We have some version of this conversation just about every day. Today, it began with a friendly Yellowstone Park Ranger, as she was swearing Oscar in as a Junior Ranger, asking him, “Where are you from?”
“Nowhere.” Oscar said flatly. “We live in a van.”
The woman smiled, and spoke more slowly this time, “I know you’re driving around visiting places now, but where do you live?”
Oscar repeated himself, just as slowly. “We live in our van.”
She tried another angle. “What state are you from? Wyoming? Montana?”
Oscar, exasperated, threw up his hands. “The state is called OUR VAN.”
At this point in the conversation, Danny and I have learned to intervene politely and explain. Almost always, a slew of questions follow, usually accompanied by a Chris Farley reference. But seriously, people want to know, what’s it like, living in a van?
How to explain? We’re on day 45, and life in a van is, well, everything we imagined it would be, and a lot more. To start with, it’s incredibly liberating. We can go pretty much wherever we want. (As long as it’s drivable. We can’t go to outer space, or back or forward in time, the kids have pointed out). The only decisions to be made involve what to eat and where to park when we’re ready to sleep. Aside from one night in a parking lot, we’ve always found a sweet campsite somewhere.
Sure, it’s chaotic. We move every couple of days, sometimes every night. Stuff gets lost, like Nico’s shoes did recently. We can’t always get healthy food, a good night’s sleep, or a proper toilet. Our exercise regimen – a centerpiece of our daily life – is erratic. Some days we can get in a Crossfit workout on a beach, occasionally we can manage a longer run for Danny and me if there’s a place for the kids to stay by themselves, but often we’re cramming in a few yoga stretches at a rest stop somewhere.
But, we have time that we didn’t have before. In our old life, we only had nights and weekends together. Weeknights we raced against the clock to get home from work and school, figure out dinner, manage sports practices, and complete homework so we could get to bed in time to be ready to do it all over again the next day. Weekends filled quickly with four social calendars. Now, our calendar has nothing on it but the birthdays of friends and family. Mondays don’t mean anything anymore. Conversely, neither do Fridays, but that’s fine with us J.
Living in a van means we are always together. We can contemplate a sunset together, or take a long walk and wonder about things like what makes a thunderstorm, or how tides work, or why bison don’t fall over on their faces with those big heads. We can read Lord of the Flies on a wild beachfront, and wonder how the story would have been different if there had been girls on that island.
And well, we are always together. There is no privacy. It’s hard for Danny and I to have a conversation out of earshot of the kids. At least five times a day, Nico would love to have a bedroom door to close, and leave his brother on the other side. We try to frame these frustrations and conflicts as opportunities to practice communication and conflict transformation skills, but I’d be lying if I said there weren’t a few bruises and tears along the way. We held a circle process recently to discuss ownership and use of sticks. (Yes, even though there are millions of sticks in the woods, they always want to whittle the same darn stick.)
Living in a van is taking us out of our comfort zones, both as individuals and as a family. Danny and I have traveled all over the world, but not with two little guys depending on us for a minimum of security and comfort.
For their part, the boys are stepping up to some pretty intense challenges. Last week, we took them on their first backcountry camping trip, in the Badlands. We packed in all our food, camping gear, and what we thought was enough water, as their was no water to be found anywhere there. The sun beat down, relentless, and we could not find a trail. Oscar, not used to carrying weight on a hike, made it about 30 paces before beginning to complain.
“My shoulders hurt!”
Danny adjusted his pack straps, and we kept going.
“The grass is itching me!”
It was a valid complaint, given that the grass was up to his armpits. Also, the zillions of grasshoppers whose habitat we were disturbing were zinging around his ears, and he was getting gnats in his mouth. We kept hiking, and I tried to distract him by pointing out that one of the fluffy clouds above us looked like Santa Claus’ butt. (Nico liked that one.) Maybe five minutes passed.
“You GUYS!!! My LEGS are going to FALL OFF!!! Do you WANT my LEGS to FALL OFF?!! I thought you guys LOVED me!”
We made it maybe a mile, before we dropped the packs under the one tree in the area, ate through our stash of energy bars and drained about a third of our water. Rest and hydration helped, as did ditching the pack. By sunset, both boys were scurrying up the rock formations to get different views of the landscape.
And as we snuggled up in the tent, Oscar fell asleep with a proud smile that filled his whole little face. He didn’t know he could do that. None of us knew what we were capable of doing before we lived in a van. And that is the biggest blessing so far.