What they don’t tell you in the glorified posts and instaglam stories about vanlife is that it. is. hard. It’s especially hard if you’re doing it yourself and you don’t have everything you need to live semi-comfortably in place.
After coming back from the sailing trip in Mexico, I was set on being a nomad. For better or worse, I may be impulsive, but I have follow-through. I bought a Ford Transit 250. It was big enough to stand up in – and that was my number one requirement. Aside from vanlife, this is a fairly practical investment for a woman who constantly hauls around weird projects, projectors and way too much steel. It would be hard to have any sort of buyer’s remorse.
I’m the kind of woman who has shown up to a steel yard on many occasions prepared to transfer 12′ sticks of steel in my Honda Fit. I needed a van a decade ago.
But anyhow. It came empty, and so as I traveled, I picked up tools and supplies to build it out.
This was a horrible plan.
But there I was. Building supplies, insulation, tools, stuff to live with jammed in a van, driving cross country with one of my very best friends – on a quest from St. Louis – City Museum – to Oklahoma and Texas. We really only had goals to find cool sculptures, camp, drink, and make it to the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta in time for my birthday.
The quality of my build would have been significantly better if I’d have just taken 6 months to get it done. If I had a garage setup and a wood shop, I could have made something fantastic for a lot less money.
My heart wasn’t having it, though. I wasn’t up to staying where I had those things – I needed to be away from Nashville and I wanted to figure out where I wanted to be, even if a sensible person would have stayed for awhile. Like it or not, my heart is my compass, and I just kind of go with its shenanigans.
Balloon fiesta was magical. That’s a whole story in and of itself to be written (and I will – because it’s something I think everyone should experience at least once in their lives.) For the month of October, I stayed with friends. Saw wild horses. Went to hot springs and hiked in the weird, wonderful mountains of Southern Colorado. I went to “Pizza Van Camp” with a bunch of other vanlifers and did yoga in the desert.
The fall is absolutely gorgeous in Albuquerque. It’s golden yellow. The aspens that sound like twinkles in the wind all turn to a vibrant yellow color. I wasn’t prepared for how much I’d love my favorite season in this region.
In November, I’d head west toward LA. I had a friend with a warehouse studio that had been asking me to come visit for some time. A week or two of making digital and LED-based art with him sounded delightful and welcome. I missed people I knew. I missed soldering and building things.
I had a friend in Las Vegas that I’d not seen in years – and decided to go pay her a visit on my way out.
The drive out to Vegas was fairly easy – it took all day and I got there pretty late. I ended up pulling the van into a dried up river bed south of the city. There were other vans off in the distance. I could see headlights in the desert scrub periodically, and it was comforting. This was a marked and fairly well known location for vanlifers, and I slept easily – I could stay there and not feel like I was going to get a knock telling me to move on. I got rest, thankfully.
The next day I woke up with the sun – popped into the front seat and searched on my phone for a coffee shop to work out of. Just beside where I’d parked for the evening there was art. Serendipitously, “Seven Magic Mountains” was right there. If I wasn’t producing big crazy art, at least I was finding it. I pulled off, had a few moments with it – grabbed some photos and kept on my way. I drove right by them the towering, boldly-colored totems the night before and never noticed. I must have been exhausted.
After a full day of designing comps for a website, I met up with my friend. We geeked out on finding Nespresso pods at really cheap prices and went to Costco (as financially responsible, professional women do) to pick up salad and a tray of cheesecake bites for dinner. At the time, she was working on a book on policy in the Las Vegas region. Of interest to me was her mention of the problems of continued development. Developers were pushing to whittle away at public lands – and this was compounding the drought problems that Vegas was already experiencing.
Vanlife out west means camping out in the BLM lands. They are such a gift to folks who decide that they don’t really want to partake in the exhaustion of working your ass off to give a bank money for a lifetime commitment to a mortgage.
At the time, I decided I’d rather exhaust myself not being in any one place and not contributing to that whole mess of a system. Live like a turtle. Take it all with me. Try to live with less and use a bit less.
A day into the Vegas stay, I got a call that my uncle had passed away. He’d had some long term problems, including rheumatoid arthritis – and he had complications with COVID/Pneumonia. LA was not to be – I needed to go back home. See family. Give hugs to my cousins.
I started back on the road and decided to work, that day, at the park by Hoover Dam. I sat in the back of the an and cranked away on design work. After work I wandered around and admired the transmission towers – the bridge – the concrete structure – and felt a sense of awe. This was such satisfying moment, and really – for someone who worked for so long illustrating electrical infrastructure, the trip was overdue. The dam is intensely inspiring. It really makes you marvel at the ingenuity of humans, despite our constant seeming effort to wipe ourselves off this planet. If we could do this without computers, what could we *actually* accomplish with the computing power we have.
We can do better as a species.
I guess maybe art just stirs inside of you if you practice creativity. I did pick up a bunch of tiny canvases for the road, and I did make myself paint on them. Why? Because I never finish paintings. In theory, I want to do it, but in practice, nope. My linework is fine, but the shading and texture of paint is something I’ve not mastered, and then I end up looking at the piece and hating it and just stopping. (This is why working with metal is so much more personally satisfying. It’s purely form.)
Do things you are terrible at until you’re better at them. You’ll be a better human being for it, I think. So I occasionally will pick up paint and I’ll try again. Do things that make you uncomfortable and you’ll figure out where your boundaries actually are. Fail at things and don’t apologize for trying. Make 1000 things that suck and get that out of your system. Find people who will tell you honestly about what they dislike about your work, but who support your growth. Listen to what they say. Internalize it. Grow. The more you take on, the more you start to see patterns, develop rhythms, and the more you will make better work.
All I really could complete or commit to creatively were tiny little three-inch projects – that and getting myself to work out (Planet Fitness is a godsend for vanlifers), getting to work on time and finding a place to put the van. Building out the van was a lot. The skills in electrical work, plumbing, and even finishing up the details in the interior were a little beyond what I could do well in the driveways of friends, and although it was getting a bit more comfortable in the van, there was a lot left undone. Cabinet doors, trim, switches that were the wrong type… what the hell was I going to do for heating? Winter was coming and I didn’t have $700 plus installation costs to throw toward a propane tank under the van. Doing my own propane work terrified me (as well it should).
I made it back to Albuquerque, where I left the van with my friends and caught a flight to the midwest. Vanlife would be on hold for a few weeks, until I got back. And I was thankful.