A Philosophical Look at Van Life
Why do some of us choose alternative lifestyles and why do we continue to do so?
I know I've had this conversation with a million people, but I love to see what others have to
say. Adam shares the story of how he went from home to car to apartment to van, sharing logical
and philosophical thoughts and ideas about his actions and decisions. Dive into this eye-
opening story about how getting lost is sometimes the best way to find yourself.
Many people I know say they would never go out to eat alone. If that is where you’re at, let’s start by framing this entire story outside of your comfort zone. Dip your toes in the unknown for a minute! Here’s a glimpse at a different perspective.
“When the laws of the country contradict the laws of humanity, a true man must choose the laws of humanity… The philosopher is disobedient to cliches and to public opinion because he is obedient to reason and to mankind.” —Erich Fromm, On Disobedience
I started taking road trips by myself when I was sixteen to get away from my hometown, home life, and enjoy the beautiful splendors of the sea. I was bullied, suicidal and dealing with a bunch of bullshit at school and home, so being able to get away for a while and ride waves two and a half hours away in coastal Rhode Island offered a much needed escape. This wasn’t a normal thing to do where I was from in Western Massachusetts. The term ‘surfing’ was probably mentioned once or twice over the course of the first 16 years of my life. It literally didn’t exist to us. I was (conversely) obsessed at an early age thanks to episodes of The Surfer’s Journal on cable TV, but I didn’t even get to try it until I was twelve and then not again for another four years when I was 16. Before that I would just pretend to do cutbacks on my skateboard in our driveway and get made fun of by my friends. When I did turn sixteen and started making solo, overnight road trips to the coast, it was the first time I’d stepped outside of my comfort zone and followed my own convictions in pursuit something that mattered to me, foregoing what was considered normal without anyone to come along or back me up. The reason I mention this is because people often ask me how it started, and it was really breaking this one societal norm that snowballed into my current lifestyle over time.
I merely did the math for gas and food, wondered if that was really all there was to it, and put the pedal to the floor.
During those early trips I was like a stumbling newborn puppy—getting lost in every way possible. This was before smartphones and even before I had a stand alone GPS. Did you know you could text “GOOGL” (46645) for directions from one place to another and you would get a stream of texts back detailing the route? That was a life saver. I remember sleeping at rest stops and getting “the knock” by police telling me of unspecific sketchy happenings that went on there at night. Locking myself out of my car and hitchhiking home with a correctional officer who changed the topic of conversation to an extremely unpleasant subject as soon as we started to merge on to the highway. Yes, that subject. But besides getting lost I also found myself in a lot of ways. Hours spent staring at the open road are the perfect backdrop for deep reflection and processing.
These solo road trips continued through college and beyond while I was working full time as an engineer. I preferred the car to a hotel because it made more sense than paying $60 or $80 for a bed to sleep in, plus it kind of felt like camping and waking up in a tent with windows. It only got more comfortable the longer I did it, learning about the wonders of zero degree sleeping bags, camping air mattresses, the best places to park and so on. The destinations spanned a majority of the east coast, from cruising around random cities on my BMX bike to to checking out beach towns with my bodyboard and later surfboard, as far west as Chicago and south as Outer Banks, North Carolina. It didn’t cost much, just food and gas at 30 mpg in my beater Honda.
Eventually I decided to move away from an office job that was killing me both mentally and physically and traverse the country to a place where I could work jobs I enjoyed in a warmer climate—jobs which would inevitably pay less. At age 25, this would be my first road trip lasting longer than a few days.
I underwent many of the same extremes I’d been through before: single digit temperatures at night testing the limits of my zero degree sleeping bag, finding places to sleep in sketchy neighborhoods and showering at truck stops. It wasn’t the most pleasant experience, but the monotony of ten hour days driving was offset by an overwhelming level of excitement to be doing something on my own, totally against the grain, bailing on a ‘solid’ career to pursue a lifestyle that suited me better. I don’t think I ever felt more in control of my own life than I did during that trip. It’s funny how in four years of engineering school and the twelve before that, they never once teach you how to be happy or find contentment in life. We’re supposed to just haphazardly figure it out on our own through trial and error. That’s why I've always gravitated towards the fields of philosophy and psychology. They allow you to take a more logical and scientific approach to the matter.
Eventually I landed in San Diego and went back to restaurant jobs and working at bike shops, jobs I knew I would enjoy which offered higher levels of physical activity and socialization. After a month of renting a room with some non-likeminded housemates I decided I wanted to move closer to where I worked and surfed, and I figured I would live in my Volkswagen Golf until I found a place. I was pretty clean cut, had money saved up and got along well with almost anybody. I couldn’t imagine it would take more than a couple weeks to find something.
