Few moments in life leave you feeling more exposed than having a stranger look you in the face while you puke out the door of a rusty camper van in a residential neighborhood. Embarrassing, to say the least.
The romance of the #vanlife has drawn its share of attention in the last few years. Taking to the open road, the doors wide open while your feet dangle out in the sun, a book in your lap with nothing to worry about sounds great to almost everyone, but it’s not all amazingness and great waves. The open road and all its trappings are great, but sometimes it can be awful. The trappings of the open road include (but are not limited to) angry police officers at 3 am, dump trucks literally two feet from your bed, and nowhere to pee in the middle of the night. Keep in mind that essentially, #vanlife is a synonym for #homeless – and #homeless isn’t nearly as celebrated.
One of the things I’ve discovered about living in a van or being homeless (of which I have only a small bit of experience at, and it’s been of the voluntary kind) is that the way you present yourself makes a world of difference. Present yourself like a hobo living in a van, and you’ll feel like one. Run a comb through your hair and have a shower every morning and you’ll feel like a normal person that runs a comb through their hair and showers every morning, even if you are living in a van, or God forbid, in a rain-filled ditch, sleeping beneath the litter of the wealthy.
Which brings me back to my original statement about the puke. I’d spent the night looking for the bottom of a bottle of tequila with my (almost long-lost) brother in Santa Cruz, and like anyone with tequila, a brother, and Santa Cruz, I drank too much. I woke up with a two-year-old wanting to go skateboarding, a dragon in my mouth, and a head full of agony, so I told the two year old that Uncle Alex wasn’t feeling too good and had to go get some head-medicine. After fighting off death in the cool confines of Safeway, I emerged triumphant to the morning sun with a handful of migraine medicine and a squint so deep I was staring at the centre of the earth. I ate three of them, then sat with my head against the wheel, begging for mercy and praying that the awfulness that was my life at present would end, either by death or Advil.
It eventually did, but not before those three Advils spilled out onto Santa Cruz’s white, cracked pavement while a horrified Volvo-mom looked on. Rolling to a stop, I had that horrible moment of realization that I was not going to make it anywhere puke-worthy in time before all that water I drank to quell my head-screams escaped. I began to pull over, and still rolling, let it escape over my lap out the open door. Looking up through red, teary eyes, I met the white, dry eyes of Volvo-mom, who was driving by (she was not spewing stomach acid out of her nose) and looking at me like I was exactly who I was presenting myself as: a shirtless, shiftless, sweaty, puking, rusty-van driving dreg of society.
Which, of course, I am not. At that moment, however, I felt like one. And because I felt like one, at that moment, in fact, I was one.
And now the other side of the coin: I was out for dinner a few nights ago at a Caribbean place, when my girlfriend asked me what “dirty rice” was. I told her very matter-of-factly that it was just plain rice with dirt in it. The couple behind us in the line laughed, and we exchanged smiles. “Yeah,” said the man, “but it’s really expensive dirt because it’s from Santa Monica and the homeless keep it extra dirty.”
That night, I slept in my van in a residential part of Venice. I pissed in a jug before I went to sleep. Before I came out for dinner, I showered at a friend’s place and ran a comb through my hair, put on nice pants and a clean shirt, and fooled this guy into thinking I didn’t live in a van.
So here’s why I’m in a van: apart from all this #vanlife excitement, I’ve always wanted to give it a shot, at least for a while. A few years ago, I kind of half-assed it and #trucklifed it. So this time, I figured I’d do it right: I’d sell all my shit, pack up my girl and my surfboard, and road-trip one of the most beautiful coastlines on earth: Canada (where I’m from) south to California. I-5 to Portland, then over to the 101, which eventually kicks you onto the 1 and the glory that is the Pacific Coast Highway. The plan was to surf the whole way down, but between the combination of my luck and it being August, I chose the flattest ten-day period since surfing’s inception. With the exception of a few hours at a beautiful little sandbar that peeked at me from a roadside pullout in Northern California and a desperate ankle-high session in Oregon, the Pacific looked like the world’s biggest lake the whole way down.
But you know what? It didn’t even matter that much. It was an incredible drive. We stopped when we felt like it. We ate where we felt like it. We drank coffee in the rain for hours. We stopped in small towns and drank beer on dusty pullouts until the sun went down. But living in a van for a road trip and living in a van for a house are two completely different things.
Living in a van on a road trip entitles you to stumble out at grocery stores, unshowered and unkempt, sweating and stinking with dirty feet and an unbuttoned shirt. People think that’s fun and cute, and they wish they were doing it. Stumble out of a van at 7 am in a residential area of Southern California in the same fashion, and people think you’re a bum, and bums usually aren’t fun or cute. They think you’re a bum because you look like one, and they’re jogging by with their brightly colored shoes, thousand dollar jogging shirt, great smelling sweat, and a bag of their French Bulldog’s shit pinched delicately between thumb and fingers.
I’m not saying Vanlife isn’t a beautiful thing. I’m just saying that, if you do decide to try it, be prepared for a sudden realization that it’s probably not the beautiful thing you thought it was. It IS beautiful, just a different kind of beauty. A dirtier, grittier kind; one that smells much worse.
Living in a van on a road trip makes sitting for hours on end staring out the window okay, because there’s really not much else to do. Just plain old living in a van makes those hours torture. You don’t realize how much nothing you usually do until you have nowhere to do it in.
I think that many of the people who surf are attracted to a certain type of lifestyle. I’m a sucker for those gossamer-tipped dreams that the surf industry pukes out. I want them so much that I convince myself that they’re realistic. And when I try and recreate them, I find that beneath those gossamer tips lies a layer of dirt. It’s like a fresh dusting of snow on a layer of shit. It looks beautiful from afar, and then you take a step and realize that you’ve just stepped in shit, because you’re homeless and you live in a van.