What's your reaction when somebody tells you they are living in a van? I don't fully remember what my first encounter with vanlife was, but I'm willing to bet that it had to do with some climbing legends and seemed like a completely glorious thing and probably sounded like I was going to automatically become a crusher if I only was to have the guts to buy a van and live in it. 

That guy.  Buy a 2002 Ford Econoline and you too will freesolo crazy s*** like it's no big deal!  (Image from Outside Online - click on it to see the original article.)

That guy.  Buy a 2002 Ford Econoline and you too will freesolo crazy s*** like it's no big deal! 
(Image from Outside Online - click on it to see the original article.)

Well.  It's been about ten months since I bought a van and I've been living in it for eight. For some reason, shockingly, I'm still not a crusher.  But has it been glorious? Completely, yes.  

Non-outdoorsy types are always curious when I tell them about my chosen living situation.  “Where do you go to the bathroom?” and "how do you shower??” are standard questions that seem top of mind for every nine-to-fiver. (Answer: same as you when you’re on a long drive.) Very rarely do I get asked about the finer nuances of van life, you know, the ones that I care about: ‘How much water do I need to carry to stay out in the desert for two weeks without resupply?’ or ‘Will my avalanche shovel survive digging the van out of those pesky sand traps that I seem to have a talent for finding?

My trusty steed Eddie on a desert mission 

Earlier this summer though, an Instagram friend asked a question that made me stop and think: “What’s been the hardest part about transitioning from your old life to the one you’re living now?” 

Oy.  The hardest part? I was ready to give a quick-fire answer. Figuring out where to shower. Learning the difference between awesome, good, marginal and outright-desperate-and-totally-terrible bivy spots. Or fitting all that outdoor gear into a little Chevy Astrovan.  Building out the van in the first place, complete with self-taught carpentry basics. Learning how to be OK with those evenings where you’re falling asleep by the side of a road, by yourself, feeling disconnected from the world. But, no, none of those answers felt true.  

Working on the buildout.  Yes, I did everything with a handsaw and I'm damn proud of it.

Here is the one answer that’s true: the hardest part about vanlife is finding the guts to actually do it and go through with it.  

When I first started talking about moving into a van it was mostly a joke.  Then I started to think about renting a camper van for a couple months to run around the US for an extended holiday. Then a friend remarked how much cheaper it would be for me to buy a van outright.  Then I started telling people I was going to buy a van.  And all a sudden the train was picking up speed to the point where I didn’t want to jump off anymore. 

Eddie at the time of purchase. A world apart from my day job as a strategy consultant. 

That is… until I bought Eddie the van. You see, I was based in Houston, and the market for adventure mobiles on the Gulf coast is limited.  I scoured Craigslist for vans in the $3000 range; the best I could find was a little 2002 Chevy Astro with 213k miles on the chassis, 93k on the engine.  The van was running fine but had been abused by its previous owners.  The interior was in terrible shape, filthy and smelling, with plenty of duct tape fixes. At the time I was still living in a nice neighborhood in Houston, renting a high-end apartment, working a prestigious job, commuting to work by plane every week; while one half of my oversized walk-in closet was mountain and trail clothes, the other half was still boardroom dresses and suits and high heels. The contrast was stark.  

Contrasts.  Dressed up soon-to-be dirtbarbie and a barely-built adventure mobile. 

Back to the van: I could see that Eddie was my best option in the Houston area, so I forked over $2800 in cash and drove the van home. Sitting in traffic on I-45, immersed in the stink of this tattered old vehicle and a universe away from the brand-new premium sedan rental cars that I was used to, I felt a tidal wave of “oh my god this is terrible” coming on.  All a sudden I was no longer just talking about turning my world upside down - I was actually doing it.  I had already terminated the lease on my apartment, and given notice to quit my job.  And now I had the van that was going to be my home going forward.  Turning back was no longer an option. 

After I bought Eddie, I went through a few days funk.  He was too ragged and old and too filthy and on second thought way too small anyway.  But he was mine - and I was going to have to live in him. I researched buildout options and sat in front of at an empty sheet of paper, at a loss of what to do.  A day later, the sheet of paper was still empty.   The next day, I ripped out the seats and started cleaning.  Two hours later, sweaty and disgusted and nowhere near the “clean” stage, I drove Eddie to a carwash where I handed over $200 for a head-to-toe detail.  And all a sudden, dread was being replaced by excitement again.  The road from the carwash led to the hardware store, from the hardware store to the roof of my building’s parking garage and finally, three weeks later, from parking-garage-roof-turned-van-workshop straight towards the life that I had dreamed of for so long. 

Planning the buildout

The result

If you’re a free spirit and adventurer, vanlife is completely glorious.  To wake up with the sun, fall asleep wherever you want to and live days full of adventure in between - what could be better. It really is as good as it sounds, and the most beautifully unencumbered way to live a life of wanderlust and exploration. Yes, there are moments when it’s tedious and dirty and you’re feeling totally up in the air and like you’re going for broke and it’s scary and desperate.  There are nights when you are parked in the wrong spot and you can’t sleep because you’re uncomfortable or because there is a cop’s flashlight blinding you through your window at 3am.  And there are days when the van breaks down and everything is a mess and you wonder how you’re going to make it all work out.  But those moments are far and few between.  At its very essence, vanlife means your happiness is your own choice: if you end up in a spot that’s not what you wanted, just jump back into the driver’s seat and hit the road again! 

Comment