Vanlife Diary: What a Year

A year ago, I’d begun building the van that is now my full time home. I was about a month into the build. My stepdad had come out and helped me finish insulating the walls before we hung sheets of plywood across them. They were a bright light wood that glowed in the winter sunlight. Now, they’re a dark cherry. The last day and a half, I’d assisted him as he built a chest style bed that he assembled from blue prints in his head. It took me watching most of the process to realize what and how he was doing it. I’d told him I was thinking about a slated bed, like the ones most van lifers have, but he didn’t know what I was talking about. I handed him tools and watched him work, grunting and groaning.

The next weekend I problem solved my way through hanging plywood for the ceiling. We’d talked about it. It should only take two pieces of plywood but this didn’t align with the structural ribs across the roof of the van, so I ended up doing it in three pieces. Reason, I suppose, does not always match reality.

Now I’m keeping mental tabs (which need to be physical notes) of little fixes needed around my home on wheels. In some places, the maps on my ceiling are peeling away from the plywood. Most notably so above the camp stove. It seems 90 3M adhesive is no match for regular heat rising off the propane burners. It’s too cold in Denver to do much with the van these days and my schedule has been a little erratic for these sorts of grounding exercises, but I feel I need them.

For now, I am experimenting with van living in approaching single digit nighttime temperatures. It takes a surprising amount of energy to live this way, though I am loving it. I feel empowered and capable, although decidedly ungrounded. I managed to keep my food and my contact lenses from freezing last night. I remembered that coolers work well as warmers too, or at least for combating temperature changes. My REI down sleeping bag has been crucial. Cooking breakfast in the mornings alongside my Buddy Heater heats the van up quickly, although it doesn’t stay once they’re off.

I’m hermiting pretty hard these days in my best intention of completing my book before April 1st departure to Ecuador. I’ve romanticized this type of solitude all my life and although mostly suites me, at times, it is paralyzing. For now, I’ll head to some public place with good heat and power outlets to regain a bit of normalcy. Until next time, live easy and love freely, my dears. ❤️

Where did November go?

Hello!

My apologies to those of your who may have been expecting something earlier. Undoubtedly, November has gotten away from me, and although I’ve started book-writing, I certainly let a few trips slip by unnoticed here. I’m not one for regrets, but I do regret that.

NYC was just about exactly what I’d expected. Revisiting the major attractions stirred up old feelings in me. I still don’t have much use for Times Square. On the other hand, part of my heart still lives in Central Park. The last day, Sunday, it rained heavily on us, but my friends were good sports while I wandered through the self guided tour of Seneca Village (one of the first places free blacks were allowed to buy land, (very cool, google it)) but the day before we’d spent a few hours snapping photos and ogling at the beautiful bridges tucked in the park, some of them surrounded by wild and some of them backdropped by buildings. Either way, the Park was my favorite part only behind the $2 carousel ride in DUMBO. This tourist area of Brooklyn is very well gentrified. I never thought I’d be able to say I’d walked across the Brooklyn Bridge but damn well, we did it.

As for the cruise, the Caribbean is stunning. I was able to practice my Spanish a tad, got a little sunburn, got a little seasick while trying to ride the elliptical in the gym, and I ate my $500 worth of food, just like I said I would. The contrast between life at each port was stark (Grand Cayman, Belize, Costa Maya Mexico, and Key West). I may go into that more later. The Mayan ruins at Chacchoben we’re breathtaking and full of old energy (my personal highlight) although the whole trip was balanced between relaxing and tiring, just like vacation should be.

Until next time 👋🏻

Manhattan & Brooklyn from One Observation Tower
Central Park colors 🍁💛🍃
A cruise ship sunset
Mayan temple at Choccoben

On Van Life: Month 1

It’s been a month now.  Five weekends.  

The first two I didn’t get out of the city, because I still had moving out to do and a few projects to finish on the build.  

The first weekend I finished moving my stuff into storage and hooking up the solar electricity.  I bought a deep cycle battery at Interstate, a battery box at Home Depot, and though still intimidated by the project of hooking up a solar system, I managed not to fuck anything up.  

Late Sunday night I mounted up the water pump and ran what hose I could to get the sink operating, but I was short a couple of hose clamps and was very tired so I called it quits just short of completion.  

