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Living in a Van Down by the River

For a brief period of about 6 months after I graduated college, I had big dreams of living out of a small van. I would envision scenes of a romantically grungy vagabond lifestyle where my boyfriend and I would roam around rejecting the financial and social shackles of renting in the ever-expensive Bay Area of California. We could be free, cruising through city and country feeling secure about where we would sleep that night while saving our precious dollars and feeling bad-ass while living out on the fringe of society.

At the time, we didn't have many financial resources, and we were moving from the East Bay to Oregon to work on an organic farm. We were both working part-time, but did not have a stable living situation. We crashed in my friend's attic, sublet a tiny San Francisco flat, camped out at a hot spring, and even booked a hostel amongst international travelers between living situations. A van would allow us to live in expensive places for a temporary period of time without rental commitments. Yeehaw!

Despite our brief, yet vigorous dream of living on the road, the van thing didn't work out, and probably for the better. We moved to the farm and lived like semi-normal people, even though we lived in a tent cabin in the woods (but that's another story). Nevertheless, here I am, years later, on the opposite side of the world in New Zealand, living out of my car. Though not a pimped-out campervan like those depicted so dreamily on social media, my 1998 Nissan station wagon makes for a comfy abode as I travel the New Zealand islands. It has posed new ideas of living and home, and brought unexpected travel challenges to the surface.

I didn't expect to buy a car. I came to New Zealand partially to explore the beautiful country, working and traveling with a one-year working holiday visa, and also because I didn't have anything else stacked up in my life. I let this door open, allowing this choice to flood my life with unexpected experiences. I went with my backpack, filled with camping gear and my frisbee, and thought I'd take buses and hitch hike to get around, sleeping on my yoga mat in my tent. Yeah right. I slept a few nights like that, which was a good way to save money and live during nice weather, but not sustainable for me in the long term.

I saw many other backpackers I met buying, outfitting, repairing, and selling travel cars and vans. I started to see this new world of traveling and living out here, and considered making the investment. I would see rugged young couples, chaotically organized, cooking on camping stoves in their makeshift trunk kitchens. Their towels and t-shirts would hang on rear-view mirrors, drying in the summer sun, as they expanded and contracted out of their ever-moving homes.

Along with the success stories, I did also hear many stories of young backpackers buying metallic time bombs with wheels and losing a good sum of their travel money along the way. It is definitely a financial risk, and I knew I would be spending money for fuel and reparations along the way. These costs would virtually be my rent, as I saved money with the ability to live out of the car rather than staying in hostels and rooms.

I bought my car because my car came to me, and I took the opportunity to go for it. And I am so glad I did. I was free to cruise the countryside on my own time. At night, I'd fold the back seats down, cram all my stuff in the front seats of my car, and roll out my sleeping bag on a surprisingly comfortable foam mattress. I'd usually end up a little diagonal, and often on a slope rolling towards the middle of my mattress taco. I slept well though, and usually kept very warm. In the morning I'd wake up, condensation on all the windows from my night's breath, and pop open the side door to greet the day.

I learned quickly though that this life wasn't all that glamorous, and rolling out of the backseat of my car in the morning, crusty eyed with bedhead, was both glorious and a little rough. It is sometimes nice to have an indoor bathroom and enough space to stand up inside your bedroom. These are the trade-offs with waking up to a snowy tipped mountain range in the middle of nowhere and then driving off to the next adventure.

There are pros and cons to this way of life. I have learned a thing or two about living out of a car that changed my perspective about shelter. Here are some of my findings, which may or may not make you want to join the fleet of nomadic drivers out there.

1. The weather matters! Since living out of car really means you live outside and happen to sleep in a car at night, many of your daily activities depend on the outdoor conditions. It is much easier to feel comfortable and stoked when it is warm and the days are longer (i.e. summer). Once winter hits, you better be able to wrap yourself up like a nordic burrito in that freezing metal tin can and be willing to cook and eat outside in the dark. Or else move with the seasons and cruise to a warmer part of the country. Rain is also a factor, and life can get soggy real fast. Adjust accordingly.

