So I’ve been doing the Instagram thing for a while now. When I first started this vehicle dwelling lifestyle, I was writing my experiences in a yellow notebook covered in flowers; the front of it reads “A friend loves at all times.” Perfect. That’s like, pure hippy shit right there. And I’m all about being a hippy. I wanted the trees, the drinkable water from streams, and the ability to say things like “far out,” and “groovy,” while wearing my orange tinted aviators and a Hawaiian shirt.
Obviously, getting a hippy bus was part of the equation as well. Rule number one is to look good, and although my truck was pretty badass, it didn’t exactly fit the bill. When I took off from Union Pacific, I had a few of my friends ask me to keep them updated on my travels through emails. Sure, no problem. I was planning on taking some extravagant philosophical journey, complete with running rampant with no clothes on for months at a time in the woods; eating nuts and berries, and coming out with some profound knowledge on why life exists. I’m not saying that I haven’t done any of that, cause I definitely have. I also came up with the profound knowledge I was seeking. But that’s not what this is about. It’s way too boring to put into something worth your time to read.
A few weeks into my wandering journey, I began taking snippets from my writings and compiling them into emails for my friends, complete with pictures to assist in the story. I still had no idea where I was taking myself, but it was nice to share my experience with people who weren’t living it. Writing for them gave me a bit of inspiration to take opportunities that I’d normally pass up. It reminded me of when I was still working for UP; I’d sit at the break room table and listen to what my married friends would dream about, and then take those dreams and make them my reality. Then I’d go back to work and share what it was that I did. In a way, my van adventure is fuelled from those dreams. I can’t count how many times I have been told from friends and the like, “I’m just gonna live vicariously through you, man.”
It wasn’t too difficult to write about my travels when there wasn’t much happening in them. For the first two months, I spent most of my time doing stuff that any man would find rather dull. I’d walk up the side of a mountain, take out a book of plants and identify none of the ones around me, play the same twenty or so songs over and over on guitar, and cook the same three meals day-in and day-out. I’d lay in a frigid river for as long as possible, just to see how well my body would adapt to cold. Or maybe I’d do nothing but sit. I did lots of that, actually. I’m not gonna lie; it was pretty damn amazing and I fully intend on taking another vacation like that some time soon.
But then I got into climbing. I remembered that I really like doing something challenging, and I want to get back into that feeling of gratification and fulfillment one gets when pushing past the limits of comfort. With the reintroduction of climbing into my lifestyle, writing kind of took a back seat. I still wrote in my journal, but those entries waned as well. It’s like when one of my friends would suddenly start dating some new girl. One day, he’s just gone. Vanished. A week later, I finally get in touch with him on his cell phone. “Hey man, where’ve you been? I haven’t heard from you all week! Wanna go cycling or something?”
“Oh, sorry Derrick. I haven’t been ignoring you, I’ve just been busy. I met this girl at the bar the other night and she’s pretty cool. I’ve just been hanging out with her.” Like the friend who delves into a new and exciting relationship with a woman, I lusted for scaring the shit out of myself by hanging desperately on to the face of some cliff. It was love at first sight. Or maybe second, since I had done it throughout high school. I didn’t even call my mom for three weeks. I’ve been out of their house since I was eighteen. Before I reached Wyoming, the longest I had gone without talking to my mom on the phone was two weeks. It was THAT kind of serious. And I didn’t have cell reception in Wyoming. That’s prolly worth mentioning.
Every morning, I woke and dreamt of getting on a rock. I wanted to feel my fingers shred layers of skin as I panicked, clinging with unreasonable force to miniscule pockets and ledges, knowing that a fall would be a short glimpse into what death feels like. FYI, death doesn’t feel like much. It’s over before it even begins. But that moment before it happens… It’s more intense than those nights that I spent raving in the middle of 100,000 people, minus the rave. And the people. It’s the feeling you get when you’re buried up to your elbows in your garden, and your husband walks up behind you and says whatever it is he says, causing you to jump out of your skin, throwing dirt in your eyes on accident and yelping with terror, only to find out that everything is okay and it’s only him. Some people hate that feeling; I yearn for it.
When I left Wyoming and headed for Utah, climbing was still on my brain. I wanted more. I wanted to climb all the rocks. I had met Morgean when I was in Wyoming, and she seemed to share the passion for climbing that I had recently discovered. Better yet, she had honed her passion for which specific rocks she wanted to attempt to embed herself into. “I want to climb in Indian Creek,” she told me, as we sat in a cow pasture with about eighty cows curiously eyeing us. Well I didn’t have a particular destination. She was clearly knowledgable on climbing rocks. She even had her own van. I listened with interest as my mouth opened and said “Yeah, me too! That’s where I’m headed next. Let’s meet up and climb together!”
This story is about my writing. And as you can see already, writing was getting pushed further and further down on my extremely short list of priorities. When Morgean and I made it to Moab, I hadn’t even thought about writing. I was making mediocre attempts at getting pictures for my emails, and I was putting zilch on paper about what was happening in my travels. We spent roughly a month climbing in Moab and Indian Creek. Our schedule for most days went like this: wake up, make breakfast, drive to a crag, hike up to the base, climb everything and anything that we were physically and emotionally capable of, collapse at the base of the crag in puddles of orange-colored sweat, drive to a camp spot, make dinner, pick the crag for the following morning, and pass the fuck out.