One day the following week, I stopped by the house to hang out with my cat and finish up the plumbing.  He slept with me in the van that night, first curled up on the driver’s seat, but as the night cooled down he ended up next to me.

The next weekend I was so burned out that instead of making a rugby trek into the mountains, I opted to lay around the house with my oldest best friend and binge movies.  It was 100% worth it. I was feeling 6 months of working overtime weeks and van build weekends and I was tired. I may still be, but the more I minimize, the more centered I feel in my decision to make such a radical change in lifestyle.  I’m finding rest in a variety of places now and doing my best to listen to my body and my mind’s desires to be still.

Here are a few reflections from the last month.

1. Firsts are difficult.

The first week was the least comfortable. The first morning I cooked eggs and chorizo on the camp stove was the least graceful (the propane kept leaking). The first time I peed in the middle of the night in a wag bag was the weirdest (as I squatted just a few feet from my pillow). The first time a coworker asked if I needed a place to stay was the most awkward (he completely understood my decision once I explained). Now all of those things feel regular.

2. Food is a relationship.

I purposefully didn’t design a fridge in the build because my intention was to only be traveling in the van.  I was also considering that they use a lot of energy and a bit of space and I didn’t think I needed it. I don’t.  I’m at the grocery store every couple days and I’m (mostly) eating everything I buy. I currently have a jar of strawberry jam and I’m afraid I’m going to be sick of PBJs before it’s gone.  I’ll get back to you about that. So far, the small cooler I have is perfect.

3. Solitude.

I’m alone A LOT which generally suits me since I’m an introvert (also because I’m trying to find an artist’s way aka hustling all my waking hours to do something meaningful), but it has made my weekend interactions more intentional and my chosen tribe more apparent. I’m also very productive, because I have no excuse not to be. Equally, my sleep schedule is on point.

There’s so much more to say, but I’ve run to the end of a train of thought.  More to come another day. Peace.

Reflections after my first Protest

I’ve been thinking a lot lately.  Thinking about writing this post. Thinking about breaking my blog silence.  Thinking that I want to be more than just someone who writes about wild times out drinking while they’re traveling.  Thinking about all the things I’ve always cared about.

I don’t remember hearing about much civil unrest when I was a kid.  Some dissent was spewed from a few relatives, but generally in my family, politics was a topic excluded from polite conversation with guest or relatives or basically anyone at all.

The first I remember really hearing about it I was a teenager and my mom was telling my brother and I that she and my stepdad always discussed who they would vote for president because if they voted against one another, their votes would cancel each other out.  I’m not really sure if that’s a real memory, because none of the details were ever discussed.  

I remember hearing how Gore won the popular vote even though Bush was reelected by the Electoral College.  I thought this was weird, but I didn’t understand why it happened. I thought it was just a one-off situation.

By the time there was a Presidental Election that I was eligible to vote in, I had a fire burning in me.  Some of it was undoubtedly teen angst, a manifestation of my trauma. Nothing was ok in the world including the way I grew up, but the discomfort radiated out of me in all directions.  

I remember being a young college student and learning about China and telling my parents how amazing the landscape was and how the culture was so different than ours (likely in a condescending or judgemental way) and how my mother got defensive, demanding I shut my mouth and praising America as the greatest country ever to be.

I used to smoke a lot of weed, often with my brother and his crew of friends.  I remember one time being so fired up about some injustice in the American institutions (likely how slavery has just changed it’s mask) that I stood up from my chair in a huff, proclaiming to the circle of friends that I would give my life for something that I believe in and asking them (with naivety) if they would.  I remember the look on their faces, sheepish looks as they shook their heads. I don’t remember any words spoken as I exited the garage.

It’s been a decade now since I’ve been able to call myself a teenager but the feeling never went away.  Through my 20s, the economic and political landscape has changed drastically from the one I grew up in at least it appears this way, although mass incarceration began under the noses of my parents’ generation and those flanking them.  It seems the more I learn historically about the last three decades of the 20th century, the more I notice general apathy from voter base, or at least little evidence of upheavel within the majority (read: white population). I’d love to be proven wrong.

