Lessons Learnt From An Entire Year Living In A Van

Lessons Learnt From An Entire Year Living In A Van

I’ve been living on the road for more than a year. Seattle, Los Angeles, San Diego, Baja, Las Vegas, Tempe. Something like 32,000km. Let me break down a few of the things I’ve learned along the way.

Prepare to be judged: By your friends, your family, co-workers. Both past and present. And pretty much everyone you’ll meet along the way.

Excess is Excessive: There’s this scene in “Grand Prix” where the owner of the Japanese team is talking to James Garner, his new driver, about Americans and their excess. It goes something like, “Why do Americans buy big house with lots of closets and then fill those closets with things they don’t use…And then buy bigger houses because they’re running out of closet space?” That’s always stuck with me, a reminder that if I haven’t used something in a year or more, I likely never will again.

Living on the road forces you to assess all the things occupying your suddenly very limited space. Clothing is the easiest thing to overdo and also the easiest to exorcise. How many shirts do you really need? And jackets. Are you really going to wear that windbreaker?

I like to lay all my apparel out and, if I haven’t worn something in more than a month and if it’s not going to be necessary for an upcoming climate, it goes.

Black t-shirts are best, as you can wear them for days on end without evidence. A base layer is also important, but not everything has to be made by some overpriced outdoors brand. I have a thin grey sweatshirt, purchased second hand, that has travelled with me for years. It’s an essential, and that is essentially what you want. Things you can’t live without.

I know people like an opinion, so here’s one: get rid of two-thirds of your clothes before you hit the road. Take things for two climates: warm and cold. You can always layer. Socks and underwear are important, but you don’t need a clean pair every day. You can wash things. Learn to let go.

Never say no to a driveway: You meet me in the int he parking lot of some surf spot. We chat, share a few waves, you hear about what I’ve got going on and then suggest I park my rig in your driveway for a few days. “Stay as long as you like! Feel free to use the shower and the shitter!”

Often times, people say these things as a hollow gesture of good will, but I never say no. That’s lead to some wonderful friendships.

Keep your butt clean: Really. Hav you seen that documentary “Surfwise” about Dorian Paskowitz? He and his wife and nine children lived in a variety of RVs for the better part of two decades. The most important rule they had? Keep your arsehole clean.

Showers can be skipped; I’ve gone a solid two weeks living in the same shirt and shorts. But your butt? You’ve gotta keep that thing clean.

You can usually find a hostel with a pay-to-play shower. State Parks are good too, a number have coin-operated shower stalls. There are even few surf shops along the coast with outdoor showers.

Living in a van doesn’t have to leave you smelling like old socks. The trick is to take advantage of any opportunity to scrub yourself down. On that note, Dr. Bronners — the hippie shit with the words on the bottle — works great. You can use it on just about everything and even wash your clothes in it. The peppermint flavour might leave your business a bit tingly though; my friend Walker calls it, “a breath mint for your balls.”

All Day Distractions: Living in a small space like a van isn’t for everyone. Distract yourself by creating something. Draw, write, cook, just make something. Maybe a list! Things you’d like to do, places you’d like to see or sketch a design of something you’ve been meaning to make. The idea is to make the most of your time on the road. Soon enough, you’ll be back in some apartment, entranced by the screen in your hand.

On the Internet and eating out: I’m a no good cook. Top Ramen, toast with peanut butter, that’s about it. So, figuring out a healthy diet is hard; pizza and pints are all too available and appealing. So, when you pull into a gas station in the middle of nowhere, grab some beef jerky, nuts and water. The coffee might be crap, but it’s better than soda. You can stock up on bulk snacks too — granola, trail mix, dried fruit and the ever important peanut butter.

With the Internet, your best bet is going to be to steal it. Starbucks is always an option, but so are libraries, sandwich shops and even bars. I can’t tell you how many times I wrapped up a work project sitting over a pint at Pizza Port in San Clemente after surfing all day.

If you’re planning to be on the road a long time, get yourself a gym membership at one of those big chains that’s actually open 24 hours. They will have showers and Internet you can access from the parking lot.

You’ll be dead soon: A friend recently suggested he would like to move to Mexico. Somewhere with cheap beer, warm water and consistent surf. I knew that money wasn’t holding him back, so asked what was. “We just need the courage.”

About midway into our current adventure, I accepted a job back in Seattle. We were living out of our van in southern California at the time. Hesitant, but eager for some extra income, we packed up our things and headed north. Fast forward a few weeks and we were living in a comfortable little studio apartment, furnished with all the things we could ever want.

Not more than three weeks later, the company brought in a new manager who immediately decided to do away with the marketing department, including me. Fear, was the first feeling. That was weird, given that we’d spent so much time living in uncertainty. Comfort comes quickly and, like any good drug, leaves you needing more. The idea of abandoning all our newly-acquired — the Chesterfield couch, the teal waterfall dresser, the french doors that separated our living and dining rooms — was terrifying. But it was all just a bunch of stuff. I remembered how easy it is to just get rid of everything and still be happy. Maybe more than you were to begin with; maybe more than you ever will be again. Courage came next. We packed up our shit, again, and said goodbye to a city neither one of us is terribly fond of.

Certainty is something people put a lot of importance in. But there’s beauty in the unknown and freedom in it too. Our impermanence may have been forced on us this time, but, turning over the keys to the apartment and climbing back into the van, a concordant sight of relief escaped us. No, we’re not sure what the future holds, where we’ll live or if we’ll be able to pay all of our bills on time. Or even where we’ll sleep tonight.

I guess sometimes you just gotta say, “What the fuck? Make your move.

Justin W. Coffey is the Co-Creator of WESTx1000, a multimedia company creating unique multimedia content for the adventure motorcycle community. Justin also works as the Social Media Manager for Touratech-USA, Backcountry Discovery Routes, GlobeRiders Motorcycle Adventures and Wolfman Luggage. He is a published author and photographer whose work has appeared on Gizmodo, Expedition Portal, ADV Pulse, RevZilla, SLIDE Magazine, TKart, 0-60 Magazine and MX-5 Forever, among others. Additionally, Justin launched the Peanut Butter Coast — a surf inspired travelogue — in 2011.