So We Live in a Van Now: Why we Decided to Live in a Vehicle & Our First Week of Van Life
I resisted the urge to write this post until our first week of living in the van was actually complete. I didn’t want the euphoria of just getting started on the trip or the stress of a few setbacks we’ve already encountered alter this post in the slightest. So, here we are. One week of van life done and dusted.
As I am writing this post, Troy and I are at a friend’s place in the Scottsdale, Arizona area. I probably shouldn’t reveal this so soon, but Arizona is, by far, my favorite place we’ve been since starting our van life adventure.
But let’s back it up a little bit. My husband and I made the decision to put all of our shit in storage, buy a 23 year old van, and proceed to live in it with our dogs. We have no house to come back to. We have no set destination or plan. We are literally just faking it until we make it, but I’m not sure if we’ll really ever know when we’ve “made it.” Maybe by just doing this, we kind of already have. Does this make us homeowners? Does this make us homeless? Does this make us crazy? I’m really not sure. Maybe some combination of the three. So let’s meet our van.
Our van’s name is Betty. She is a 1993 Ford E-350 Extended Super Duty Wagon. With all of her seats in, she fits 15 passengers. She was formerly used to transport juvenile delinquents for the State of Florida Department of Corrections. We bought her for relatively cheap (she’s not a fancy, new Sprinter van), but ended up putting some money into some issues to be expected from a van that’s as old as I am (again, she’s not a fancy, new Sprinter van). She makes weird noises. She doesn’t enjoy going faster than 65 miles per hour. She smells a little funky sometimes. She gets 13 miles to the gallon and it costs anywhere between $60 to $90 to fill up her tank. She’s a beast and she’s our home.
If you’ve ever looked through the “van life” hashtag on Instagram, you know that people turn their vans into beautiful homes. Betty is not that. She has no pretty wood flooring. She has no impressive organizational system. We didn’t even build our own bed frame. We got one on Amazon. It was $75 and we used a mattress we already owned. We don’t have solar panels (yet…maybe one day). We don’t have a sweet portable shower. Our rig (if you can even really call it that) is the definition of minimal. The stuff we have in the van is the stuff we need and that’s pretty much it.
So, yes. It is possible to do this for relatively inexpensively if you’ve given up the notion that your van will be a swanky hipster paradise like the sweet rigs on Instagram – which we did. And to that point I’ll add, Troy and I are pretty average in terms of a lot of the skills people would probably associate with living on the road. We love the outdoors, but we’re not extreme adventurists because, up until now, we’ve always worked. We love to travel, but we’ve only been out of the country and handful of times. We love our van and have a basic understanding of how she works, but we’re really not super mechanically inclined (shout out to one of my awesome buddies in Florida for helping us troubleshoot our mechanical issues with Betty). We saved up some money over the past couple years, but by no means are we wealthy. Really, the only things we like to be above average at are having fun, taking care of our dogs, and loving the shit out of each other. And, seriously, I am already discovering that’s all we really need to be good at to thoroughly enjoy van life.
I don’t really want these van posts to be instructional in nature, not because I don’t want to encourage people to live in their vehicles and see the world, but because most people already have the skills to do what we’re doing. No amount of Googling or research will prepare you for life on the road, but you will 100% figure it out – and quickly at that.
Even if you’re wondering: how/where do you go to the bathroom? How do you take showers? How are your dogs still alive? Where do you sleep at night? How do you fit everything you need to live in a van? I promise, the answers to those questions become very apparent very quickly. Even sans Google. Incredibly, as painfully average as Troy and I are at most things, I feel incredibly at home in the van. I feel so capable and so free. The agency and self-realization that I’ve felt simply because I’m actually DOING what we set out to do is incredible. No “how to” is going to prepare anyone for what a sick ride this life is.
That being said, if you do really want to know answers to those questions like “Michelle, where on Earth do you poop?” Seriously, just ask me in the comments. You’ll figure it out, but I’m also happy to share anything and everything we learned. And if the question is, “do you ever regret living in your van?” Not for one second even on our shittiest road days. My best van advice at this point is just get in there and do it.
To better illustrate why this is so much fun and why I would do it over and over again in a heartbeat, I’ll regale you with tales of our first week on the road.
Last Saturday, we left Pensacola, Florida and began our adventure. Literally that day (right before we were leaving) I discovered a pretty hefty nail in Betty’s tire. Our journey started with us getting our tire patched for 20 bucks before we even made it out of Florida. Yes, really. Then, we headed along Highway 90 towards our first stop: Pascagoula, Mississippi. I really wanted to go to Pascagoula to be a tourist because Jimmy Buffett was born there and, if you know me, you know Jimmy Buffett is basically my deity. We were there for like 45 minutes, but it was pretty worth it for me just to say I was there.
Then came the prospect of our first night on the road. I’ll say now, since last Saturday, we have paid to park/sleep exactly twice and one of those times wasn’t even because we wanted to. We try to go for free, dispersed campsites as much as we can, and that’s exactly what we did for our first night on the road. We headed out to DeSoto National Forest and camped in a dispersed camping area for free and it was so exciting to me to actually be living my dream that I barely even slept that night. Our bed in the van is actually pretty comfortable and it got nice and cool once the sun set in Mississippi. I was completely over the moon. Obviously, that was still when the excitement was fresh and Troy and I weren’t worried about the van being a mess or where we were going to sleep the next night yet, so it was utter euphoria. Stuff got a little hairy at times after that, which, given our outstanding averageness at van living skills, is to be expected. We adapt and overcome.
The next morning, we packed up and continued along Highway 90 to Louisiana. Since we started out, we’ve been taking highways and back roads to avoid the interstate system. Betty does not appreciate interstate speeds and I’m sure we’d royally piss off the people who have places to be. To be honest, I like the back roads better anyway. Except in Louisiana.
