Monday, August 3, 2020

Wandering By Van

Something happened about ten days into our vacation.  We stopped worrying, we stopped thinking about whether or not this van thing was a good idea and I for one stopped thinking about our home life and my wife later said she stopped thinking about whether we should take a hotel room for a night for a change... We had adapted to van living.
We had known we would, from our experience of living on a. boat, a space about three times larger at least than the 72 square feet offered by the van. We had talked about the likelihood of mixed emotions and regret and buyer's remorse and adapting, and we knew before we picked up the van we would adapt. Nevertheless when everything clicked and we started having fun we both felt a sense of relief.
Parked one night at a Harvest Host in a field we heard a neighbor shooting in a nearby wood. Rusty, chased and shot at when a stray in the Redlands of Homestead, stuck it out for a while but in the end the volleys wouldn't stop and he crept...into the van. The reluctant van dog found safety in our mobile home. All three of us were adapting.
I think it's safe to say we would keep going if we could. I find the van easy to drive and cruising down the highway at 63 miles per hour is something I can do at my advanced age for twelve hours a day no problem. We have found our routines, washing up brushing our teeth emptying our trash and adapting to heat and cold as we go.
We are learning to cope in the van and trust our judgement, to find spaces to park and be unobtrusive. We have ordered some "stealth shades" which should be delivered by the time we get home. With them in place our windows will be an impenetrable black allowing us to park in plain sight no lights showing. We have no bicycles or boxes or anything obtruding and our future plans, post virus are for street parking and urban exploration, museums, art galleries, restaurants all within easy reach one fine day.
This bridge incidentally is what I would like to see across North Roosevelt, with a winding ramp at each end to allow strollers and bicycles to cross the Boulevard in safety...Way too controversial I'm sure for a town with 23,000 residents and 25,000 opinions.
Once you are aware of camper vans they become obvious and I see them around Key West. I find the Promaster easy to park among cars.  On this occasion we were at the laundry which is an operation that doesn't bother us as it does some people. We came away clean and ready for everything.
Rusty likes getting to enjoy the outdoors like he does at home. However at home he has a dog door in the sliding French windows so he comes and goes at will. Here we have to let him out but every time we can he gets to do what he wants. One night he was outside and we closed th sliding door to keep mosquitoes out. He seemed to take it badly when we went looking for him at bedtime and we had to spend time reassuring him he wasn't being left behind.
You get to see views traveling like this that get repetitive but never less pretty. I love the change from my everyday life, woods streams hills and different flowers.
This orange beauty was all curled up and closed next morning. The flower that sleeps at night apparently.
I guess this is why we enjoy the van and actually might prefer it to  -gasp! - to a boat.  Driving a small box gives you access to places never seen from the beach. A friend who traveled a piece of the Mexican coast with us on our boat twenty years ago pointed out the limitation of that style of travel making it difficult to go inland. We now notice it too as we pull into whatever attractions we find roadside still permitted by the coronavirus limitations.
The Upper Peninsula of Michigan offers its own foods including pasties which are pastry meat pies traditionally speaking.  Originally they were developed in Cornwall in southwest England where tin miners took pasties to work for lunch. They are supposed to be portable and filling with meat and rutabagas potatoes and carrots in a portable wrapper. These hit the spot:
I learned a short while ago of a Northern English variation called clangers which are half pasty and half set pie to give you main course and dessert in one pastry! Not yet found in the U.P.  They had excellent jams though alongside their road food:
Rusty is getting better at treating the van as home and enjoying the access our road life gives him. He seems to enjoy northern woods with different smells and cooler temperatures. Why he prefers puddles to our clean filtered water I cannot say. But here’s the proof:
The hard part about going into retirement and shrinking your life to a van is to wonder what next? Traditionally old age is the time to settle down and be an elder, to share wisdom and to live close to a first class hospital...Old age on the road smacks of being a tramp not an elder.  And yet it seems to my rational self to be a time to settle some questions, to see those things not yet seen, to accomplish a few last things before the curtains close forever. It would be a shame to not go for fear of not having a place in the ER when the time comes.
And then there are the options made available by a monthly income, as, in point of fact we are going to be retired with our government pensions. When we were younger we rented our home, sold our stuff and took off with $15,000 we raised from the sale of our California convertible...Every dollar we spent was a buck we never made back. In two years if all goes well we slip off the working routine but the checks keep getting deposited. Yay!
That opens other possibilities for us peripatetic old timers: renting. We looked around Michigan on a. summer vacation and wondered how pleasant would it be to rent a modest summer dwelling and settle for a few weeks. We didn't pursue the fantasy of course as we only had a few days but the possibility and the allure of staying in one place to learn more about that place was definitely there. The leaves change color, the mood fades, and off we go to check out a winter beach in Mexico where outdoor living may not require a winter rental. We may lack many survival skills but flexibility isn't one shortcoming we suffer from.
