Hey friends -
I’d apologize for this volume being a bit behind schedule, but, honestly, the world has been mad and my days have been spent trying to learn, keep up, and make sense of it (like I’m sure many of you have been doing, too).
I wasn’t sure if I should stick to my pre-determined content calendar for May in light of the recent tragedies in our country. My heart aches for the family and friends of George Floyd, the entire black community, and the whole of humanity. I don’t have pretty words to address the pain so many Americans face right now, nor is it really my place as a middle-class white woman to fill the space with waxings about plights I’ll never understand.
While I decided to go ahead and write the topics I originally had planned, I want to use my platforms, first, to call out some ways that we (read: myself and other white folks) can help the black community right now.
If you’re able to donate, consider giving to one of the following. Shoot me an email/Instagram message if you do and I’ll match your donation.
Any local equivalent in your community
If you, like me, are looking for ways to educate yourself and be better humans, consider picking up one or all of the following from your (local) book shop (or non-Amazon online retailer).
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
White Fragility by Robin Diangelo
How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
Dear White America by Tim Wise
Examine your news feeds and ask yourself if you’re hearing about these events through a lens of whiteness. Follow more PoC. Listen to them. Believe their accounts.
Jamelle Bouie (NYT Opinion Columnist)
Clint Smith (Writer and teacher)
Adam Serwer (Staff writer at The Atlantic)
Rachel Cargle (Academic, writer, and lecturer)
Brittany Packnett (Pod Save the People Co-host)
Layla F. Saad (NYT bestselling author and host of the Good Ancestor Podcast)
Gene Demby (Co-host of NPR’s Code Switch Podcast)
Finally, participate in your local, state, and national community. Sign petitions (but don’t donate via change.org), call your representatives, protest, protect at-risk folks around you, and vote. I know this seems like a lot. No one is expecting us to learn everything overnight, but we are required as good, empathetic, moral people to start trying today and improve tomorrow.
Why I Chose to Do #Vanlife | Debt, Adventure, and Chaos
When you drive down by the river of your favorite ski, climbing, boating, or mountain biking towns in the summer, tucked away in the trees you’ll see the shiny metallic bodies of dirtbag homes. There are fewer of them now thanks to the global pandemic that has chased many digital nomads back to the driveways, couches, and spare rooms of friends and families. But, even though I’m not parked among them or seeing as many vans as I did three months ago, these micro, mobile communities have always signified two things to me: passion and freedom.
There are a lot of reasons people decide to do #vanlife (or #trucklife or #buslife or any other vehicle-based life), but they all carry the undercurrent of a deep love of something beyond the conventional. No one who chooses to live nomadically (more on this distinction in volume four) does so because they’re indifferent to how they move through this world.
But no matter how nice the Instagram photos or occasional, slightly-pandering mainstream news stories make it look, vanlife isn’t comfortable. It’s a sacrifice, or, more accurately, a trade-off. If you decide to do it, it’s because you’re willing to swap the security and convenience of more traditional lifestyles for flexibility, affordability, and adventure. Some folks do it to climb more, some to afford to live in the town they boat in (like my hometown), some to pursue touring music careers, and others simply for a regular change in scenery.
I chose (and choose) it for a mix of practical, “adult” reasons and whimsical, recreational motivations.
Shortly after I had turned 23, and fresh off a major breakup that left me aching and waxing poetic, I decided that my life needed a shift. I had spent my early 20s (and, honestly, most of my teens years) trying to be the best version of an adult that I could. But, despite my best efforts to appear like I had things together, I didn’t.
I didn’t know what I was doing and didn’t have many role models or “adults” to look up to figure it out. So I got to brainstorming and realized that a more nomadic lifestyle would help soothe some of the larger pain points I was facing.
I was (and still am) in debt.
Let’s start with the heaviest and most taboo reason I opted to live in a van: Past Allie made some dumbass decisions when it came to money. Present Allie still does from time to time, but we’re working on it.
Growing up, I didn’t have any real examples of how to navigate finances well. Most folks I knew were happy to trade some debt for quality experiences or stretched 6 months of seasonal wages across an entire year thanks to dumpster diving or car living.
Between the ages of 18 and 21--while in a relationship with a partner who liked to control most everything, including money--I managed to keep my financial shit together. But it was less because I valued security and savings over experiences, and more just because I wasn’t having experiences at all (hint: the latter isn’t a recipe for being stable and happy, just financially stable and resentful).
When that relationship went down in a long, theatrical burst of flames, so did any semblance of balanced finance habits. I spent money on trips and experiences to escape. I spent money on food and music and gear to distract myself. I spent money on things to perpetuate some sense of “control” over the chaos and pain I was feeling.
None of it was healthy.
When I switched jobs and got a higher salary, the reasons for spending shifted. It was less trauma-based and more anxiety and FOMO based. I wanted to keep up with all my friends who were off doing rad things. I wanted to perform the kind of lifestyle I thought I should be having in my early 20s with an adult job.
