Today I’m going to talk about the dark side of #Vanlife. It’s easy to look though the lens of social media and see an idealized version of what this adventure really is. And I’m complicit in that. Most of us vanlifers are. We tell our stories through rose-colored Instagram filters. Well I’m going to try and set that aside for today.
Every time the 15th of the month rolls around I stop and reflect a bit. It usually begins with “I can’t believe it’s been X months…”. It really feels like I’ve just started. And maybe I have.
I originally said this would be “a year-long road-trip,” but here I am more than three quarters of the way through, and it doesn’t feel like I’m going to be ready to stop in a couple months. Of course, a lot can happen in 60 days, but that’s how it feels right now. There’s so much I haven’t seen, and there’s so much I want to see again. Places to re-experience. People to hug once more. Burritos to re-consume.
It probably helps that the trip keeps getting broken up by side adventures. I’ll be in the middle of the country then suddenly I have to fly to LA for a meeting, or San Francisco to shoot a video, or Colorado for a work trip. Each time I get to reconnect with good friends and/or meet new people. It breaks up the loneliness of the road. And there’s a good dose of that. But it is a good dose. It feels healthy. It feels right. Mostly. It gives me a chance to check in with myself. Where I’m at on this trip, in my career, in my life.
I continue to struggle to find the balancing point between work and play. This has been a life-long struggle, but on the road it’s amplified. I have constant, easy access to novelty and adventure. All I have to do is step out of the van and start saying YES to things, and I’ll be challenged, invigorated, stimulated, scared. Knowing that’s always on the other side of the door, it’s hard to stay inside with the blinds drawn and stare into my laptop. But that’s part of the mission, too. I’m not on vacation. I’m out here to share the journey. So here we are at last.
And what to say. I could do the traditional travelogue format, but it’s been too long since my last update, and I’d have too much ground to cover. Since my last update it’s been Marfa (TX), to Big Bend National Park, then New Orleans, Memphis, Nashville, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Grand Canyon, Atlanta, Asheville, Raleigh, Miami, Sebastian Inlet, Jekyll Island, Savannah, Charleston, Wilmington, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, and Washington DC. Perhaps it’s best to save that for the eventual book.
Instead, I think I’ll talk about the hard things. Because to only show you pretty pictures and fun stories would be disingenuous. The simple fact remains: Even when your vehicle is a pimped-out van with so many creature comforts, life on the road takes it out of you.
You get tired of hitting your head on things. If I shaved off all my hair I’m certain that my scalp would be a topographical map of scars. You get tired of scrambling to clean up every little splash of water, because if mildew starts to form behind a panel your home will become a petri dish for mold, allergens, and stank. You get tired of cabinets inexplicably popping open while you’re on the highway, or finding out when you hit the brakes that there was that one goddamned thing you forgot to put away, and now it’s smashed on the floor.
You’ve always been a summer person, but #vanlife is undeniably more comfortable in cooler weather. You may not like bundling up or putting on the noisy propane furnace, but you have those options. In the sauna-like heat and humidity of the southeast there’s nothing you can do on days when you need to stay in and work. Unless you’re at a paid campsite with electric hookups, you’re not going to turn on your AC. It would kill your battery in 90 seconds flat, and you running the loud, stinky generator is rarely a good option. You’re also weary of bathroom rationing; trying to use your toilet and sink as little as possible so you don’t have to empty the holding tanks as often.
And then there’s parking. Downtown—any downtown—is pretty much a nightmare. At roughly nine and a half feet tall, there are almost no covered garages you fit into, and most metered parking spaces aren’t 21 feet long. But worse is trying to find that spot to overnight.
I wish now that I kept better notes, but I would estimate that I’ve spent the night in roughly 40 different Walmart parking lots across the country since this trip began. But then you get to a very unfriendly city toward vans, like Washington DC, and even the Walmarts don’t allow overnighting, and what do you do? You find some quiet-ish residential neighborhood, you try to wait until after 10pm to park. You pull up the shades quickly, you keep your internal lights down low. You try not to make any noise. If you listen to music, you use headphones. If you talk on the phone, you use hushed tones, and suddenly you realize, “What the hell, man! This is my home! Why am I tiptoeing around my own home like some fucking burglar?”
Except you know that if someone calls the cops on you, the police will come knocking, and they’ll tell you to move, or give you a ticket, or who knows? It’s only happened to me once (in Santa Monica, CA), and though the cop was friendly enough I’ve never felt the same in the van. I’ve never slept quite as soundly. Every voice I hear outside wakes me up or puts me on guard. Every car that parks behind me and leave the engine running for a little while before they turn the car off has me sitting up, listening. I’m always waiting for that knock.
And realistically, spending weeks on end without seeing a familiar face begins to take a toll. You start feeling like a weird drifter. You start getting more agitated when someone doesn’t write or call you back. It becomes more personal. The pangs and longings—for past lovers, for friends, for family—all become more acute. More concentrated. It’s all trapped between the steel walls you live in and it gets reflected back at you. That’s when you start to wonder what the hell you’re doing. Where does it stop? How does it end? What’s next?
And yet these experiences are the things I wouldn’t trade for the world. All of them. The soaring highs and the soul-crushing lows. They aren’t just a byproduct of the experience that I came for, they are the experience I came for. When it’s all over, and I still don’t know when that will be, these are the things that on which I’ll look back and reflect. These are the things I’ll grow from. Be it staying up all night on the beach talking to wondrous strangers or finding myself alone in my van, in a parking lot, and suddenly realizing I’m on the verge of tears over seemingly nothing. It’s the same shit that everyone deals with in life, it’s just a concentrated version.
I started this entry at the eight month mark of the journey. Then I ran away from it. Then I picked it up again at the 9 month mark, then put it down again. The same thing happened at 10. So I’m sorry it’s been so long between updates. This will be going live just one week shy of the 11 month park. Some of the delay was because I finally managed to get my Cuba/Kayak story published. Some of it was because I shot a whole second season of the videos series I’ve been doing for WIRED. Here are a couple of those episodes.
Crashing NASA's Astronaut Training
Seeing how virtual reality porn is made:
But the big reason it took me so long is that I didn’t know how to process THIS—these feelings, and the larger emotional arc of the journey—in realtime. I guess I needed to take a little time to myself and just feel it. And then recover a bit from feeling it. And then repeat that whole process ad nauseum until I couldn’t take it anymore and had to say something about it. So I guess that’s where I’m at, because here this is.
We may be early into June, but it’s already a manic-feeling month. I said yes to a last-minute assignment to cover the Summer X-Games in Austin. Then I fly back to the van for two days, then off to Colorado for the GoPro Mountain Games. Then the van for a week or so and back to the Bay Area and LA to shoot some video. Back to the van, and then a wedding in early July back in the Bay Area. Meanwhile I’m hovering around Virginia and trying to make my way north. I want to hit Maine in July, if I can, and be back in Boston for my baby brother’s wedding in early August.
After that? I don’t know. I’ll probably start making my way back west. I want to see Michigan again, and Montana. I miss the west. I’d like to hit Burning Man this year (though I wouldn’t take the van; it would never be the same). But all that is past July 15th, which means I’m definitely extending this thing past the one-year mark I’d originally set for myself. How far past it I’ll go, I honestly have no idea, but I’m looking forward to finding out, with you.
As always, thank you for reading. If you’ve stuck around this far, you deserve some pretty pictures, so see below.
June 7th, 2016