We Tried to Do Vanlife Right. It Broke Us Down.
What happened when one writer looked beyond the open road, the staged snapshots, and the hashtag
A few hours after I bought a 1995 Ford E-350 Econoline van for $2,000 in the fall of 2017, the ABS light lit up on the dashboard. That night, I had a dream: My fiancée, Rachel, and I were driving downhill on a steep, winding road when the brakes went out. As we were plunging to our deaths over a cliff, I stared into her eyes and thought, I failed you.
That was my first vanlife-stress dream. They kept up through the winter and spring as we prepped the vehicle for a summerlong road trip that would see us touring the country in a counterclockwise loop, starting and ending at Rachel’s parents’ house outside Philadelphia.
The ultimate road trip had been our goal since we’d met during our senior year of college, in 2012. We wanted to explore the country in an authentic way, meet its diverse people, see both its ugly places and its beautiful ones. Our idea was inspired by #vanlife, the faux-bohemian, four-wheeled lifestyle movement. Why tour the country in a regular old car, camping in national parks and rooming in hotels off highway exits, when we could buy a cheap van and make it our mobile home?
There was an important caveat. We decided to reject the cushiness of #vanlife and skip the saccharine Instagram posts. This was partly out of necessity—we didn’t have the budget for a $10,000 vintage van and a $10,000 overhaul. But we also feared the Instagramization of our lives, seeing the mountains through the lens of our camera phones. I rolled my eyes (though secretly a little jealous) at the shirtless #vanlife guys whose long captions detailed the importance of learning how to fix a timing belt with a shoelace. Rachel damn sure wasn’t going to sit naked on the roof of the van for a photo shoot every few sunrises. Social media of any kind was officially banned.
We decided, instead, to take the path of the van bums: the transients, the weirdos, the indie bands with no money.
Even entering the vanlife world at this basic level was a challenge. We scraped together enough money to buy a van we named Little Honey, a rusty hulk that dribbled gasoline the first time I filled her up, exhibiting all the grace of an old lady peeing her pants. I paid a mechanic in Gowanus, Brooklyn, to make sure she wasn’t quite a death trap. He wiped his grease-covered hands with a dirty rag and said, “You driving across the country in this?” We worked nights and weekends to pay for repairs and exchanged rigid career paths for flexible ones. I left my job as an editor to become a freelance writer; Rachel worked in postproduction while acting, writing, and directing her own films on the side.
Eventually, we left our expensive Brooklyn apartment behind and moved in with our parents in Pennsylvania, who helped us prepare Little Honey for the trip. My dad and I built a simple wooden bed in the back of the van, then chopped off the legs of an Ikea kitchen cart and ratchet-tied it to the frame. We had a cooler for a fridge and an old marine battery with an inverter. A friend’s mom made us curtains. We saved enough money to live for a few months without working every day. We’d be eating a lot of white rice and frozen vegetables. Life would be simple and tough and good.
I wrote about our proposed trip for a friend’s zine and declared that we would be like William Least Heat-Moon and John Steinbeck, writers on the road, seeking ourselves and America and the Great Truths—seeking, as Steinbeck put it, “bumdum.” But I didn’t finish either man’s book before the trip, nor during it. I still haven’t. Maybe because I didn’t like some of what I was reading: the loneliness, the long-drive blues, the scenes of rural emptiness, the despair and squalor of the country’s poor, the empty spaces that made up most of the adventure and left plenty of room for breakdowns of many kinds.
It was the trip of a lifetime, spread across a 13,000-mile swath of America. We opened the van’s back doors and watched the sun rise atop Cadillac Mountain in Maine’s Acadia National Park while snuggled under the covers in our bed. We played poker in Deadwood, South Dakota, near where Wild Bill was dealt his aces and eights, and we later gambled against one another in the middle of Kaibab National Forest, in Arizona, using Oreos as chips. We swam in Leigh Lake at the foot of the Tetons, drove Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park, skimmed through the winding canyon roads of Utah, and scanned the skies for aliens outside Roswell, New Mexico. We drove ten-hour days to fit it all in, listened to thousands of our favorite songs, and had mind-bending conversations about things I’d always wanted to talk about. I was in love—with Rachel, with the van, with our trip. I fell fast asleep every night on our thin mattress, exhausted from our adventures, the summer breeze wisping through cracked windows to cool my ankles.
