Notes From A #VanLife

One Saturday last May, I slid a key into the lock on a scrappy little apartment 80 feet off Denver’s noisy Colfax Avenue. We carried our stuff in and made piles, and flopped a mattress onto the bedroom floor. In bed that night, I laid on my back as sirens shrieked, motorcycle engines whined and growled, and drunks and homeless people passed our building. A very small part of me wondered if I had made some wrong choices in life to end up in an apartment like this instead of something a little quieter, a little more spacious, maybe something closer to the park.

But most of me was exhaling a nearly continuous sigh of relief that I didn’t live in a van anymore. No one could kick us out of a parking spot, no headlights would shine in our rear window in the middle of the night, and I wouldn’t have that tiny nagging wonder if someone would mess with our van, the minuscule-but-still-there worry that you have no matter how remote or safe you tell yourself your bivy spot is.

After nearly three years of living completely on the road, I had a few reservations about quote-unquote settling down. I was giving up on a dream—living on the road year-round—and I had told people that I felt I should do it as long as I could do it, while I had the chance and the ability to. Was I really trading desert sunsets and sunrises outside my van’s windows for the bad air, dirt, traffic, and noise of a big city?

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In March 2012, I had been living for six months out of the back of a Subaru Outback Impreza, a station wagon that would have been perfect for a 5-foot-6-inch person. But I was 5’11”. Half of the six months I lived in my car, I fantasized about a van.

When you tell people you’re looking for a van to move into, they automatically think one of two things: A Volkswagen camper van or a Sprinter, the former being the sexy, Tumblr- and Instagram-ready international emblem of life on the road-slash-living the dream, and the latter being the best van-size mobile home reasonable money can buy. Both are beautiful, the stuff of dirtbag daydreams, and either would make a great choice for anyone choosing to live on the road.

I fixated on Astrovans, or as I called them, “the Sprinter van of the proletariat.” I found one with all-wheel drive and 129,000 miles on it. I had about $7500 in my life savings, and I gave it to the greasiest greaseball of slick, full-of-shit used-car salesmen I could probably find in Denver, a guy named Wayne who worked at a car “dealership” whose name ended in the words “and Pawn.” He promised he would have a mechanic fix the air flow system so air actually came out of the vents when I turned on the air conditioning, and glue the side panel back on the door, before I picked the van up the next week. He did neither.

The Astrovan was a crappy car, and a great house. Immediately, I sunk $3,000 into fixing the front end, which was all-wheel drive, but as a friend realistically reminded me, “There’s a big difference between Subaru all-wheel drive and Chevy all-wheel drive.” My friend Mitsu masterminded a giant wooden box with three enormous drawers that filled the back of the van, held all my gear, and supported my $100 IKEA mattress.

I put 60,000 miles on the van in less than two years and put thousands of dollars of repairs into it, but it never once left me stranded on the side of the road. I kept Wayne’s business card in the ashtray, a reminder of the Astrovan’s completely untrustworthy foster parent, before I rescued it. I laughed every time I randomly found the business card.

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A few months into my life in the van and just under a year into my life on the road, I met a girl. We took it slowly at first, partly because I was out of town all the time, and partly because I had blown enough relationships by rushing into them. After a few dates, the gravity was obvious, and after a couple months, we began to accelerate into a wonderful thing, as easy and natural as shutting the alarm clock off and hiding under the covers on a Sunday morning. I asked her if she might want to quit her job, start writing again, and move into my van with me? Of course she did.

We chased wifi and free camping spots all over the West for 16 months, squeezing in 50 hours of freelance work a week in coffee shops, public libraries, and the occasional laundromat. We climbed, ran trails, and mountain biked when we could, in Ouray, Red Rocks, Moab, Zion, Gooseberry Mesa, Sedona, and anywhere else that looked cool and wasn’t too far from a place to plug in our laptops.

