I Lived the #VanLife. It Wasn’t Pretty. – The New York Times

I Lived the #VanLife. It Wasn’t Pretty. – The New York Times

The Great ReadThe Voyages Issue
The writer Caity Weaver’s pursuit of the manifest destiny of the millennial generation ended up looking better in the photos.
The author’s rental 2013 Ford Econoline E-150, with kitchen and tent engaged.Credit…Angie Smith for The New York Times
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For the most part, I don’t remember things. My memory is not so much vague as it is glitchy; a generally blank screen that sometimes blinks to life and performs basic recall tasks. With scarce exceptions, my recollections are so inaccessible to me that they are more like the memories of a person I have never met or spoken to. Once, while rewatching one of my favorite films, I found myself wondering what its lead actor might be like in real life. Several scenes later, a revelation jolted me: I once flew cross-country to have lunch with that man, interviewed him about his life for two hours and had my 1,400-word summary of the experience published in a magazine. Geotagged iPhone photos are often some of my only clues that I have been somewhere or done something; I cherish them as proof that I, at one point, left my house.
In February, it was decided I would once again exit my house: This time, I would spend a week in California, living out of a converted camper van, in pursuit of the aesthetic fantasy known as #VanLife. Living full time out of a vehicle has become aspirational for a subset of millennials and Zoomers, despite the fact that, traditionally, residing in a car or van is an action taken as a last resort, from want of other options to protect oneself from the elements. The Department of Housing and Urban Development characterizes vehicles as places “not designated for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation,” and because of this it counts people who live in them as members of the “unsheltered homeless” population. But it is ordinary to use some specially designed vehicles — R.V.s, say — as a regular sleeping accommodation, so HUD also advises that whether a vehicle-dweller counts as “unsheltered” is, to some extent, at the counter’s discretion. I would be encouraged to see myself as well sheltered for this week.
I had nearly embarked on a different odyssey — one better suited to someone with a poor sense of direction, who is terrified of driving — except I blew it for myself by being too enthusiastic. Before the #VanLife idea was settled on, my editor dangled a different concept in front of me: I would go to a guitar-shaped hotel and write about it. “LOVE hotels, please send me on any assignment that is based around being in a hotel!!!” I emailed back. But justification for a writer’s passage to the Guitar Hotel at Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, Fla., in the mind of my editor, required some fashion of explicable premise: a field expedition to ascertain, through observation and reporting, the precise nature of the guitar-shaped hotel’s symbolism, for example. His vision encompassed such concepts as “American dynamism” and “the decline of the guitar.” It incorporated the word “hegemony.”
“E.g.,” read my editor’s email, veering occasionally into Latin. “Etc.”
“Can’t a person just go to a hotel and have a great time and learn a very small amount, for work?” I wrote back, ending all further discussion. I couldn’t wait to get to this hotel, and witness firsthand its resemblance to a (large) guitar.
“Maybe the Guitar Hotel is not right for you,” my editor replied, adamant that all further discussion die by his hand alone. Instead, it was determined — with no evidence — that what was right for me was to spend a week driving around California in a van.
To prepare for this regular-shaped mission, I threw myself into the #VanLife corners of TikTok and Instagram. Accounts of popular “vanlifers,” as they are known, are an infinite reservoir of gorgeous, unpeopled scenery previously encountered only in desktop backgrounds: sunrise canyons, sunset oceans, high-noon highways that stretch on, carless, forever. #VanLife is largely honey-colored with soft blue elements, or vice versa. Outdoors is presented like hung landscape paintings enclosed in frames of flung-open van doors or oblong windows. Vanlifers’ eyes rarely peer back from their photos; self-portraits appear to catch them off guard, gazing in the direction of majestic snow-capped peaks, or perhaps pointedly into a cereal bowl (majesty having become habitual for them). The vans seem to share their owners’ tendency toward reverie; exterior shots typically find them angled away from the camera, as if to watch the waves.
