I just finished my junior year as a journalism student at Ithaca College. Heads up to freshmen and sophomores: junior year is the year people start to ask you what you plan on doing after college. You know. Out there in the “real world.” As if we would know the answer to that — we hardly know what’s going to happen just within the next week.

People started asking me that, with the expectation that I would give some speech about my dream publication to work at and my dream city to settle down in. At first I played along, but then I decided to start being honest. I have ideas of publications I like. I know I want to work for an independent media organization. I have no idea where I want to settle down, if I ever do.

My new answer went something like this: “Honestly, I want to buy a van and trick it out to be a mobile home and travel all across the country.” People seemed to appreciate my honesty, and I figured that if I said it out loud enough times it might come true. But when I started telling people that, I didn’t anticipate that I would be doing it as soon as this summer. In fact, I was still hemming and hawing over which internships I wanted to apply to (I ended up applying to none).

The decision to bump up the departure date on my van adventure came after fateful visit to Joshua Tree, California over spring break.

My mission in Joshua Tree was to follow a group of Ithaca College students for a week during their Immersion Semester Program — a semester-long program for outdoor adventure majors and minors to learn outdoor recreation and wilderness skills. I was working on a long-form narrative piece about their transformative time in the wilds of California and Oregon (you can read the finished article here, be warned: it’s long!).

At the end of the week, the group departed for Oregon, and I had a day to myself to explore the park. As a budding rock climber, I was fascinated with the world-famous Gunsmoke Traverse and the Hidden Valley Campground, which historically and presently is a home for dedicated Joshua Tree climbers. The campground is filled to the brim with peace-loving, dirtbag, car-living, rule-breaking rock climbers who have become experts at getting around the two-week limit on camping. I decided to hang around in that area of the park for most of the day and met some fantastic characters.

Scott Gunsmoke
Outward Bound instructor Scott Shepherd climbs the Gunsmoke Traverse in Joshua Tree National Park.

The first of such characters was Peter, who had recently bought a Chevy Astro van for $2,000 and had made it into his home. I was so impressed that after returning to New York, I nearly bought a Chevy Astro myself. I ended up going with a 2000 Chevy Express, and so far I am satisfied with my choice. I also considered naming my van Peter due to the impact this interaction left on me. Ultimately, I named my van Hayduke as an homage to my environmentalist roots.

Peter sits inside the side door of his Chevy Astro van-home.

I happened to park next to Peter’s van and was applying sunscreen next to my rental car while he discussed car-home set ups with a new acquaintance. I overheard the conversation and joined in, and Peter happily showed me his set up. I ended up sitting in the parking lot with him and a few others who wandered by chatting for almost an hour before moving on to check out a nearby rock formation.

I remember walking away and thinking: He’s living the dream. My dream.

Joshua Tree is simply chalked full of people like Peter, giving society a big middle finger and finding their own way, rules and expectations be damned. They’ve figured out that you don’t need to settle into one place in one job, raise a family, and retire on a front porch in a creaky rocking chair to await death. They’ve figured out that true richness in life comes not from having lots of money and gadgets, but from having very little at all.

These were my type of people.

The other characters I met — they’ll have to wait for another blog post, or else this one will get too long.

When I boarded my plane to come back to New York and finish out my semester at Ithaca College, I was hit full force with the realization of what I was leaving behind. I was leaving a beautiful place I wanted to be in, full of wonderful people I wanted to get to know, to return to a stressful, fast-paced, unhealthy lifestyle as a college junior, trapped in the safe little campus bubble where it’s easy to forget there’s a big world out there. I cried quietly huddled up against the window, clinging to the incredible views of the mountains, as the plane took off from the Palm Springs airport to head east. Over the next few days I fell apart completely.

I came out of those dark days realizing that my mental and emotional health had taken a sharp turn for the worse, and I needed a change. I needed to quit holding off on my dreams to pursue that piece of paper everyone tells you you need to have to be a real person in the real world. I just needed to let go and go for it.

And I did.

I write this post from a porch at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY after my first day on the road. It’s after midnight and a nearby stream is trickling by while tree frogs and owls call to each other among the green forest canopy. The temperature is comfortable and the stars are out in droves. After I hit “publish,” I will crawl into my sleeping bag on the cot I have in my van and have a full, restful night’s sleep. Tomorrow, I plan on spending my day catching up with old friends and filming a video tour of my van to share with you all. I am on my own schedule now, and it’s hard to believe that just a couple of weeks ago I felt like I was drowning.

What’s holding you back from your dreams? What do you need to do to cut the ties holding you down? It might be an easier task than you think.



2 thoughts on “Why live in a van?

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