That was when I learned the hard way that beginning June first it is virtually impossible to find a room to rent in certain beach communities of San Diego because the city floods with tourists causing the demand to sky rocket. Every room for rent ad I would reply to already had forty to fifty responses within the first hour or two, as a couple of the posters told me. One week of living in the car turned into two, which turned into three. I’d never lived in a vehicle in one location for this long before; it was foreign to me and a little nerve racking. But as the weeks ticked by things just got easier and easier. All the questions of “how would I do this or that” were answered in time, figuring out solutions to the problems as I went along. And at around the two week mark I noticed a definitive tipping of the scales, an emotional construct once occupied by worry was replaced with a newfound self confidence gained from overcoming the initial difficulties of permanent vehicle dwelling. The “mobile homeless” lifestyle that I had at the start kept secretive became something I had a hard time not bragging about any chance I got! I remember a specific instance one morning after heading to the local grocery store to use the restroom and buy my daily breakfast consisting of a yogurt with M&M’s, a banana and twenty ounce strawberry milk. I stood at the register trying excessively hard not to blurt out that I had just woken up in my car, which I sleep in every night and don’t pay any rent for. It was hilarious to me.
That’s when it started to hit me—it really is that easy.
And the upward spiral continued over the next five months that I lived in the Golf. It just gets easier the longer you do it. And it even goes beyond getting easier. You start to see some real benefits to the lifestyle, things that aren’t so obvious at first. Increased socialization, physical activity, welcomed inconveniences and a more healthy sleep schedule to name a few. I would typically wake up around 6 or 6:30 and be out of the neighborhood by 7 AM, because that’s when everyone seems to be up and about jogging, walking their dogs, etc. So I was gone by then to help ensure I wouldn’t be caught. But what’s there to do at 7 AM when practically everywhere is closed? Well, not much, except for going to my favorite cafe and getting a bomb breakfast that I could easily afford since I wasn’t paying rent, and seeing a bunch of my friends there. After that I would go for an hour or two long surf before work, regardless of how bad the waves were because I literally had nothing else to do. I was in the ocean exercising almost every single day, paddling around trying to catch waves on the shortboard I kept hidden under a dark blanket in my passenger seat. Think of the positive implications this has for someone’s health! Not to mention committing twenty or thirty minutes every night to stretch or workout at the gym because I felt weird just going in and showering. See what I mean about promoting, or rather forcing a healthy lifestyle? There was really only one difficulty that was hard to get past; dating.
For a little while I had a girlfriend, but after we split it was a little bit discouraging dealing with that whole thing. On one hand it’s like, “well if they don’t like me in spite of my living circumstances then they aren’t the one any ways,” while on the other you realize that you’re probably just stacking the odds against yourself in a numbers game with no realistic likelihood of finding that perfect mate who checks all the boxes from day one. I mean even if it could happen in a handful of years, you have to consider the opportunities of personal growth you’re forgoing through failed relationships in favor of receiving little more than hard “No’s” for five or ten years of your life. Although I enjoyed the lifestyle for the most part, after five months of living in the car I happened to get the opportunity to rent a studio apartment about one hundred yards from the beach, forty feet from where I worked, at a very reasonable price and went for it. End car life and enter a lifestyle beyond my means.
The apartment brought an end to the required physical activity and healthy sleep schedule. All of the inconveniences were made more convenient so I no longer had any reason to do much of anything at all. I reminisced how after work I used to sit in the front seat of my Golf for about thirty minutes while I winded down on my phone, and it would only ever be thirty minutes because sitting on the side of the road for that long gets old with cars whizzing past and so forth. After that I would go and do something—anything, absolutely anything. But something. The very first day I got my studio apartment I went home after work, lied down on the floor for about four hours and wasted away on the internet on my phone. I started surfing about one third as often in spite of living one block from the beach because if the conditions weren’t optimal, why not just go back to bed? The battle against the sedentary lifestyle I had waged during the office years had begun once again.
It’s not to say that you can’t be healthy and active while living a traditional lifestyle. Rather that living that way lends itself to laziness. The fact of the matter is that although you can, you probably won’t, because you don’t have to. And that's where the sedentary lifestyle of the entire developed world sinks its teeth and grabs hold. Through the primary mediums of television and computers, and to lesser degrees automobiles and automatic everything’s (garage door openers, dishwashers, washing machines, etc.), we are bound to our sedentary, anti-social lifestyles, each of us being stripped of so many of the beautiful experiences that life has to offer, taking about ten years off of our lifespan and contributing to a host of ailments as well.
