Van Life Will Break Your Heart: The Aftermath of the Best Summer Ever

Van Life Will Break Your Heart: The Aftermath of the Best Summer Ever
Trigger warning: in this post, I’ll be talking a lot about my experiences with depression.

Hey, howdy, hi! It’s been a while, huh? It might seem like I totally forgot I had a blog for a little bit, but I promise I didn’t forget. In fact, I’ve had this particular post written in my mind for weeks. There are times in the day when all I can think about is this post – how I should write it, how I’m going to describe “settling down” after this summer in the van, how I’m supposed to deal with the fear and doubt that I’ll never feel “normal” again – the post-van adjustment (or lack thereof) has totally consumed me.

I really am sorry that it’s been so long since I’ve posted anything on the blog, but I knew I couldn’t write another post until I got this one out of my brain and onto the computer and, for a while, I just wasn’t emotionally ready to get into all of this.

If you’ve been following along on my blog posts for a little bit, you know my husband and I spent this summer living in our old Ford passenger van. Over the last few months, I’ve traveled about 20,000 miles across 17 U.S. states and one Canadian province. I’m forever grateful that I took the time to do all of this traveling and for the fact that my husband took me seriously with this crazy idea. I discovered things about myself that I probably never would have otherwise, I learned a lot about 24 year old van maintenance…and I completely destroyed my sense of normalcy and shattered my heart into a million tiny pieces.

Here’s where I confess that living in a van will break your heart. Or more accurately, living in a van and then suddenly not living in a van will break your heart. As I’m writing this, I’m sitting in our new townhouse in Florida. We’re back “home” as in the place I grew up and much closer to our families. But it doesn’t feel like home. Home is sitting in the parking lot right outside my window right now.

Home is hundreds of miles away down a dirt road I left behind in Southern Utah.

Home is the perfect little coffee shop in Seabeck, Washington.

Home, since this summer on the road, has become all but impossible for me to nail down to a place, but that sure doesn’t stop me from feeling a deep, crushing homesickness. I don’t quite know what home is anymore, but I definitely feel like I’m not there right now.

Since moving back to Florida, my mind has felt so foggy. I wish I could say it’s a new feeling, but that familiar depression fog has come and gone in waves ever since I can remember.

I was officially diagnosed with clinical depression when I was seventeen. I’ve managed it with and without medication. I’ve managed it with exercise, with work, with therapy, with talking it through with my family and my husband, but there are still times that are worse than others for me as far as depression goes.

This is one of the worst times.

As with a lot of people who deal with depression, I generally have episodes when I don’t have a routine and/or when I’m going through a big change – it got pretty severe when I was graduating high school and starting college, when I moved to Kansas, right before I got married, at the beginning of our trip, and now, at the end. I knew it would happen, but I had no idea it would be so absolutely crushing to be “home” and out of the van. I imagined there would be more relief in returning to normalcy, but that expectation just didn’t really materialize for me.

I went from doing what I loved every single day all summer – waking up with the sun, wandering through deserts and mountains and forests – to now, I wake up in a bed in a house full of stuff that, after living in the van, I feel like I don’t even have a reason to own. I feel anchored by the sheer enormity of the space and everything in it. And, truth be told, it’s not even that much space (maybe a thousand ish square feet?) nor that much stuff. But compared to the van, it’s so much space and SO MUCH stuff. In the van, I had the things I loved and the things I needed and that was it. I could pick up and go and all of that stuff and only that stuff would be with me. Now, I sleep in a room with a dresser and a closet full of things. My husband is on the other side of an enormous bed that would never fit in the van in a million years. My dogs sleep down a flight of stairs instead of right on top of next to me. My kitchen overflows with things – there’s way more stuff in my cabinets than the cast iron skillet and the one set of dishes that I grew accustomed to in the van. My camera is in my closet; in the van, it was always right next to me because there was always a moment worthy of using it a few miles up the road. Now, finding a new job and building a life here seems so pointless because money doesn’t give me the immediate payoff it did in the van. My life used to be: make money, buy a van, save money, put gas in the van and see the world. Now it’s get up, go to work, make money to pay for all this space that I don’t want with all of this stuff I don’t need and electricity that I lived for months without? I went from the most simple, concrete way of living to an abstract concept of a way of life I no longer understand.

When we were out on the road, I had momentum. I felt my world spinning and humming right along with Betty’s engine, but now it feels like everything has come to a full, screeching stop and I’m dealing with the whiplash of depression, loneliness, homesickness, and the maddening paradox of feeling misunderstood, but also feeling at a loss for how to explain what I’m going through.

