Van Life: The Learning Curve

posted in: Thoughts, Van Life | 10

As expected, van life has been an adventure in and of itself. It has been almost 3 months since we embarked on our journey: Operation Freedom. Without a doubt, Eric and I have learned a great deal about life, the van and each other. In this blog, I will discuss everything van life including initial feelings, pros/cons, our plans moving forward, and more.

Initial Feelings

Me being not so glamorous

I’m going to rob you of the mystery right off the bat—Van life is NOT glamorous. If you have ever done a quick search on Google, YouTube, or Instagram your mind will be filled with images of scantily dressed females with big white smiles, bodies void of tan lines. They will likely be laying on top of a freshly made bed (looking all cute) with a private, to-die-for view peering from their perfectly situated vans. Sexy, half hippie-half hipster males with perfect hair and chiseled chests stand nearby talking about surfing, mountain bikes, or snowboarding using that California lingo. It will be a totally righteous experience as you watch them sip their vegan masterpiece whipped up from 2 simple ingredients purchased from a local farmer’s market they stumbled upon earlier that day.

Image after image you click through hypnotized by hippie/hipster male above (thinking in the voice of Keanu Reeves in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, “Whoaaaa Dude, can this be real?”

In my opinion, it’s not even close. To put it simply, van life is a lot of work. It’s taking life as you already know it—the cooking, cleaning, eating, sleeping, working (Eric still works!) and everything in between—and cramming it into 75 square feet of space. No, I’m not being negative, just realistic. I’m not here to paint a picture of a perfect, fairy tale lifestyle. When it comes to living at it’s most basic core, van life is just like regular life except everything takes 2-4 times longer to complete! While the struggle is real, we realized early on there would be a learning curve. Luckily, we are adaptable human beings and have made adjustments which have eased the burden of those time- sucking, menial life tasks.

The beloved laundromat

Cons

Let’s talk about cons first so that we are ending this blog on a positive note. After all, van life is ultimately a super awesome experience. Our lives may be filled with new challenges but we aren’t ready to throw in the towel quite yet.

Reorganizing

Organizing the van to fit our daily needs was integral in streamlining our lives. While I have to admit that in the beginning, I would have happily traded Sisyphus places after the 4th or 5th time we unloaded (then re-loaded) the van that first month. I’m happy that Eric forced me to keep going because it has totally paid off. Organizational skills are important, but FUNCTIONAL ORGANIZATIONAL SKILLS are essential! One of the things you gain after a major lifestyle change is a better understanding of what you really need in life to survive. Let me tell you, it isn’t much and it isn’t what you think you need…even for 2 minimalists!

This is only PART of the organizational process.
Hanging items along the side walls helped out tremendously!

Lesson: it doesn’t matter how well you pack if you can’t easily access what you need to use when you want to use it.

Quarterly Report Card

  • August: D-
  • September: A slow transition from C+ to B-
  • October: Definitely an A. It’s not perfect, but it’s very livable and easy now.

REM

Yes, REM. No, not the band but the sleep cycle.

As an Occupational Therapist, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve discussed sleep hygiene with my patients. I’ve yammered on countless numbers of hours and put many disinterested people to sleep teaching strategies and stressing the importance of getting good rest. It always amazes me how professionals have such a hard time following their own advice. It’s like the fat doctor who smokes like a chimney. Armed with knowledge, it just doesn’t make sense. But hey, not here to judge. Only poking fun of myself for doing everything that I know to be right—Wrong.

Here are some tips for better sleep and how I got them oh so wrong.

