Before moving to Asia, my partner, Jonno, and I went on a road trip across the US and Canada, living out of our minivan. We built a bed in the back, had a portable gas stove, a cooler, and plenty of storage. We travelled through 20 states, including Alaska, four Canadian provinces, and one territory. It was an unbelievable experience, and also quite different from the solo Coast to Coast adventure across Canada I'd had. Here are some things I learned while living out of a van.
5) Shower Wherever and Whenever You Can
If you'd told me three years ago I'd shower in the Sonoran Desert rain, I'd probably laugh. But when you've been living out of your van a few months, hot and sweaty pretty much all of the time, desperate for a break from the unrelenting heat, and when you haven't had a proper shower in a while, and then the sky suddenly clouds over and it begins to rain, you're crazy if you don't bathe.
As long as the weather is nice, rivers and lakes are delightful bathing spots, just make sure to bring along biodegradable soap. If you're near the ocean, there are usually public outdoor showers, but if you'd like to avoid inquisitive glares while you try to wash your bum through your bathers, hit them up early in the morning. You can also have a bird bath in gas station, convenience store, or public/state/National Park restrooms, and of course, my personal favourite, the Walmart Family Restroom Bath. Ahh, the privacy of a locked door, where you can strip down and have the closest thing to a real shower you'll get. No sweeter pleasure. Until an actual family starts banging on the door because their toddler needs to pee. Why is there a toddler in Walmart at midnight, you ask? Because it's Walmart.
If you're out of options, you can always have a parking lot shower. Like, not the best, but definitely not the worst. We'd park at the end of the Walmart lot, usually after 10pm (I do have some shame), change into our bathers, lather up, and rinse off with water bottles.
Make sure to do laundry often while on the road. Nothing worse than being clean and having to put smelly clothes on because you haven't got anything else. Also, I wouldn't recommend a shave if the water temperature can't be controlled and it's cold out; it's painful and unnecessary. A nice "dry shave" using body lotion does the trick, and hurts a lot less.
4) You Need Curtains
Jonno was in Australia when we bought the van. We met in Edmonton, bought some timber from Home Depot, rented a drill, and built the bed in the parking lot. Not the most meticulous planning, but it worked. We stayed at a Howard Johnson during, er, construction, and once the frame was complete, we bought a mattress from Ikea, picked up his duvet from friends in Banff, and were on our merry way.
All of this is to say that we didn't spend hours and hours planning the first leg of the road trip. We kind flew by the seat of our pants. It worked, mostly, with one exception: no time for curtains.
In Alaska, there's a beautiful seaside town called Homer. We arrived at the end of September, and nearly everything was closed. We figured that meant the campsite would be like others we used in off-season, where we didn't have to pay the $7 fee.
I woke up in the morning to someone knocking on the window. Jonno was still asleep. Knock, knock, knock. Knock, knock, knock. Groggy and confused, I opened my eyes, and blinked. A curly blonde mane came into focus. A woman in her 40s, face inches from my own, was rapping the glass and staring at me, her hair a halo in the morning light. She shouted something undiscernible. I stared back her blankly, trying to piece together why a stranger was watching me sleep.
Exasperated, she took a drag of her cigarette, and blew it from the corner of her mouth. She kept knocking while she shouted. "Excuse me!" Knock, knock, knock. "Excuse me, you haven't paid!"
Her words grew clearer as the fog lifted from my brain. I pulled the blankets up, feeling suddenly alert and violated. She took another drag of her cigarette, still knocking on the window, still staring at me. I rolled over.
"You gotta pay if you wanna stay!"
We got curtains shortly after that.
3) You Don't Have to Eat Like You're Broke
Without a steady income, it can be tempting to try living off instant noodles and pasta, but decent meals need not be a luxury. You can cook with the same base ingredients and still eat well.
The trick is to have a variety of spices and condiments/sauces, and buy vegetables that are versatile. Try to stay away from canned meat, cook more meals with lentils, chick peas, and other canned beans. Our go-to meals were fried rice (with eggs), curry (with lentils), pasta (with sausages), and soft tacos (with whatever we had). Every now and then, we'd splurge on a good stir-fry.
You can fill up your water containers (it's best to have a few litres drinking water as back up, especially in the desert) at National Parks, Mom&Pop stations whenever you need gas, and Walmarts. I suggest keeping some form of water purification with you (we've got iodine tabs and a steri-pen), but also, boiling water for 1-2 minutes kills nearly everything harmful.
For cleanup, you can get the biodegradable stuff to use in the rivers and lakes, but you can also recycle an old laundry detergent container (the kind that dispenses liquid when you push a button) and fill it with water, for all the times there isn't a fresh water source nearby.
Finally, this may go without saying, but budget some money for eating local specialties. Portland has the best food trucks. San Diego, along the Mexican border, serves the most amazing tacos I've ever had. You have to try the BBQ in Texas, the Pizza in Brooklyn, and basically every local dish in New Orleans. Oh! And the seafood in Maine! And the smoked meat in Montreal! And...
