Is van life a freedom movement or an economic crisis?

The road to the American Dream was blocked to us. So we took the detour that was available

Published February 29, 2020 7:30PM (EST)

Family shot with their RV (Provided by author)
Family shot with their RV (Provided by author)

Soleil, our toddler, looked like a chubby starfish stuffed in a puff suit as she waddled behind me towards the chicken coop. With great effort, she clapped her mittened hands together, excited to hunt for treasures in the nest boxes.

It was January 2015, and my husband Tree and I were housesitting for friends in Hood River, Oregon, where our online outdoor-gear store was based. Their place, a two-story cabin tucked high in the woods above town, had everything I'd want in a home — a wood-burning fireplace, a vegetable garden, a wraparound deck with a view — but we could never afford it.

Back inside, I pulled off our winter gear and surreptitiously slid the dial up a notch on the thermostat.

"Hey, turn that back," Tree admonished. "We're responsible for utilities."

Just as I began to argue that I was freezing, that the fireplace wasn't enough to heat the whole house, he pivoted his laptop screen toward me.

It was an ad for a 2003 Fleetwood Bounder RV on Craigslist. Low miles. Good Condition.

Maybe it was the smell of juniper crackling in the fire, but when I saw that beige behemoth with the tacky lightning bolt wrap and bouncing kangaroo logo, an image so Americana it practically screamed "Go West, young (wo)man," I felt a pang of longing for the life we'd just left behind.

Like so many Millennials and Gen-Xers, our success train had derailed during the Great Recession. Prior, I'd been winning awards as a sales consultant at a top-tier conferencing company in West L.A. and looking forward to marrying Tree, buying a home, and starting a family — milestones of the American dream. Then the economy tanked; I was let go, and Tree slashed his own salary to keep his business afloat. Suddenly unable to pay our bills and the rent on our studio apartment, Tree suggested that we move into his Sprinter van. It had a bed, a small stove and a mini fridge, enough to get us by until I found a new job.

Despite having to carefully navigate a silicone funnel into a plastic pee-bottle at night — not always without incident — I liked living in the van. Tree and I were spending more time together, often outside, than ever before. In the mornings, we'd go to coffee shops to use the facilities and work — Tree on his business, me on entry-level writing gigs I picked up on Craigslist while I waited to hear back from tech sales recruiters. In the afternoons, we'd try to do something fun — and free — like surfing or hiking or watching for the green flash at sunset from the roof of the van.

When we could find a 24-Hour Fitness, we'd shower and park there overnight, but when we were in towns without a branch location, we had to poach a spot on the street. Sometimes the cops came knocking, and we'd have to move in the middle of the night, which was exhausting, but those half-expected humiliations paled in comparison to the time I unexpectedly got kicked out of Starbucks. Despite having bought beverages for three consecutive days, the manager had come to recognize me not as a paying customer but as "the woman who lived in the van." So, after I finished the vanilla steamer I'd ordered to get the WIFI password and a token, she busted in on me in the restroom, sure she was going to catch me doing vagrant things.

"What are you doing in here?" she hollered, peering into my small toiletries bag.

"Brushing my teeth," I said, awkwardly, through the toothpaste in my mouth.

"Well, there've been complaints. You have to leave," she said, holding the door ajar until I left.

That shaming — the contemptuous way she looked at me — was hard to shake.

A couple months after the Starbucks incident, we decided to stretch our dollars — and freedom —  along the Pan-American Highway. We crossed the border at Tijuana in October of 2010 and mansions on the cliffs of San Diego gave way to dusty pueblos along the Baja Peninsula. Four months later, we eloped on El Tunco beach in El Salvador, and a year and a half after that, we welcomed our baby girl into the world in Lima, Peru.

By the time we'd wound through the Andes to Patagonia, four years had gone by, and the U.S. economy was booming again. Along the way, I'd become fluent in Spanish, and we'd made dozens of close friends scattered across 17 different countries. We were rich in love and adventure and connection to a wider world, but we still had nothing "to show" for ourselves by way of property and possessions. It was time to sell the van and get back on track.