We woke up below the Tombstones near Moab, with hot air balloons landing 100 feet away as we brushed our teeth outside the van on some Forest Service land south of Sedona, in a clandestine free spot near Zion. We drove into Joshua Tree National Park to climb a few pitches before work every morning for a week, snuck in mountain bike rides on Tuesdays in Utah and Northern California, and drove to places like Bisbee, Arizona, and The Loneliest Highway in America, just for the hell of it. All told, in just under three years, I slept in more than 300 different places and traveled to or through 23 states. I went all that time without ever cleaning a bathroom, because I didn’t rent or own anything with one it it.

I would be lying if I said I didn’t often think it was the greatest thing ever, living out of a duffel bag, looking at the map every time we got the itch to move on, never more than a few hours from this friend or that friend and a dinner and great conversation, all that “catching up” you wish you had time for but never do.

Depending on who you were talking to, the admission that you live out of a van is either strange or envied. At the time, Foster Huntington was making it look amazing to his 900,000 Instagram followers and the #vanlife hashtag, and pretty much started a movement. It’s a fantasy of a generation, mixing the American road trip myth and the dirtbag pursuit of passion and beauty in natural settings, and no matter what happens during the day, it’s hard to argue with watching the sunset over your steering wheel while your favorite song plays on the speakers and you push the gas pedal to the proverbial next best place. The whole thing is poetic, a Valencia-filtered image of hope to those of us who grind out 9-to-5s under fluorescent lights while daydreaming of backpacking or climbing vacations, live in too-small apartments, and have an ever-growing “Places to See Before I Die” list.

I wrote a book about the first three months of my life on the road, The New American Road Trip Mixtape, and sold a few thousand copies. On the back of the book, the author bio stated that I lived in a van. One of my favorite sentences in the book was “if you could live anywhere, wouldn’t you want to live everywhere?” and I really believed the sentiment that the entire West was my home, not any one house or apartment in it.

But the longer we lived on the road, the more it started to feel not so much like quote-unquote living the dream. Had we saved up all our money so we could live out of a van and climb for a year, it might have been more sustainable. But we didn’t—we were working, one foot in the world of living the dream and one foot in the office world, both dirty feet in a pair of sandals under whatever surface we used as a desk. We began to wear down from the constant struggle to find enough places to write stories, punch out e-mails, take conference calls, just barely staying ahead while waiting for the next paycheck—which we hoped would be in the next round of mail forwarded to wherever we were. And then find a quiet, dark, semi-secret place to park the van at night so we could get some sleep. The realities of pissed-on toilet seats of public restrooms began to blur the perfect visions of The Endless Road Trip. We were perpetually in some sort of minor karmic debt, using someone else’s wifi, someone else’s bathroom, someone else’s guest bedroom or couch, and someone else’s electrical outlets. All those things people who don’t live in a van pay for, but can count on.

On April 1st, we had planned to climb a second day at Smith Rock but woke up to snow dumping everywhere. We spent the day working at coffee shops in Bend, not sure where to go next, and that night, not wanting to get the van stuck on a muddy dirt road or impose on friends in town, we drove a few miles east of town on U.S. 20 and decided our best option was a former weigh station on the side of the highway, parking near two semi trucks who had the same plan but probably shades over their windows and and insulation inside their cabs. I sighed. The slush, the noise of cars flying by every two minutes, and the fact I couldn’t sit up in the van and type on my laptop without hunching over all added up. I scrolled through Craigslist ads for apartments in Denver on my phone, lying under the sleeping bag.

Was that too grown up? Were we selling out, giving up? All those people I know who would kill to be able to live on the road for a while—were we disappointing them? After more than two years of repeating the mantra that we should do it as long as we could, while we could, I was ready to fold.

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We emptied a storage unit that I’d kept during my entire life on the road, only returning to re-pack for this trip or that trip, or to box up wholesale copies of my books to send to a retailer. I had one box of “kitchen stuff,” the “Just In Case I Get an Apartment” box, that Josh and Trinh had given me after my breakup that started the whole road trip 29 months ago: a few plates, a few bowls, some pots, some pans. My clothes took up a single drawer of a dresser and about 15 hangers, all my soft shell and puffy jackets included.

