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.

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.”

New Orleans, Part 1: My first taste of Magic

We woke up hazy from our late night endeavor of pitching the tent at Fontainebleau State Park.  Ellie had hardly slept, overcome by her irrational fear of bears. Elena had slept some, but me, I’d slept like a baby.  The moon shone brightly in on my face through the side window of the tent which we’d opened for air flow.

I’ve always slept wonderfully in the woods and that night was no exception, even as the temperature dropped and I curled up tightly in my blanket.  The rhythmic humming of bugs provided the perfect white noise for my slumber.

The first drive over Lake Pontchartrain was breathtaking.  Thirty miles of four lane highway across the massive body of water.  In the center, only a faint outline of the New Orleans skyline was visible.  We ‘ooh’-ed and ‘ah’-ed at it for the first fifteen miles, and for the last fifteen, spent time trying to capture a good photo of it.  I didn’t realize just how extensive the Lake was until I was in the middle of it, although the map never lied to be. The actual experience is always so much more than what a book can tell you.  We found our way into the French Quarter but first wandering into downtown and passing the St Louis cemetery on the way.

As we wandered back down to the Quarter, I was full of anticipation.  The next right put us just on the outskirts. My jaw dropped. Beautifully stylized rowhomes lined the streets, many with cast iron rungs on porches hanging above street level.  The detail in the iron work amazed me, but they weren’t all adorned with porches. I glanced down an alley between homes and was teased by half an image of courtyard with a water fountain overgrown with lush, green plant life.  

We found a parking lot to leave the car between Decatur St and the Mississippi River, which was a struggle to get into, the street flooded with tourists.  We passed Cafe Du Monde. I craned my neck around, trying to take in the white and green awning hanging above all the tiny tables. The line of people to get the most famous beignets extended down a couple of blocks.

We decided to explore around, find food elsewhere, and not lose time standing in that crazy line.  Just before the parking lot while we were stuck at the an intersection, I noticed Cafe Maspero on to our right.

“Let’s go there,” I suggested.  “My friend’s friend grew up in New Orleans and said we should try it out.”

They agreed.  

On foot and ready for a meal, a girl with beautifully clean blonde dreads greeted us at the door.

“I really like your dress,” she told Elena who glowed with satisfaction.  It was the jumper she’d bought in Daytona, which I’d approved in the beach shop dressing room.  

She seated us across the dining room against a window which opened outwards like a shutter.  The glass was frosted slightly from age. Across the restaurant a couple archways separated us from the bar, atop which two large glass infusers were full of olives, pickled onions, roasted red peppers, and vodka.  I soon learned that vodka infusions were a specialty of New Orleans’ French Quarter. Later that day at the Royal House, an infuser sat atop the bar directly next to me. Their kicker in the mix was spicy green beans.  Our lovely bartender Cindy had handed us an entire cup of them for munching.

I scooted my chair in as far as I could, shaking the whole table as I bumped my knee against it.  Soon, our waitress stood above us, young and tan, dark-haired, and smiling.

First she brought us a round of bloody marys, which were exceptionally good, the spiciness exactly what I wanted it to be.  Then our food came out.

We’d worked out quite a spread of creole dishes.  Jambalaya, red beans and rice, a famous Muffalata, and an alligator sausage sandwich.  We dug in, passing around our plates periodically, so everyone got a bit of everything.  

The food was absolutely amazing, full of flavor and authenticity, and filling us with our first NoLa experience.  Ellie stepped outside to smoke as Elena and I waited on the bill and our to-go drinks. That was a completely new, but captivating idea to me- the to-go drink.  I even learned a few days later that in Mississippi, you are not only allowed to have an open container, but you’re allowed to have it open while driving, just so long as you blow under the legal limit.  I was stunned.

We walked away from the bay, deeper into the Quarter, more wandering than anything, but hoping we’d stumble upon Bourbon Street.  We were on a mission for our first hand grenade when the bright sounds of a brass band caught my ear. I looked back at the girls with a look on my face of excitement while picking my feet up a bit faster.  

The end of the block revealed to us was an eight piece band, the lead trombonist sliding around on a solo, the tenor sax and trumpeter hitting chords behind him through the changes, as two men held down the percussion alongside a standup bass.  

My heart exploded in my chest at least twice as we stood there listening to the group play with their hearts and their lungs, all dancing a little as they grooved out notes.  The song ended and the crowd that had formed around us clapped. The bass brought in the next tune. The horns joined in after eight bars. I recognized the Ray Charles standard, as the trombonist lowered his horn and began belting out,

“I got a woman/Way over town/She’s good to me”

Elena and I danced in the street as his voice echoed off the quaint Quarter homes, leading alongside the timbre of his horn friends.  We stood still for the rest of the song, and I fell very deeply in love with New Orleans.