Today marks the end of my six-week journey through Europe in a Volkswagen Transporter, my first taste of the Van Life. I give those words capital letters because it is a community and a movement all its own. The more I research people who have given up their apartments, jobs and spacious lives and moved it all into a mobile living space, the more I realize I haven’t even scratched the surface.
I am enamored with a smattering of people dedicated to the simpler life, the paring down of unnecessary material objects, putting the rest into wheels and cruising.
Living in a van is a completely new experience. It is travel on a different level. The time on the road was certainly an eye opener. I’ve backpacked through rain forests, camped in the Sahara, hitchhiked through the Caribbean and slept on boats in Asia, but living in a van is something else completely.
Our capacity to learn and understand grow exponentially with new experiences. A few things here are obvious, but all are imperative to my experience with the Van Life.
1. You learn to make do with whatever you have at that moment.
Space is critical with your entire life crammed into one vehicle. Along with the usual road trip essentials we also had clothing, toiletries, food, cooking utensils, water, a portable shower, grill, gas stove, and four surfboards in the van with us. Everything has a function. The bed is also the living room is also the kitchen is also the bed.
Mistakes and slip ups are inevitable. Whether you forgot to buy bread or you dropped your toothbrush in the dirt where you washed your dishes or you need to go to the bathroom and all that’s available is a bush on the side of the street.
You really can adapt to anything. All it takes is a willingness to laugh at yourself, forgiveness, creativity and squatting in unlikely places.
2. Any government that puts money into public bathrooms is a friend of mine.
A life of simplicity sometimes comes without in-house toilets. The country of France is incredibly generous with its care for public spaces. Drinking water, wash stations, clean bathrooms and sometimes showers (showers!) were available at highway rest stops. You hear that America?
3. Life without constant connection to the internet is dangerously refreshing.
I am someone who maintains a website, a personal and professional Facebook, an Instagram (ok, so it’s my guilty pleasure) and a freelancing business on the side. The need to connect transcends my desire to check Facebook notifications. However, being disconnected and parked on a red clay cliff above a pumping reef break with nothing to do but cook breakfast, drink coffee and read a book after a surf? I acclimated nicely.
4. Privacy is relative.
I am female. I am without a toilet. Need I say more?
5. More and more people are fed up with the fast life.
There is more to life than increasing the speed at which we travel through it. There is more to life than working all year to spend one week in a far-flung paradise, consequently missing out on the cultural experience of the place, too burnt out to do anything but burn up. The trend of the Van Life is more about slowing down, taking a step back and a deep breath in.
Before this trip I had preconceived notions about who I would meet on the road. When you first think of van dwellers what comes to mind? For me it was the homeless, the gypsies, the high-on-whatever surf bums. While there are those people, (stereotypes have a way of doing that: delivering just enough to make you cling to them) there are also “normal” humans as well. Intelligent, creative, family oriented, business minded, none or all of those things, and free to move where they please.
In any given parking lot, camp site or cliff’s edge there were children chasing each other, dogs sleeping soundly at the driver’s wheel, surf moms and dads, photographers, writers, painters, web designers, teenagers, middle-agers and retirees who’ve given up the homestead and hit the road.
From the quiet soloist to the German mother and son duo, I was surprised and delighted at the diversity of people we came across.
7. It is never, ever about the destination.
The joy derived from the life lived on the road is extracted solely in the journey. Your destination means nothing if you haven’t appreciated what came before it, on the way. I think this is what sealed the deal for me. In the past, traveling was in pursuit of something. Now, it is simply about experiencing life, in the moment, regardless of the location. Whether you’re sleeping in a parking lot next to a thumping Discotheque, driving through the woods on a muddy track or getting terrifically lost, that is it. That is your adventure. That is your life. It’s the in between, the accidental discoveries, the broken GPS, the forged friendships over parking lot bonfires.
8. Van Life is Freedom. With a capital F.
In every civilization’s history there is a search, a fight, a struggle for freedom. In the Western World the antidote for a life suffocated by society is the freedom of living in a van. The worldly possessions that come along for the ride have one of two traits: functionality or serious sentimental value. Life is simpler without the clutter of the unnecessary, in both realms.
This freedom is also applicable to the ability to move your home at the drop of a hat. If you want a change of scenery, you pack up your things, bungee cord large objects down, velcro smaller items, and start-up the engine.
It has a wonderful way of reminding us all how infinitely tiny we are in comparison to her world; she puts on a show with a clear night sky, an ocean full of energy, sliding rock cliffs, and shifty red clay formations. With natural phenomena I struggle to describe it all without sounding overly cliché and washy. If you are fortunate enough to experience it, you understand. The beauty of that fortune is that it doesn’t discriminate. Step outside. Look up. Look out.
Now, I write this from a room with four walls, on a couch, with a cup of coffee and wrapped in a blanket. The wonders of the Van Life does not mean I’ve given up structural dwelling. I like this couch. I like these walls. But I like Freedom too.
While I was writing this article I came across a recent interview with a woman I admire, Melissa Connell of “Life in the Slow Lane”. It epitomized what I was trying to convey here, albeit in a much more eloquent manner. To read about her traveling lifestyle in a very rad Sunliner, check out the article.