This photogenic strain of van-living does not come cheap. Secondhand converted Mercedes-Benz Sprinters (a popular model for custom campervans, with features like heated floors) can easily sell for $300,000 — if you can find one. Interest in an itinerant, panoramic, luxuriously self-contained lifestyle exploded alongside Covid-19. Customization companies warn of yearlong wait-lists. Despite this scarcity, it is easier than ever to experience #VanLife. With a day’s notice and $1,000, anyone can have the life of a whimsical wayfarer — if they are willing to rent.
My husband couldn’t believe it when I revealed I had scored a campervan for us to drive around and live in for a week. “That sounds bad,” he said. He immediately declined, citing several compelling reasons. Perhaps, my editor proposed, I could do it alone, even though I pointed out that I am the worst driver I know and the worst parker known to anyone anywhere. (That could be “part of it,” he suggested.) I ran a search for “tips female van life solo.” The top result advised leaving men’s shoes outside the van at night and traveling with a gun or dog, or both. That didn’t sound like an aesthetic fantasy. I needed to find another human. But what human in their right mind would be willing to travel well over 1,000 miles in a vehicle under my control (hopefully), interrupting and endangering their life just to sleep marginally sheltered in the dead of winter in scenic places?
I called the most neurotic person I had ever met: my friend Michael — who, since he and I last had dinner in New York City in late 2019, had quit his job at a venture capital firm, set out on a backpacking trip across Asia, cut short his backpacking trip because of the global pandemic, started a new life as a life coach and meditation teacher and gone blond.
I may have set expectations a little high. Based on my pitch, Michael later told me, he’d imagined us cruising California in something resembling “a Beyoncé tour bus.” Instead, our 2013 Ford Econoline E-150, with a psychedelic jungle-scene paint job, resembled a Rainforest Cafe on wheels. Thanks to a huge acid yellow and electric blue bug-eyed chameleon perched just behind the driver’s door, it looked like a vehicle a mobile vape company might use to dispense free samples, or something a person might drive to let onlookers know: Here is someone willing and able to perform unlicensed aquarium repairs — for the right price.
The van was part of the midsize fleet offered by Escape Campervans, a rental company I selected because its website seemed tailored to dummies with no experience driving campervans — offering “extras” like a rentable kitchen kit ($40) and an ice scraper ($5; “Yours to keep”) — and because the site described the vans as “premium,” which I thought sounded upmarket. I was surprised and alarmed when an employee filling out our paperwork at the Los Angeles rental depot casually described the company as “a budget campervan service.” I made my face purposely nonreactive, and hoped Michael hadn’t heard.
“Budget?” Michael gasped.
Our van had 238,646 miles on it and drove like a dream — a recurring dream I have in which I am driving a car but the brake and accelerator pedals are all confused, so that sometimes I attempt to brake and nothing happens, and other times the car zooms uncontrollably forward. (In fairness to the van, this was perhaps a result of operator error.) Many of my driving difficulties are most likely attributable to a lack of confidence. I am a bad driver because I am so preoccupied with driving safely that normal drivers have trouble predicting my actions (which are also surprising to me), and because I have poor spatial reasoning. Despite this, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania declared me legally able to drive when I was in high school, and since then, no other entity has called the bluff.
But, my God, Michael couldn’t know this. He might pull out of the trip, or, at least if he had any sense, demand to do the driving. I would just have to hope Michael didn’t realize that it took me 20 minutes to migrate to the leftmost lane of the freeway while keeping up with traffic, or that I was gripping the steering wheel at 10 and 2 so tightly that calluses bloomed on my palms by the middle of the first afternoon. I would also have to pray he’d immediately forget that I couldn’t figure out how to release the parking brake in the van-rental lot, or tell if it was on. Because of a concussion he received while abroad, Michael had warned me, if we hit a pothole too hard and he bumped his head, he could die. No problem.
As we neared our first destination, a tiny resort called Mercey Hot Springs in northwest Fresno County, all was pitch black, leading Michael to worry — somewhat improbably — that my navigating down unlit rural back roads would somehow result in his being decapitated. Our campsite included a picnic bench, on which we heaped luggage, garbage bags of linens, groceries and frustrations as we tried to remember how the van-rental employee had reconfigured the gray cushions and thick tabletop panels of the daytime seating area into a nighttime Tetris arrangement. The 30-minute task of readying the bed by starlight was one we instantly agreed we would not repeat; we would spend the rest of the trip with a bed for a back seat. For the first of many times, we were too cold and hungry to prepare dinner on the teensy propane-powered camping stove that folded into a compartment behind the van’s back door. I ate a jelly roll purchased earlier that day at a Mexican bakery, and fistfuls of Cheez-Its.