2. Cleaning the house is easier than ever! Similar to tiny homes, living in a small space with few material goods means that cleaning and maintaining life is simple and quick, though it must be done often. A little vacuum job once in awhile is very necessary, and it feels so good to take care of not only a car, but a living space. Maintaining the car/van is integral to sustaining this style of life. Changing the oil regularly and fixing it up when necessary is important, even if it gets expensive.

3. Some hobbies are hard to keep up. Outdoor activities are the best when living out of a car, while indoor hobbies are more limited. Making crafts, cooking, and say, playing the piano, can be challenging in this small space. Home projects like keeping a sourdough starter alive is hard and should not be attempted. This may just be applicable to my weird life, but don't try to keep a viscous, fermenting and bubbling food project alive in your moving home. It's not worth cleaning off the fuzzy car floor even though it makes delicious sourdough bread. Sacrificing these fun activities is difficult. You're better off playing frisbee or writing under a tree even though you really want sourdough. Pick and choose which activities work best with the space.

4. You always have everything you need close by. "I wish this sandwich had some deliciously pungent dijon smothered all over it," you'd say, and then you would remember, "Wait, I have a jar in the car, parked a block away, yaasss! My sandwich is saved." Your whole pantry is there whenever you need a snack, as is your entire wardrobe, just in case you have a fashion disaster or if you need an extra sweater.

5. Privacy is very nice, but not always applicable. Often times, you are exposed, unless you like squirming under your covers to change and then hit your face on the low ceiling of the car or accidently put your pants on backwards. People will see underwear drying on the open doors, so you have to feel comfortable without much privacy, unless you are in the middle of nowhere with nobody around but sheep (though they too may have an opinion about your panties). There's not much space to retreat to, and you must find mental and physical spaces of solace elsewhere.

6. You don't need much to be happy! Some clothes, a frisbee, some party hats and glitter, food, cooking supplies, and a radio is all I really need to be happy, and the rest I find out through experiencing the world. Less is more. Simplifying our lives can clear away a lot of unnecessary fluff and allow us to experience the world more vividly.

7. Different cultures see this way of life from different perspectives. As in the famous SNL video, Chris Farley's clumsy character, Matt Foley, explains he lives in a van down by the river, among other unfavorable circumstances. It's funny because it's trashy to live in a van, and he's a motivational speaker, a usually successful type of person. In the US, living in a van, or car, is often seen as deplorable and against the entire mainstream flow of society.

Here in New Zealand, hitchhiking and living out of cars and vans is normal for travelers and mostly socially acceptable. It is only when travelers start impacting the local environment and facilities when it becomes a problem, and for good reason. If van and car-goers are relatively discreet and respectful, locals are usually supportive. Be respectful and careful where you post up and know the local rules and regulations. Asking a local is always a good idea.

8. You can go wherever you want, whenever you want to! Being a mobile home, you can live on the road and stay along the way. One night you could be basking in the sun at a beach campsite, while another night you could park it up in the crisp mountains. There are definitely rules about where you can park, but the freedom to move around fairly easily is a nomad's dream.

9. Living in a small space forces you to get out and do things. Since your home is tiny, it's not always the best place to hang out all day, so go outside! I spend most of my time outdoors, exploring, hiking, or doing normal activities like cooking and reading. It feels so good to get fresh air most of the day and rely on entertainment out in the world rather than always indoors or on a screen. On the other hand, this aspect has also made me so thankful for cozy indoor shelter as well, especially in cold and wet conditions. It feels so good to have a nice indoor space where you can stretch out and get cozy.

10. There is no 'right' way to live. The home that people choose should, as a shelter, protect them from the elements, and as a living space, should also enhance daily life. Depending on what values different people have, our structures and home spaces should feed those values, whether they involves creating community, exploring the world, or having a safe haven from the outside world. Some houses and homes are better suited to serve different needs.

Living in a car has fed my own desire to explore, to feel close to the mountains, to challenge myself, and to meet inspiring people along the way. I may not live in a van down by the river my whole life, though experiencing it for this chapter has enhanced my ability to appreciate the beauty of simplicity. Plus, it's often quite nice living by a river. I know I can create the structure of my life in a variety of ways, and this allows me to feel confident pushing forward. I won't live out of my car forever, but I will feel right at home folding down the seats, closing the door from the inside and dreaming within a cozy mattress taco.

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