If you told me a year ago today that I would be writing on a laptop propped up on moving boxes in a new apartment that I’d committed to for an entire year I would have laughed in your face. Well, maybe not directly in your face, but in my brain I’d find humor in the concept of settling anywhere. Commitment isn’t something that comes naturally to me. Location-wise commitment, that is. Around this time last year I was pulling into my parent’s driveway after a 4-month-long stint of living in my 1994 Ford Econoline 150 van.
It began in June of 2019. I had gone through a long breakup and decided I needed to jump headfirst into something I’d always wanted to do. That same week I quit my job, found a van on Craigslist, packed up my Brooklyn room, drove 11 hours to North Carolina, and bought my very first van. Sharona was her name. She was dark maroon with a teal carpet lined interior. It was love at first ride.
Mechanically, she was in good shape. There were few cricks and cracks that needed repairing; with the help of my dad and brother-in-law they were swiftly mended and it was time for me to hit the road.
The trajectory of the trip was only broadly planned. I let visits with friends and family guide part of my main route and let my interests, desires and adrenaline lead the rest.
State by state the lessons unraveled. When I close my eyes I imagine the winding road as a washcloth being rung out, twisting and turning the things I’ve been conditioned to believe about myself, about others, and about life. Drained of every ounce of water, of belief, laid out flat to dry. Limp and clean. Refreshed and renewed. Ready to use again.
In short, this trip changed my life, and living in a van taught me lessons about myself I could have never anticipated.
Texas: Sitting with Uncomfortablity
I pulled into Texas in the midst of the hottest time of the year. August in Austin is dreamy, but deathly hot. And the cocktail of heartbreak and heat resulted in tears coming from every pore on my body. In an attempt to cool off I visited Barton Springs, a natural spring located in the heart of Austin where you can swim, sing, dance or go topless, but you can’t eat an apple (I learned the hard way from a lifeguard: No food allowed). It was 101 degrees and I strolled to the edge of the spring to jump in. One toe in, I realized the water was freezing: not cold as in chilly, but old as in it takes all of your breath away the moment you jump in. And there’s no place to ease into it. It’s now or never.
I jump. I can’t breathe. I swiftly swim to the side, get out and make my way back to the sun. Within minutes I’m overheated again. That’s when I make the decision to get back in the water. I swim and swim until the feeling comes back into my toes and that’s when I realize that sitting in uncomfortability instead of avoiding it teaches us to face difficult situations. Uncomfortable scenarios are inevitable. But if we choose to sit in the uncomfortability and work through them, slowly our bodies and our minds will adjust.
New Mexico: Comparison in Sand
Driving through New Mexico felt like a desert daydream. I pulled into the White Sands National Monument an hour before sunset and hiked up and down the sandy dunes to find a solo place to watch the pink and orange stained sky. As I sat there, not a soul in sight, I reached down and grabbed a handful of sand, carefully inspecting the soft granules. No two grains were the same, and each and every one had their own unique and beautiful shape and feeling. That’s when it hit me. We wouldn’t compare a granule of sand against another. No single molecule of sand is any better than the last, but together they create this beautiful landscape.
Why do I compare myself to others? Why do I compare others to others? My battle with comparison stopped then and there as I laid back into the sand, the harmony of thousands and thousands of granules beneath me, and watched the sun retire behind the mountains with gratitude.
Colorado: Trusting Your Gut, Trusting Your Heart
Colorado is as beautiful as they say. After staying in a few state parks here and there and sleeping on the side of a city park in Denver, I ended up settling in Rocky Mountain National Park for a few days. There was no cell service and the weather was getting cooler by the day. Each day I spent slowly, waking to the sound of an elk’s bugling cry, watching the birds in the rain, resting on top of a mountain in the middle of a long day’s hike. Trusting my body, trusting my mind to guide me throughout each day with no interruptions, no opportunity for distraction via my cell phone or computer. Just me, my gut and Sharona.
When I left I felt rejuvenated. More prepared to continue on this journey and trust myself.
