What I learned from living five years in a van

“Happy birthday,” my boyfriend said, sheepishly handing me a brown paper sack.

We were standing in “the kitchen” of our van, meaning in front of the mini-fridge and tiny stove situated between the platform bed and the two captain’s chairs.

I reached my hand into the bag and pulled out something rubbery and purple.

“A funnel?” I asked.

“So in the middle of the night you don’t have to pee in the bushes any more,” he explained. “If you don’t like it …”

“No, it’s great. Thank you,” I assured him, squeezing it like a stress toy.

This was not the life I’d imagined. I’d graduated from UCLA with honors, and had won awards in my corporate tech-sales career. Just eight months earlier, in April 2009, I was sipping margaritas in Cabo San Lucas at the annual resort trip for top-sellers. I pictured a house on Los Angeles’ Westside, a nice car and a baby on the horizon. But then, in response to the ongoing financial crisis, my biggest account cut spending, and I got laid off.

At the same time my partner, Tree, facing a cash crunch as the owner of a small online business selling outdoor sporting equipment, slashed his own salary and used all his personal savings to pay invoices and make payroll, all to avoid sacrificing a single employee. Like millions of other Americans reeling from the Great Recession, we suddenly couldn’t afford to pay our bills and the rent on our studio apartment any more. Something had to give.

Hence, the funnel.

To make ends meet, I sold my car, and we moved into Tree’s van with only the bare necessities – some clothes, a few dishes, one pot and pan. For months, we slept in 24 Hour Fitness parking lots and used the wifi and toilets at coffee shops, but after a customer complained and the supervisor at Starbucks in San Clemente kicked me out for brushing my teeth, we headed south, where there would be less shame in being poor.

Our plan was to drive the Pan-American highway to the tip of South America. On the road, it would be easier to stretch Tree’s skeletal income, just until the economy recovered, and I could get us back on the career-house-baby track.

What we couldn’t have known then, however, was that somewhere on that Pan-American highway, the American Dream and the pursuit of happiness would diverge, and when we returned four years later, we’d have to choose between the two.

Hopped up on a heady mix of excitement and fear, we crossed the border into Tijuana on 12 October 2010. As the sprawl and wealth of southern California quickly gave way to long stretches of undeveloped beach and quiet fishing villages, I nervously wondered how the interior landscape of our lives would change, too.

The first thing Tree and I would have to get used to was spending so much time alone together. Before, I worked in a mid-rise office in West LA, and even after we were living in the van, I could still escape to a friend’s house for a few days to give us some breathing room. Now, neither of us even had a cellphone. All we had was each other – 24/7. So, when Tree raged in our confined space because we launched over yet another tope (giant suspension-killing speed bumps), or I awoke at 3am vomiting, we each had to deal with the other’s spillover.

By the time we crossed from Belize into Guatemala, however, we’d become a well-oiled machine. While Tree dodged buses passing on blind curves, I studied Spanish or read sections aloud from the Lonely Planet guide to prepare us for our next destination, usually a village with dirt roads built around a stone plaza and colonial church. When we arrived, I’d jump out of the van to find us a cold shower, wifi and a safe place to park overnight. Once we were set up at a campground or outside a cheap hostel, Tree would slather himself in Deet and work nonstop while I wandered the village in search of a vegetable shop to buy staples like bottled water, grains and dried legumes.

What I learned from living five years in a van

Back at the van, I’d cook up some rice, peppers and onions, scoop in some beans, then throw a fried egg on top to call it dinner. Afterwards, Tree washed the dishes in our tiny sink, conserving as much water as possible, while I scrubbed our one pot and pan outside by light of a headlamp. Occasionally, we splurged and ate street food while sipping beers in the plaza with the locals. I lived for those nights.

Since gas was a major expense and Tree always had to work – sale approvals, marketing, inventory; he wore multiple hats – we stayed in places for at least a couple of days, sometimes weeks. This gave me time to clean, wash our clothes and write. In search of work I could do remotely, I’d started picking up gigs off Craigslist for 10 cents a word when we moved into the van. It wasn’t enough to make a living, but every blogpost and byline felt like fitting a piece in a dream puzzle. If I kept at it, maybe a career would take shape.

Still, despite our hard-earned proficiency, we were often forced to depend on the kindness of strangers. They warned us of danger, and, since we didn’t have a GPS, hand-drew us maps and pointed us down the road. One time in dire need of a toilet after I ate a bad chicken tamale in Zipolite, I leapt out of the van at first light and ran on to someone’s property to use their outhouse. Sweaty and momentarily relieved, I thought I’d made it undetected when, to my horror, a pair of cowboy boots and pink slippers appeared outside the wooden saloon-style doors. For a second, I worried they might call the police, but when I was finally able to emerge and explained myself, they conferred for a moment, then offered to let us move our van closer to their toilet.

It was only six months before that I’d been thrown out of Starbucks for brushing my teeth.

The accumulation and contrast of these experiences on the road challenged us to look more closely at the class divide in our own country. They made us re-examine our own hidden beliefs about people thought to be worth less because they earn less, people criminalized by city ordinances for being poor. Though it was sometimes terrifying to feel so exposed – like when soldiers in balaclavas searched our van for drugs at military checkpoints, or when we were confronted by heavily armed narcos at a gas station in Honduras – mostly I appreciated the way our vulnerability put us in the way of strangers, seeding connection and a wider sense of belonging.

