As the owner of a Vanagon Syncro for the last seven years, I’ve watched the rise and then explosion of the #vanlife phenomenon with no small measure of bemusement. (That’s mine, above, FWIW.) What you almost never see in the Instagram feeds are the flatbed tow trucks (“Sorry, kids, if your vehicle’s four-wheel-drive it’s going to bedded and oh, that’ll be another two hours to get there”) or the crawling around in the dirt trying to de-gremlin the electrical system or even the anxiety that ever-accompanies your backwoods ventures because you know, at some point, without fail, you will break down – mostly likely when you’re alone, it’s raining, and there’s no cell signal.
My colleague over at The Atlantic, video producer Sam Price-Waldman, did an excellent job putting together a profile of Apache wildfire fighters and does an equally excellent job in this short film peering into the subculture that is the Pacific Northwest vanlife meetup. He talks to Poseidonsbeard (a.k.a., Ryan), who paints an all-too-realistic picture of van life, as well as Foster Huntington, who tells how he became the guy who launched the hashtag that launched the renewed love affair with Vanagons – it was a play on the thug life tattoo that Tupac Shakur had across his body.
This is the best take I’ve seen on the Vanagon phenomenon in a long time. Both Ryan and Foster have been deep in the Vanagon experience, and it doesn’t take ownership long before van life becomes a part of you – an attitude, philosophy, and way of living.
But van life can beat you down, and in telling the down sides of Vanagon ownership, I think that Sam, and Ryan and Foster, too, lose sight of the magical side. You don’t want to know how much money I’ve dumped into my van, or the roadside hassles it’s caused, but the other side of things is that I’ve crisscrossed the western U.S. and Canada in a rolling home that sleeps better than any air mattress and better than most beds, that my kids have called it their fort since they were little, that it’s let us waken, comfortably, above deep canyons, in sun-dappled forests, a stone’s throw from a Big Sur beach.
My van enabled my septuagenarian mother, whose physical ailments made walking incredibly difficult, to experience canyonlands, red rock country, and the ruins of Comb Ridge. It let me take my family to the crystal waters of the Rogue River and father in law into the slot canyons of the Escalante, and through all these adventures, it let me feel blessed, charmed by an almost magical vehicle, and lucky to be alive. Yes, of course, you can do all these things in a Subaru or a Tacoma, but not with the ease, aptitude, and style of a Vanagon. Those vehicles don’t spark conversations at gas pumps or scenic vistas or in campgrounds; they don’t let you feel at home, truly at home, wherever you are.
The Vanagon’s faults are many, but its assets are more, and while The Atlantic gives these unicorn rigs their due, I’d just want to remind that the rose-colored glasses through which you view #vanlife, well, they’re mostly justified.