Do you have what it takes for #VanLife?
In a 1993 SNL sketch, Chris Farley popularized the social stigma about living in a van, which would last almost twenty years. In this sketch, he plays a motivational speaker/loser who eats a steady diet of government cheese, is 35 years old, divorced, and most importantly for our purposes, lives in a van down by the river. It seemed that, once seen, Chis Farley’s performance could not be unseen; thenceforth, how could someone live in a van and not die of shame? But just two decades later, in the golden age of hashtags, the status of living in a van reversed from stigma to idealization via Foster Huntington’s ingenious 2011 invention, the #VanLife hashtag. This hashtag and Huntington’s accompanying Instagram account went viral, launching a neo-Beat road-trip and online ‘travel porn’ movement across the United States. As of April 2016, half a million Instagram users had photo-documented their own van travels with Huntington’s hashtag. Living in a van became cool.
And why wouldn’t #VanLife go viral? Who doesn’t fantasize about quitting one’s shitty, boring job and hitting the road? Fantasy seems to be what road trips cultivate best, as they conjure total freedom and absolute leisure. You could finally go to that cool state you’ve dreamed of visiting. You could read that Faulkner novel that’s become a paperweight, or write in your journal to ‘have time with yourself.’ It would be the occasion to finally have ‘quality’ time with your lover or to meet the lover you don’t have. Whatever the stuff your fantasy is made of, the van life has it all. Doesn’t it?
Well, kind of. Like fantasy usually does, ‘#VanLife fantasizing systematically filters the dull or unpleasant parts of this way of living. What you usually don’t think about, unless you’re rich and buy a new van (thus breaking the pseudo-bohemian ethos of the hashtag), is the fact that your beat up VW van is going to break down a lot. In an interview from 2013, Huntington recounts spending up to $2,500 a month on van repairs. But for some people, the imminence of a breakdown is just part of the fun. For them, perhaps the truest of the bohemian van-livers, the ‘any minute now and my home and vehicle are kaput’ feeling is just a source of adrenaline. That said, you have to love to tinker and be able to repair stuff to get off this kind of malfunction, otherwise you’ll find yourself in permanent frustration about not making your ‘vantasy’ a reality and spending all your road trip dollars at the mechanic’s.
Then there are the minor things you don’t think about: living in crammed space, going bananas spending too much time with the same person, having your ass go numb from too much driving, depleting your savings on gas and repairs, and spending countless nights in Wal-Mart parking lots.
Don’t get me wrong; road trips can be the most fun thing ever. But to avoid catastrophic frustration and going broke, be smart about the vehicle you choose, the people you choose to travel with, and above all, be open to what comes. Instead of, say, hoping to see the entire United States in one go, tone down the expectations and find excitement in whatever comes across your path, even if it’s just sharing a beer with a stranger van-dweller in an empty parking lot. And, of course, seeing some of the country’s astounding natural landscapes is pretty cool too.