While it made sense to relocate to Hood River to be near our business and a community of friends, the median cost of rent for a two-bedroom apartment in 2015 was $1,700 — far beyond our reach. To not feel strapped, we'd need two paychecks, meaning a seventy-minute commute to Portland for me to work again in tech sales. After factoring in insurance, fuel, and daycare costs, plus the heartbreaking loss of family time, I felt like there was no right answer.

While I'd dreamt of raising our daughter in a home with chickens and a garden, I also had to ask, at what sacrifice? And was this dream even possible?

Sitting by the fire weighing our options — rent an apartment or buy the Bounder — I began to realize that maybe my dream and the American dream had diverged somewhere on that Pan-American highway. Maybe I wanted something different. But what?

"We could install solar panels and retrofit it with LED lighting," Tree added.

Since the path toward upward mobility still seemed blocked, this time by high rents and soaring home prices, we chose the one that went to Zion and the Badlands, to Yellowstone and Yosemite, to Red Rocks and Mount Rushmore instead.

This time, however, living on the road was different than when we first moved into the van in 2009. Before, we felt like intrepid explorers of a new minimalist-nomadic lifestyle. "We're like 'Louise' and Clark!" I'd joke to family and friends, sensing their relief when I framed our setback as an adventure.

But in 2015, three years after Foster Huntington first posted #vanlife on Instagram, we were suddenly at the forefront of a rapidly growing movement — or crisis, depending on a person's circumstance and perspective.

Either way, today it seems everyone knows someone who's living in a car, van or RV. In fact, more Americans than ever are living in vehicles, and the hashtag appears over 6.5 million times — numbers undoubtedly driven by widening inequality and the lack of affordable housing.

Before moving into a motorhome in April of 2018, Brenton, a professional firefighter EMT, and his wife, Shannon, a registered nurse, both 35, were renting near Asheville, North Carolina, with their two small children. They'd moved there from Austin, Texas to be closer to family but were blindsided by the higher rents and lower wages.

"We were having to borrow money from family and, occasionally, use credit to try and keep our heads above water," Brenton explained.

Nearly half of American renters are cost-burdened, meaning they spend at least 30 percent — but often more — of their income on rent. Paying this much for basic shelter leaves little left over for food, medicine or childcare.

While searching for cheaper accommodations in the surrounding areas, Brenton and Shannon, like us, stumbled on a fair-priced RV.

"We crunched the numbers and realized we'd be saving a considerable amount of money every month, which would help us save for a home and pay off our recently acquired debt," Brenton said.

In 2018 the Wall Street Journal reported that nearly two-thirds of renters nationwide said they can't afford to buy a home. Which makes sense — with 78% of Americans living paycheck to paycheck, as a widely-cited 2017 study by CareerBuilder found, who can save for a down payment?

Though Brenton bristled at the stigma of "living in a van down by the river," an old "Saturday Night Live" joke he heard frequently during that time, their wager paid off. After 18 months of consuming less and saving more, they were able to purchase a home — a dream they'd all but abandoned before they moved into the RV.

Still, their daily struggle continues. To afford their house payment and still be able to spend time with their young children, Brenton and Shannon stagger their work-schedules.

"The trade-off is that my wife and I spend very little time together, and we have to be very creative with our finances to survive," Brenton said.

Within a few months in the Bounder, however, Tree and I realized that saving money wasn't going to be as easy as we'd hoped. Unlike the Coopers who parked overnight on family property or on a private campground paid for by Brenton's union dues, we spent between $800-$1200 a month for safe and legal parking with hookups and Internet — an option many people who live in vehicles either can't afford or can't access because of location. Public campgrounds and the more affordable RV parks tend to be on the extreme outskirts of town, meaning far from the jobs where people work. 