  1. Consistency. Setting a bedtime so to speak, is a great way to stay consistent with your sleep cycle. When we stay up late to look for a safe parking spot while stealthing in the city or drive longer than expected to get away from the crowds, we find it difficult to meet this goal.
  2. Environment. Experts say it is important to sleep in a dark, quiet space in a comfortable temperature. Ha. Well, considering our bedroom is separated by a thin wall of metal and a bit of insulation, you can imagine how difficult it would be to control much about our environment! We do, however, try to mitigate the misery in our lives by carefully selecting where we call home for the night. Ideally, we boondock (or live off grid) away from city life as much as possible and we have lots of gear to keep us warm. Humidity has been the most difficult obstacle so far as there is no cure for sleeping when it’s hot and sticky!
  3. Intake. Limiting beverages before bed—especially alcoholic or caffeinated drinks—is extremely important. This one is totally our fault. I mean, who doesn’t like to unwind with a nice cold beer after a long day driving or adventuring? Well, if the buzz doesn’t keep you awake, an overactive bladder will!
  4. Physical Activity. Movement is integral in promoting restful sleep. I don’t know about you, but on my lazy days, I find it so hard to get some solid zzz’s. It’s only been a few months so I shouldn’t be to hard on us, but WOW! This is the category I would have thought we’d be rocking by now, but unfortunately, we have totally failed. While we have had some great rides and active days—work, sickness, environmental issues, and weather have played their toll. This is a focus area for me in the upcoming month(s).
But…it’s fun to try new brews from all over the country!

Unwanted Guests

*image borrowed from here

Oh, yeah. So, this happened. Three times to be exact.

The first time we realized we had a mouse in the van we were shocked. In all of our research, we never even realized these cute little wire biters would be such a big part of van life. Apparently, with a very specific search, we learned it’s actually quite common! Go figure.

It started one night with crinkle here and a crunch there. I thought I was hearing things and passed it off as my imagination. It wasn’t until 2 o’clock in the morning (of course!), when Melvin the Mouse discovered the extra buttery deliciousness of our Idahoan instant potatoes, that we knew WE HAD A MOUSE! For the next several hours, we lay in bed with eyes open wide listening to Melvin eat his way through our pantry. The only thing we found comfort in was the realization that if the mouse was eating potatoes, it was NOT chewing wires.

*image borrowed from here

It wasn’t until the next day, when we unloaded the entire van, we could see just how busy Melvin had been. Somehow, he had managed to chew many things in hopes of building an empire within our walls. I suppose he felt that if he ate like a king, he should probably live like one too.

I’d like to think we gave Melvin a choice. We did unload the entire van in hopes of scaring him off. Reluctant to vacate, he retreated further within the walls refusing to surrender peacefully. In that moment, we were wishing we had kept Adventure Kitty. She would have taken care of business with half the effort.

Our “Search and Destroy” Mission
An unloaded trunk

If Melvin was a sick, sadistic mouse, he was likely watching our efforts from Potato Mountain with a devilish grin smeared across his face; butter dripping from his whiskers. I say this because it is exactly what happened. The moment we heard his reverberating crunch we headed straight for Home Depot and loaded up on mouse traps. By the end of the night, Melvin was no more.

Because we’re sick, sadistic people, we lay in bed that night with large grins across our face until we heard it. Eric and I must have been experiencing the same racing thoughts because in the silence of the night we simultaneously whispered, “Did you hear that?” I shot up out of bed and grabbed another trap. The next morning, Mary joined her beloved Melvin in Mousie Heaven. It was a beautiful sight. Actually it wasn’t. It was sticky and gross and it made me feel like a horrible, evil person.

Melvin’s building materials

But, in all fairness the non-kill traps just don’t work (we tried that first). I don’t mind mice, they don’t scare me or annoy me really. I just don’t want to live with them. Plus, they do carry diseases. If we could have only negotiated a deal, I was more than willing to give Melvin and Mary a lift to a warmer, more pleasant destination outside of our van walls.

About a week later we met Max. For whatever reason he didn’t stay long and must have figured a way out. One night I saw him peek around he curtain. After making eye contact, he may have sensed the fury in my brow because he was never seen or heard from again. Perhaps the van smells of death or is haunted by the spirits of the loving duo that came before him. Either way, I hope he is the last for a while!

People

You can escape some of the people all the time, all the people some of the time, but you can’t escape all of the people all of the time.” .

Eric’s rendition of Abe Lincoln’s quote about fooling people.

One of the main reasons Eric and I wanted to live the van life was to be able to check out for a bit and avoid the crowds. I think that has been one of the toughest realities thus far—There are people everywhere! Perhaps this mindset is unfair and unrealistic, but who doesn’t just want to get away? You know, A-W-A-Y. Far from all of the racing razors, screaming kids, heavy traffic, generators, long lines…the list goes on. The West is just a busy place and when you do find some peace, it doesn’t last long.

