change and circumstances in our lives screamed, “Do It! Now is the time to take the leap! Or maybe you never will.”
So we rented out our home with all the gardens and the bees and the chickens. We held garage sales. Got rid of stuff. Cleaned out the garage. And then loaded up our VW Van, repaired it’s engine as best we could, and left with a rough plan.
We had dreams you see. Dreams of finding farmland somewhere we could afford it. Maybe five or ten acres that we could build a life on.
Oh what we’ve learned.
When we left we were sick of the 9–5. Aren’t we all? We wanted flexibility, time to work on our own projects, and maybe a bit more diversity in our jobs. To be able to leave without being bound by limited time off. You know, the usual stuff that you probably want too.
But what we’ve found is having a job doesn’t suck. Sure you make money, that’s a big plus of a job. But outside of that there’s the routine of it. That’s actually pretty nice to have and helps with productivity. And what about the coworkers you love to hate? They’re nice to have too. I suppose it’s the whole, “grass is greener” phenomenon. Not having a job makes you realize how much you miss having one. I’ve heard retirees say the same thing (but I always thought they were out of their minds).
This experience helped us make the realization ourselves. But there’s a balance with this too. Finding jobs that can support us financially but also give us the freedom we need. Now there’s the pickle. I’ll report back on the dichotomy of it all when I pick up a job again.
I’ve spent a few seasons now working with many small farmers. Doing this part time farming made us feel confident that we could go out buy some land and start our own farm. When we left our home and jobs we started WWOOFing more or less full time while keeping an eye out for that perfect spot to start out on our own. Is it not a beautiful dream?
The people who do it full time, year after year, are superheroes. But I’ve realized it’s really hard work. I mean I knew that but now I really know that. It’s the kind of work you don’t go home from, as I had in the past when I volunteered. It’s the kind of work that is repetitive. It’s the kind of work that is really hard on your body (I mean aching back and knees hard). It can take up your weekends too. Vacations are tricky. And farms, real working farms, are a mess. Tools get left out. Mud and puddles find homes where you don’t want them and sometimes things don’t go as planned. Sometimes bugs out do you. Other times it’s the weeds. And sometimes it’s the weather, that can be rain or sun or snow or wind or hail. And you’ll kill yourself if you try to do it alone.
No. Farming is not for me. A big garden all my own with a few chickens and some extra eggs for my neighbors, that will do. But a production farm, even a small one, leaves me too little time for what I truly want to spend my time on. And I’ll support my superhero local farmers who are badass enough to call farming a career.
… and I hope we start realizing it
On our journey we’ve gotten the chance to stay in some small towns and some sprawling metropolises. Word is that more and more people are moving to the big cities. Why? Because of the opportunity for better jobs. But that often comes with traffic, high property prices, competition, and too many people. How does your local trailhead look?
What about these small towns? Many have adorable main streets, I imagine them revived with cool local shops. They have cheaper properties just waiting for some renovation and they have room to grow without the crowding.
We’ve struggled with the idea of moving to a small town. There are countless examples of places waiting for a community of people to move in and revive them but we need creative ways to bring opportunity and jobs to these smaller communities. I don’t want to move to a big city. But we can’t exactly find meaningful incomes in some of these adorable small towns. This year of living on the road has helped me see that we need to work together to crowdsource ideas for how to create more jobs in these small towns so that we have an option other than the big cities to jam ourselves into. Because a small town growing feels a lot better than a large city bloating.
Like a bathroom you’re comfortable in, or consistent access to the internet, or space, or a place to park your car without getting harassed. Van life does not supply these things.
Our van has no bathroom or shower. That means finding them or responsibly using nature. A stream shower is really cold in Alaska FYI. And although we’ve got a solar panel and battery system and can hotspot our phones, there are problems you’ll run into. 100 amp hours of battery life (theoretically at least) isn’t much power for a hungry laptop, two cell hones, an iPad, LED lights, and a fan. It’s really that laptop. A MacBook Pro is a power hog. Who knew? And that old 4G signal … it’s missing from some pretty critical spots when you’re on the road, like camping spots. Even local coffee shops are hit or miss on their wifi.
Which leads to the final discomfort. Where to park. Honestly we only got told to leave once on this whole year long trip. And that was in a Walmart parking lot in Portland! Sometimes we’d pay for sites wedged between two giant glitzed out busses housing a couple of baby boomers for $30 a night. That’s $900 a month, more than rent in some places! If we’re going to pay for camping we don’t really like to pay more than $20 a night which is about $500 a month in rent (if you were to pay every night that is). We prefer free. But unless you are far out from the city free usually means you’re paying in paranoia and a lack of cell service. We balance it all by switching it up.
Space. 80 square feet is what I’ve read we’ve got in this van. 80 square feet for 3 is tight. There’s no desk, only your lap or your dog’s back. Maybe it’s an excuse but fostering motivation is tough here. You get working on something and your partner puts on a movie. Or you have to move because dinner needs to be made and your feet are on the cooler, or your papers are on the stove.
