Ah, van life. The rain beating down on tinted glass, the sunrise lighting the world in every direction. The freedom to wander as you will. Car insurance is cheaper than rent; car repair is cheaper than utilities.
When I first moved into a van, every day was an adventure. I’d shove five or six people into my old minivan—later my full-size van—and off we’d go across the country. Some of my favorite people in this world I met because someone I was traveling with dragged them along.
No wonder people romanticize van life.
After seven years of it, I am so glad I don’t live in a van anymore. Simple living is great, I guess, but having stuff is great too.
* * *
When I was little, my dad brought home a VW Vanagon. The wayback had a partial mattress that became a full bed with the bench seat lowered. This is one of my earliest memories. “You can sleep in a van,” I realized. “More than that, you can live in a van!”
Freedom beckoned. When I grew up, I would live in a van.
* * *
My actual decision to move into a van came a lot later, and it was more of a step away from simple living. I’d been living out of a backpack for most of a decade, couchsurfing, squatting, subletting, camping, and generally just putting up with any material discomfort necessary in order to wander the country for free. I started off with just a backpack. By the end, I had a full-sized internal frame pack, a computer bag, and an accordion. I dutifully carried it all from city to city, country to country, for years.
Shelter insecurity and relying on the kindness of strangers and friends wore me down and my anxiety was rising, quickly. I tried renting a room, but it just wasn’t for me, not then. So I bought a minivan. Later, when I could afford it, a full-size van. Later still, I gutted the interior and put in hardwood floors, a roof vent, and better insulation.
With a van, I always had shelter and I always had a way to leave wherever I was. I could keep books and zines to distribute, craft supplies, and musical instruments. Sure, I had to scrounge up more work than before, to pay for gas and repairs, but the trade-off was worth it.
Some of my non-traveling friends romanticized my life while others tried to convince me to stop. I think both these positions derived from the same impulse. By existing, and seeming to thrive, I called into question people’s own decisions to be sedentary and people were either excited to live vicariously through me or they were defensive about the compromises they’d made in life. (Interestingly, the people I know who have non-optional considerations that kept them from traveling—like medical conditions or dependents—never tried to convince me that I needed to stop.)
Maybe the single most telling conversation I had was with a friend who thought what I was doing was pure folly.
“Deeper connections with a single community is part of our human heritage,” he said. “You shouldn’t deny yourself that.”
“Wandering is part of our human heritage,” I replied.
We were both right.
I’ve long held—maybe I still do, I don’t know—that what I want, at the core of my being, is to be part of a nomadic community. I want to grow roots with people, but not some specific plot of land.
* * *
People romanticize #vanlife enough to make it a hashtag. Go onto instagram and search it and you’ll find lots of cute young hetero white cis couples with tech jobs or a mysterious lack of jobs who travel in cute expensive-to-maintain old vans. They seem to live on the beach and they have matching cushions and they laugh about how awesome and simple their lives are.
There are two types of romanticization. People romanticize poverty either because they’re dealing with rich people problems or because they’re dealing with poor people problems. It’s okay to romanticize the life you’ve chosen to lead (or the life that’s been thrust upon you). It’s okay because life is fucking hard sometimes and if we can derive some aesthetic satisfaction out of that, then we should.
I romanticize being a starving artist, because I’ve made a lot of sacrifices to make it as a writer so I might as well get something out of that. If I’m sitting by a broken window writing a story longhand on a dumpstered desk, you better believe I’m going to appreciate the beauty of that moment.
I romanticize conflict with the state, because I consider conflict with the state to be necessary so I’d better try to get something out of that. When I think back on staring down riot police with my face covered and my arms linked with comrades, and a cop pointed a grenade launcher at my face point blank and I could see down the barrel… well I was too scared to appreciate it at the time, but I try my best later.
I romanticized van life because I was living in a van and hey, I might as well decide I liked it.
* * *
I wouldn’t say I’m a coward, but I am afraid all of the time, much more so than most of my friends. (I have no idea how I compare to the population at large. It doesn’t help that so many of my friends are superheroes/villains who actively fight against the most powerful structures of oppression in the world.)
Fear was mounting. Van life provided shelter and escape, but I often slept afraid that the police would wake me up. Driving all the time, through all sorts of weather, was wearing me down. The wind ripped off my bumper once in Arizona, and it seemed like every full day of driving something almost killed me. More and more, as I got older, I got lonelier. I need a hell of a lot of alone time, but sometimes I’d go a week without speaking to anyone but cashiers. I spent a lot more time camping at WalMart parking lots than nestled in the redwoods.
At one point, I ran out of money and let my van break down in my friends’ yard. I grabbed my backpack and kept going. I must have filled that thing with too many books, because I ripped the cartilage between my sternum and my ribs while swinging it on. Turns out I’m not in my twenties anymore. My chest didn’t heal, not on any kind of quick timeline. Friends put a new transmission into my van (in exchange for borrowing it for a cross-country tour) but you can’t repair a person so easily. Moving boxes every day to get to my things, and living in a space too small to stand, kept me from healing.
So last spring, I gave up.
When you’ve wandered half your life, everywhere takes on a kind of sameness. I didn’t know where to live. I figured I’d be just as happy or unhappy anywhere I wound up. I made a spreadsheet.
I plugged in some features I wanted in a town—affordable, existing friendships, access to anarchist community, proximity to family, access to nature, weather—and weighted them, then ranked each city. For my standards, Asheville, North Carolina won. Last summer, I moved to Asheville. This was maybe the least-chaotic decision I’ve ever made.
I love it here.
More than that, I love living in one place.
* * *
I fight wanderlust, to be sure. But not as much as I used to when I was younger.
I used to believe that I was a wanderer. Not that I was wandering, but that wanderer was an intrinsic quality of mine. Maybe it is. Maybe two years from now, I’ll look back at this time as the eye of a storm and I’ll be somewhere sleeping under the stars.
For now, I fill that wanderlust hole with objects. Material possessions. All the stuff that I’m supposed to eschew. And you know what? It’s great.
I collect craft supplies. I don’t need them. I only make some tiny portion of my income through crafting—I mostly make my living writing, which I can do just as easily on the road. I have a workbench that I built and I can go down to the garage anytime I want and make jewelry to give to friends.
I own an electric toothbrush. I have the same dentist I go to every time. There’s sliding scale therapy and sliding scale yoga in this town. I might even end up with health insurance sometime soon.
My chest is starting to heal. Anxiety will always be a part of my life, but these days I control it instead of it controlling me.
Every night I go to sleep and I know that there’s only the tiniest chance that the cops will wake me up.
I have to work a lot more, and that’s a pain in the ass. The freedom to not-work afforded me by traveling helped me get my writing career started—as well as giving me plenty of story fodder—and I have to do more client jobs now which leaves me with less time and energy for my own writing.
* * *
Wandering was, for me, some serious privilege. I had no dependents. I didn’t need to build my own safety net, because I have strong connections with my family, who would take me in again if necessary, and the anarchist community provides for its own. I didn’t need regular medical care. I chose a career that doesn’t require much infrastructure and lets me telecommute.
I’d rather we had a society that better accommodated wandering. I wish medical care wasn’t state-to-state and/or expensive. I wish national borders were more permeable or ideally didn’t exist. I wish police didn’t target transients. I wish it were more possible for entire families and communities to travel together, which would more or less mean abolishing the private ownership of land and legal jurisdictions like townships. Imagine how awesome traveling could be if we destroyed the state and capitalism.
We don’t have that better society. We have this one, and I’ve got to deal with it.
So at least for now, here I am, waiting for my Amazon Prime delivery. I bought a bedside table. I’m excited.
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