But the nightmares followed wherever we went.
From the beginning, my anxieties stemmed from the van itself. On a steamy day in July, we left triumphantly from Philly, striking out from the same old ugly, crowded highways, quickly moving north on I-87, up into the green mountainsides of the Catskills of New York. But I couldn’t enjoy the views. My eyes were glued on the temperature gauge, which read “Cold N-O-R-M-A-L Hot” in an arc. In the fall and winter, when I’d been driving Little Honey, the needle got stuck, as if lodged between the leg of the R and the M. Now, in the 92-degree heat, it meandered up through the M and, to my horror, occasionally cut into the A. Every millimeter it rose made new parts of my body clench. What if the temperature spiked and the van died the first week of the trip, or the first day?
It didn’t. But Little Honey did threaten to break down almost constantly. I became so attuned to her every noise that the sounds another car made passing us on the highway would make my heart stop. What was that? A misfiring cylinder? Rachel, sensing my imminent freak-out, would grab my arm and point out the window—it was just an old rattletrap pickup passing us.
Slowly, the signs built up—my nightmare was coming true. Cresting the Rockies in Wyoming, the check-engine light flicked on. Then off. Then on again, and it stayed on. A low whirring racket hummed in the engine block. On the day we were supposed to drive into Yellowstone, the whir became so loud that I couldn’t ignore it. I pulled into an auto garage inside the park. “I don’t know what the hell that is,” a mechanic told me, peering into Little Honey’s guts. “But it sure as hell don’t sound good.” He told us to find a shop as far away from the park as we could, to avoid the costly labor and long wait times. We took our rattle and fled.
In Butte, Montana, a man who reminded me of my uncle—country confident, with grease on his hands and trustworthy eyes—called us excitedly and told us he’d figured it out. “It was the dang smog pump!” he yelled. An easy fix—and cheap. I almost hugged him.
We rode on, but my nerves were shot. I couldn’t seem to shake the little voice in my head that kicked in every day when I unchocked the wheels and turned the keys in the starter: If this van breaks down, you’re fucked. I’d always wanted to be handy like my dad and uncles and cousins—the kind of men with the skill to take something apart and put it back together again, repaired. I thought that owning the van would make me handy and mechanical by necessity, and in some ways, it had: I could change a tire, no sweat, keep the simple things lubricated and topped off, even tighten the oil pan with a socket wrench to try to stop an incessant leak. But beyond that, I had failed. I still didn’t know how to diagnose a cracked head gasket or how to fix anything serious. When something bad happened (and I couldn’t shake the feeling that it would), we’d be at the mercy of some wicked small-town mechanic.
And so the nightmares continued. In the Dakotas, I dreamed we ran out of gas. While we slept in Bryce Canyon, Utah, I dreamed that we had parked the van precariously atop a towering hoodoo. After we overheated in California, I dreamed that the van broke down in the middle of a desert and that we died of dehydration, our bodies mummified by the heat. In Arkansas, I dreamed that we ran out of money and couldn’t afford to get our belongings home. When Rachel also dreamed that the van plunged off a cliff—and then that we were parked atop the hoodoos, just like I had—I wondered if my stressful dreamworld was somehow contagious, my state of anxiety spreading like a virus.
If I was obsessing about a breakdown, I was also fixated on money and the way it seemed to flow through our wallets like water through a sieve. Living out of a van can be surprisingly expensive, especially if you’re burning through gas on long drives every couple of days. I had underestimated our costs. Working would mean stopping, extending the trip, spending even more money. I kept thinking about the saying “so poor you can’t keep mosquitoes in underpants.” I only had three pairs. We didn’t need much to survive. But the list of things we could afford was shrinking fast. I was sinking into despair: over van noises, over dollar signs, over anything and everything.
Rachel was dealing with anxiety, too. A few months before the start of our trip, sharp, burning waves of pain began seeping down the left part of her face in a wicked cycle: eye, cheek, jaw. A cavalcade of doctors gave hazy diagnoses until we went to a crack neurologist at New York University. He saw the signs of something called SUNA, a rare headache disorder. Two anti-seizure medications finally eased the pain, but a quick Google search revealed that they could have scary side effects on one’s mental state. When I felt anxiety or black moods or lashed out, I could blame the van, money, or luck. Rachel had to wonder: Is it me? Is it the drugs? Is it both?
