A while ago, my girlfriend was mistaken for a homeless woman. “Here, take this,” a kindly older gentleman said to her through the front window of our van. “Buy yourself something to eat.” Stevie does not need something to eat, nor does she look homeless. Our van, however, makes her look like someone living in a van.
Up until a little while ago, when I started building a tiny house up in the hills above Malibu, we had been living out of our van in Venice, California, which to me, is similar to living inside a circus–only the performers all have incredibly short cut-offs, fantastic haircuts, and awful tattoos. Ah, youth.
We decided to do a three month experiment, testing out all those so-called “freedoms” that everyone says come with the #vanlife. It’s not easy, especially on a budget. One of the most memorable of the experiences was spending almost four hours pulling the exhaust off in the dark, lying in a parking lot of an O’Reilly’s Auto Parts (who, by the way, lent me a hacksaw after I spent a good half hour using the catalytic converter as a sledge hammer–very nice folks).
Sure, it sounds great. Everyone I tell about our trip says the same thing: “I’d love to do that!” But would you? Would you love to piss into a bucket in the middle of the night? Would you love to lie in the sweltering heat while apparently unmuffled motorcycles scream by three feet from your head? Would you love for someone to think your girlfriend is homeless? Probably not. No one would. I sure didn’t. But there are benefits. Road trips, for one. You can go where you want, when you want–and that’s where vans really pull their weight. They’re not made for living in a city. They’re made for the open road; pulling over when you’re sick of driving, finding waves and napping in the shade. But since a long road trip may entail a few weeks here and there of parking in a city, I’ve compiled a few tips for those looking to experience the “freedom” of van life.
1: Clean your house. The most suspect vans are the ones with the blacked out windows. You’ve seen them: ink-black tint peeling off a corner of the window, exposing a garbage dump with a pair of filthy feet sticking out. If you give your van a thorough cleaning and leave the curtains open, the neighbors will see that you’re not, in fact, a filthy hobo and be less inclined to call the cops or worse, give you dirty looks and spare change.
2: Don’t get too comfortable. A few days ago, we parked in a residential area next to a few seat-shaped rocks shaded by a palm tree. It looked idyllic. I pulled off my shirt, sat down on the rock and poured a rancid margarita into a plastic mug from a plastic pre-mixed bottle. My girlfriend opened the doors wearing one of my shirts and bikini bottoms. It was all so perfect–smiling at each other over our mugs, laughing at some silly nothingness, sunburned and salty–until someone walked by, and we realized that we’d turned the sidewalk into our living room, officially making us hobos. Try to avoid being a hobo.
3: Bring tools. For God’s sake, bring tools. Bring all of the tools you have. Wrenches and hammers and duct tape and hacksaws and screwdrivers and twine and batteries… man, just bring everything. Pack it in there. You’ll probably use it. I know it sucks because you might not have room for your photo albums or your grandmother’s quilt or whatever, but grandma’s quilt isn’t going to tear your exhaust off in an O’Reilly’s parking lot, and no one wants to see your photo albums, anyway.
4: Bring books. If you don’t read, then start reading. Bring lots of books. Bring ones you don’t think you’ll like. Bring ones you’ve read before and re-read them. One thing about not having a house is that you don’t notice how much nothing you actually do until you have no place to do it in. And honestly, one of the best things in the world is pulling over, opening all the doors, letting a breeze in, and reading in silence for a few hours with a girl’s leg draped over yours.
5: Simplify, simplify, simplify! Henry David Thoreau was, quite possibly, the smartest man that’s ever lived. “Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life,” he once wrote, “are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.”
Thoreau was so right. Get rid of your shit. Give it to Goodwill. Give it to your friends. Leave it on the curb. Anything to make it go away. You don’t need it, I promise. You’ll miss it for a week or two, and then you will forget you ever had it. I don’t know whether she got it from somewhere, but my mother always says, “I don’t need more room, I need less stuff.” She’s a smart woman.