Our $70-per-person overnight fee included use of the resort’s spring-fed soaking tubs, which were open until 11 p.m. We changed into swimsuits in the restrooms — clean, well-lit spaces, the pleasant memory of which would sustain us much as hallucinatory Christmas visions warmed Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Match Girl while she slowly froze to death. (Our lavatory situation would grow progressively dire over the coming days.) In the tubs, all was well. It is pleasant to become a hot soup on a chilly winter night, and eavesdrop on the distant conversations of owls. But eventually we had to return to the van.
To suggest that the worst part of vacationing in a van is sleeping in a van is not fair to the other aspects of the endeavor, which are also all the worst part — but it is cramped, slovenly and bad. It is impossible to make a bed while already sprawled atop it. If you are sharing a vehicle that does not have rear doors on both sides, as ours didn’t, the portside sleeper will be effectively trapped on their half of the bed from the moment they enter it, as I was.
For some reason, it wasn’t until going to bed our second night that Michael wondered, preposterously, if closing the miniature curtains strung around the van windows for privacy and warmth might make our sleeping area too claustrophobic. I dismissed this idiotic notion as soon as he voiced it; we were obviously fine the night before, so Michael was inventing problems. Two hours later, I woke up terrified, surrounded on all sides by closed miniature curtains, positive there was not enough oxygen in the van and that Michael and I were suffocating to death.
“Michael?” I whispered, and kept whispering — “Michael? Michael!” — until I heard him wake up. “Are you awake?” I asked innocently. It turned out he was. I explained that I needed to open one of the van’s doors — an action that would instantly flood our sleeping area with frigid air. “Are you OK?” Michael asked. “Oh yeah,” I shrieked. I clambered over the driver’s-seat armrest and hurled myself, sock-clad, onto the frozen dirt outside.
The following evening, as we prepared for bed, I wondered aloud, in a nonchalant tone that made it clear I wasn’t asking for myself, if there was “definitely enough oxygen in the van, right?”
“Yes,” Michael said.
“Even when all the doors and windows are closed … ” I said.
“You know how you can be inside your house with all the doors and windows closed, and not suffocate?” Michael said. “It’s like that.”
On the second day of the trip, our route to Yosemite National Park cut through what appeared to be an outdoor cotton-processing facility frozen midexplosion. We pulled over to examine the acres of white blooming trees.
“Who knew?!” Michael said when my plant-identifier app declared the trees almonds. “I never imagined blossoms on an almond tree,” he cooed. Almonds are a reprehensible thing to grow, Michael announced, because they require so much water. He approached a thrumming wood box on the ground near a row of trees. “These are bee boxes,” he said. His head whipped around. “Oh — to pollinate the trees!”
“It’s like the apocalypse has happened,” I said, watching him from the middle of the empty road. “We’re the only two people left in the world, and we have to make sense of it.”
As we would learn when we reached Yosemite, the apocalypse had unfortunately not happened.
Yosemite covers an area of 1,187 square miles, and that Saturday there was nowhere to park in any of them. Michael and I spent hours in the lumbering van, first trying to find a parking spot near a hike we planned to take before observing the sunset “firefall” — a reportedly dazzling phenomenon in which, for a few winter evenings, one of the park’s cliffside waterfalls can briefly glow like molten gold; then revising our search to a parking spot within walking distance of the firefall; then a spot within walking distance of the shuttles for people who parked too far away from the firefall to walk to it; then a spot anywhere, in any proximity (or not!) to anything.
In Yosemite Valley, the location of the park’s most famous rock formations, vehicles (including several fellow Escape Campervans rentals) snaked over every millimeter of pavement, including the unscenic parking lot of the Ahwahnee Hotel, where Michael and I became trapped for 40 minutes. By early afternoon, after hours observing the park from the crawling van, it had become clear that John Muir was wrong when he declared: “No temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite. Every rock in its walls seems to glow with life.” Yosemite was actually bad.