So now I ask, why?  Was the privilege too great?  Were the paychecks too good and the houses too cheap?  Did no one realize that suburbanization was another substitute for segregation or was it just too comfortable?  Were y’all scared to change? Did mass incarceration laws coo the screaming baby whose symptom was economic disparity to a population outside of nursery?  Were y’all afraid to accept that the injustices of our past do not have to hide, continuing into our future? Did you find it easier to bury your head in the sand and spout phrases like ‘let them pull themselves up by their bootstraps’ when the opportunities to have bootstraps weren’t even given?  How about now? Do you feel safer knowing that thousands of people fleeing from physical harm and economic disparity are being imprisoned without the basic necessities of life?  Do you feel more comfortable knowing that racism and sexism is being justified by the head of our exective branch?

I just don’t get it, but I’ll say one thing more.  I don’t want to live in a world where people aren’t willing to use their voices and their power to help the oppressed and disadvantaged, and since I generally want to live, I have resolved the only thing I can do is use my voice, and challenge those around me to use theirs too.  Power to the People. Not to a corporation. Not to a PAC fund. Not to a 1%er. Not to white Americans. POWER TO ALL THE PEOPLE.  

New Orleans, Part 3: An Impression of Katrina

Elena’s toes pressed against the windshield as I cruised across Lake Pontchartrain back to New Orleans for the last day. I yearned for coffee and donuts. It was mid morning already and my belly ached for sustenance.

The lake extended for miles and miles ahead of us, like the pavement of our vast interstates, broken evenly by light ripples. The road seemed to float just above the surface.

I circled the block once, finding a parking spot just outside the doors of District Donuts Sliders and Brew, in the Garden district of New Orleans. The roads leading to it were lined by rows of shotgun homes alternating with much prettier plantation style houses. There were a series of blocks that were very obviously lower income, but just as they were noticed, larger house began to pop up again.

We enjoyed a variety of donuts. One made into an ice cream sandwich and another a breakfast sandwich toppedwith a dippy egg and the last two of odd flavor- strawberry lemonade and root beer float. Each one was delicious in its own way. They were by far the best we’d had on the trip.

I insisted we do a bit of exploring of the urban decay from Katrina, though I’m sure my compadres wouldn’t have gone without me.

We rolled down Claiborne Avenue towards the Lower Ninth Ward, but passing it first, only finding refurbished homes and new builds spaced out by vacant lots in a nearby parish.

“This isn’t that bad,” Ellie started, “but you know all these grass patches used to be houses. See,” we all stared out the windows, “driveway there, and there, and there.”

I followed the road to the end of land, looking for water, but only finding manmade hills of earth, at their crest a barrier ran the extent. Finally, I found Claiborne and followed it back to a main stretch of the Ward, where now the vacant lots and refurbs became neighbors to boarded up ranchers and gravel cross streets, many closed. It was obvious they had been paved in the past, but now stones lay rubble to their history.

I was hypnotized, in complete awe of the extent of desolation and decomposition. Around every turn, another site awed me. I ventured down one of the side streets to find it closed just a hundred feet ahead. I began my three point turn, and looked up to see an entrance stairway standing alone, wild grasses growing alongside it. It announced an empty lot, grass lush and glowing green in the intense summer sun.

We cruised slowly down a main stretch out of the Ward. Two building sat next to each other. The first, a corner store, the shattered front glass and boarded windows a solemn testament to decay; the other, a barber shop still open for business.

Farther down the block, an aged black woman stood on her front porch, separated from the commercial buildings by three grass lots, the driveways still distinct, but just barely. She looked out in the street, watching us pass by from her front porch, living the life she’d always known, but knowing so much change, so much heartache, so much pain. I could see it on her face, even from the shelter of window glass, potholed pavement, and stop signs.

New Orleans, Part 2: Hand Grenades on Bourbon Street

Elena noticed a ‘For Rent’ sign above our heads just before we found Bourbon Street, with an extra plack that hung below reading ‘Not Haunted’ and pointed it out to me.  At the corner of Bourbon we stumbled upon our destination, Tropical Isle, where we made friends with the bartender, Angela.

We each ordered a hand grenade- it was a ‘when in New Orleans’ drink- and sat down at the end of an L shaped bar across from Angela. Her fine sandy blonde hair fell down past her shoulders, her pencil thin eyebrows were darkened, and her smile was a little crooked.  Her smile was nice though, charismatic and welcoming. She wasn’t young anymore, but we’d soon find out that her spirit was youthful.

