A few weeks after being sent home from our jobs working aboard luxury cruise ships, my best friend, Emily, and I were taking our daily government-sanctioned stroll through my neighborhood, contemplating what we wanted to do with our (what was originally supposed to be) two month hiatus from ship life. “That’s pretty cool”, I blurted, admiring the vintage Volkswagen in my neighbor’s yard — the hippie kind you only see in movies and Instagram. “Wait. How awesome would THAT be?!”, I mused when I noticed it’s “For Sale” sign. “To go see the most ICONIC places in this country — but while they’re absolutely EMPTY.” Emily looked at me like I was crazy. “And gas will never be this cheap again.” We immediately inquired. Partly disappointed and partly relieved, the van was a manual transmission — something I wouldn’t feel comfortable driving around the entire country.
We hadn’t really revisited the idea when Emily called a few weeks later. “ I think I found our van”, she lead with. My phone started buzzing with pics of the maroon 1985 Dodge Ram Van on Facebook Marketplace that I would soon call home for the next several months. By this time, it had become apparent that we were not returning to work within the upcoming weeks. I agreed immediately, knowing very well that I hadn’t fully thought out this commitment nor logistics. By the end of the weekend, we were the proud owner of a 35 year old vehicle that you would probably call the cops on if you saw rolling through your neighborhood.
Over the course of a few weeks in the hot Louisiana sun, we transformed that thing into what would later become known as “the Vandemic” — as well as some cruder nicknames amongst my closest friends. In addition to ensuring she was mechanically fit to trek the vast American terrain and technologically-equipped to spend days at a time off the grid, this luxury shopping consultant and pageant queen duo was certainly not about to settle for an inflatable air mattress. After scouring Facebook marketplace, binge watching van conversion videos and becoming regulars at the local Home Depot, our van was equipped with a wooden floor and ceiling, a running sink, a four poster memory foam bed, captain’s chairs, bedside cubbies, state-of-the art electronics and yes, plants. One of my friends summed it up best as, aesthetically, “straight outta Pinterest”.
From Louisiana, we headed west into Texas. Our first few nights were spent along the Gulf Coast, parking on the beach and learning the hard way that we had to make some sort of bug screens if we wanted to open the windows at night and not get eaten alive. We also soon learned that being in a pandemic, we would have to practice diligence beyond wearing a mask and obeying local quarantine guidelines; when one of the parks we had planned to camp at in Texas (a state with some of the loosest state regulations) was closed to discourage weekend gatherings, we resorted to sleeping in a Walmart parking lot. Those first few weeks were filled with a lot of learning curves.
Our route circumnavigated most major cities that would typically be included on a classic American road trip. We did this for a variety of reasons — the most obvious being avoiding large crowds and hotspots. Additionally, we wanted to prioritize places we could only drive to — not cities we could easily fly to and experience fully under normal circumstances. As civil unrest started emerging in metropolitan areas across the United States, our safety precautions heightened as well.
We spent the majority of our time hiking, camping and experiencing the truly breathtaking natural wonders and landscapes of the vast State Parks, National Recreation Areas and 14 of the 62 National Parks: Guadalupe, Great Sand Dunes, Petrified Forest, Grand Canyon, Zion, Joshua Tree, Sequoia, Yosemite, Lassen, Redwood, Crater Lake, Glacier, Yellowstone and Grand Teton. For some of these sites, visiting in a pandemic was an enhanced experience; smaller group sizes on tours, less crowds, more camping availability and less park services and activities — which weeded out the novice clientele. However, at some of the more famous parks, this meant an influx of mentally and physically unprepared families in minivans driven by frustrated dads— trying to find an adequate substitute for their cancelled Disney vacations.