For a while, I did. But when I left my corporate gig to find more meaning in my career, it caught up with me. I found myself in the same boat as many American millennials: financially behind.
I was struggling to pay my rent, pay my debt bills, and (on a few occasions) pay for food. I didn’t know who I could turn to for help, and I felt stuck and ashamed of the dumb decisions that had led to my nearly $80,000 of debt. I didn’t feel like I could talk to anyone about it, and, honestly, it’s still painfully embarrassing to even write that out.
I lived in a higher-cost-of-living area (Fort Collins) where the rise in housing, rent, and living costs were acutely felt. I dreamed of one day owning some property. And as my values shifted from viewing success as being rich to viewing it as being debt-free and happy, like 60% of millennials do today, I knew I had found a way to get out of debt.
I was up for any drastic change. So I started looking around at my friends and my community and saw a growing number of examples of folks shifting to living tiny and mobile. They were able to escape monthly rent payments, do things they loved, and get a handle on their debts or long-term savings goals.
So I created a spreadsheet (actually I created like three dozen of them) and planned out how--or if--the switch to vanlife would be possible. After months of running numbers, I decided to go a little more into the red to free up about $15,000 per year of money. By investing in a (used) van and converting it myself, I could avoid paying rent and reduce my overhead in the future. This meant that instead of being crushed by debt for the next 20-30 years, I could pay it off in four and still prioritize doing rad things (responsibly).
I’m a year in, and so far I’m on track to be debt-free by 30, something 24- or 25-year-old me genuinely didn’t think would be possible. I still have a ways to go, but vanlife has been a salvation.
I wanted a more sustainable way to explore the world.
Travel, as we see it glamorized online via the #digitalnomad tags, is often cost-prohibitive. Traveling full time often takes a lot of cash flow for hotels, plane tickets, and restaurants. Before I had the van or a remote job, I simply didn’t have the capital (or the PTO) to travel as much as I wanted to (even though my idea of a good vacation meant more nights sleeping on the ground without a tent in the desert than lounging near a hotel pool).
One of my favorite things in the world is being able to plug into a community or area for a few weeks and experience the non-touristy beauty of it all. When you’re traveling as a weekend warrior (i.e. Friday to Sunday or Monday), you simply don’t have the time to get past the surface of a place.
As I developed my love of traveling and meeting people and exploring, I realized I needed something that allowed me to have a sustainable home base in an area, but didn’t require a long, costly hotel or Airbnb stay.
Enter: van living.
By building out a DIY van conversion, I’m able to take my whole little life with me to each new place we travel. I can work from the road comfortably, keep all my gear in one place, and limit the number of trips I need to take to bigger metro areas.
It lets me tune in, drop out, and pay attention to the wild of the places I love, uninterrupted.
Mind you, this way of traveling and living isn’t for everyone and there’s certainly nothing wrong with more “conventional” traveling that prioritizes access to showers over days spent without seeing another person.
But for me, this unfettered time in the wild is life-giving, blood-pumping, soul-igniting medicine. It’s worth being stinky for a few days (or weeks) and having to get creative about daily routines and habits.
Vanlife also makes it easier for me to self contain and follow Leave No Trace principles in the areas I love. I can’t make excuses about whether or not I have the space to pack my (and others’) trash out. I don’t have to worry about responsibly disposing of human or food waste because I can take it with me. It’s kind of like maintaining my own little spaceship of sustainability (which is how Sugar the Spaceship got her name).
Overall, vanliving gives me a way to get closer to the essence of this crazy world and spend less time in my head and more time out there in the magic of it all without interruption.
I can’t seem to sit still.
I’m historically bad at resting and sitting still. At any given time I’ve probably committed to about 15 hobbies and a dozen trips or adventures. My friends joke I have a hobby of collecting hobbies
This means I’m unilaterally terrible at keeping a routine. If I settle into a habit in a relationship, profession, hobby, or anything else for too long, I start to itch for change.
It’s taken me a few years, but I’ve come to realize that a lot of my self sabotaging in my early 20s was the result of boredom. Things were too stable, too predictable and so I had to do something to force variety into my life.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to define and direct this chaos. Instead of just grinding along until an inevitable breaking point, I build habit breaking into my life through vanlife.
Travel lets me scratch the itch for variety without switching jobs or jumping out of relationships and fully reinventing myself from the ashes each time. I’ve learned to balance the long-term things I love--like a career, a partnership, and friendships--with two- to four-week breaks of being nomadic.
By doing so, I get my fix of new scenery, new communities, and feeling uncomfortable in an area where no one knows to expect of me (a certain kind of addictive liberation in and of itself). I’m selective about the roots I put down, and the ones that do flourish are the direct result of intentional nurturing instead of passive settling.
If you’re like me and you find yourself pulling at the borders of your life every few months, I recommend some “scheduled chaos” through travel or hobby experimentation. Maybe even through vanlife itself.
Because the best part of this lifestyle is that it meets you where you are, no matter what vices, guilt, shame, or love you’re pulling along.