Getting Stuck in the Desert and other Shitty Things: Life Lessons in Week 2 of Van Life

Getting Stuck in the Desert and other Shitty Things: Life Lessons in Week 2 of Van Life

The longer we live on the road the more evident it becomes that van life has a lot to teach us about life as a whole. It’s almost as if life itself shrunk with our living quarters and van life is this tiny little cross-section of my experience on this earth. With the shrunken size comes an unexpected clarity. It’s like we were standing way too close to a painting and when we stepped back and made the painting smaller, we could actually see it for what it was and understand what it was there to represent.

Week two on the road started with absolute euphoria. Troy and I took Historic Route 66 from Flagstaff, Arizona all the way to California. Traveling on Route 66 was a big bucket list item of mine and I was definitely not disappointed. Every kitschy little roadside stand, every mountain bend we would’ve missed had we taken the interstate – everything was all I imagined and more. But I think we got a little bit too high on the freedom of joy riding across the Arizona desert because we came crashing down pretty much immediately after crossing the California border.

Not too long after crossing over into California, we (mostly I) decided to camp for the night on some BLM land outside of Needles which happened to be down a (what I thought was) dirt road. It turned out that that road was not dirt and was, in fact, sugar sand. Betty, weighing in at nearly 7,000 pounds and crippled by her measly rear wheel drive capabilities, was no match for the sand and got stuck pretty quickly. The instant our tires started spinning helplessly and kicking up sand, I knew I had royally fucked up.

Immediately, panic and guilt set in. It was mostly my stupid idea to come down this road and try to park squarely in the Mojave Desert. The shame of putting my husband and pups in a potentially compromising position crushed me. We tried everything to get Betty out. Troy tried. I tried. We dug sand out from under the tires until we were covered in a layer of dust and cactus needles. We pushed and wiggled and tried every trick in the book.

And then we gave up.

I think the exact moment we made the decision to give up, we didn’t need to say it. I saw it on Troy’s face and I’m sure the same look was written all over my face too: the look of surrender. And, oddly enough, underneath the surrender, I saw joy and love and an intensity I hadn’t seen in a while. There was a palpable energy in that moment that made me fall more in love with him, more in love with our life, and more in love with the wilderness that was swallowing us whole.

That moment helped me learn the first hard life lesson on the road. This was the first step we took back from that really big metaphorical painting. Stuff started coming into focus.

When we gave up that night in the desert and decided to call the tow truck in the morning, I was forced to learn that sometimes really shitty things happen and you really can’t do anything about them at the moment. You have to let go, and the quality of your experience from that point forward is totally up to you.

Sometimes you’re literally or figuratively stuck. However, you can choose to let go of what you can’t control and be happy in the midst of the bad stuff. Sure, we were stuck in a van in the desert, but we had plenty of food and water and means to defend ourselves against the elements. We weren’t in any imminent danger. Our dogs were having so much fun running around, climbing dunes, and digging in the sand. That’s the beauty of dogs; they had no idea we weren’t stuck there by design. That night, we stayed up until 3:00 AM. We weren’t up pacing and worrying and trying all night to get unstuck. We had already decided to let all that go. Instead, we stayed up all night watching movies, laughing with each other, loving each other, and looking at the stars. To this day, that night was one of the best nights of my whole life.

I think when I tell people that we’re living in our van and bumming around the country, their minds initially jump to the shitty things we have to deal with. “Do you ever get bored?” “Do you and Troy fight a lot?” “Do you miss having a house?” But I think that’s just life. We’ve been conditioned to focus on the possible risks – the reasons we shouldn’t do something, and rightfully so. Whether you’re living in a van or just living period, there is no shortage of shittiness in this world. Risk abounds and rewards are few and far between. There’s hardship and heartache and loss and grief and pain and sickness and bills and stress.

But here’s what I learned the night we got stuck (and the time we put a nail through our tire and the time Betty blew a gasket and the time our back doors refused to open and the time we got stuck in LA traffic and the time we almost melted our brakes going down a mountain and the time we got stuck in El Paso and all the times we’ve disagreed or been homesick or been actually sick or couldn’t find a good place to pee): just because shitty things happen doesn’t mean things are shitty.

Maybe you’re stuck. Maybe you’re feeling what I felt when I drove us into that pile of sand. Maybe you’re feeling worse. Those times are the perfect moments to look for those small opportunities to surrender. Drop the weight of the things you can’t control and accept that shitty things are happening, but life itself is not shitty.

Step back from the small corner of the picture you’re looking at and try to see the whole thing.

Imagine what this shitty thing will feel like in a month, six months, or a year from now. I can tell you with absolute certainty that the feelings of crushing shame and guilt and frustration I felt looking at that van kicking up sand and going nowhere are already fading. But what’s still super vivid is that wildly magnetic look on Troy’s face, the image of our dogs sleeping happily in the dust, the unimaginable brightness of the stars in the black desert sky.

These memories come from the realization that a bad day doesn’t mean it’s a bad life.

My hope is that it doesn’t take you getting stuck in the desert to learn this lesson and that you can just take my word for it. Let that shit go; call the tow truck in the morning.