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When my friend Caity Weaver called me out of the blue to propose joining her for a weeklong excursion in a camper van, I thought, this could be amazing, followed immediately by, could this be a huge mistake?
I suspect Caity, who was working on an article for The New York Times Magazine about the millennial #VanLife aesthetic, invited me on the adventure because of the experiences I’d collected over the past few years. After leaving my long-term venture capital job in New York in late 2019, I spent several months backpacking through Southeast Asia and delved deeply into mindfulness and meditation. I’d become less fussy and more comfortable dealing with the uncomfortable.
Still, when Caity texted me a link to the humble van she was booking, — not big, spacious, or decked out in Instagram #VanLife fashion — I realized I was in for a bit more discomfort than I bargained for. At least we’d bond, I figured.
Seven days after she invited me on the journey, we were pulling out from the van rental depot in Los Angeles. She was tense at the wheel; I began to worry, though I didn’t show it. Before long, we both settled in, and I felt safe in her white-knuckled hands.
During the first night, in a rustic hot spring resort where the talk of the town was an owl that had taken residence in a tree, I came to terms with the fact that this was indeed going to be uncomfortable. I’d once lived outside for a month in a Thai Buddhist permaculture commune, slept in countless hostels, and meditated for 100 hours over 10 days in the Southern California desert. Living in a van when nightly temperatures dropped to 30 degrees would be another notch on the belt, I thought.
Caity was astonished by my equanimity in the face of hundreds of opportunities to complain. Discomfort is inevitable, I’ve learned, but suffering is optional. I shivered and smelled, but there was no use resisting what I couldn’t change.
We certainly found plenty of joy, and not just in the beauty of the natural landscapes, which we truly appreciated. The kind of joys that come from intimate companionship on the road: learning new details about each other; belting Celine Dion’s masterpiece “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” for hours while driving through the blackened expanse of the desert; realizing that life truly imitates art as we shivered through nights inside the van, just as Celine describes, when the “wind was so cold” that our bodies froze in bed if we “just listened to it right outside the window.”
Sometimes, the joys and misfortunes were one and the same. Trying to fry an egg as the sun set in Joshua Tree National Park inspired a frustrating hilarity.
Sometimes, the joys lived in the what-ifs. While stuck in a parade of vehicles in Yosemite Valley, we spotted a filthy car on which a message had been scrawled in the dust of the back window: “My (gay) brother is single.” At my harried request, we nearly chased down the eligible bachelor, but in the chaos of traffic and roundabouts we lost sight of the car. I will never know if he was my soul mate, but it was fun to imagine where the chase might have led.
Perhaps surprisingly, our spirits remained fairly high throughout our weeklong journey. Many readers found Caity’s self-deprecating tone in the article funny, and others commented that the van life wasn’t supposed to be glamorous. They might be relieved to know that her complaints about things such as our “dire” lavatory situation and poor weather did not outwardly manifest themselves during our journey. I was impressed by her good sportsmanship and willingness to do what needed to be done for the sake of the article: drive longer, build campfires and assemble our bed in the dark of a grocery store parking lot where we had stopped to pick up food.
The aesthetic curation of #VanLife is indeed something of an Instagram illusion, as most picture-perfect catalogs tend to be. The illusion may be easy enough to trick even those of us who have roughed it for a week in a van. As Caity wrote at the end of her article, while scrolling longingly through Instagram #VanLife photos after our trip and wondering if we should head out for a second one, she “had forgotten” how much she “hadn’t enjoyed it.” But that is not to say that the lack of comforts negates the positives of the experience — committed van lifers probably consider it a fair price to pay for an unbounded lifestyle.
In the end, I had fun, and I was more relaxed than I usually am — probably a result of minimizing screen time and resting in the silence of nature. I was both relieved and disappointed to arrive home. And though I still choose a rooted lifestyle over a fully mobile one (for now), I applaud those aspiring to one that, however uncomfortable it may be, allows them to live their lives on their own terms.
Michael Arnstein is a life coach and meditation teacher based in Los Angeles.