Example: We found an empty campground with 31 sites and someone pulled in a few hours later and parked RIGHT BESIDE US facing into our van! Craziness. More on this story in an upcoming blog. But the point is, even when you get lucky and have some quiet space, someone is always around the corner waiting to ruin your piece of mind. At least it often feels that way.

Work

Eric has had some pretty sweet office spaces over the last few months; this one being my personal favorite.

Castle Rock State Park

Unfortunately, that is easy for me to say because I’m using little to no brain power right here. He is! Well, he was trying to.

Working while on the road, doing what we are trying to do, has been extremely difficult; way more difficult that either of us ever imagined. To be honest, I’m not even sure WORK was on our list of concerns considering Eric has been working remotely for the past 2 1/2 years. Either way, it has turned out to be more of a challenge than we bargained for.

Why?

Hardship #1: Lack of internet in remote places. Now, we’re not total idiots, we knew that finding awesome, work-worthy internet in completely remote places wouldn’t be easy (if even possible), but we were willing to give it a try. One thing we have learned is that internet companies boast internet services in some areas that they don’t really have internet. For example: If you climbed up on the tallest peak in some given area (insert area here) then we could have probably had some kind of service. But, that isn’t realistic, is it? No. So technically, we haven’t had internet everywhere we initially thought we would.

Great spot. No internet.

Hardship #2: It is really time consuming finding these “perfect” spots that meet our wish list. High speed internet capable, remote, free (when possible), close to areas I can explore (when possible) and no people (believe me when I say that remote and no people do not equal the same thing). I know, it really is a somewhat unrealistic list but this is what our ideal spot would look like. It is out there! It just takes a lot of time to find. Time we don’t always have.

Proof that the perfect place exists! This spot in South Dakota had it all! Took about 2-3 hours to find.

Hardship #3: It’s really tough to concentrate on the road. Despite the fact that Eric appears (in my completely tech-less mind) to have a lot of downtime—He is working, thinking, planning, and strategically figuring out his next move. What he does is extremely important. One (~) instead of a (`) can take down the entire university system. Ok, perhaps it isn’t that ridiculous, but it is as close as I can get to explaining it. When we’re constantly on the move, not in ideal locations, or several other things are requiring his attention it can be tough to get work done. I may not understand, but I totally get it!

Nose Ring Snafu. A perfect example of a distraction!

Endless Choices

Who knew that having endless choices would end up on the list of CONS? It seems like a dream come true but let me tell you, it’s a reality that’s not as great as it sounds. It’s almost as if there are so many choices, making any decision (even the simple ones) can be daunting at times.

I mean, it’s kind of embarrassing to go to the grocery store and stand there staring at the 12 apple choices. Just pick the Honeycrisp…they are the tastiest. No. Pick the Fuji because they taste pretty good but for a quarter of the price. No. Pick the Yellow ones because they taste best with peanut butter. No. Pick the Gala because they are on sale and sometimes they taste better than the Fuji but it just depends. Ahhhhh. Imagine doing that with every single damn decision in your life. That is where we’ve been, at times, only with bigger stuff.

For whatever reason, having a free life isn’t always freeing. Well, it is and it isn’t. There are for sure 2 sides to the coin. That’s all I’m saying. I know what you must be thinking. “Oh, poor little free, do-what-you-like, quit your job and traipse around the country seeing wondrous sights and having epic adventures” you. I’m so glad you understand. 🙂

PROS

While van life does have its down side, there are numerous benefits to this alternative lifestyle. Let’s focus on the good stuff now!

Freedom

The most appealing aspect of van life (to us) is that it’s undeniably freeing. We can go where we want, when we want and have everything we could ever need with us. At this point in our travels, we may not have capitalized on all the benefits of this lifestyle, but I think we’re one step closer to figuring it out.

As they say, “Home is where you park it”.

Hiding out at quiet secret lakes of Missouri
Overlooking Omaha, NE
Floating with the clouds in the Bighorn National Forests of Wyoming
Dwelling among the trees 4 miles from Mt. Rushmore in The Black Hills of South Dakota
On another planet at Crater’s of the Moon
On brightly freckled beaches
Staring out at Mount Zion National Park

All-in-all, the van life has presented opportunities that I had only dreamed of. While it’s not perfect, it’s pretty great and I’ve never been happier with our decision to go for it!