Just eat all the local specialties.
2) You Will Learn What Your Relationship Is Made Of
Jonno and I got into some arguments on the road that, in hindsight, were blown way out of proportion. When you're basically living in one
anothers pockets, you can't help but get under each others skin. Bickering can become a way of life, especially if you're hot all the damn time.
One such argument nearly lead to our demise as a couple, over - of all things - oatmeal.
Yeah. Seriously. Oatmeal.
At the time, I was 100% certain that if I ever ate it again, I myself would transform into a giant glob of gooey, unsweetened, overcooked oats. So, like, maybe I might have lost it a little when I came face to face with the congealed goop one too many times.
Texas. Blazing heat. Humidity so thick, it's like breathing soup. Nighttime is not really about sleep, more like laying still waiting for morning. Morning comes at 4:00.
It's 9am, and already it's so hot I could punch my own face. We're in (another) Walmart parking lot. All I want to do is go inside, experience the sweet relief of air con, and relish in a deliciously cold bird bath.
No such luck. My partner insists on doing and seeing things today, so it's time to make breakfast.
I think about pancakes and sausages. I think about beans on toast. I even dream of having instant oatmeal, with its 18g of sugar per packet, cinnamon, and dehydrated apples. Alas, it's glop for breakfast. Again.
My partner, bless his heart, is doing his absolute best. His reasoning is that oatmeal is cheap and filling, and we can spend our food budget on high quality lunches and dinners. But I just. Can't. Do it anymore. I can't eat this stuff again. And I'm so hot. And I'm so, so tired. And I'm covered in sweat, and my eyes are so damn itchy from these allergies. And...and....
And then it happens. Something small triggers something big, and ka-boom.
Unlike a dignified disagreement, where you control the beast within, this shit is no holds barred. Gloves off. Shooting for the kill.
It was bad.
We spend the day ignoring each other in the Walmart parking lot, on the grass, near our van. He, in his foldable camping chair. Me in mine. Each finding their own patch of shade under young crepemyrtle trees. I move every 40 minutes or so, following the shade. A glance in his direction every now and then tells me he's doing the same.
This is not like any other fight. With no desire for reconciliation, there is nowhere to go, and nothing to do, but sit. And wait. And have a staring contest with that fucking bowl of oatmeal.
In that moment, I'd believed it was the end. I had nothing left to give, no drive to find a reason to stay. I thought longingly of my solo travel days, and wondered if perhaps relationships just weren't my thing. Still, we couldn't stay in that parking lot forever. Even if it was over, we had to keep moving.
The irony is what nearly tore us apart also saved us. Spending all that time together brought tensions to an all-time high. Spending time with each other after giving up on the relationship reminded us why we were together in the first place. I learned that I can rely on him, even when we don't like each other. We worked it out. Life goes on.
Seriously though, LOOK AT IT. Could you eat this stuff every day for 3 months? COULD YOU?
1) You Will Want to Travel More and Buy Less
Sleeping in view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Hiking the Grand Canyon. Watching live jazz on Bourbon Street. Just a few of the epic experiences we were lucky enough to have on the road trip. We met many people along the way who were envious of our travels. "You guys have seen more of the US than most Americans," a doctor we met on a hike in Bryce Canyon said. "I need to re-evaluate my priorities."
Before VanLife, Jonno and I thought we were minimalists. But after surviving months on end with limited comforts, we realised we had too much crap back home. And the biggest lesson a lot of VanLifers learn is this: having too much stuff ties you down.
Buying new things all the time ties you down, making travel more difficult. And not just physically, like, "I can't leave because what will I do with all of my stuff?" But emotionally, too. When we feel low, we buy something new as a pick-me-up, instead of investing that negative energy into making a new experience. Like, who needs to feel sad or stressed when there's an elephant-shaped scented candle for $2? Certainly not I!
I feel like an entirely different person than I was before the road trip. Of course, each travel experience you have changes you. Not everyone can (or wants to) forgo the comforts of daily life for months on the road, but that doesn't mean we can't all have enriching, transformative experiences, regardless of age, ability, or income. There's a dream destination for all of us. What's holding you back from yours?
When all was said and done, and we found ourselves in Toronto again, it was time to plan the next adventure. We sold the van, and I bought a one-way ticket to Asia. Something about doors closing and others opening? It was bittersweet, to say the least. The memories and lessons will live on, of course, but there is one thing I know I'll always have: a deep, profound disdain for oatmeal.
Some of my favourite moments from the road trip.
Driving down the coast of California on Highway 1
Sunrise at Bryce Canyon National Park
Rainbow over the Brooklyn Bridge
NASA's Johnson Space Centre in Huston, TX
Hiking in Glacier, National Park
Breakfast in Yosemite, National P
Breakfast in Banff, National Park.