Not Not Van Life Life

By Dillon Upp

It seems like every millennial pines for the life on 4 wheels. They say freedom is the road. Jack Kerouac says, “Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life.” But is the road life? I’ve been on the road since December 21st, 2017. It has been almost a year and I have gained so much experience from diving into this lifestyle headfirst.

At first, downsizing from a 1982 VW Vanagon to a 2003 Subaru Outback seemed like moving backwards. Less room, having to cook outside, and barely fitting lengthwise into my sleeping space made the switch somewhat stressful. But for all that I lost, I had gained so much more. The freedom to hit the road knowing my car wouldn’t strand me in the back o beyond was the biggest advantage of switching to a newer and smaller vehicle. Plus, the all wheel drive has taking me places that the Vanagon could not.

From the beginning, my move to van life was a financial one. In the true spirit of dirtbagdom, I had lost my job, and the place I was living was a toxic environment, so I decided to take my savings and buy my first van. The first house on wheels was a 1989 Toyota Van. What an awesome little spaceship. My first canvas. I did three straightforward build outs till I finally found one suitable for my new living situation. Her name was Betsy, and our relationship lasted about a year until I realized that the space and strange engine quirks made we want something bigger, but not necessarily better.

My next home on wheels was the 1982 VW Vanagon. After selling Betsy, I went on a climbing and backpacking trip with my best friend Cory who helped me get the first van. I took the Greyhound from Portland, Oregon to Bellingham, Washington to meet up with Cory. After our trip, I was cringing taking the bus all the way back. I remember Cory saying, “alright dude, you can take the Greyhound back, or you can pick up this sweet Vanagon that’s nearby.” So we went to check it out, and the moment I opened that slider door a rush of nostalgia came rushing through my smell organ. The smell of the VW brought back memories of my Dad’s 1969 VW bay window camper van that I had grown up going to the beach and camping in. I had to buy it. Problem was, I didn’t know how to drive stick.

So I learned to drive stick that day, on expert level. I was in love with this van. That same day, red flags raised, before I even left the driveway, the engine died. It was the alternator. I slept in the van that first night, learned how to install an alternator the next morning, and drove from somewhere north of Seattle back to Portland, stalling at least 14 times. My expert level training course in manual transmission driving didn’t prepare me for the horrendous traffic in Portland because of a Bernie Sanders rally. It was a great first adventure in Gertrude. She had many problems, left me stranded, and turned me into an avid air-cooled engine mechanic.

Dirty Gertie and I moved to Bend, I got an apartment, and during the winter of 2017 I tore out her insides and made her beautiful again. During that stir crazy winter I built out Gertrude into a camper deciding that van life was the life for me once again.

If living in vehicles has taught me anything, it’s that plans change. I got a job as a raft guide, rode my bike all summer, and did a few small camping trips in Gertie. But after an amazing summer, and being stranded a few more times, eventually the decision to sell the Vanagon was on the table. The lease was about to end, and my roomie was moving into his own van, so I sold the van to another VW lover, someone who would take good care of Gertie and her quirks, and I bought the Subaru Outback for my 30th birthday. Before moving out my roomie and I wanted to do one more climbing trip, so we took Suzie the Subie on her first road trip.

Our destination, Yosemite. Suzie performed flawlessly. Even with two people and all our gear the Subaru proved to be a great adventure mobile. It wasn’t till we both moved out and I was on the road from December 21st to March 21st 2018 that I realized you did not necessarily need a van for “van life.” Since then, I’ve gone on countless road trips and adventures, filled the car with gear, gone to places I never thought I’d go, meet the most amazing people, and joined a good number of van circles even though I was in a Subaru Outback. I am now coming up on my year of small living, December 21st being my anniversary date, and even though this lifestyle has been great and so rewarding, I am already looking forward to selling Suzie and getting a van, again. It’s taken me so much time and research and first hand experience to realize that while the Subaru life has been awesome, getting into something with more room really does make the difference between enjoying the freedom of the road and being free on the road.

For those of you thinking about making the switch from your comfy, anchored, four walled establishments and finding what true freedom is all about, here are some helpful tricks and tips:

  • If you’re in the city, try to remain incognito using the bathroom, guys and gals, use a pee jar!
  • Always have a healthy supply of snacks.
  • Gear box and totes to organize gear, especially in vehicles with smaller footprints.
  • Get the National Parks Pass and the state park pass of the state you’ll be living in most, the passes pay for themselves!
  • Gym membership for those once a week showers.
  • If urban camping, apartment complexes and hotels are great places to find parking instead of sleeping in a Walmart parking lot. Or find a quiet street between houses preferably not under a street light.
  • (awesome resource for finding free or cheap camping).
  • I’ve slept in sub zero temperatures in the Subaru. What can keep you warm on those freezing nights? Invest in a good sleeping bag, mine is rated for 10 degrees Fahrenheit. My sleep system is a 5ft. sheet of Reflectix covered by a yoga mat and Thermarest Z-pad with a fleece blanket, Pendleton wool blanket, and sleeping bag. It’s been cold, but I’ve never been cold with this sleep system.
  • Get AAA!
  • Buy your tires from Les Schwab, they’ve got great warranty benefits if you get a flat or have any tire related issues.
  • Budget, budget, budget! If I didn’t make a budget list, I wouldn’t be able to go on any of these awesome adventures.

P.S. Freedom is the road…

You might also like