That said, sometimes the upheaval and constant change induced a sense of vertigo. I’d lost my status, my BCBG power suits, my commission check, my car, my cellphone, my designer jeans, my high heels and highlights and French-tipped nails. And pretty much everything about living in the van was inconvenient, from the heat and mosquitoes to going to the bathroom to procuring and preparing food to finding a safe place to camp. And yet, even with all the hardship and uncertainty, I found something undeniably satisfying in our nomadic life. Our daily labor to get further down the road felt more relevant than working in corporate America ever had.

By the time Tree and I sat on a beach reflecting on what felt like a lifetime crammed into the past eight months, we’d already begun to see the dream we left behind through a different lens. We’d grown up believing that hard work would ensure us a middle-class life – a stable career, an affordable home, a fair retirement – but after playing by the rules and losing nearly everything in the Great Recession, after meeting so many older Americans who had to move south of the border to afford medical care and retirement, our certainty in that promise was shattered.

Plus, there was the strange truth that we were happier and more fulfilled in the van. What we’d lost in personal space, privacy and romantic restaurant dinners, we’d gained in durable intimacy – the kind that often takes couples decades to achieve.

Before, I’d been sick with anxiety in my hyper-competitive job, boxed in by an office cubicle and a full Outlook calendar, both my sales and self-worth measured in Excel. I used to sneak cigarettes on my breaks, drink too much and pop Ambien to sleep at night. Half my sales team had been on some kind of anti-anxiety or ADHD medication.

Even worse, on the road we were seeing first-hand how this collective misery was creating an insatiable demand for illicit drugs back home that, when combined with the endless supply of easy-access American guns crossing the border, was sustaining the drug war that was tearing Mexico and Central America apart.

We didn’t pretend to have the answers to the big picture problems of the world, but parts of our lifestyle – consuming less, spending more time in nature, connecting with people and other cultures – felt like the right direction.

So, one day, sitting side-by-side in the hot rain on a beach with biting gnats and wild horses, we decided we weren’t going back. We declared ourselves permanent nomads, with the intention of slowly driving around the world.

Seven months later, I got pregnant in Peru. It turns out there’s nothing like having a baby to challenge your newfound idealism. Two years after crossing into Mexico, I gave birth to our daughter, Soleil, in October 2012.

From the first moment I held her tiny body in my arms, I felt a ferocious need to keep her safe and provide her with every opportunity to succeed, starting with a whole line of Baby Einstein toys and a college savings account. I agonized over whether we should carry on with our nomad plan – or go home, reboot my career and get stable. I loved our lifestyle, but what kind of a life could we provide our daughter as minimalists living in a van?

Sadly, and unexpectedly, I found my answer in the ruins of Puerto Inca. Heavy with grief over the suicide of our good friend Jody back home, I lagged behind Tree who carried four-month-old Soleil in a baby-pack across the sand dunes surrounding the bay. Plaques on the trail told the ruins’ story.

The sole purpose of this civilization was to catch fish and transport it via foot relay from the coast to the Inca in the mountains of Cusco in just one day. A chasqui (runner) sprinted 5km on hot sand and passed the fish on to the next person, for a total of 250km. Each runner repeated this act, day after day, for his entire life.

Reflecting on Jody’s suicide and the soul-crushing drudgery of the chasquis reminded me of Camus’s essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, about the Greek figure condemned to spend eternity pushing a rock up the hill, only to have it roll back down again. Camus asserts that, despite consciously knowing that any life we build – a business, a family, an empire – will be lost in death (so what’s the point?), we must find meaning in the toil. “We must imagine Sisyphus happy,” he says.

Yet, Jody wasn’t happy. His struggle – growing another startup, paying an expensive new mortgage – left him feeling isolated and anxious, devoid of joy and purpose. Seen from the outside, our friend had the trappings and success we thought we wanted – what I thought I needed to give our daughter to be happy – but his death disabused me of that illusion.

I didn’t know if we’d be permanent nomads or drive around the world any more, but I knew I wanted to give my daughter a life where the struggle was “enough to fill a man’s heart”. Maybe we wouldn’t get ahead, but at least we’d found joy and meaning in the toil.

We carried on for two more years through Bolivia, Argentina, Chile and Brazil before landing back in the US. It didn’t take more than a few months for us to realize that, though our business was thriving right alongside the economy, the American Dream was still in disrepair. To pay our bills, rent, and save money for a down payment, I’d have to work full-time in corporate sales and put Soleil in daycare, and we’d still be cost-burdened.

But our time in the van had taught us that we could do this deal differently. We could choose to leave behind the broken hamster wheel of debt and consumption; our too-high rent; the house we may never afford; the time we wouldn’t spend together; our estrangement from nature; the persistent loneliness – to forge a different dream, one with adventure, durable intimacy and a revised definition of what it means to be better-off. One that bends our strivings not upward toward the top of a cruel pyramid scheme, but onward, toward a more soulful and sustainable future.

So, we bought a used Bounder RV – replete with a toilet, hot shower and solar panels – and set out through the American west in pursuit of our joy.