You can adapt a van to whatever you want. I saw parks and trails that deserve more attention, lakeshores that could be a place to stop for a while in a state park perhaps. The possibilities are endless.
On this trip we have had to focus on the outside wonders of this great country, the woods, the hills, the views while ignoring the art and culture of the cities which make a much too comfortable home for coronavirus. Our dog has not been sorry to see pine forest and thick leaf mold and shaggy shrubs. For a dog brought up in South Florida and abandoned in Homestead Rusty has been learning a lot of new stuff.
Just like on a boat there is a certain deep seated pleasure in making your home mobile. To walk the woods and come back to the familiar space filled with your own memories, your own artworks, your books and music and clothes is quite special.  As I write this at my little desk behind the driver's seat sitting in a field miles from anywhere familiar an afternoon thunderstorm is bucketing down water. Rusty is snoozing on the bed and my wife is reading and the van is drumming to the sound of water hitting the metal sides and roof. Gannet 2 inside is dry and not just warm, perhaps even stuffy so well is the Golden Van insulated.
Layne likes to cook and with 600 amps of lithium batteries onboard we can run all her induction burners, convection oven, fridge/freezer and 3 quart instapot without giving the power consumption a second thought. The twin alternators recharge the batteries in less than three hours of driving if we have run them down with prolonged use of the rooftop air conditioner... Such power resources combined with a huge water tank give the van the feeling of being  a home not a camp. Fans and lights and water pump work as we want them without concerns about consumption and that feels luxurious.
It has been an enormous privilege to be able to go off the map, to make our own routes, to see if not visit properly small towns in woods never seen by tourists. You may not want to sleep alone in the woods but a van even less over equipped than our traveler could offer a sports fan a comfortable space to go to a game, a hunter a comfortable secure retreat, a family a place to put not just a toilet but toys to take to the beach or the lake.
The subject no one wants to talk about is the toilet and that reticence cracks me up. Skip this if you are easily scared by your own bodily functions. I love having my own toilet and my wife and I have often been made grateful by easy access to bladder relief.  Modern RVs and boats have several choices for toilets onboard and we spent our share of time trying to figure what might be best for us. 
We went with the humble porta-potty, a moulded toilet seat clipped to a tank with a sealed opening between the two. Some manufacturers try to make their toilets resemble home toilets with extra doodads to make disposal easier but I like a simple tough and leak free toilet.  Emptying the toilet is my job and it has never bothered me. I've had shitty disasters on. my boats and I find it easy to get the seals changed and wash up and forget the whole mess. For other people emptying  that darned porta-potty would be traumatic. 
For some the idea of a fixed toilet with electric flush and a fixed tank which you empty only occasionally using a hose to pour out the contents into a "sanitation station" might be a better answer. Composting toilets are fashionable but I'm not a fan. You need to do your own YouTube research if that solution interests you. I have considered a dry toilet where you line a bucket with a bag, throw in some kitty litter and toss the bag in a dumpster when it's time. That is my back up solution but so far we stick with what we have. The sink and shower drains we have flow to a "gray water" tank with means we don't have to dump anything on the ground when we are using the toilet or the kitchen sink onboard. Leave no trace. 
The reality is that whether you live on a boat or in a. van you live life much more intensely. Yes you deal intimately with your waste, but you also feel the weather much more intimately. You can't retreat to your den or the game room on a wet afternoon.You can go to the library or stay on the beach till sunset if you don't have to drive home. You do tend to live publicly and that's something you need to consider.  I had a lot of worries about that as I am by nature fairly private in real life and I had no desire to act out the scenes of my life in front of an audience of passing strangers. Oddly enough, like so many fears, that one has yet to materialize.
To my surprise the van offers more privacy than you would think looking at it parked in a car space in front of Trader Joe's in Evanston Illinois (above). Layne was shopping and I was sitting at the table in the Great Cabin writing up my blog while I had a Verizon signal. People were walking by and  I found the insulation built into the van, the smoked windows and the comfort I felt being in my home, separated me from the world outside in a way I had not thought possible. Living on the road is possible, just as easy as I found living on a boat separated from people by a body of water and my anchor.
America is a funny old place, full of contradictions dictated by a difficult cultural past full of compromise and learning to live together. Van life is in my opinion a totally American phenomenon. Not only is this the land of different lifestyles but this also the land of wide open spaces, public land and endless possibilities. Live in a van? Why? Why not? There, figure that out and cheer the next non conformist you see sitting on the street.  It might be you!