Humor. Essays. Adventure.

Semi-Rad

A Story About Living in a Van by the River

When your life is a Saturday Night Live skit

"I live in a van down by the river!" (Brendan Leonard)
writer

When your life is a Saturday Night Live skit

From 2012 to 2014, I lived full time out of a 2005 Chevy Astrovan. I had moved out of an apartment and into my car in 2011, and after six months of it, decided it was a little cramped, and dropped my life savings on a questionable all-wheel-drive burgundy van that I bought from a small car dealership called Johnny’s Auto Sales and Pawn on South Broadway in Denver.

I had a remote copywriting job that I could theoretically do from anywhere, so I pushed it as far as I could, driving around the West, hunting down Wi-Fi at coffee shops and public libraries, sleeping on a cheap mattress in the back of my van, climbing, backpacking, dropping in on friends frequently, and generally avoiding staying in one place for very long. It was #vanlife, sort of, but without the aesthetic converted van and high-quality Instagramming of life in said aesthetic van. I drummed up as many adventure/outdoor writing gigs as I could, and eventually, in summer 2012, I quit my copywriting job to be a full time adventure writer, a job I basically made up as I went, and continue to make up as I go now.

Every once in awhile, I would find myself chatting with someone, and they would ask where I lived or where I was based. I would reply, “I live in a van.”

Often, if the person had been alive in the early 1990s or otherwise aware of Chris Farley’s Saturday Night Live character Matt Foley, Motivational Speaker, they would joke, “down by the river?” referencing Foley’s famous line:

Sometimes, I would reply to the Van Down by the River joke, “funny story about that.”

When I was 16 and a junior in high school in New Hampton, Iowa, in 1995, a few friends and I created a five-minute skit for the school’s variety show. Unlike the rest of the variety show acts, which were earnest acting and musical performances (and of course far more well-thought out and practiced), ours was basically a vehicle for our friend Dan to do an impersonation of Chris Farley’s Matt Foley character. We were not in theater, and three of us, Tony, Brian, and myself, were basically just stage props for Dan as he did his thing. Besides Dan, none of us had many lines to learn or rehearse—I only had one line, and I had since sort of forgotten about it until my parents unearthed an old VHS tape of the skit a few years ago.

The audio is fairly muddy, but I remembered almost all the dialogue. At about 2:05, Dan asks me, “Now son, what do you want to do with your life?”

I reply, “I want to be a writer.”

Dan expresses doubt in my dream of being a writer, sarcastically asking Tony (playing my father) if “that looks like William Shakespeare over there,” and then goes on to warn me that, of course, I would end up living in a van down by the river.

A short 17 years later, I was a writer, and I lived in a van, which I usually tried to park for the night somewhere free and dark, since I didn’t have anything covering the windows. Occasionally, I parked my van down by the river.

So I guess dreams do come true.

Filed To: Adventure / Travel / Car Camping
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