Utah/Wyoming/Montana: Being Unapologetically Yourself
The next three states I traversed with a few new friends. Making our way through Utah, we spent a few days exploring and camping in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. A few of these friends I knew, not closely, and a few I had just met. Sharing a tent and stories around the fire is an intimate setting, especially when you snore at night like I do. There’s no sound machine to cover the snore of a person in the middle of the woods.
One morning we found a natural spring and stripped our clothes off, making our way into the warmth. It was a fairly secluded spot and while it was already a new feeling to be clothes-off in the middle of nowhere swimming in a spring, it was an even more shocking experience when a group of people walked in to join us, unknowing that all three of us were completely naked. As the time passed we realized we were going to have to get out of the water; these visitors weren’t leaving anytime soon and we needed to get back to Utah. We all timidly stood up and walked out of the water as the other swimmers watched. Instead of feeling mortified, I decided to laugh, and laugh, and laugh.
The laughs continued through the rest of our trip and I ended up with a few new friends who accepted my snoring and my naked body and my questionable road trip snack choices. Trying to be someone else is exhausting and pointless. All we can do is learn to love and be our unapologetic selves and hopefully laugh along the way.
Idaho/Washington: Acknowledging Anxiety Without Fear
In Washington, my anxiety started to rise around the same time that my van started having a small issue. Nothing major, but not as minor as the dead battery that had happened back in New Mexico when I fell asleep with the headlights still on.
A couple hundred dollars later, my van was working fine, but the anxiety wasn’t going away. Suddenly every turn felt scary, every new face encouraged fear, and my gut couldn’t hold onto anything good. On a mountain, lost in the middle of a hike, a wrong turn made me realize I was fearing the actual anxiety above anything else. My resistance to the anxiety, to taking the wrong turn, to messing something up, was what was creating my fear, not the anxiety itself.
I decided to take my Texas advice and address the anxiety once it arose. As soon as I accepted the anxious thoughts and stopped resisting them, the fear was lifted. Sure, the anxiety stayed rent free for a while, but it no longer manifested itself into an impending doom that took over my mind and my movement. Hello anxiety, goodbye Washington.
Oregon: Creating Boundaries
I spent a week or so in Oregon connecting with an old friend, hiking in the rain, and staying in a B&B that I’m convinced was really something else. But since it was rainy with a touch of snow, and my van wasn’t equipped for living through extremely cold weather, I decided staying indoors was my best option. Plus, they had an actual shower and a toilet, quite the upgrade from my solar shower bag and emergency pee bucket.
While the home was warm, a few interactions I was having weren’t. Between connections back at home, over the phone, and with guests at the commune— I mean bed and breakfast— I felt walked over, pushed to my end, and like I was doing things that over-exerted my own capabilities in an unhealthy way. So for what felt like the first time in my life, I started to set some boundaries.
I expressed a need for space. Set a boundary with loaning money and giving favors. And drew a line for how I felt I was being treated. It turns out boundaries aren’t as terrifying as they seem; they’re necessary for sustainable relationships with others and with ourselves.
California: We Exist as We are, and That Is Enough
I’ve been to California before, but driving through was nothing short of a dream. I laid out on the beach, slept under the redwoods, visited friends, and sat on the top of a rock face in Yosemite with my feet hanging off such a steep side that it had a few height-fearing strangers telling me I was making their palms sweat.
As I sat in the sun, nestled in a crevice of the rock, staring at El Capitan, I felt harmony and oneness. I had made it across the entire country, coast to coast, and found love in, with, and for myself.
We exist as we are and that is enough. Whether we’re sitting on top of a mountain, or in a chair at the office. We just are. And that is enough.
The lessons this trip taught me are something I’ll carry with me throughout the rest of my life. Sure, I still fear anxiety. Yes, peeing in a bucket isn’t glamorous. Neither is sleeping in a Walmart parking lot, eating tortilla chips for dinner, and everything else that comes along with living in a van. But living isn’t about glamour, it’s about gratitude, and constant ebbs and flows. It’s about learning how to adapt, learning to love ourselves, and laughing hard all along the way.
To read more pieces from our Guest Authors, click here.