Sometimes, the grass is greener on the other side, the mountains are taller, the sky bluer, and the wind more musical. At least, that’s been my experience living in a van for the past five weeks.
There have been countless perfect moments, strung together through the exploration of the unknown, and cataloged between picturesque sunrises and sunsets that frame each day like bookends.
Along the way, I have admired 7 National Parks in the U.S. and Canada, hiked to epic glacial lakes and waterfalls, learned about ecological farming practices, made new friends and visited old ones, and even became one with nature while tree-bathing in the wilderness.
I have also endured, snow storms, freezing nights, spoiled food, sporadic showers, a dead battery, a night in a Walmart parking lot, and fleas (thank you Cagney)!
But to be honest, those things didn’t even phase me. I almost enjoyed them. There is pleasure in overcoming obstacles to a goal you want to obtain. It makes the adventure more rewarding and gives it character.
I’ve discovered, that I like who I am better amongst the backdrop of simplicity and the shifting stages of life on the road. Van life just brings out a better version of myself.
Before the van, I traveled the world for six years, trying on lifestyles for size, and it just so happened that living in a van was the perfect fit.
It’s not that those lives didn’t suit me per say. Peru was a little too snug, Australia a little too loose, Tanzania had holes in it, and New York was the outfit that I am saving in the back of my closet for that special occasion.
They each played a role in leading me here. A place that deep down, I knew I’d end up one day, once I stopped going against the grain of my own heart.
I gave up my apartment in New York, to cleanse myself. I certainly enjoyed eating gourmet food, indulging in Broadway shows, the walkability of the avenues, commuting to work via the subway, and the energy that emanates from the city lights and sounds.
But I wanted to try on a life where 60% of my paycheck didn’t go to paying rent and buying groceries. Instead, I wanted to get in touch with where those groceries come from, to spend more time amongst trees, and trade rooftops for mountain peaks.
I wanted the freedom and energy to write, and figure out how to make a living out of pursuing my passions.
As I write this, I am “parked” on a farm where I am exchanging 20 hours of work per week for room and board, or in my case, for fresh food, warm showers, and plugging in my van to the electrical grid.
Despite technicalities, I don’t consider myself homeless. Especially since I have deemed the world my home for some time now.
I grew up in a constant state of flux, starting over new, learning and adapting to unfamiliar environments, social structures and norms, forging new friendships, and saying goodbye to old ones.
This is the life of a child with a soldier for a parent.
Less than 1% of U.S. citizens are currently in the military, and therefore the children of those families, make up a small amount of the population. A group of restless kids who are supposed to grow into settled adults, but learned early on that movement keeps you afloat.
But beyond that, I was raised as an only child by a single mother. So when my mom got a new Army assignment, I was one of the things she packed.
Without siblings to confide in, throughout a constantly changing childhood, I was thrust into independence and early adulthood by way of necessity.
I learned about the world, who I am, and what I stand for, by piecing together segments of the people and places I encountered on the road.
I found comfort in moments when I discovered a new custom abroad, or an alternative lifestyle domestically.
I thrived off the energy of nomads, and adventure seekers, to whom -experiences- seemed to be the thing they ate for breakfast. They had a well-roundedness about them, rooted not to a place, but to a way of life. I was inspired and enthralled by the ease in which, they both- entered a room and a conversation. They had the kind of confidence that comes from going beyond your comfort zone- and I knew even as a child, that I wanted that.
I was born introverted and shy, but by my first day at my tenth school in tenth grade, I had perfected the art of bonding over meaningful similarities and making the kind of connections that don’t require proximity.
These skills have allowed me the kind of friendships, that have helped me grow, and kept me grounded even when I can’t stop moving.
It means that when I graduated from college, staying put was not an option.
I carefully selected my degrees in global health and international development, among other reasons, for the flexibility and freedom they would allow me to move around.
I didn’t give up stability to travel full-time, because I studied abroad and caught the “travel bug,” or because wanderlust is deeply rooted in my DNA (although I did and it is), but because traveling for me, is home.
While I may not have a perfectly preserved childhood bedroom and a hometown to go back to, I have something boundless. It is the infinite world of possibilities for progress that comes with exploring both man-made wonders and the wilderness.
There is a language you learn while backpacking, and it translates to van life.
It’s an unspoken realization that backpackers and nomads share. No words need be exchanged, because you know before a handshake that they understand.
They’ve walked in your shoes, and squatted on potties, bathed with wet wipes, gotten food poisoning from indulging in street vendors, been painted by bug bites and bruises, fallen in love before sunrise, left so many crumbs of their heart around in ancient alleyways and on mountain tops- that they couldn’t put it back together if they tried.
They’ve stood in the clouds and examined the world as microscopic puzzle pieces that all connect when aligned correctly. They know less is more, and that the more you see, the less you know.
They have so many stories, but the ones that they struggle to tell, are the ones that express how they felt. The lump in their throat when they walked past limbless children begging, or the provocatively dressed women, who have no choice but to sell themselves for a meal. The gut-wrenching speechlessness when they saw a room full of disabled orphans who were abandoned by their families, or the dying woman being carried to a clinic through the sewer stained streets of the slums.
But above all, they know that these moments are lessons in humility and empathy. Even if they can’t solve the struggles of those suffering directly, that pain is planted deep in their mind, and evolves as they transition through stages in their life.
They may go back to the routines they had before their travels, but they nurture these lessons in their thoughts, where the memories are still very much alive.
My biggest fear when I moved back to the U.S. after my escapades abroad, was that I would forget the lessons. I was weary that sliding into city life in Manhattan would replace the feelings I never quite found a way to articulate about living in places like Peru and Tanzania.
I found myself torn on the subway between platforms. I got on, certain my days were productive and contributing to the betterment of society, but by days end, I knew that they weren’t. I had become bitter about my disillusionment from my self-proclaimed dream job.
My resentment had risen up with acidic force, quite literally causing ulcers in my intestines. Until one day, my body refused to continue in this manner, and I fainted on a subway platform.
I could no longer ignore the growing realization that despite finding happiness in New York, I was not my best self. So I began my quest to realign my dreams and my actions.
This journey took me through jungles and coral reefs in Thailand, ancient ruins in Cambodia, the metropolises of Tokyo and Shanghai, and eventually to my mom’s little cabin in the woods in Northern Arizona.
Something about sipping coffee on the wrap around deck, sharing the view of the pine forest with squirrels and Blue Jays, made it abundantly clear that I needed to reconnect with nature.
So I invested in my sanity and in the notion that I could make a living pursuing my passions. Once the seed was planted, I began transforming a van into my home, and setting down the foundation to build a life around a lifestyle.
Of course, I know that living in a van does not help resolve human rights violations in East Africa, or house abandoned children in South America. However, it does keep their realities fresh in my mind.
That way, I am continuously experiencing the emotions, and subsequently striving to be better, and to take full advantage of my privilege.
So for me, van life is a warm embrace of all the life lessons I’ve accumulated abroad.
It is not luxurious or extravagant, but rather it is simple and pure. It breaks down each day into the basic and raw elements of survival, and the bare necessities become my prized possessions.
Shelter, food, and water are at the forefront of every agenda. Showers become luxuries, and make-up and wardrobe changes become expendable.
I am not claiming that this life is glamorous and easy, just that, to me, it’s well worth the trade-offs.
By developing a closeness with nature, I am learning the intricacies of how connected we are to the Earth.
And by immersing myself in rural homestays, I am discovering the dynamics of sustainability in food production.
With every mile, I am building a better version of myself. One that is defined, not by the traditional mile-markers of adulthood, but by the deeper understanding of humanity, the environment, and sense of self.