The apartment wasn’t a dream home. Nobody would take photos of our place and put them on Pinterest. It was just enough rent money that it didn’t have rats or cockroaches, but not enough so we couldn’t travel half the year. After all, we still had a van with a bed in the back of it.

I have a real towel, not a pack towel. I can get up to pee at 2:30 a.m. without doing gymnastics to flip into the front seat and out the van door. I can make toast, for myself. I don’t have to order it from a waitress at a diner. I can make toast at 7 a.m., or 11 p.m. if I damn well want to. I can smear it with half a jar of peanut butter, and then I can eat it shirtless.

When the breeze blows in the right direction, the smell of donuts wafts in through the blinds. That first night in the apartment, the sirens and the motorcycle engines and the drunken shouts outside our apartment faded away as I fell asleep.

-Brendan

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31 Comments

  • They hybrid life. Find a cheap place to live. Save up half the year and then travel the other half. The best of both worlds.

    I was excited to see the semi-rad van in my local grocery store parking lot a few months ago. Made me feel like I lived somewhere kinda semi-rad.

  • Full time van living is way too rad anyway, and truly available only to the single, shameless dirt-bag or the trust-funder. Working stiffs like us don’t have it as easy. Now you’re truly semi-rad. YEAH TOAST!!

  • We quickly realized, like you did, that the trick can be a compromise. You don’t have to pick one or the other, that’s the beauty of it. Sure, it may look slicker on Instagram to say “living full time in a van” in your profile, but it’s sure nice to have a shower and a dishwasher sometimes. Congrats on the apartment, I’m happy for you guys! Hopefully we cross paths one of these days (and you’re welcome to check out the Sprinter if we can peep in your van haha).

  • A well-crafted, completely on-point essay that I can relate to thoroughly, one year into my own foray into the hybrid life…there’s a big difference between living COMPLETELY in your vehicle versus still traveling for 4-6 months at a time, but having that 300ft^2 studio back on the Front Range that holds (most of) your stuff and has an actual shower and stove range. With winter coming, I’m enjoying a little nesting.

    Sorry I didn’t properly introduce myself behind the Third Flatiron a couple weeks back (you were climbing with my buddy Mauricio); I’ve been a fan of the site for a long time, keep it up!

  • This piece is beautiful – it’s real life. You talk about “quote unquote settling down” and “giving up on a dream,” but to someone reading from afar, it looks more like you lived the dream, and it was good – it doesn’t have to last forever for it to be real and for it to be meaningful. “Doing the thing” is one of my favorite phrases about outdoors stuff (“I’m just gonna do the thing” could be a glacier summit, a long row, a half marathon in my life), and you did it – you did the living in the van thing. I understand what you’re trying to say here, but just having done it – quit the job, bought the van, lived in it – is actually the hard part, and is actually what I think people most respect. You did the thing – now you’re on to something else. As one of your readers, I don’t think that’s failing, or bailing on your dream – I think that’s just real life, and not in the flourescent lights and 9-to-5 way, but in the “life well-lived,” fully explored kind of way…

  • I get this so much. It’s so good to hear someone else putting into words that living the forever wandering life isn’t always the be-all, end-all.

    My ex and I traveled together off and on for about two years. I eventually found myself wanting to live in a place. To have friends I could call up and ask over to share a bottle of wine at the end of a long tiring day, to have a place I could buy plane tickets from to weddings and holidays back home, and to have a place I could call Home.

    I’ve moved to a small town in Colorado and am living here with my pup building a life. It’s one that I’m trying to make sure allows me to go and travel but to do so in a way that stays fresh and exciting rather than succumbing to the very less glamorous “life on the road.”

  • No problem at all with living the dream. Just have an idea of what you want to do when you wake up.

  • Like my bucket list of places to visit, my list of all-time favorite Semi-Rad posts keeps growing. Best of luck on this next pitch of your life.

