“Does This Count as Van Life?”

Bree Contreras wants to show Black and queer communities that van-lifing is for them.

“Does This Count as Van Life?”

Contreras with their dogs, Zeus and Apollo

Courtesy of Bree Contreras

Last summer, Bree Contreras had a corporate 9 to 5 job doing political analysis and an apartment in Midtown Houston. Contreras, whose pronouns are they/them, had paid off their student loans, taken the LSAT, and was well on their way to the so-called American dream: owning a house, having kids, and working comfortably until they retired.

“I was on track to do that by 35, which is the dream they sell you,” says Contreras. “OK. OK, but no. I had all of these things that I wanted to do, but I couldn’t find a way to work them into my 40-hour work week.” And so once their lease was up, Contreras left that 40-hour work week and apartment, put plans for law school on hold, and bought a 1979 Coachmen Leprechaun RV that needed work—lots of it. No matter that the only thing Contreras had assembled before was IKEA furniture. They wanted a different sort of American dream, and the RV would help them achieve it.

Fast-forward 13 months, and Contreras is living full-time out of their RV—nicknamed “Hottie”—and chronicling their renovation projects on their Instagram account, @doesthiscountasvanlife, a name they chose after following #vanlife accounts and seeing hordes of people in decked-out Westies and Sprinters who “looked like they knew what they were doing.” That, Contreras says with a laugh, is not them.

“I think there’s an aesthetic and implication that I don’t fit,” says Contreras, who travels with their two large dogs and partner, Guilly, and is currently in Austin. “And I also think that I have had this experience that’s not the picture-perfect Instagram experience.”

Contreras at work on their RV, which they bought a little more than a year ago.

Contreras at work on their RV, which they bought a little more than a year ago.

Courtesy of Bree Contreras

Though Contreras posts beautiful photos of trips they have taken on their account—to the mountains of Colorado, the white sands of New Mexico—they are also vocal about police brutality and living with ADHD. They are also honest about publishing the day-to-day struggles of living on the road, which they say sometimes “sucks,” citing water shortages, trip-planning, and driving as tiring. This, all without the safety considerations that come with being a Black queer person traveling. “It blows my mind every time that that [safety concern] is still a thing in 2020,” they say.

Part of helping ensure the comfort of everyone in vans is connecting with other Black and queer travelers to offer resources and support, says Contreras. Those with privilege speaking up for those with less also does a lot. “It shows that we as a community are also increasingly intolerant of people who are racists or otherwise harmful to differing lifestyles or skin colors,” says Contreras.

“I can’t outdrive racism or homophobia or queerphobia. But I have more control . . . over where I am and what I’m doing.”

A little over a year into their own version of #vanlife, Contreras says the world has at once gotten smaller and bigger at the same time.

“My material existence has been shrunken down and it’s opened up so much more for me outside of that for experiencing, traveling, learning, and living,” they say. “I think that’s something that for Black people—and especially Black queer people—it’s so important to be able to do. So much of our time is fighting all of these different battles. It’s tiring. And I can’t outdrive racism or homophobia or queerphobia. But I have more control, it feels like, over where I am and what I’m doing.”

In the coming months, Contreras has plans to head out West to see the Grand Canyon and then hopes to connect with friends in New Mexico. Spending the holidays in Mexico sounds nice, but who knows where Hottie will end up. “I really like to figure it out as I go,” Contreras says. “I have got the freedom.”

>> Next: Meet the Couple Traveling From Canada to Argentina in an RV

Katherine LaGrave is a deputy editor at AFAR focused on features and essays.
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