We rode the roller coaster together. Two days would feel like heaven, the third, hell. Simple miscommunications over nothing exploded into bruising fights. Worst of all were the days when one or both of us felt crummy for no reason at all while we were supposed to be enjoying some massive natural wonder, getting the gloomies while driving through pristine Montana countryside, feeling blue while soaking up rays on a beach in San Diego. This was entirely out of character. We teetered on the edge of paranoia. Things were supposed to be perfect. What was wrong with us?
And then, after soaking in the mineral baths at Hot Springs, Arkansas, two months and two weeks into the trip, out of money and exhausted and having decided that we would haul ass back to Philly, ending the trip early, the van broke down outside a town called Hazen. One second we were flying down I-40, the highway flat as a frying pan, and the next I felt a bump and the engine was dead. A stripped timing gear. The thing keeping all the chaos at bay inside the engine had ripped itself apart.
Five days later, our money was gone and so was some of our family’s and so were the grand visions of adventure and struggle and self-exploration. We spent the nights in Little Rock, holed up in a cheap hotel by the highway overpass, ordering Chinese takeout and watching reality TV, wallowing in the cushiness and instant gratification we’d so longed to escape on our trip. When the van was fixed, we got the hell out of town. We sang all the way home, and cried, and celebrated the joys of every weird gas-station stop and potato-chip lunch, and said aloud that we were ending this road trip under our own power, the right way.
But we had trouble with reentry. The flatness of Pennsylvania made me sick to my stomach. It was going to take us five months living with our parents to get back on our feet financially. Which was fine. I wanted to be home.
On the road, we often found ourselves pulling into Walmart parking lots for the night. Before the trip, I had romanticized that idea: What interesting folks would we meet in these lots? People roughing it just like we were? That didn’t happen. Nobody comes up to you in a Walmart parking lot to introduce themselves, share a beer, trade stories about the road. You don’t go up to them. People are exhausted. There are cars filled with plastic garbage bags of clothes and windows fogged up by the condensation of those sleeping inside. If I ever felt desperate or lost, I’d look around and remind myself that we were lucky. One little imbalance in the chemicals washing around our brains, one crash of the stock market, one tragic death that severs the familial safety net, and we could be out here under entirely different circumstances, fighting for survival, living vanlife only because we couldn’t leave it.
We did make one parking-lot friend, in Ocean Beach, San Diego. She was in her sixties and wore a flowing white bathrobe, said she’d been living out of her camper in view of the Pacific Ocean for a while. Called herself transient by choice. She was part of a class-action lawsuit against the state of California for discriminating against the homeless. The cops sometimes came around to give people a hard time, she said, so keep an eye out. The public bathrooms were smelly, and the beach could get dicey at night. But mostly things were just fine. There were outdoor showers and the sun was shining.
When we left, she gave us a long, motherly look. “Be careful,” she said. “It can be tough out there.”
She was right, of course. Experts and researchers know that transient living can wreak havoc on anyone. It’s not just that mentally unhealthy people become homeless or transient; it’s that it’s harder to maintain healthfulness when you don’t have stability—when trouble can come at any time, in many forms. Rachel and I had our families looking out for us, and we had each other, and still we took a thrashing.
This is something that the chroniclers of our generation’s van movement often forget, ignore, or hide. The Instagram version implies that the only side effect of #vanlife is contentment. You want to live your dream of freedom and nomadism? Do it in your van, touched only by sunshine and perfect vistas. No matter that those Instagram stars have turned their lives into businesses to gain financial stability, escaping the uncertainty that makes #vanlife both sexy and difficult in the first place. What their followers see on Instagram is raw happiness. Anxiety induced by transience doesn’t sell anything.
Whether I realized it or not, I’d thought of vanlife as a sort of test for my interest in adventure, the outdoors, freedom. The thing I was doing was a hashtag, a lifestyle, a measuring stick. If I could just figure it out, get good at it, I knew I’d be happy.
Of course, it wasn’t that simple. Here’s what living out of a van was: a massive stretch of raw adventure and also an earthquake, destabilizing my life, showing me I didn’t really know all that much about risk, privilege, happiness, failure, and my own mental state. Rachel and I were two tectonic plates, shearing and buckling and melding together under the pressure. When it was all over, I got to see what had crumbled—and what hadn’t. That was vanlife’s gift to me.