Feeding the Piggy

Eric found this $1 coin in the vending machine 🙂

Van life is relatively inexpensive. That is a huge pro in my opinion! Now of course, it could also be costly depending on the type of lifestyle you choose to lead. Ultimately, expense is completely dependent on the person doing the spending. So far, Eric and I fall somewhere in the middle. We’ve splurged on some things like nicer campgrounds, state parks, a National Parks Pass, and going out to eat much more often than we did before van life. But, we also try to do as much dispersed camping as we can to keep our expenses low.

Many of you have asked but I haven’t had the time to get exact numbers for everything. If you compare total monthly expenditures before and after van life, I would say we are paying about 1/3 (or less) of what we paid to live in a permanent residence. I’ll take that any day for an opportunity to travel for months (or years?) on end.

Our Carbon Footprint

“I love this toilet” (said no one ever….until now!)

Living the van life is an eye opening experience when it comes to waste. In regard to water, Eric and I use about 7 gallons every 4-5 days. That is basically 2 toilet flushes in a standard home. When it comes to electricity, we make our own via 2 large solar panels on top of the van reducing both waste and pollution. When you think about everything in those terms, it feels like a game changer.

Speaking of water, it has been extremely easy to find and we haven’t had to pay a dime for it while on the road (a total pro)! We have found water at dump stations, gas stations, rest areas, campgrounds and more!

Unfortunately, we do use more gas and ziplock bags than ever before. I’m working on some ways to lessen our need for those things. For now, I justify using plastic with the significant reduction of our carbon footprint. As far as gasoline goes, all we can do is stay put longer. Do we get a two year bonus for not driving much during our time in Boise?

The Great Outdoors

My ride to Elephant Rock at Antelope Island State Park (Utah)

I’ve always loved being outside and staying active. For me, the van life gives me the opportunity to do what I’ve always enjoyed more frequently and in multiple different locations—From beach to desert to mountains! I feel like I’m living life so fully and in the moment when I’m exploring a new place. When it comes to adventuring, it’s everything I thought it would be and more.

Eric’s happiness is much more subtle than mine—He is an old soul. I, on the other hand, am more childlike and wear my emotions for all to see. I think he is enjoying himself and know he’d be having even more fun if he wasn’t tied to his job. Unfortunately, Eric is in a weird place in life having only a short time left until he can officially retire. A secure future would be hard to walk away from! On the contrary, I have nothing to lose and a career that I can pick back up with on a whim. In a way, it seems we’re living 2 completely different lives right now.

People

You’re probably thinking, “Wait, wasn’t this in the CONS list you anti-social, scarcity mentality preaching moron?” Haha. Well, yes, yes it was. But, I’m not the horrible person with poor social skills that you think I am. In all sincerity, I like some people.

We have met some really interesting, genuine, idea sharing conversationalists on our travels so far. Steve from Michigan and Jim from Wisconsin. Joe…oh Serendipitous Joe. There’s a story there (more on that later). Some folks from Washington State (well the guy was cool—his wife not so much). Oh an my 2 favorites, this couple from BC Canada (who tried to start a hippie commune in their youth) and another couple Stan and Becky (who offered to show us the mountains of Utah on their gators and buy us lunch—story in next blog).

Serendipitous Joe

Ok, I promised you a story.

Meet…Joe’s Hand.

I don’t have a picture of the whole Joe. Just envision an early 50’s, dark hair, clean shaven, 6 foot something guy with kind eyes, an Irish accent, and friendly demeanor.

That’s Joe. Joe from “Wisconsin”.

1. We met Joe at the turnout just before entering the Needle’s Eye Tunnel at Custer State Park. He struck up a conversation with Eric after we caught him drooling over our solar panel setup. Kind as he was, Joe snapped this photo of us as we went through the tunnel in our van. The funny thing is, we didn’t know it or get this photo until our second chance meeting 2 days later.

Eric and I were out paddle boarding on the lake when in the distance we saw a white van with a scooter on the back. We both looked at the van, looked at each other, looked at the van. “Do you think that’s Joe?”, we both said almost at the same time. We paddled down to the end of the lake and sure enough, it was Joe! We chatted for quite some time and found out he was ultimately headed to Yellowstone as well. We swapped info and this is when he sent the photo of us in the tunnel.