  • Love this piece, Brendan. I lived in a tent years ago (and traveled around via my bicycle) and near the end of that adventure, I was DYING to return to a more “normal” life. I couldn’t wait to sleep in a real bed and have a shower and wash my face with something other than a cleansing wipe. And to be able to fall asleep without having to search for a secluded camping location where no one could find us? The dream! Too often we forget that we CAN have both, and sometimes the real dream is a combination of a lil’ of everything. (And now that you’re in Denver sometimes, maybe we’ll catch up at some point!)

  • Great read and totally on point. After living on the road in my truck for the better part of 2013 (and crossing paths with the Semi-Rad van a few times, both in Ouray and J-Tree–I remember working from the same Starbucks in town as you guys), and then backpacking in South America for a few months this year, I finally gave in to the Call of Domesticity and got an apartment in Medellin, Colombia. Without a doubt it was great to have my own bed, my own bedroom, and my own kitchen. I’m not ready to say I’m done being a vagrant (and am currently planning the next road trip) but yeah, it’s pretty awesome to have the conveniences of modern life at times.

  • Damn it. I’m halfway through your book. At least give the people reading your book a spoiler alert; this was not the ending I was hoping for the protagonist.

  • I felt this post echoed my sentiments. To me there is a huge difference between a year-long climbing trip living on the road, winding down your savings, and a year-long “climbing trip” as you try to make enough money to pay the minimal bills.

    It can be a struggle to balance the expectations others have of your lifestyle as well, especially when part of “who you are” (and your brand) is based on living on the road.

    We look forward to someday building a small house as our home base, while still having the ability to travel 6+ months of the year.

  • Agree – one of your best, Brendan!

    3 years ago today (ya, right – seems like 3 months and 30 years all at once) you picked me up in Vegas and we ran/walked across the Grand Canyon – and spent a couple of days in Zion – such a great memory – I think of it often, especially on Halloween. It was an honor to spend a little piece of your journey with you my friend. Congratulations on your dream lived and I can’t wait to see the next chapter!

  • There are people all over the world dying & killing to find a little comfort in this life, dont feel bad that you crave some conveniences too. It might not not be that this chapter of your life is over, but more like your taking a break from it. life is full of choices, perhaps you’ll choose a year on the road some day again……when you find the need to find what your soul is looking for. Glad your home friend, I’ve missed the Nepalese dinners.

  • Amigo, you know I have done my own twisted version of the story above off and on for a while now. Minus the girl part I guess, that is on the list, I think I may have to try it someday. My Astro did leave me stranded and turned into a very expensive learning experience. But that in a way led to a few more unplanned adventures. It’s all pieces of a bigger puzzle man. From cussing about the quality of the internet I get for free or just the price of a cup of coffee to making myself stop driving at dark so I didn’t miss anything- it’s all been an amazing adventure that I wouldn’t change much of if I could. One thing I don’t seem to do is write it all down as elegantly as you do. I sit here in awe of this post, beautifully done man.
    Tomorrow is the first of the month and like you I will be paying rent, I too have moved indoors for this next chapter. You call yours what you want, I am calling mine ‘regroup’. It’s a very big world and adventure quietly calls for those who listen, people like us don’t usually ignore it too long.
    But right now I am going to walk into the kitchen and get a cold drink out of a refrigerator instead of reaching into a stew of various food items all floating around in some funky colored ice water. LIG.

  • Six years of living the #van/subielife most of the year, over 300,000 miles, 50 states, 36 National Parks… I’m glad you’re doing this before me dude because I’m terrified of having to buy toilet paper. Which is the softest?

  • Who knows what comes next. Apartment in Denver as a waystation to something new? Perhaps. But I definitely get the feeling of wanting to have a place to call “home base,” even for just a while.

  • We spent a couple weeks in Mexico City last year. I ran every morning, gulping the thin air and producing red blood cells like a Kenyan. When i returned to San Diego I went for a ride with my cycling group and kicked Daryl’s ass. Been wanting to do that for two years.

    Transitioning from van-dwelling to normal-apartment-dweller can be like that. Like an injection of accomplishment EPO. Getting things done is so much easier when the coffee maker clicks on automatically in the morning.

