From Angst to Adventure
Growing up, I went through a skateboarding phase. Like most of my phases as a teen, it required minimal participation on my part. It mainly consisted of wearing Vans, watching Lords of Dogtown, and buying graphic t-shirts at PacSun. I never once skateboarded. In fact, I didn’t even own a skateboard.
So when I went through my Chris McCandless phase in high school after reading Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, I don’t think anyone, myself included, expected it to branch beyond the realm of books and statement t-shirts.
And for a while it didn’t.
If you’re unfamiliar, Chris McCandless was a self-proclaimed “aesthetic voyager,” an affluent white dude who decided to ditch society and seek freedom in the wilderness. Long story short, he literally burned his money, hitchhiked to Alaska, spent a bunch of time alone in an abandoned bus in the woods, and then accidentally poisoned himself and died. To some, he was the original indie vanlife god. To others, he was a reckless, idealistic guy who was woefully unprepared for the realities of the outdoors.
As a teenager whose primary emotional outlet was scribbling Death Cab for Cutie lyrics in her planner, McCandless’s adventure resonated with me. He too craved a break from society, or, in his words, “no longer to be poisoned by civilization.” He’d harnessed his discontent and had lived by his own terms. Ultimate freedom, he’d written in his journal. I wanted that too.
I was experiencing that normal teenage fire when I read Into the Wild, questioning who I was and how I fit into this tangled, bleeding world. Hence all of my phases. I desperately wanted to identify with something or someone so I could proudly say, this is who I am, this is what I stand for. It’s human to want to belong. I wanted to find my people.
But it was far easier to buy dark eyeliner and listen to “The Black Parade” on repeat than it was to drive to Alaska. I was fifteen. I didn’t even have my license, let alone a car. So McCandless and his adventures in Alaska remained a mirage in my head, a secret I told no one about and made no progress toward.
I continued doing normal, boring high school things: competing in sports, reading books, pretending to loathe the idea of prom, but actually being pretty stoked to go with a boy. If anything, my high school Chris McCandless phase was even more pathetic than my skateboarding phase. I didn’t even buy a graphic tee to commemorate it.
Then college came around. After said prom-boy broke up with me, the liberation of being on my own hit me full force. I started doing things. Outdoorsy things. Adventurous things. Muddy, creepy-crawly, skinned-knee things.
And it felt amazing. I was becoming this person I had only vaguely dreamed about in high school, a girl who said yes more often than no, who saw adventure in the ordinary. I started caving with my school’s outdoors club; I biked the entire length of the Erie Canal in New York State; I went skydiving with two of my roommates after much arm twisting and pleading. Unlike my other phases, which I grew out of before I ever even experienced them, this outdoors-seeking mentality was something I continued to grow into with time, a dream that felt too baggy at first but was fitting more tightly with every passing season.
I don’t remember when I first got the idea to head west and try vanlife. I can’t even remember when I first became aware that it was a thing, that hordes of millennials were rushing out and buying used Sprinters to renovate and live out of. But I knew that I wanted to do something in that vein, van or car, partner or single. So over the course of several years, I started saving money and investing in good outdoors gear (because unlike graphic t-shirts, good gear is expensive and you want it to last longer than your My Chemical Romance dalliance). I also purchased a Ford Escape, not quite a van, but still accommodating and flush with potential.
After graduating college, my friend and I took a three-week road trip out to Colorado and Utah. It was just long enough to skim the surface of these places, to take pictures and hike the highlights, but not veer off the red dust paths. I had a great time, but I wasn’t satiated. Not in the least. It felt like a vacation, whereas I was searching for a lifestyle, something to crawl inside of me and change me from within. Skin tinged by sunsets. Glacier-fed streams for veins. I wanted them with me forever.
So after my contract with a publishing company wasn’t renewed after a year and a half, it felt like my Chris McCandless moment had finally arrived.
As I write this, I’m entering month three of vanlife. It isn’t for everyone. I’m dirty 99 percent of the time, my days often are dictated by the weather, and watching Netflix is extraordinarily hard. I showered twice in the entire month of September and once ate an entire can of BBQ Pringles as a meal substitute. Sometimes I find pine needles and bits of leftover ramen in my tea because I’m too lazy to clean out the pot every time I use it.
It’s not glamorous. Quite frankly, I’m disgusting.
But it’s because of all the above that it’s great. There are no shortcuts when you live out of your car. No microwaves. No dishwashers. No background television. You’re brought to your knees by your own primal needs, thinking of where you can fill up your water jug or safely park your car. What are you eating? Where are you going to the bathroom? I feel more in touch with myself and the world around me than I have in years.
People choose the nomadic lifestyle for a myriad of reasons. They’re running toward ocean spray and mountaintops, open-sky days and zero cell reception nights. But like McCandless, they’re also running away. From clocks and late night news and water cooler conversations.
McCandless ventured up to Alaska back in the 90s, but many of the problems he had with society are apt today. They’re essential contemporary dilemmas. We confront them all the time. Whether it’s staging underground fighting matches or dedicating our lives to being a salesman and becoming distraught when our son wants to be a cowboy instead, at some point the American Dream feels more like the American Nightmare (which is a great indulgent punk band name, btw).
Society’s lacking. And I know I sound like a millennial Holden Caulfield who lives in a yurt made of avocados and bathes in almond milk lattes, but I think a lot of us ask ourselves, what’s the point? Buried in loans, paying into Social Security we may never see, fighting constant headaches from reading the news. It’s hard to slap on a grin and participate full-handedly in a society that only cherishes select few people and qualities. Returning to nature has always been an option, just as McCandless, John Muir, Henry Thoreau, and many others before them have pursued. And now it’s gaining popularity. With vans. And kombucha.
Unlike most of my other phases, I proudly can say that I’ve done something in the vein of Chris McCandless. It took a while, but the idea germinated within me and when it finally blossomed, it was with awareness and intent.
I don’t think this is just a phase, though. Although I’m planning on settling in somewhere for the winter and working, I’m not ready to give up the nomad lifestyle yet. I love the simplicity and mindfulness that this way of living requires. The highs are higher and the lows aren’t as low.
Although I haven’t purchased a graphic t-shirt from my travels yet, I have bought numerous bumper stickers that I’ve plastered to my Nalgene, a honing beacon for other smelly, slightly malnourished adventurers. I still don’t fit in, though. Not entirely. Of the millennial vanlifers, most are lone white dude climbers or white couples, often with a dog. So I’ve got the white part down. But the rest—lone, non-climbing woman—sets me on the periphery. But still. It’s far closer to a community than I ever came to with my skateboarding phase.
My people are here in the woods. Somewhere. And maybe if my orienteering skills improve and I invest in better maps—not just the free ones they hand you at visitor centers—than perhaps I’ll find them. But for now, I’m thrilled to be on my own, exploring the country with my own heart and eyes. As Chris McCandless wrote in his journal: “The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.”
For those of us who dream a little differently, there’s a world out there for you.