We slowed down towards the end as our bodies began breaking down from being jammed in cracks day after day, but that’s about the gist of it. We also took rest days, but those consisted of driving to Moab to resupply, then lying around and doing absolutely nothing. We were too exhausted to do much other than basic necessities. By the end of October, I was completely drained of anything more than grumpy thoughts. I had used all of my happy ones to carry me through a month of staying calm while barely hanging on to a rock ten feet above my last piece of gear.
November was much the same, except I was living in Tennessee and drinking for dinner instead of making food. Then came December. I was sitting in my parents’ house. I felt like a Marine returning to the civilian world from the intensity of combat; the world was dull. I began looking for ways to entertain myself, remembering that I was doing something with a pencil and a journal months before which had piqued my interest. So I started writing again. I wrote about the past few months, thoughts I had—really anything that came to my head. I still have about a dozen stories that I had started on which never made it past paragraph four. Maybe one day a few of them will see a conclusion.
I remembered the emails that I used to send out, and picked up where I left off. Oh! Yeah. So I’ve been doing the Instagram thing for a while now. I was writing an email, and I realized that it would work way better if I started using Instagram to update everyone with my story. Damn, I took a long time to get to this point. I’m tired. It’s 2AM. Forgive me.
I began doing this Instagram thing, and as well as posting my story from the front window of a van, I started following others who do it as well. Some of them I have known about for quite some time, even spoken to in emails. They gave me advice years ago on doing this sort of thing. One of those peoples, Corey and Emily of @wheresmyofficenow, recently collaborated an article with The New Yorker about their lifestyle. It has been highly controversial in the #Vanlife community, since it paints a picture unlike what many of us experience on a daily basis.
These two have professionally styled photos on their Instagram, showing (typically) the girl in the middle of some beautiful nature scene, or maybe laying in her underwear in their van, while doing some sort of advertisement for “X” brand. In the news article, they revealed that much of their income is from sponsorships, and that they spend a considerable amount of their time prepping for Instagram photos and writing for their posts. Their van, “Boscha,” is maintained not by them, but by a Vanagon-specific company called “GoWesty.” When their van broke down earlier this year, they took it to GoWesty and were given a loaner van to live in while Boscha was being repaired.
When the New Yorker article was released, Morgean and I sat in her van as I finished reading it. “They’re not even living the van life!” she exclaimed. “They’re in their van to take pictures and earn money; they’re in it for all the wrong reasons. And they’re making it look like this glorious lifestyle that it isn’t.”
I couldn’t agree more. Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for them doing what they do. If they love their life, then I am happy that they’re living it. If it weren’t for people like them, I wouldn’t have gained what could have been the last inkling of motivation to make my own situation what it is now. As some really smart guy once said, “you are standing on the shoulders of all of those which have come before you.” And I am. I realize that and am completely thankful for it. I know that if they took pictures of what van life was really like at times, they wouldn’t be able to gain corporate sponsorships for their lifestyle.
What bothers me is that the lessons I have learned from living in this van aren’t being captured in photographs. There aren’t any pictures of having to spend ten minutes swatting mosquitos surrounding the interior light before being able to go to sleep. It doesn’t show having to climb out of a sleeping bag in frigid temperatures to pee in a milk jug, because stepping outside is a level of cold that only Wim Hof would be comfortable. Or spending a day outside sweating in the Sun, only to come back to an oven on wheels for the remainder of the day. Shit, I’m awake right now because the last two nights have been filled with tossing and turning on my “bed.” I’m really hoping that when I finish typing this, I’ll pass out and sleep an hour past the sunrise.
I’m sure lots of you are thinking, “well you had a great job, a good bed, and a nice place to live. You chose this path. You did this to yourself.” You’re right. I did. And I’m still thankful that I did. I’m not whining about the misery of my life; quite the opposite. Because if it were that miserable, I know I could go back to the way I lived in a heartbeat. But I’m still here, sitting in my sleeping bag while my fingers go numb because it’s about thirty degrees outside.
When I go rock climbing, I get stuck in some stupid situations. The rock above me has literally no visible holds, I’m way too high to retreat to the ground, and my feet are slowly giving out from the tiny ledges I’m standing on. When I get into those spots, I can’t help but laugh. It’s the same with being in this van. When life gets disgustingly morbid; when it seems like that pile of shit rolling downhill is going to completely bury me, I stop looking at it through my eyes. Instead, I look at it through the eyes of that guy who is sitting at his computer chair tonight, typing out the same things he’s been typing out for the past seven years. He thinks my life is incredible, and one of his dreams is to experience some of the things that I’m experiencing. I laugh because damn, I’m really cold sitting in this van right now.
Since my job ended at Juniper Springs, I’ve had ample amounts of free time, just like when I first started this van gig. And once again, I’ve turned towards writing as my sedentary hobby. I’m slowly discovering what I want to write about, and where I want my story to go. In a way, I want to be that iconic van life story. I want to be the story that people choose to read whenever they have that moment of free time to escape from their normal routine. But I’d rather not paint a picture similar to the rest of those vanlifers. To me, they’re painting an amazing picture which subconsciously reads, “you’re missing out on all of this.” Even though I may jokingly say egotistical things, I’ve never been a fan of the thought that my life is any better than yours, whatever it may be.
So here’s to me telling you the parts of my story that many people wouldn’t tell, in fear of being ostracized. Here’s to painting a picture full of both beauty and disgust. And here’s to me showing you that my life sucks at times all the same as yours, so maybe instead of you on one side of the fence and me on the other, we can hold hands and laugh together in this open pasture of life.