Six weeks ago, from a sailboat in the middle of the Bahamas, the Purple Squirrel sent an email to The Other Fork in the Road, crossing oceans and continents before reaching me in the Arctic Circle, and now I live in his van. Sometimes you just gotta reach out and grab the random bits of confetti life throws in your direction.
When I first opened the email-read-round-the-world, I was easing into my four hour early morning layover in Frankfurt en route to Finland. I had quite literally nothing to do but stalk my new pen pal, so I rolled up my sleeves and got to work. The very first piece of information the internet coughed up was that he may or may not live in a van.
(!!!) I repeat (!!!)
I immediately closed my laptop and skeptically side-eyed everyone within side-eyeing distance, as if someone was playing a dirty trick on me. I don’t know when exactly I started dreaming of life on the road, but purchasing my rooftop tent was no accident. I had big plans for my Tonka truck. I drew detailed pictures in my head of how I would arrange my belongings inside the FJ to best accommodate my bike, snowboard and outdoor gear. How I would organize and reduce my world to whatever could fit atop of four wheels. How I would shit, shower and shave at Flying J’s, Pilots, gas stations across the country, living on simple meals and water, things that could survive in a cooler.
And here was this guy, already out there living his version of a similar dream, reaching out with a simple but effective email (Subject: Forking Awesome) summed up, “Hi. I’m, preeeetty sure we should be friends.” The more research (stalking) I did, the more dots connected and the more convinced I became my new pen pal did indeed live in a van, and that’s how I came to be sitting outside in Kanab, Utah at a high school track, writing this post while the Purple Squirrel (aka Van Man) runs calculated laps, exercising more than any human should, in preparation for an Ironman. I’m perfectly content to be the one sitting in the bleachers, my chosen form of bodily punishment quickly approaching.
When the Van Man offered to road trip me from Denver to Campo, the southern terminus of the PCT, it was quite literally impossible for me to turn him down. I mean, seriously, an opportunity to live in a van for three weeks whilst road tripping to the next big adventure in my life with a perfect stranger? The trifecta of obvious yes’s. The fact Van Man magically morphed into a Purple Squirrel was an unexpected bonus, like winning both showcases on The Price Is Right, because if I’m being honest, what intrigued me most was meeting the well-built van that grew from his creative mind and capable hands.
Her name is Little E, and she is beautiful.
Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail prepared me for many things in my future I couldn’t have possibly known back then, one of them being van life. Living out of a backpack for five months makes van life seem almost luxurious, especially if you live in a van like Little E. She’s got it all. A roomy fridge that can easily store delicious fresh fruits and vegetables, bacon and eggs, all the cheese and meats you can possibly imagine. And beer. All the beer. You’re still technically packing it in and out, just not on your back. Cuisine possibilities are endless, except if you need an oven. Then the cuisine possibilities end.
She’s got hot water, a kitchen sink, an outdoor and indoor shower that all but disappears when not in use. She’s got a cozy warm bed, lighting for every mood, surround sound, heat, swivel chair seating, ample storage, outlets, USB and solar power to keep your life supercharged. Only *slightly* better than trail life, which has pretty much none of those things.
And we should talk about the toilet. A speckled white, odorless, tucked away piece of beautifully functional plastic that rolls out to store my #1s, and rolls in while composting my #2s. It is easily my favorite thing inside this van at all times. I gaze lovingly as it rolls from its storage cubby, often resisting the urge to hug its oblong body, usually just settling for a meaningful pat, softly whispering, “I’m so glad you’re here,” before sending it back into hiding. Seriously, if you’re going to live in a van, don’t forget the toilet. Your it’s an emergency! shits, early morning pees, it’s too cold/raining/snowing outside bathroom needs will thank you.
There are challenges, sure. Reduced space and limited cooktops change the way you think about meal prep. Van Man’s been living in the van since October 2016, so he’s had some time to perfect his routine, but I’ve cooked like two meals in three weeks, and I’m pretty sure he’s a wizard.
Yeah, it’s sort of weird doing your business directly behind the chef preparing breakfast in the kitchen, but trust me, you get over that real quick. Just turn up the music and pretend you’re drinking your coffee, reading the morning paper like everyone else on a Sunday morning. Only with a much better view.
When your entire home is contained in a 144 WB Sprinter Van, with roughly 70 square feet of livable space, your body eventually adjusts, learns to dance around the corners that bashed your knee the first 226 times, around the other human body also occupying that space, up and over the natural curves of your new home. You quickly find your place, your spot, the one that makes you smile as you observe the entirety of your existence and sigh when you realize absolutely nothing is missing. (Except a van cat. I hope you’re ready for retirement, Elsa.)
But there’s more. You don’t shower every day (bonus!) and you get to wear your favorite outfit like, all of the time. You can drive for hours or stay for days. You can climb onto the roof with sleeping bags to watch the sunset or stargaze and unsuccessfully point out the North Star and all the constellations you thought you knew, but really, really don’t. You can set up camp chairs in the middle of the desert at dusk, scanning the endless terrain with binoculars, searching for coyotes disguised as jackrabbits. You can turn up the heat and listen to the pitter of rain patter turn to snow, watching as it softly blankets the forest ground next to the Grand Canyon in May. You can park on a cliff ledge outside of Moab and watch the light change the landscape, a new view every few minutes. You can be anywhere, go everywhere.
In five days, I start physically walking toward Canada. But mentally, I’m headed straight for Little E.