At first, she didn’t speak.  I took a few sips of my frozen drink.  It was refreshing against the hot, humid New Orleans weather, and took a moment to survey my surroundings.  Across the bar from us an empty nook full of classic video games, on its perimeter, a breathalyzer test. I pointed it out to my companions and we made a few halfhearted jokes.

Behind Angela, two tall large cardboard boxes were tucked underneath the drink counter, full to the top of plastic hand grenade cups.  They were translucent, flourescent green with shape similar to that of a tall vase, but the base the impression of a miliary hand grenade.  We each held one ourselves, and they were ours to keep, if we wanted them.

I looked up at her, “So how many of those boxes do you go through typically?”  I wanted to talk.

I don’t think she expected my question, responding, “Well, that depends on the day.”

“How bout tonight?”  It was a Saturday. “I bet you go through a lot.”

“Yeah, well…” she started, thinking about it, “On a busy day we’ll go through almost ten boxes.”

“Wow,” that was a hell of a lot more than I expected.

“Yeah, it’ll get crazy in here later.”  It was only early afternoon now, and the bar was busy.  Not packed, but busy. I imagined it later on, shoulder to shoulder with tourists just trying to get close enough to the bar to talk to her.  I heard the loud hum of a busy bar.

Her manager came from out of the kitchen, opening the guide on the television.  He changed it to Half Baked, at her request. I stared at it for a minute. It was the date montage, the scene with the money counter in the corner.

“I love this movie,” I said, turning back towards her.  She nodded. She hadn’t opened up to conversation just yet.

Elena broke the silence, “So… what’s in a hand grenade?”

She smiled at us, “I can’t tell you.”

We both gawked at her, our jaws fell and our eyebrows lowered.  Ellie had gone outside to talk on the phone.

“No really,” she started again, “I had to sign a release when I started working here.  It’s patented. I’m not allowed to tell.”

“That’s so crazy!”  I exclaimed.

“Yup,” she replied, “but it’s true.”

“Will you tell us if we guess?”  Elena had the right idea.

She grinned at us, “Go ahead.”

“151?,” my first guess.  She shook her head.

“Absolut?” I guessed again.  I knew it had to be a clear liquor.

She shook her head again, “Think higher alcohol content.”  We both paused.

Elena guessed, “Tequila?”  Wrong again.

“Nope, higher.”

“Oh, oh…” she paused, the thought on the tip of both our tongues, “Everclear?”

“Bingo! And triple sec, pineapple juice, and the special mixer.”

We both cocked our heads at that one, wondering.

“Yeah, see this,” she picked up automated drink dispenser, “It’s premixed.  There’s a button for the regular hand grenades here and sugar free here too.”

“Wooooow.”

“Mmhmm,” she was proud of it.  It was very cool.

We went on, talking about nonsense, learning about her background.  We shared with her about the road trip, how much I already was in love with New Orleans, about camping on the other side of the lake.  

She was originally from Missouri, had moved to NOLA with her first husband and then back home briefly.  She couldn’t stand being home.

Then, we found out her age.  She was 37, but I swore to her she didn’t look a day older than 32.  She accepted the compliment graciously. I told her I’d been to Mexico, Missouri for a wedding a few years back, and she commented on her hometown.

“There’s just nothing to do there.  I knew I had to come back here,” she went on, “And the people…  The people here are so much nicer, they’re friendly.”

“Yes!” I agreed with her. “I love the South for that.  Nobody has a problem talking to you, even if it’s about nothing.  The people here that we’ve met, just in the last few hours, are great.”

We chatted a bit more, as the hand grenades started to set in.  It was only two o’clock, but I was three drinks in and I was feeling heavy.  

We left, but not before exchanging affections for the friendly conversation with Angela, and headed east on Bourbon St, towards a whole lot of commotion.

People were starting to flood the streets.  All of the sidewalks and the bars alike were packed full of tourists.  We heard about as many foreign languages there as we heard in the National Parks, but it was crowded and we were drunk, not quite ready for more drinking.

A humid, laborious walk, with a couple pit stops, landed us at the St Louis Cemetery, the most famous of the New Orleans burial grounds.  I tried at first to disregard the signs stating that you must be accompanied by a certified tour guide, but I was stopped by a large, tall black man.

I joked with him, “I was gonna make a run for it,” smiling goofily up at him.

He laughed, “Go across the street there,” he pointed to the grass median, “the woman in the red skirt is Jennifer.  She’s the best tour guide around.”