In fact, even though I thought about how I was going to write this post every day for weeks, there was still a bunch of times I wondered what the point of even writing it was. I know my life isn’t exactly average, and I know most people realistically won’t pack up and live in a van for any length of time. So then that kind of begs the question, why burden people with my post-van depression when most people reading this will never experience this?

But, every time I asked myself that question, I came to the same conclusion; sure, not everyone is going to live in a van. Not everyone is passionate about the things that I’m passionate about or would remotely enjoy the things that bring me joy, but everyone has gone through tough changes. Everyone has dealt with a period in their life that they wish they could’ve just fast-forwarded through. Who am I to think that I am unique in dealing with depression or pain or sadness?

And then I come to a second snag: okay, so everyone deals with hardship. But, I’m still in the middle of this depression and heartbreak and I have no advice to help anyone else out. If I had the answers, I wouldn’t be depressed anymore. But still, I come back around to the realization that no one has the answers.

If there was one quick fix to do away with depression, then no one would be depressed. So since we all still get sad, that leaves me to believe that sadness and hardship is pretty much a guaranteed side effect of being human. And if there’s one thing I learned from all of my soul searching and world traveling this summer, it’s that we’re all painfully human for better or worse.

There’s nothing more ugly or beautiful about life than the simple fact that it is happening right now. We’re all in the middle of it. If you’re reading this, you are alive. You have been sad if you’re not sad right now and you will most likely feel sadness again. You have faced challenges and struggles if you aren’t dealing with any right now and I can say with damn near certainty, you’ll face a few more challenges down the road.

So no, I don’t have any profound wisdom or answers or advice on how to overcome what I’m going through and what almost every other person has gone through and will continue to go through until the very last human dies, but I do know that it’s happening. It’s worth talking about because it’s my story and, in a weird way, it’s probably all of our stories.

Sure, my life probably has a few more nights in a van than most peoples’ will when it’s all said and done, but my life has depression and ugliness and sadness and doubt and happiness and obligations and love and curiosity and passion just like everyone else’s.

If you’ve made it this far and you’re hoping for a little bit more of an optimistic ending to this post besides, “being sad sucks, but it sucks less because I know that everyone else, at some point, has been sad too,” I’ll say this:

Living in that rickety ass, money guzzling van with the loves of my life was the single best thing that I have ever done. If I knew when I started the trip that when I finished, I’d have to deal with the worst depressive episode of my life, be unemployed for God knows how long, cry myself to sleep every night, and not be able to get out of bed some days, I would still do it in the blink of an eye. Never once have I regretted blowing almost all of our savings on that stupid van so that I could go run around the desert and explore all of the best nothingness that this great country has to offer. Never would I advise someone against chasing the thing their heart wants most because there might be some hardship or logistical issues on the back end of their dreams.

Yes, I’m dealing with some depression right now. I haven’t adjusted to being a “normal” person again yet. I don’t know if I ever will. I don’t know where the money is going to come from to sustain us. I don’t know if I’ll be able to sleep tonight or if I’ll wake up worse tomorrow than I am today, but I know that there was a night on some BLM land about forty minutes from Moab when I sat in the front seat of the van with all the doors open. I breathed in the smell of sunscreen and juniper and dusty dogs and smoke. “Peaceful Easy Feeling” by the Eagles was playing out of our little Bluetooth speaker because Betty’s radio and sound system no longer works. The sun was setting and the red rocks looked like they could catch fire at any second. God, they were so red. I couldn’t stop looking at those canyon walls. I stared so hard, I started to see them in a million different colors. Red melted into pink and orange and blue and purple and the rocks and watercolor sunset clouds and cactus blooms spun in my eyes like kaleidoscopes. I looked at Troy and saw the sleepy, peaceful smile on his face and I told him, “this is the best night of my life.” And it was. I think about that night and I realize that it doesn’t matter how depressed I am or how difficult the transition out of the van has been, because that night happened. And now, every night that I can’t fall asleep in our new place, I let my mind drift back to that moment and I know that every hardship in my life that lead up to that moment and every hardship to follow was and will be totally worth it. I’d let my heart break a thousand times just to keep the memory of that one night.

Going forward, I’ll pick up all the broken fragments of my emotional state and string them back together with the memory of that night and the one other little shred of knowledge that makes this all okay: I know the truth somewhere down deep in my bones that “home” isn’t any of those places I listed earlier. It’s not my house in Florida. It’s not even our van.

Home is that wild, unknown road that leads me somewhere I’ve never been before. And I know with absolute certainty that I will always, always find my way back home.