Reverse van-life: how I’ve navigated the pandemic with my cargo van

I had the whole thing worked out. I started saving in September, and I gave my manager three month’s notice in December. After countless conversations with bots on Facebook Marketplace and a few test drives with real-live humans, I managed to sell my tiny two-door sedan and get a loan approved on a small cargo van. I had a guiding job lined up for the summer, so I only planned to be unemployed for about two months. I was hitting the open road, driving south for the spring to go rock climbing in the desert southwest. It was March 2020.

The maiden voyage of my new Ford Transit Connect

My last day of work was March 1st, and I moved out of my studio in Seattle over the next couple of days. By the time I was packing to leave, the grocery stores were out of hand sanitizer, and people were starting to pile 10lb bags of rice in their shopping carts. Snagging the last tub of Clorox wipes from a gas station, I hopped on I-5 and got the hell out of town. At the time, I felt like I was narrowly avoiding disaster as I drove south.  

My van-life dream lasted about a week, as you can probably guess. It really was a dreamy week of clipping bolts in the Owens River Gorge, though the distant nightmare of shutdowns happening in Washington loomed large. My climbing partner Nathan, who had flown down for the week, manages a rec program at the University of Washington, and his emails grew progressively grim as the week went on. Classes were going remote, and his in-person programming was cancelled for the next two weeks; things were sounding pretty apocalyptic.

One dreamy week of true “van-life” in the Eastern Sierra

Nathan flew back to Seattle a few days early, because we were starting to wonder whether he’d be able to fly back at all. By the time I got to Joshua Tree, California was on the brink of implementing a stay-at-home order. My spring climbing trip went swiftly out the window, though I felt then, and still do now, that this was a relatively small price to pay in the midst of a pandemic. 

My climbing plans may have ended with the onset of Covid-19, but my van-life dream took on an unexpected form. As the pandemic wore on, my new cargo van turned out to be a surprisingly functional tool for navigating the crisis. During the spring I remained in “lockdown,” along with the rest of the country, which gave me the time to finish a simple build-out for my van, complete with a pull-out bed, fold-down table, and some shelves. Little did I know this would soon turn into the perfect pandemic-mobile.

Swipe to see my pull-out bed technology. (I spent a lot of time on Pinterest during lockdown.)

My plan had been to live in my van on public land in Washington in between guiding gigs. As summer approached, my new job wasn’t working out as I planned, my unemployment application hadn’t been approved, and the money I had painstakingly saved in order to quit my job was dwindling. I needed to find work, and fast. An outdoor program where I worked a few summers earlier needed extra minibus drivers, and I jumped on the opportunity for paid employment. Thus began what I now refer to as my “reverse van-life.” 

All summer, as thousands of Seattlites packed their tents and camping gear to head to the mountains on Friday afternoons, I left the woods to sleep in my van in the city for the weekend. Every Saturday and Sunday morning you could find me making coffee in the street, packing my lunch, and getting ready for work. I only got a couple of weird stares from the neighbors; several passersby were actually pretty curious about the make and model of my van. 

Breakfast time on Wallingford Ave N!

Instead of finding free dispersed camping on US Forest Service land, I learned the neighborhoods in Seattle where I got the best night of sleep. (Wallingford was the most familiar location, so I slept the soundest there, though Eastlake has some great parking spots next to Lake Union where you can watch the sunset over the water and snooze inconspicuously.) I memorized which grocery stores have clean and accessible restrooms, (PCC is unsurprisingly the winner here), and I located the public bins where I could throw away my coffee grounds and food scraps. 

Reverse van life definitely has its drawbacks; there’s not quite as much epic scenery (though Seattle’s hilltops provide some truly stunning vistas), and I found myself peeing in a salsa bottle inside my van more often than I would like to admit. But I was grateful to be able to work, spend time with friends on their porches in the city, and ride some of my favorite Seattle bike trails. The best part by far about reverse van life is the reverse commute; every Sunday I would leave the city and head speedily back into the mountains, while a wall of cars crept slowly in the other direction, returning from their weekend getaways.

I know the reverse van life solution was only possible for me because I had the time and resources to make it happen. My unique housing situation may not resonate with folks who are stuck in downtown highrise apartments or others who cannot afford gas let alone a van. I’m also not advocating that people should “just look on the bright side,” or “be grateful for what they have,” as livelihoods are torn apart and loved ones are lost. 

But I see so many creative solutions happening, and I want to normalize and share different ways to live in an attempt to stay safe and take care of one another during this pandemic and beyond. Whether we’re filling community fridges, teaching drawing lessons for kids on zoom, or cooking quinoa in the street after work, we’re all adapting in unique ways. When I bought my van in February, I envisioned days of climbing in the sun and evenings under the stars. What I got instead was a kitchen wherever I went, the ability to find work, and a means to stay connected with friends during an isolating, lonely time. 

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