“You go to a national park, you think you’re going to really commune with the earth,” Michael said. “And yet, here you are, trapped in exactly the same situation you are when you’re driving to work in bumper-to-bumper traffic,” he said. “Not that either of us works in an office.”
Michael sits before his computer’s built-in camera and leads group meditation classes online; I flop between my bed and my couch, typing up inane thoughts all day with my laptop on my stomach. We were millennials pursuing the manifest destiny of our generation — chic, rootless wandering — who had become mired in a boomer-esque rush hour. We needed to leave.
We couldn’t figure out how. While maneuvering the van down random roads in search of a GPS signal — requests for maps in multiple convenience stores and gas stations turned up only activity books for teaching children to read maps — we stumbled upon a parking spot. Well, not technically, but at least an area large enough to accommodate a pulled-over vehicle. “Let’s just stay here for a while,” I suggested, desperate for a reprieve from steering the blockish van through traffic. We popped open the clamshell tent that unfolded on the van’s roof and scrambled inside, where, having already watched last night’s “RuPaul’s Drag Race” on Michael’s phone first thing that morning, we fell asleep.
Hours later, after walking for two miles down the paved road from where we had parked, we squinted up at the eastern edge of El Capitan, in the direction where several hundred people standing shoulder to shoulder were looking. Earlier, we’d overheard a young woman tell a man to train his gaze, at the firefall hour, on the part of the cliff that resembled “a chicken cutlet.” No part resembled a chicken cutlet. We could see a patch of unremarkable medium orange, the sort of shade you might expect granite to turn at sunset — which is what was happening. “Did we miss it?” I asked. Phalanxes of photographers with enormous professional cameras crouched behind tripods.
“I think that might be it,” Michael said. Having briefly regarded the orange splotch, we trudged back to the van. The trek along the road’s shoulder was the only hiking we did in Yosemite.
While leaving, a wrong turn out of the park in the dark meant that we ended up an hour’s drive from where we wanted to be. The emotion of this moment is difficult to articulate: It was miserable to have prolonged our journey, but all we were going to do when we finally managed to leave the park was still be in the van, a foot behind where we were sitting. By opting for lodging we could take anywhere, we had inadvertently saddled ourselves with accommodations that were inescapable. With nowhere to go back to, being aggrieved over the delay seemed pointless. We didn’t even bother to feel upset.
Michael and I were looking forward to the fifth and sixth days of our trip, in Joshua Tree National Park, not because we were uniquely excited to wander among its melted-looking rock formations and namesake outstretched yuccas, but because Joshua Tree was our final stop, after which we could exit the van forever. We had only managed to bathe once since leaving the hot springs, a semipublic undertaking at an R.V. park near Yosemite. Thus far, any pleasant weather had been experienced as a visual phenomenon while traveling between locations. We tended to arrive at places just as our first (sometimes only) allotted day there was ending. Unfortunately, after checking into our $25 campsite, we were informed that the good weather in Joshua Tree was yesterday; frigid winds were incoming, with gusts up to 50 miles per hour.
Because the gusts meant campfires were discouraged, I suggested we treat ourselves to dinner at a nice restaurant I’d heard about. The wait for a table at the nice restaurant I’d heard about was two hours. I suggested we treat ourselves to dinner at wherever was closest with no line, which turned out to be a sushi restaurant in the desert.
Despite having been presented with hundreds of reasonable opportunities to do so over the previous days, Michael had issued no complaints — a grace that astonished me. The friend I made in college was an incorrigible fussbudget, who tended to be either discouraged or panicked by everything around him (in, by and large, a funny way). He was not the kind of person who took spontaneous trips. Michael credited his newfound peace and stamina for uncomfortable situations to the Vipassana meditation he began practicing after he left his job to backpack through Asia. Its central teaching, he said, is that everything is impermanent.