Or you’re driving to a new destination and you get car sick. What I’m saying is I’ve had a pretty difficult time getting the amount of work done that I keep feeling like I should be able to do with this much time on my hands. When we find a decent coffee shop like the one we’re in now in Golden, British Columbia, we can get productive but then you look up and the day has gotten away from you and the chairs are getting stacked and they are trying to warn you that they’re closed. No! I was just getting into the flow!
Maybe it’s all an excuse. If you live on the road tell me about your productivity levels. For me having a dedicated desk to get work done at is a pretty big help.
When you’re on the road all the time you meet a ton of interesting people but you don’t get to really know anyone. I miss fostering long lasting relationships. I mean the kind where you’ve known someone for years. Where you get to know who they are. What I’m saying is, I miss my friends. I miss their familiarity. I miss non-awkward silences with them. I miss them. But I’ve gotten to know my husband a whole let better.
My husband has this saying he picked up in Thailand, “Same same but different.” He’d asked for cocktail sauce and gotten ketchup.
“No, I’m looking for cocktail sauce,” he’d told the waitress.
“Same same but different,” she’d told him waving him off.
And that’s what we’ve found on our travels. We left Boulder looking for what we didn’t know was the, “same same but different.” We wanted cheaper, less trendy, and less populated. You know the same but a little different. And that’s what we found. Just not in the ways we were looking for.
We found gorgeous towns with empty trail heads but no jobs. We found towns with jobs and recreation but unbearably dark cold or wet winters. And places with cheap properties that were ugly and lacked the culture we want to surround ourselves with. Everywhere, anywhere you go will ultimately be, “Same same but different.” You just have to decide if you can learn to eat that shrimp with ketchup. Places look different, people are different, but ultimately there are similarities everywhere you go.
I don’t know what to tell you about Cryptocurrencies other than that they are. I could tell you that they are amazing, or the next big thing, or here to stay, or will make and break the millennial generation but it’ll be one or all of these. And they could be a pretty good way to fund a trip like this.
Our generation looks at stocks and 401ks and social security and our weak financial system and the inflation of the dollar and I think a lot of us feel lost. Left out. Poor. Living paycheck to paycheck or saving by putting our money in banks we don’t really trust and watching our cash lose it’s purchasing power by 3% a year.
And then in comes Bitcoin and it’s circus troop of cryptocurrency buddies and it gives us options. I’m no monetary advisor but I see this as a once in a lifetime opportunity to join in a financial revolution and take your cut from the pie. I think of it as a way to both diversify your savings and to stick it to the man, or the FED.
There is the potential that you could be part of one of the greatest wealth transfers in history and that’s enough to to gamble on I figure. Don’t tell me I didn’t warn you. Go inform yourself.
It may not be the final thing I’ve learned from life on the road but it’s certainly an important piece of knowledge. We dug up our roots to join this community of people glorifying the wanderlust lifestyle. And sure, people aren’t trees or wild flowers, but I think we can take some advice from our fellow earthlings. Roots are important, even for us. Having your people. Having the familiarity of home. Having a place to start something and to finish it.
And as crazy as it may seem, my root chakra hurts being on the road this long. Maybe it’s just because sitting on your ass, driving countless miles tends to irritate your lower back but it doesn’t hurt to read into it a little.
So in conclusion I’m not saying you shouldn’t join in the van living culture and give your wheels a whirl. And I’m not saying you won’t like it either. What I am saying though is that after you’ve learned all the things the experience has to teach, you might just want a permanent place to call home. To stretch. To be familiar with. Balance. A little bit of vagabonding and then some enjoyment of permanence, or rooting. Or as much of it as you can get to leave behind something that lasts
I’m going home. But I’m going home with new motivation, new intentions that have been made stronger through the challenges of living on the road in our little spaceship.
BONUS: #10… It’s Not Free
Okay. You are free. But I’m talking about money. Sometimes you have to pay for a campsite. You still have to pay for food (unless you’re a dumpster diver but that’s not my style). You’ll spend a lot on gas. Somehow we went a year on one tank of propane (we like to joke that we have a magic never ending propane tank, maybe we actually do). And you will need to have that emergency fund for breakdowns or when your dog gets kicked by a moose and breaks her leg or you tear your ACL and need surgery (all of which we dealt with). Oh yeah and you need insurance and a cell phone which add up too.
So get out of debt. Then save up a lot of money because working on the road doesn’t come easy for us all. I made a total of about $1000… and that’s because I got a job at a nursery for a month. I’ve made around $250 online through a mix of transcriptions and a couple Upwork jobs. Remember that whole thing about internet connections, it might be harder to find than you think.
I read here that most people can’t handle a “$500 surprise bill” so save up before you go out on your adventure. As a reference we saved up $10,000 for this trip and made money on the road. And we’re cheap asses too. And we have no debt. This is a great way to get a tight hold on your finances and to learn some financial planning too. Don’t be afraid of money, don’t scoff it off as something you don’t need. When you finally give in to it and balance yourself with your monetary needs, you’ll be so much more satisfied.
Happy Tripping. Enjoy the ride.