LIVING THAT #VANLIFE
Anyone who’s been on Instagram in the last few years knows that a rising trend among millennials is to sell your worldly possessions, buy an old van to fix up, change your job title on LinkedIn to Digital Nomad, and hit the road to live that #VanLife. My husband Kurt and I are not exactly millennials—products of the late 70’s, we are borderline Gen-Xers who wear our ennui like oversized flannels. But even us crusty old people have been bitten by the van bug, and recently gave into our wanderlust thirst by purchasing a 2005 Chevy Astro Van.
We were lucky to find a used van in nearly pristine condition, and immediately ripped it apart. Kurt removed the running boards, captain’s chairs, and upholstery on the backseat bench, then rebuilt a flatter convertible bed using foam and fabric. I added an orange shag rug and a dashboard hula girl, and boom--we were ready to hit the road.
We planned for our maiden voyage to be a weeklong roadtrip to Maine, spending several days in Acadia National Park. Our dog, River, accompanied us. We left Chicago early on a Saturday morning, with Kurt driving, me in the passenger seat, and River curled up in her dog bed on the shag rug. We flew through Indiana and Ohio while I made Spotify playlists and cued up podcasts. When I took my first turn behind the wheel, I pulled onto the highway and felt freedom pulse through my veins, like I had just mainlined America. The van’s engine roared and shuttled us down the open road as trees blurred around us, and I thought to myself, I finally get the Grateful Dead.
We reached upstate New York as the sun set on our first day. I found Finger Lakes National Forest on Google, our best bet for a last-minute campsite. When we reached the campground, the handful of sites were all walk-in only, so we resigned ourselves to spending our first night of our #VanLife sleeping in a parking lot. We pulled down the van shades and made the bed, then sat inside eating dinner while the laughter of people staying at the group campsites wafted on the warm breeze. It was a moonless night, the sky pitch-black. I went into the woods to pee, but quickly scurried back to the van when I saw the bobbing headlamps of approaching campers walking back to the parking lot. It took 2 more attempts before I finally had enough privacy to achieve outdoor urination. I had nothing jealousy-inducing to post on Instagram that night.
Thankfully, we had much better luck on the rest of our trip. Near Rockland, we stayed at a campground where our site was tucked away from view of the road, surrounded by lush greenery. Viewed through the light mist, the forest created an otherworldly backdrop that could pass for Dagobah. As the light rain beaded on our rain jackets, we cooked burgers and drank boxed wine and finally felt like we had achieved peak #VanLife. To get to the campground bathrooms, I had to walk about 100 yards alone in the dark. Each time, I expected Pennywise to be lurking just beyond the small beam of my headlamp (my fears tend to be topical).
The best part about Van Life is that in the morning, there’s no tent that needs taking down, no rainfly to shake out. After waking up, we simply moved the bed back upright into a bench, opened the window covers, and started the engine. As a wise man once said, life is a highway and I want to ride it all night long. We kicked around a few coastal towns, then headed to Mount Desert Island, home of Acadia National Park. During our time there, we camped by the ocean and heard the soft crash of waves through our windows at night. In a spot tucked into the forest, the treetops became our ceiling, and our carpeting was softly strewn pine needles. After a breakfast of coffee, eggs, hamburger, and hash browns made on a campstove, Kurt, River, and I spent a day hiking to the summit of Cadillac Mountain. We scrambled over tree roots and boulders until we got above the treeline for a 180-degree view of Acadia. The Atlantic Ocean loomed around us in all directions. I felt my muscles twang, thrilled to be out in the wilderness climbing up rocks and swinging around trees and basically doing anything other than sitting at a desk for 9-hour stretches. It was glorious. We had finally achieved maximum Instagram.
After 9 miles of hiking, we returned to the van and traveled a few minutes down the road to the public coin-operated showers. I was digging clean clothes out of my bag in the back when I heard a stranger approach Kurt and ask him about the van. Kurt happily launched into a conversation with him about the scarcity of rust-free all-wheel-drive Astro Vans on Craigslist and I searched for socks that smelled clean enough for a second wear while River licked sweat off my stubble-covered legs, and it hit me: we have become Van People. Some hashtags just need to be earned.
I loved living in our van...for exactly the length of our trip, one week. I mean, I could go longer, but I wouldn’t choose this life permanently. When I see beautifully art-directed photos of conversion vans parked near scenic vistas across America, I feel that sense of wanderlust and a craving for the freedom of the road. However, I also know that that beautifully customized van likely smells like wet dog, used baby wipes, and last night’s chicken bones in a greasy crumpled bag sitting on the driver’s side floor mats. I think of pooping at grocery stores and the onset of cabin fever while waiting out a rainstorm. I think of couple arguments about how you should’ve stopped at that one liquor store on the border 3 hours ago because who knew that this next state has bogus prohibitive laws about alcohol sales on Sundays. In moments like that perfect day atop Cadillac Mountain, I wish that I could forever live in the forest and wake up each day to the smell of pine trees and have natural beachy waves in my hair. But then I remember that I am also a city person that literally just bought kale and soy sauce on Instacart while writing this story. I need good wifi and carryout Filipino breakfast and access to artsy cinema so I can have opinions about Sofia Coppola’s newest movie. It’s nice to have options, and to know that with a tankful of gas and a handful of daylight hours, I can hit the road and jump right back into that #VanLife whenever the mood strikes.