The snow chills my back as I squint up into the guts of the van, once again looking for something wrong. This morning we’ve fixed the plumbing (again) and are now dealing with a diesel heater that’s leaving black soot on the ground outside and stinking up our cabin. This isn’t the #vanlife of countless Instagram posts, but rather the #realvanlife that nobody talks about: van maintenance in exotic locations.
Flipping through Instagram posts before leaving, I had built up rosy expectations. I imagined days playing outdoors capped off by relaxing beneath expansive vistas at scenic campsites. Instead, we’ve finished long days of driving by searching for parking spots near public restrooms, before walling the van in with black-out curtains and worrying about local regulations against overnight parking.
Free time gets eaten by transitions, van work, and chores: of twenty days on the road, there have been six days driving, two days working on the van, and at least two days running errands around town. Even when the plumbing, heater, and electric system work well, a dozen details add speedbumps to our road. Rather than the free-spirited ideal of ‘just pick up and go,’ every morning is a time-consuming list of chores: pack away the clothes which were drying overnight, wash the dishes, empty the pee bottles, check the graywater, take out the trash, pack away the cooking equipment, secure everything for driving, clean the ice from the inside of the windows, and then finally start the van.
More than the time, each of these taxes our mental resources. The little routines which simplify life are broken by our constant movement, and without them we spend time and mental energy on the questions of where to park, where to get water, where to use the bathroom, whether to pack everything up before starting the engine, and so on- until we’re drained at the end of the day.
At home we might relieve these frustrations by grousing to colleagues or unwinding with friends over a beer. On the road, we’re thousands of miles away from familiar faces, and most people we meet give us a quizzical look when we say we’re living out of a van. Instead of finding a community of fellow vagabonds at the ski resorts and crags we visit, the other van dwellers we’ve seen are also searching for parking spots or have their own blackout curtains up- and our Sprinter is just another van passing in the night.