With no deadlines set in stone, Emily and I took everything day by day; if we were really enjoying a place or received a cool recommendation from a local, we’d stay a little longer. If we weren’t impressed with an area or found ourselves in an unfavorable phase of the constantly evolving “opening, reopening, re-closing” cycle, we’d simply move along. While many states had lenient policies regarding out-of-state visitors, some made it clear that tourists were not welcome. Cutting through New Mexico while en route to Arizona, we stopped to get gas at a truck stop, only to be greeted with “tourists go home” scribbled in the restroom and a knock on the window from a police officer making sure that we weren’t planning on hanging around.
At many of the campsites, we met other millennials there for the same exact reason; roadtriping while unemployed and searching for “what’s next” — many being fellow Yankees dodging some of the strictest COVID regulations in the country (and also slightly hesitant to admit they’re from the Northeast).
While we were mostly isolated and immune in rural America from the turbulence spiraling in the more populated areas of the US, vague reminders of the political, economic and social landscape would occasionally pop up; a glimpse of the news playing at our bi-weekly venture to the laundromat, a prayer vigil for Vanessa Guillen, an assembly of teachers protesting the upcoming school year (quite frankly, I couldn’t tell if they were objecting to online school or in-person classes), boarded up small businesses in once-flourishing tourist towns and the token Trump flag flying outside of large ranches — the sole indicator of the current year for hundreds of miles.
The spectrum of Coronavirus concerns, closings and response could have not been more vast. At an outdoor art display in the remote California dessert, a man screamed at me to put on a mask from 100+ feet away with a megaphone — because I pulled down my bandana for a picture. We were the only people there. Meanwhile, thousands of spectators in Montana gathered — mostly maskless, for the Friday night rodeo, the crowd cheering as the emcee cantillated “Who here is tired of this COVID sh*t?!” Perplexed, I couldn’t understand how this was any different from business as usual. Libraries, museums, indoor restaurants and even parks were closed in some states, but not others. Mask policies wavered from required to required but not enforced, encouraged, rarely worn, mocked and yes, even prohibited — depending on where we were that day.
Three months and 24 states later, the Vandemic headed back to Massachusetts, COVID and antibody free, for a scheduled intermission so that Emily, a duel citizen, could visit family in England and I could focus on preparing for an upcoming pageant. Additionally, we had assumed by now that we’d have a better indicator of when our cruise careers would be resuming and if a “Part II” down the East coast was on the horizon. We’re still trying to figure out what that timeline looks like.
Despite health, safety and mechanical concerns, we completely bypassed major dilemmas and deterrences beyond the occasional inconvenience, like having to replace the fuel pump after getting some bad gas, or a homeless man at a rest stop adamantly insisting I take in his dog. Throughout the country, we were met with mostly support and kindness from locals, with the only hostility and negativity stemming from far-away bystanders on Instagram, drawing conclusions on our entire trip based off a couple maskless photos.
There were certainly parts of our trip I wish I had been able to experience under “normal circumstances”, but quite frankly, Emily and I would’ve probably never gone through with this under “normal circumstances”. Despite the perfect storm of a crippling pandemic, economic uncertainty, racial tensions and polarizing election tearing our country apart, the amazing scenery and beauty of the United States is something we can all be proud of as Americans; this reminder was refreshing. My eyes were also opened to just how vastly other parts of the United States differ — in terms of culture, ideology and lifestyle, from where I grew up. While Middle America may be isolated and angered by what’s going on in the “coastal elite cities”, the coasts are just as oblivious to the hardships of Middle America.
Over the course of a few days in March, I watched my career, living situation, lifestyle and dreams completely derail. My biggest takeaway from COVID and the Vandemic has been to “do it while you can”, because tomorrow is never promised. There is just so much to do, see and experience; quite frankly, we’re all just getting older and the timing will never be right. Despite having my reservations and perhaps not fitting the typical “vanlife” mold, I couldn’t be happier that when given this unique opportunity, we took the leap. When I look back at the Summer of 2020, my arsenal of beautiful memories, emotional realizations and “you’ll never believe it” moments will dominate over the negativity that this year has brought upon us.
And all that aside, at least now I know how to change a tire.