    But there is a tipping point. Effortless morning coffee stops being magical and becomes a necessity. A convenient toilet exclusively reserved for me and my intimate companion becomes the minimum requirement. When that happens, I have to give my notice and go. Otherwise I might get stuck for life.

    Trapped by toilet familiarity is more common than you might imagine.

  • Brendan, You’ve come a long way from your desk and Emily at the “North Scottsdale Independent.” So much for the Rocky, huh? Nice paper, hated to see it go. I still have tear sheets from a couple things you published for me. I always appreciated your help at the Independent and the Rocky.

    The above story reminds me of the opening of that 1969-70 TV series with Michael Parks: “Then Came Bronson.” He pulls up on his cycle next to a tired and bored businessman at a traffic light in some hot western town. The guy looks at him, shakes his head in envy, and says: “Man, I sure wish I was you.”

    After reading your account of being on the road, I’m sure many would say the same to you. Good luck!

  • Remember that it’s all supposed to be fun or comfortable with challenges, not suffering. I think you are on the right track, just as many of us have been living our dream or adventure and then grown, change, needed something different to give us the structure or freedom to evolve. Without “putting away childish things” (I hate that childish is the word used) we stagnate and do not grow. Leap into that scary unknown and enjoy the ride! Remember, you can always have a garage sale and load the van again…”consistency is the hobgoblin of a foolish mind”.

  • Congrats Brendan! You’ve been an inspiration to many of us who have mortgages, steady jobs and vacation days. No way are you selling out or too grown up. It’s just time for the next adventure or new path in life. You’re going to settle back in just fine. Enjoy your stability. Now I await to read your new adventures. -WB

  • My latest mantra in life is: “It’s fun until it’s no longer fun.” Then you go and find the next fun thing. This kinda sounds like that.

    I remember sitting in the Lucky Diner in Seattle with you and Sara and Teresa and we were marveling at your new life on the road. But you were scared shitless. I said, “Dude, you’re living the dream we all want.” You took a major sigh and responded with a bit of a defeated “Yeah.” You could tell it burdened you a bit but you also knew it was what you wanted – you needed to do it. Since then, it’s been fantastic watching your travels, meeting The Girl and watching your success.

    I’d say you earned that bathroom. And the toast with a half a jar of peanut butter. But I don’t think getting an apartment in Denver will at all diminish your drive to do what you’ve been doing the past three years: having maximum enthusiasm for being happily semi-rad and encouraging the rest of us to do the same.

    Congrats on the next chapter of your life – which isn’t any different from your former chapter, really. You just have a snug apartment and a table to write on to call your own for a part of the year. I don’t doubt that you’ll still find yourself on the road writing from coffee shops and picnic tables with your favorite mountains hovering above …

  • In your time on the road, you had more adventures than many climbers/mountain bikers/backpackers could hope to cram into a lifetime. Among the best posts you’ve made, Brendan.

  • Absolutely intriguing read and some tremendous insight indeed! I think life is a constant craving, an ongoing quest for (re)discovering ourselves. So there are moments where places fill us with life and there are moments when we need to fill places with life…
    Best of luck Brendan and even though you may not be living on the road right now, you certainly do not lose track of it… 😉

  • I really needed this today as I am reading it from under the fluorescent lights at my 9-5 in the flattest part of Iowa daydreaming of all the places I long to visit. Your writing has been an inspiration to me! Keep up the great work!

  • Just pounded stakes back down after a two-year semi-permatrip, though with a little bit of roofed living in there. As a climber / biologist, it’s pretty much outside for work or outside for knobs, so permadirtbagging fits pretty well.

    In any case, I have this to offer ye, my rubberhound brethren. Goodspeed, and always bring a #2 C3! That was my lesson-learned, anyways. (And maybe knifeblades and a parachute, Jesus Christ.) I shouldn’t be alive to have recorded this song, but guess that’s how it goes.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_lrhMtoIy6M

    PS: See y’all at Five Point!

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