The Other Side of 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?

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 in 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.

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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.

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 Leonard is Semi-Rad.



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