Suddenly I recalled a detail from the incident when curtains in the van had nearly caused us to suffocate to death. After the cold forced me back inside, Michael lay beside me issuing gentle directions: I should observe the feeling of cool air entering my nostrils, the weight of fabric on my toes. As I grappled for composure, I warned Michael that the suffocation panic seemed moments away from resurging. But that would be OK, he said, because feeling scared was temporary. If it happened, I could simply wait for the feeling to pass. A short while later, I heard the quiet clink of plastic on enamel. Michael had removed his retainer to speak to me soothingly, I realized. The sleep that followed was deep and sound.
That experience, I said in the restaurant, was the first time in 12 years of friendship I had ever found Michael relaxing. He accepted the compliment and told me that meditation has all sorts of benefits. It has also made him nicer on the phone with customer-service representatives.
The day before, Michael and I had arrived at Red Rock Canyon State Park, where we discovered a Bible-length binder in the visitors’ center that cataloged instances in which the park’s weathered rock formations had been captured on film or video for commercial purposes. It was briefly diverting to learn that we stood on the hallowed ground depicted in Aerosmith’s “Amazing” music video; a commercial for Arby’s; Mazda, Kia and Peugeot advertisements; “2 Fast 2 Furious” and the beginning of “Jurassic Park.” But most of the trip’s pleasures were ones I experienced only later, as false memories.
After flipping through the historic car-commercial binder, Michael and I took a short hike up a nearby ridge, because that was all we had time to do before nightfall. I know from photos that the sheets of slate blue clouds overhead were so thin in places that a peachy sunset could be seen beyond them, like light passing through stained glass. On the ridgetop, we spotted a solitary lenticular cloud hovering darkly over the distant foothills of the Sierra Nevadas, and I took a picture of Michael from behind, his arms and hands outstretched as if controlling its movements. At no point was our van configured to accommodate the flung-open-door stunning vista shots that are hallmarks of #VanLife. It was, at all times, piled doors to ceiling with luggage, groceries, bedding, kitchenware and the heavy metal ladder for accessing the rooftop tent, which we tended to throw haphazardly over the whole heap. Maddeningly, you wouldn’t know it from the photos on our phones, which depict scenes from a much better vacation.
In the photos I irritably snapped from the driver’s seat in gridlocked Yosemite, the sun shines silver on nearby rock faces, distant granite peaks appear through a warm blue haze and a tremendous waterfall thunders off a cliff. Pictures taken to document the dispiriting havoc of our sleeping arrangement show the van steeped in a warm morning light that was not present. They look like promotional images for a California tourism campaign.
I awoke in Red Rock Canyon to Michael meditating in front of sandstone cliffs beneath a sky of pristine Windows-desktop blue. For only the second time in five days, we bothered to set up the propane stove to prepare a lavish breakfast of eggs and sides. Except, we discovered, all our sides had been ruined by the van’s tiny refrigerator, which gradually froze everything it was charged with protecting. The avocado that Michael had been looking forward to for days tasted “like the sea,” he observed, frowning after his only bite. After breakfast, I frantically scrubbed pans with icy hand-pumped water while violent winds sent clean bowls skittering across the sand. In pictures, breakfast is gorgeous.
On the last day of our adventure, in the rental-return lot, I received an unforgettable souvenir: excruciating pain that ripped through my back the second my foot touched the asphalt. While the agony left me unable to walk for weeks, it afforded me the extraordinary experience of sobbing in a wheelchair on the tarmac at LAX and clutching the hand of a kindhearted Delta employee as she prayed aloud that my life would improve. I later learned that sitting tensely for several hours a day in a huge rattling vehicle can sometimes be bad for your back.
Laid up in bed, I clicked through other vanlifers’ pictures of the places Michael and I had gone, intending to scrutinize their splendor with newfound knowledge about the deceptive beauty of iPhone photos. So I was unnerved that, rather than spotting seams in the pristine #VanLife tapestries, I found myself longing to procure a nice van and replicate these trips — these trips exactly like the one I had just gone on. Michael was right: Everything was impermanent. I had forgotten how much I hadn’t enjoyed it.
Caity Weaver is a staff writer for the magazine. She last wrote about the entertainer Wee Man.

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