Louisiana was a mess because of how old and decrepit the roads are there. We camped in another National Forest (for free) but it was a lot less clear where dispersed camping was allowed and, full disclosure, I’m still not sure we slept in the right place. The rush of excitement I experienced the night prior had completely evaporated. Panic set in: why are we living in a van? What if we fail at this? We have no home to go back to. What the actual hell have I gotten us into? I picked at Troy that whole day and he picked at me and it was not a fun time. Louisiana was not our shining moment. But even in the swamp, bumping up and down all over those shitty roads, I knew that this adventure was worth it and exactly what we were supposed to be doing.
As much as Troy and I argued that day, ultimately, he put his money, time, career, and education on the line to make my dream come true. I would have loved him eternally even if he had said, “that’s nuts. We’re not living in a van. We don’t even know how to do that.” But actually, he said, “let’s make it happen.” And then actually made it happen. This is why no one can convince me that there is a better man or husband or best friend on this planet. We survived that day and night and state and lived to adventure another day.
With Louisiana behind us, we headed off into Texas. Our first stop was Austin to see a friend of ours. We drank good beer, visited the flagship Whole Foods, got some kick ass ramen and barbecue, and camped at a few different random, free campsites. One night, we paid to camp for the first time on the road at Buescher State Park. Paying to camp was pretty worth it for one night in my opinion. There were showers – our first road shower. It was glorious.
Also in Texas, we saw our first National Park together which was Big Bend. We did a little joy riding through the park because we had the dogs with us. They couldn’t really go on any of the trails or anything in the park, but that was more than alright with us.
After Big Bend, we were all psyched and ready to head to our next stop: our friend’s place in Arizona. Obviously, Betty, being the cantankerous cranky bitch she is, had other plans. We made it to El Paso and stopped for coffee and Wi-Fi at Starbucks. When we started up the van after getting our coffee and internet, we heard a pretty concerning whine/buzz/all around awful sound coming from Betty’s fuel tank. It took us an hour just to figure out where the sound was coming from and what could possibly be causing it. Troy knows a little bit more about cars than I do, but driving around in a van that’s as old as you are comes with its own special, never before seen challenges that sometimes exceed both of our mechanical knowledge. Regardless of how long it took, we pinpointed the sound to the fuel system. Since we didn’t know if her fuel pump would fail at any minute, we limped to the nearest Walmart in El Paso instead of our planned campsite in New Mexico and tragically spent the night in the parking lot.
The next morning (which was the Saturday before Easter), we called around to a few different mechanics. The only place who was willing to even look at Betty before Monday was Sears. The Sears saga was a long one, but long story short, they found nothing and Betty magically stopped making the mysterious buzzing noise. We’re still really not too sure what caused it. We suspect either dirty gas, possibly not enough gas in the tank, or if we’re talking worst case scenarios, our fuel pump might be on its way out. In which case, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it (this sentiment also happens to be our entire van life philosophy).
Since we couldn’t bring the dogs to Sears while the mechanics checked Betty out, we ended up pretty much being forced to book a room at the Super 8 across the street from the mall. This was what I was talking about when I said one of the nights we paid to sleep wasn’t really our choice. In hindsight though, it was a nice break from sleeping like little sardines in the van with the dogs. I did get a hot shower, a chance to do laundry, and just enough internet access to FINALLY watch the last episode of the People Versus O.J. Simpson. Worth.
The next morning, I cried a lot because it was the first Easter Sunday I spent away from my family. I may or may not have gotten drunk Saturday night to numb that pain which, I’m sure, is exactly what Jesus would have wanted. Once the tears were dried and our laundry was done, we loaded up Betty and hit the road towards Arizona. We drove through the nothingness of West Texas and the very Southern part of New Mexico and finally made it to our friend’s place in Arizona, where I’m sitting as we speak.
As I briefly mentioned earlier, Arizona is my favorite place we’ve been since we started our trip. Up until this point, the only state West of Texas that I’d ever been to was Colorado. I’ve seen the desert in the Baja Peninsula of Mexico, but never the American West. This post is already longer than I want it to be, so I’ll probably have to write another post about how I feel about the American desert some other time.
To try and put it succinctly, when I went for my first hike in the desert of Arizona this morning, I had the overwhelming feeling that I was coming home. It was such a soothing feeling especially after all the intense homesickness I was dealing with on Easter. Tom Petty said, “you belong among the wildflowers,” but I think I belong among the cacti and tumbleweeds. When you look out at the desert, all of the plants and the mountains and rocks and dusty dunes look so ancient. Like it has always been and always will be. I was and am completely in awe of this sense of timelessness. The desert echoes the part of me that has always been wild and harsh. The desert is nothing short of poetry and my life has been forever changed by it even in the short time we’ve been here.
I guess that’s why I even wanted to do this though: to find those little pieces of myself that are scattered in places I’ve never even been. In some ways, my heart belonged to the desert before I even saw it. Seeing it for the first time was like seeing it for the hundredth time. It was like pulling into the driveway at my parents’ house. It was like driving a canopy road in Tallahassee. It was like Christmas morning and Easter cookies and the sound of “Amazing Grace” being played on an organ.
It was home.
We’ve only traveled 2,000 miles, but already my eyes are more open. It’s only been a week, but when we walked out of that motel room in El Paso and got back in the van, I felt the unmistakable peace of being in my own home. The best part is, even though we may live in the van, our home is wherever we want it to be. We’ve lived on a lake. We’ve lived in the desert. We’ve lived in the woods. All of these places are places that we’ll call “home” when we look back at this trip when it ends.
I can’t think of a better reason to give as to why we decided to do this in the first place: we traded one house for an entire world of home.