#VanLife: The New American Dream

Written by BlackbirdGo October 5, 2018
The PeopleThe Plant

Disclaimer: Keep out of reach of children. For use only by adults 21 years of age and older.

On August 6, 2018, I found myself driving west in a van that would be my house for the foreseeable future. I strayed very little from the maximum speed limit. I wasn’t sure if my engine could handle anything higher, and even if it could, I needed to be conscious of my already-minimal gas mileage. Wind beat up against the side of the bulky vehicle, shoving me to sway over the rumble strips and alerting me that I was coasting toward trouble. But this was it. This was home.

I had been toying with the thought of buying a van to live in for nearly three years, but it was more a fun idea to daydream about while scrolling through Instagram at my crappy office job. I’d bookmark various build-out ideas and casually peruse vehicle classifieds while trying to imagine myself waking up in any one of them.

It seems it’s become the new millennial dream: to live virtually rent-free while going wherever the wind takes you. In fact, searching #vanlife on Google gathers over 11 million hits of unique stories of individuals living life on the road and colorful images of beautiful scenery outside their van’s backdoors. These people are typically former city folk who were once (or still are) working full-time professional jobs and who drastically downsized to escape the conveyor belt of our modern Western society.

That kind of minimal living sounded nice, but also a little too whimsical to actually pursue. Yet, on a grey November afternoon in rural Utah, I found myself impulsively dishing out hard cash for a 1996 Chevrolet 1500 with three rows of cushy seats and beige shag carpet accented with mystery stains that have accumulated over the past two decades.

I spent a long nine months converting the van into a livable space. During that time, I was living in Reno, Nevada working in digital marketing. I spent my days at a desk that overlooked a grimy adult theater, while my evenings were occupied by a one too many episodes of The Office. I had been dishing out an absurd portion of my tiny paycheck toward my ridiculously high rent. I was absentmindedly going through the motions of what I was taught life should be. But, if I were being honest, I wanted to be anywhere else.

Originally, I moved to Reno in 2012 to pursue a degree in journalism. My first house was conveniently nestled half a mile from the university. The space was shared with two friends, and rent was just shy of $400 each. The house was updated, nice, and—best of all—affordable. Fast forward to November 2017. Rent in my tattered two-bedroom house with a roommate was $800 each, not including the cost of monthly utilities and bills. It took over 80 percent of my paycheck to pay rent every month, and every month I was concerned that I would not be able to cover all of my other baseline expenses.

It’s no secret to the residents of Reno that rent is the highest it has ever been, and it continues to quickly soar. This can obviously be attributed to the influx of large companies newly residing in the area (e.g., Tesla, Panasonic, and Apple to name a few). According to RentJungle.com, rent has increased 10.4 percent over just the last six months. Since I moved here in May 2012, average rent has increased by 35 percent. And let me tell you, my wages have not increased by 35 percent—not even close.

Pair the absurd cost of living with my disdain for my less-than-ideal job and living rent-free in a van by the river was sounding pretty darn good. Literally. So, after selling and donating virtually everything I owned, switching to remote work, and giving up my house, I began my new millennial adventure of a #vanlifer.

It’s been about two months since I completely changed how I live, and it’s been quite the learning experience, to say the least. It’s both a blessing and a curse to find new sleeping quarters every night or two. I don’t get the luxury of a taking a shower as often as I want. I often find myself laying on my custom-sized (i.e., small) bed yearning for my lush queen bed surrounded by my unnecessary number of belongings.

However, I haven’t paid rent since July, and I’ve come to understand this new version of the American dream. I spend a lot of my time going running with my dog, reading good books, and writing—all favorite pastimes that were lost in the blur of my old everyday life. Though I sometimes wake up in a Cabela’s parking lot, I also have woken up to the sound of the Pacific Ocean crashing up against rocky shorelines. I’ve even saved more money in these two months than I did in the six months prior.

Living this way has allowed me to be conscious of my lifestyle and how it will craft my future, and I think that might actually be the entire appeal of it. Those who live a mobile life can choose where they call home, how they earn their living, and how they spend their free time. It gives them the reigns back on aspects of their lives that are often defaulted to what society deems “right.”

I know this isn’t going to be my life forever, and I don’t want it to be. I will once again be working a full-time job, and I will wake up every day to the same view out my bedroom window. But right now, the freedom to choose where and how I live is exactly what I need. It’s the new American dream, and it’s a pretty good dream to me.