Meeting spot #2

The third time we saw Joe was in Yellowstone. Now, you may not think of this as a chance meeting since we did know he was heading in the same direction but a day or 2 after us. If you’ve been to Yellowstone, you also know it’s a pretty flippin’ huge place! Neither of us knew where which of the MANY campgrounds we were headed to the last time we spoke. A few days later we picked a site, registered, then went driving around for a bit. The camp was fairly empty with several open spots. When we returned to camp, we spotted Joe’s van! We pulled up, said hi, then went off to find our spot in the array of look-alike spots. We spotted our number, looked up and JOE’s spot was literally right behind us in the circle.

Too funny!

That afternoon, Joe came over and we chatted most of the night away before parting ways. By the time we’d risen the next morning, Joe was gone. We figured, that would be the last of him as we were eventually heading to Idaho and he Salt Lake City to see a friend. We didn’t know time frames.

Now, if you read my blog, “Idahome”, you will know the story about being sick, what we did, and what we didn’t get to do. Basically, about 2-3 weeks had passed and then we left Idaho in search of warmer climate.

Meeting spot #3

We were at Antelope Island when it all went down. I was laying in the bed working on my blog when Eric said, “You’ll never believe who it is”. Before he ever even got the words out, I was like, “NO WAY!” Sure enough, it was Joe. He told us he spotted a van with really nice solar panels and when he got closer and saw our bikes on the back he knew. Joe pulled in for a chat then went to his camp. We ended up spending another night together drinking a few beers and shooting the breeze.

Seriously, Joe is like a long lost friend. We really enjoyed our time getting to know him and learning about his travels. Maybe someday we’ll meet again. We jokingly predicted it would be somewhere random like Albuquerque.

The list goes on….

In my opinion, these are the top PROS on our list, but there are so many more. While the list of CONS may have been long, the list of PROS carry more weight. It’s been challenging, enjoyable, bliss, hell, annoying, grand, and everything in between. Best of all its been life on our terms which feels better than even the worst CON. So, here we are. Well….more on that later.

Some Things We’ve Learned

Libraries are not quiet but they are a great place for accessing free, high speed internet and apparently disposing of drug needles.

Proof that I couldn’t just make that up!

Chill for best results.

You can find happiness in the most random of places.

Happiness on picnic tables even!

I learned that Marilyn Monroe was actually pretty sexy after all. Eric already knew that.

AND……

Cupcakes DO make everything better.

The funny thing is, we’ve traveled over 7,000 miles and learned all of this in Boise upon our return. I guess you don’t have to leave a place to discover a whole new world…you just need to look harder.

That leads me to the biggest news I have to share.

Sigh.

Eric left.

The Decision

Now, most of this was written prior to The Decision. Despite this, I kept my words just the way I wrote them the first time—Honest and True. After all, my feelings haven’t changed.

Yes, Eric left.

No we didn’t have a fight.

No, we’re not getting divorced.

On the contrary, we’re best friends and we each want happiness for the other.

A sneak selfie attack.

It’s simple really.

Eric wants to be able to concentrate on some big work things going on right now. He’d like to clear his head and pursue some of the hobbies that he’s put on hold over the last 2 years so that we could live in Boise. Deep down, I also think he wants to spend some time with his aging parents. Yes, you old peeps (I know you’re reading).

I on the other hand want to pursue the adventures that we’d been talking about for the last 5 or 6 years. My brain could not wrap itself around those dreaded words, “Just 2 more years” one more time. We had already postponed our bicycle trip around Europe, we didn’t get to finish our bike trip around Idaho (although that was due to a fire not ourselves), and now, not getting to live the van life after all of that time, sacrifice, and hard work we’ve put in…I just couldn’t. Not to move back to Missouri. I love the West/Northwest—The rugged beauty and endless possibilities. I will forever be a Mountain Girl mixed with a hint of Coastal Wanderer.

Where does that leave us?

The honest answer is, I’m not sure.

I suppose we will each live out our fantasies independent of one another and take it one day at a time. Blame and resentment are the furthest things from our minds as I completely understand why Eric feels the way he does about work, life, family, etc. Eric completely understands how I could fall in love with everything the West has to offer.

