Vanlife has been an idea that has captured me, my thoughts, my daydreams, for a while now. Recently a few people have asked me why, and I figured, I might as well write it out for myself. Remind myself (or, in some cases, parse through for the very first time) why the things that I say are important to me are actually important to me.
Beauty. Love. Joy. Nature.
Vanlife is a thing I first heard about when I was in college. Poking around online looking for inspiration for an architecture project, I found a blog by another architecture student who, frustrated by the theoretical nature of school projects, wanted to build something real. Something tangible.
So he bought a bus.
I found that blog again (hankboughtabus) and looking back on it, the build isn’t particularly special. The bus is fairly minimal and, now that I’ve seen so many amazing builds, it looks a bit plain by comparison. But there was an approachability to the simplicity. It made me think I could do that. That really is the one that started it all for me.
Or maybe not.
Maybe it started long before that. Before college. Before school even.
It’s 1999 and I’m sitting in the back of a grey minivan at a dealership. My older sister is trying to convince me that this van is better than the other one. Sure, the other one has a TV but imagine all the tea parties we can have in this one. We can put the seats down and sit on the floor and I’ll tell you stories and we can play pretend. What do you say?
I said ok.
For years after, that van would be the vehicle of our vacations. Road trips and scenic drives. Places I didn’t know how to appreciate yet. Wildness seeding itself in my heart. My dad would take out the middle two seats and put down layer after layer of blankets and pillows until the back of the van was basically one big mattress. We would make forts and read books and, one time when we were super bored, compete in who could do the most sit ups without stopping (I won).
There is something about the pace of a road trip. The easy accessibility of it. That it doesn’t matter how much you strive, how fast you drive, you’ll get there when you get there. So might as well kick off your shoes, settle in, put your feet up on the dashboard, and surrender. To boredom. To time. To existence.
Maybe that’s where it all started for me. In the back of that grey minivan watching the clouds roll by on endless stretches of interstate highways. Searching license plates and billboard ads for alphabet letters and playing any number of made up games to pass the time.
I didn’t know it then but those moments are some of my favorites. The moments that made childhood feel soft. That made life feel soft.
In some ways, I am still searching for that. Maybe my entire life is about that. The search for softness. In myself. In others. In the world.
There is also something immensely satisfying about having everything I could possibly need contained in a metal box on wheels. That goes where I go. That I can take refuge in. It’s the same itch that feeds my love of backpacking (where everything I need is carried on my back). I don’t know if it stems from the need to explore or the need to be fully independent, to be able to escape at a moment’s notice.
The open road is an idea that has captured the American imagination long before vanlife became a tag with blogs and builds and how to’s. It might even predate the cars and roads themselves, back to when the west felt wild and full of opportunity. Full of dreams.
Maybe vanlife is the way I want to meet myself. Is that a cheesy thing to say? Is it naive and foolish to think I can tease out the immutable qualities about who I am, about life itself, if I only had the time and space to think?
In all honesty, vanlife also just sounds fun. Existential angsting aside, I want to be able to follow a dirt road as far as I’d like and stop whenever I like. Walk trails that are hard to reach. Follow roads that have no destination. Find beauty in the journey. In the misadventure. Pack the car and bring a few extra gallons of gas and just go.
Doesn’t that sound fun?
Vanlife to me is tied with the red rocks and slot canyons of southern Utah, the hot springs and evergreens of the Pacific Northwest, the graffitied ruins of southern California. I want the cozyness of cuddling under a pile of blankets while rain drums on the metal roof, I want the tired route finding and rolling into a campsite late at night with no idea of what I’m parked next to until the morning.
I want the uncertainty and the simplicity.