Emily, 38, moved into her 1989 B190 Airstream conversion van in early 2017, after a particularly wet and windy night landed a giant eucalyptus tree onto her rent-stable apartment in Oakland, California, destroying it beyond repair.

"I couldn't afford any of the rent prices on the market, even with a full-time job, so I managed to negotiate a small rent/power/hookup situation for the van at friends' homes," Emily said.

Despite being forced into her situation, Emily appreciated the coziness and utility of living in a small mobile space. Unlike the constraints of living in a shelter, she had privacy and lived by her own rules. Plus, she found apps and resources online that help van-lifers share information about where to find dispersed camping, facilities and even meetups and community gatherings.

"There's a very specific sense of freedom I get from living this way," she said. 

Feeling inspired, she even made the leap from working behind a desk in customer service, a job she'd clocked in at for eleven years, to fulfilling her lifetime dream of becoming a full-time traveling musician, supplemented in part by a part-time gig at the grocery store. 

Over the course of two and a half years, however, having to leave her van parked with friends in the far East Bay and then commute to San Francisco to work, often late at night, became too much of a financial and logistical strain. She recently moved back in with her parents in the city — a resource most vehicle-dwellers don't have.

Last year, San Francisco counted 1,794 people living out of their vehicles — a 45% increase from 2017 — all of whom risk a $1000 fine or six months in jail for doing so. In fact, hundreds of cities across the nation have passed similar ordinances making it illegal to sleep in a vehicle overnight, effectively criminalizing homelessness.

"Van life would be the lifestyle I'd choose if it wasn't seen or treated as an offense," said Emily.

To address this injustice, the SF Planning Commission recently passed a proposal to open its first safe parking lot, equipped with a bathroom, kitchen, and security to 30 spaces for people to park and sleep for up to 90 days.

The first Safe Parking program was implemented in Santa Barbara in 2004, with more cropping up recently from San Diego to Seattle. While a step in the right direction, these programs still fall short, offering but a temporary solution to a tiny percentage of a rapidly growing population. As this Curbed report outlines, cities remain the epicenter of employment, the cost of labor and building materials continue to rise and homeowners fight new development with a "not in my backyard!" attitude. As long as those conditions remain the reality — and don't forget climate change, which further exacerbates displacement with an increase in natural disasters — this affordable housing crisis isn't getting any better. Certainly not in 90 days.

Perhaps it's time to consider solutions that address our new reality: we need permanent spaces, and a hella lot of them.

"I think the American Dream was maybe a bit more accessible before. But the old definition is dated and, quite frankly, unrealistic in a world that's grown increasingly crowded, less abundant in resources, and hot," Emily explained.

Emily just wants a safe, legal, long-term spot to park her van in the city she works. "My American dream is a small one."

My own family's dream has changed, too. We still don't own a home, but that's okay. Living nomadically in a vehicle for seven years — five in the van, two in the Bounder — reset our values. Sure, I occasionally long for a garden and chickens and a wraparound deck, but I also know that homeownership would anchor us to one small plot of land and disrupt our work-life balance. Instead, we share a used minivan and a cellphone, and rent a fully furnished apartment in Tenerife, Spain, where the cost of living is low. We aim to own and consume less so we can travel and spend more time together as a family, connecting with people and nature around the world. While not for everyone, we've found this downsized dream to be a more fulfilling pursuit of happiness.

Whether people live in a vehicle as a way to save money or as emergency shelter because they can't afford rent, one thing remains clear: there's a reckoning of the American Dream happening on the road today. Its tenets and promises, even the merit of its success, are being questioned and recalibrated by a nation straining under the pressures of widening inequality, a lack of affordable housing, and climate change.

Now it's time for infrastructure, policy, and public opinion to catch up.

By Stevie Trujillo

Stevie Trujillo is currently working on a memoir about turning national scourges like heroin addiction, loneliness, and the failing American dream into a pursuit of happiness on the Pan-American Highway. (Spoiler: It's a love story.) You can follow her on Twitter @NomadlyInLove

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