Living vanlife vicariously through the man I’m too comfortable to be.
There’s a man I envy who lives in a converted minibus on a business park. He moves around but spends most of his time between my office building and the McDonald’s across the street. The life he lives is a life I’ve dreamt of for many years but I’ve been too comfortable to build for myself.
The term #vanlife conjures up images of designer homes on wheels with NASA-like engineering as standard. Both the interior and exterior are beautifully utilised to create a functional mobile home that looks good enough to put on a magazine cover. Every luxury has been thought of with running water, self-generated electricity, and office space for a digital-nomad all included. Parked lakeside or at a cliff edge, every moment is Instagramable.
This van is nothing like that.
The van of my vicarious dreams looks like a shanty shack on wheels. Viewed from the outside, everything has clearly been done on a very small budget. Sheets of cardboard and plywood have been shaped into makeshift privacy screens for the windows. A steel chimney stack has messily punched its way through the roof and been sealed with Playdoh like welding. Everything is held together with bungee cord and tape. There’s even a wheelchair tied with string to the padlock-secured back door.
Yet he has everything he needs to survive in that little van. The wood-burning stove keeps him warm and cooks his food. He has access to wash facilities and potable water at the restaurants outside his door. All of his possessions travel with him wherever he goes. Even his little dog has plenty of beautiful country fields nearby for walks. It might not be much to look at but he’s a lot more self-sufficient than most people.
I love everything about him and his van. A diesel-punk frontiersman travelling around modern Britain in his self-propelled covered wagon. When I look at it, I see a man who is completely free.
Vanlife — The Dream of Freedom
We’re all on our own quest for freedom. For some people, it’s financial freedom. Being debt-free. Having enough money to never need to work again. Having a low-effort form of income to finance a comfortable lifestyle. For others, freedom of time to whatever you want, whenever you want. Freedom of location to be wherever you want to be, whenever you want to be there. To be around people you want to be with, as much or as little as you choose.
When I look at him I see a man with complete freedom over his own time, location, and activities. Why he chooses to live in a business park in the East Midlands I’ll never know. But free he is, and I envy and admire it. The vanlife dream is all about low-cost living, free from any given location and the obligations that come with a fixed abode. Vans need maintenance too but it’s a lot cheaper than buying and maintaining a house.
The Vanlife Lifestyle — A Road Untraveled
A long time ago, as a postgraduate student, I declared to my Dad that as soon as I was finished my Master’s degree I was going to “live out of my car and travel around the world,” doing work wherever I could find it to get by. The digital-nomad lifestyle. I fantasised about buying and renovating a van to create a mobile home of my own. Not a big, bulky campervan, but a sleek, stylish van, minimal in appearance and maximal in utility. I still dream of that today, but I know I’ll probably never do it. I have other commitments now. My wife. My child. My cat and dog. Things that are much, much more important to me.
Over a decade later, sitting in the living room of my home with my wife and newborn daughter, my Dad laughed and reminded me of my declaration. “Whatever happened to that idea?”, he joked, gently teasing me. I thought about it for a few moments, and then it dawned on me. “What is it you think I’m doing?” I asked.
The reality is, I do travel around the world living out of my car. My work takes me away from home a lot meaning every week I pack up all of my things, load them into my car, and travel from place to place before coming home again for the weekend. I don’t just travel light, I live light. What I take with me is almost everything that I own. I get to visit new places regularly, meet interesting new people, and experience new things just as I originally wanted.
The only difference between me and my McDonald’s dwelling neighbour is that I never fully committed to my dream. While he goes to sleep in his little house on wheels, I retire to the comfort of hotels with hot running water, infinite electricity, and Wi-Fi. Every morning we’re both back on the road. I still travel with all of my possessions. At least all of those that I need. The rest I keep at home with the people that I love.
I couldn’t commit to permanent vanlife. I couldn’t even commit to part-time vanlife. My own version achieves similar outcomes but with the luxury of hotels in exchange for the freedom of movement. As I write this from a hotel room I still dream of pulling an awning out from the side of the van and cooking a full English breakfast on a gas hob in the rain. But instead, I’ll buy one from the cafe downstairs.
You’re Not Necessarily Giving Up On Your Dreams
In Shakespeare’s As You Like It, he discusses the ‘ seven ages of man ‘. The concept is that as we age we become different people. I know I’m not the same person who told my father that I wanted to be free from all ties. That I wanted to live life on my own schedule and travel around the world solo. Maybe I was that person at one point but then life got in the way. By the time I was ready for vanlife, I wasn’t ready anymore. So now, I live vicariously through the man across the street. He’s the Me I could have been.
As we get older, we don’t give up on our unlived dreams. Sometimes they just change to suit the people we’ve become. And that’s OK.
Originally published at https://craighays.com on February 27, 2020.