Although I’m isolated from most of those things in my van, I’m honest enough to admit that I still struggle to pull myself away from passive forms of entertainment and social media found on my smartphone. It’s truly a disease, and one worth actively fighting! One thing to note is that although at face value everything about living in a van seems like it would be better than living in a car, now is a good time to mention that it really isn’t. Without going into too much detail, living in a car is actually more enjoyable than living in a van for the same unexpected reasons that living in a van is actually more enjoyable than living in an apartment. It’s kind of like a continuum, you just have to find which speed fits you. For example in the car, in a city where sleeping in a vehicle is illegal, I never slept in, which meant always going to bed early. Circadian rhythm, productive mornings, blah blah blah. Now in the van, I sleep in as late as I want all the time and go to bed whenever I’ve finished battling the internet addiction because with the privacy of a van there’s no requirement for waking up early. It gets pretty hot around eight or nine AM in the summer, so there’s some saving grace. Isn’t it funny how the seemingly worst things—lack of privacy, the van getting hot, having to go to a gym to shower, lack of conveniences—actually turn out to be the most beneficial characteristics of the lifestyle? Critical thinking is a must. You can’t ever stop asking “why?”
But looking at apartment living from an objective perspective, there are definitely some benefits to it as well. Dating aside, the constantly ‘on the go’ mindset of living in a car is contrasted with a more relaxed mentality when residing in an apartment. I found myself returning to deep thoughts more often regarding subjects such as my life’s direction as a whole. But the slowness does impede enjoyment to a degree as well so in that regard it’s a trade off, just like most things in life. Overall I was happy, but it wasn’t economically sustainable with the jobs I was working.
That’s when I heard about hashtag van life.
Up to this point I had no idea there was a growing trend of people living in vans, blowing up Instagram and becoming widely popularized amongst my own demographic, cough, dating demographic included. The one stumbling block of car life had been solved with the advent of a simple hashtag... salvation had arrived! Although my personal reasons for wanting to live in a vehicle hadn’t changed, the typical responses to hearing I lived in a van differed completely. The awkward kind of “what the fuck’s?” In response to hearing that I lived in my car turned into a repetitive, “Oh my god that’s so cool! Are you like, travelling??” Which really is kind of frustrating in its own right. “No, I just work full time and live in my van,” helped bring the awkwardness back to a level I was comfortable with.
To me, big ‘ol vans always seemed extremely obvious and therefore impractical for long term, single location living, especially when I knew that I could do it about ten times as covertly in a small hatchback and an $80 per month storage unit. Choosing a car over a van was always a no brainer for me, and stealth was an important consideration since the laws in San Diego forbid sleeping in a vehicle. Learning about the defeat of Assembly Bill 718 proposed by Kansen Chu of San Jose which would have made the act of inhabiting a vehicle legal across the entire state of California was another kick to the nuts that came just as I was deciding whether or not I would buy a van, and where life would take me next.
Long story short, I ended up deciding that I needed less rent and more van in my life so I picked up Vannosaurus Rex, my current chariot and giant white mansion on wheels. It was love at first sight. It’s been over two years of full time van dwelling to date. I had initially planned to start my own business with the lowered risk from not having to make rent every month. Plans changed and I’ve gone through a couple of different full time jobs while overcoming some health issues, and life values have also changed along the way. One thing that hasn’t wavered is my appreciation for the mobile homeless lifestyle and all of the benefits it provides.
“A danger with adopting any particular lifestyle centered on some principle is that the habit of following the rule becomes too deeply entrenched. It can then easily become an exaggerated trait, even erring toward a vice; and it can make one inflexible when faced with changes in circumstances. This is true of a commitment to frugality as of any other commitment.” —Emrys Westacott, The Wisdom of Frugality.
I plan to do this indefinitely, until some life circumstance makes it more sensible to live another way. Maybe I’ll meet someone and move in with them in an apartment. Maybe the desire for the companionship of a pet will overwhelm me, or even a porch, or a wood burning stove. A nice place to hang sweaty clothes after working out would be handy. But the steering wheel and gear lever work just fine for now.
This is half of my retirement plan as well. If I spend the next thirty or forty years learning to further enjoy a frugal lifestyle I will have developed a sure fire resistance to times of economic hardship, something that could come in particularly handy considering the uncertain future of Social Security in the United States. The way I see it, there are two ways to amass financial wealth: one is to work hard and make as much money as possible. The other is to reduce your required income as far as possible to a point where your needs become significantly less than your means. By choosing to work jobs that offer intrinsic benefits in accordance with my goals in life, jobs which typically come at the expense of a smaller paycheck, I find myself favoring the latter, less worn path of our materialistic, competitive society.
“Our ultimate aim in seeking more wealth is a sense of satisfaction, of happiness. But the very basis of seeking more is a feeling of not having enough, a feeling of discontentment. That feeling of discontentment, if wanting more and more, doesn’t arise from the inherent desirability of the objects we are seeking but rather from our own mental state.” —The Dalai Lama, The Art of Happiness
I hope this provided a slightly different perspective on full time vehicle dwelling from more of a philosophical and experiential standpoint. I dig it, I think you could too. It simply makes more sense than paying rent, provided it’s possible for you and your life’s circumstances. And even if it isn’t, the whole point is to remain open minded. Ask yourself why you’re doing the things you do and whether they correspond with your overall goals in life rather than simply abiding by the status quo.
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