What I do know is this: I am the luckiest girl in the world to have a loving, trusting husband that would allow me to make my own decisions and not propose an ultimatum that would force me to choose between him and the life I dream about. And vice versa.

When the time is right, we will reunite.

Wow. No, I didn’t mean for that to rhyme, it just happened. Haha.

Future Plans

For now, my plan is to spend some time exploring Utah and go from there.

This week I’ll be spending some time exploring Mt. Zion. I’m super stoked about some of the hikes, and of course, I’ll be biking too! Then, I’ve got about a dozen hiking/biking trails on my list in the Saint George area and a trip to Snow Canyon planned. After I accomplish those things, I have no idea.

The bike ride Eric and I took together in 2017.

Yes, I have no idea what’s next and that’s ok. I think sometimes that is part of the problem; too many choices and ideas which bogs down the mind and eventually the soul. Sometimes, it’s better to just let life happen and go with your gut.

Sharing is Caring

Have any thoughts, questions, or remarks? Is there something more you’d like to know? Something I left out above van life that you’d like to ask? Stories, opinions or just something random you’d like to contribute? I’d love to hear it! Feel free to comment below or send me a private message on FB.

Did you miss the last blog update about exploring Northern Utah? If so, no problem. Click here to check it out!

Until next time friends…

10 Responses

  1. Myrna

    You are such an amazing story teller. I love that you and your Eric were able to do what you both need. It may not be the ideal that you were planning but focusing on our own needs once in a while does not have to spell the end of a marriage. My Eric and I have spent a lot of energy trying to adapt. We’ve surrendered a lot of dreams over 30 years of marriage. We are at a place now where we have accepted that we have very little in common and it’s ok. We’re still married. We still love eachother. We still share a house. But I spent most of the summer traveling the coast and he spent it at home where he’s happiest . Now we’re home enjoying sweater and soup season together. And I’m planning next year’s solo adventures.

    • Jenni

      Thank you Myrna. I love writing so that is a compliment in the highest form. Adapting is what life is all about! It’s not always easy, but nothing worth doing is, right? I think the best marriages start with friendship so that it makes time away no big deal. True love comes in different forms! Love doesn’t equal dependency no matter how much Hollywood tries to push that down our throats. I think it’s awesome that you and your husband are able to do what you both enjoy yet come together in the end. I’m sure you could agree that being alone isn’t as bad as it may sound. Thanks for posting your comment, it really helps me to see that I’m not alone! Happy Solo Adventuring!!!

  2. Barbara M.

    I laughed and smiled and nodded my head with understanding as I read this entry. Take care. Keep writing and living!

  3. Marie Schlake

    Fantastic read! I admire you for sticking to your dreams! Good job sharing the pros & cons of van life!

  4. Marsha Kyle

    Read the whole blog…great stories!! Gonna get lonely out there on the road by yourself call me if you need an experienced camping buddy!

    • Jenni

      The loneliness has crept in a few times already, mostly at night and when I wake up in the morning and remember that my best friend is gone. Oh, and then during the day when I can’t preoccupy my mind with some kind of physically draining activity…Yeah, that’s when I’m least lonley…but that’s the only time 😉 Coping and wondering what life means really. Perhaps I should go back and re-watch the movie “UP” so that I get my priorities straight.

  5. Heather

    Quite eventful!Joe sounds like a cool guy. I am like you and seek the solitude of the mtn and great outdoors but think a fun part about that is also meeting people who share in those goals. I hope you can continue on with your adventures!

    • Jenni

      Joe is a cool dude. Solitude is nice with the occasional single serving friendship. I suppose I will continue on my adventures until I decide I’m done or I have to go back to work. 🙂

  6. Jenn Brown

    Girl! You make my adventurous heart sing! I’m happy you and Eric have found a resolution that works for you both. And hey, absence makes the heart grow fonder, right? It can make your meet ups even sweeter!

    Adore your writing, pics and experiences. Thank for sharing. Zion is gorgeous – can’t wait to see your next blog post!
    Happy trails ~ Jenn

    • Jenni

      Yes, indeed absence does make the heart grow fonder. I miss him and I’m pretty sure he’d rather be having fun with me instead of working and sitting in cold weather. I look forward to his return! Thanks for you comment and I’m glad you enjoy the blog! Happy Trails and I hope you’re enjoying a warm winter in Florida! 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *