When I look back on the start of the trip, I realize I was selling van life to my kids right up to the loading of the old Eurovan.
“Look, a sink!” I exclaimed, as though I’d spotted a rare Javan rhino. “And these seats fold into a bed, and the top pops up into another bed!”
Arms remained crossed. What finally swayed my five- and nine-year-old skeptics was learning that van dwellers can, under certain circumstances, roll out of bed directly into a pancake situation without the typical strain of walking down a hallway. Amy, my wife, shoved one last grocery bag in the back, and we climbed in.
It was a normal August morning in the Bay Area at the start of an abnormal undertaking. My family was about to trade our hemmed-in existence for the literal and metaphorical California we too often neglect, a realm of adventure and spontaneity and solemn redwoods and meandering rivers and freedom. God bless Jim whatever-his-last-name-was, owner of our new van home.
I’d been introduced to Jim through a company called GoCamp. Essentially an Airbnb for camper vans, GoCamp lets a regular person like me rent an affordable VW from a regular person like Jim when he isn’t using it. After signing the rental agreement, I’d immediately begun to plot a five-day road trip of some of the West’s best: We’d tour the lakes and canyons of Plumas National Forest. Watch for the bears and elk of Mendocino National Forest. Soak in the old mining history of Nevada City. Ogle the volcanoes at Lassen Volcanic National Park. Nip past towering Mount Shasta to Oregon’s Crater Lake, then back again.
With much ceremony I turned the key.
“Why are we rolling backwards down this hill?” my daughter asked fairly quickly.
I explained calmly it was because I had no idea how to drive this godforsaken vehicle. But that proved temporary, and then Amy figured out the stereo, and we were plowing north.
Having a stove, a sink, and two mattresses in your vehicle is a fact both mundane and existentially transformative. We would cook all our meals—a fast food–free vacation!—and follow our bliss at every step.
“Look how far I can stretch my arms,” the daughter exclaimed as we pulled onto the highway.
“Do we have to go back to our wooden house?” the son asked as the van slowly chugged up to speed.
Reader, it’s not wooden.
An hour into the trip we pulled into a Chevron outside Fairfield for coffee—which would be our first, and last, store-bought indulgence. While I ran inside, Amy whipped out her phone. She wasn’t just checking her email. There’s another aspect of our road trip I haven’t mentioned yet: Between the planning and execution phases, California had caught on fire.
Infernos are nothing new to a West Coaster, but in the summer of 2018, a prolonged drought, a tree-killing beetle scourge, and other climate-change thrills had coalesced to ravage the West Coast at historic levels. The Mendocino Complex Fire was rapidly becoming the largest in state history. The Carr Fire raged north of that, and to the southeast the Ferguson Fire had closed Yosemite Valley. In August, 16 major wildfires were fought, most at the same time, from one end of California to the other.
In the preceding weeks we had been glued to a real-time air quality app, its swirls of orange and red drifting menacingly around a map of the state. When a promising gap opened between two of those swirls—a narrow, relatively unaffected strip of forest between one big fire and another—Amy and I decided to slip right in there to make our way northeast. But we hadn’t opened the app in a couple of hours, and now Amy straightened in her seat.
“Look,” she said, when I returned with the coffee. I looked. The strip had narrowed considerably. What’s more, a third fire to the north had abruptly expanded. It hit us at the same time: If either blaze grew during the night, there was a very real possibility we’d be trapped. An intense parental recalculation commenced. Suddenly the threat wasn’t just bad air—our five-year-old has asthma—but fire itself.
We got back on the road and drove in silence. There is lush California and there is arid California. This was the latter, verging on desperate. We drove past pawn shops and parched fields, along an old rail line and beside great, hot Grapes of Wrath hills. The sky was wide and perversely pretty, the sun a dimmed dot in the haze. And then we were doing it, heading not northeast toward Plumas and the rest of the trip, but northwest roughly toward, what, the Napa Valley? In retrospect it was the most van thing we could do, jettisoning our carefully laid plans. Plans were a relic of the fixed-address world, and with a kind of unsettled liberation we watched that world recede in the old Eurovan mirror.
If you get frustrated because you think you are in a slow car, remind yourself that you are actually in a fast house.p> So said the manual that accompanied our van. But we were not frustrated. Everything in our fast house unfolded ingeniously into something else, and life’s humdrum tasks were proving to be exotically portable—there’s tortellini and then there’s tortellini cooked in a Safeway parking lot. We were masters of our destiny, radically unmoored.
We mostly said “What?” because the van was radically loud.
I should mention that no signs of that loudness appear in the popular iconography of van-powered road trips. I’m not complaining—the engine roar felt excitingly effortful—just drawing a line between van life and #vanlife.
If you have had internet access over the last five years, you know #vanlife. If you have seen a sandy-haired twentysomething lean contemplatively against a surfboard at twilight near a ukulele sitting beside a mug of imported oolong near some tidily chopped logs awaiting a romantic campfire, you know #vanlife. Of course, Instagram overfloweth with celebrations of the good life. What distinguishes #vanlife from other travel porn is its lens-flare aura of virtue. No fancy hotels or restaurants there, just a simple van and a simple meal prepared on a simple stove. A quiet rebuke to the excesses of modern life.
Puhlease. I could’ve brought my ukulele. Presumably I’d have stashed it near our mountain of dirty dishes, dirty socks, yogurt lids, rolled-up memory foam, water bottles clanging under the seat, the laptop I’d be using to finish a work thing that didn’t quite get finished, plus 19 other unabandoned excesses of modern life. Anyway, the kids would’ve stepped on the instrument while squabbling over the memory foam.
Why am I carping about some harmlessly unrealistic van imagery? Because a theft had occurred. Historically the van belonged to us, the messy and the chaotic and the feverishly extemporaneous and the too-many-to-fit-in-a-car. It was born of necessity, not aesthetics. The forces of sun-dappled, advertiser-friendly lifestyle marketing stole our vehicle, and now we were stealing it back. Watching out for fire and looking for the water bottle and stealing it back.
We arrived in the Napa Valley that first afternoon to find it happily spared, a lush, oleander-scented oasis. The oaks were stately, the architecture extreme, the castles actual castles. On a trip governed by the fickleness of luck—would the smoke blow this way or that today?—good fortune came by the barrel here.
I love sipping wine beside oversize sculpture as much as the next guy, but what we needed on this day was a cool breeze whispering through coast redwoods and bug spray applied beside an early campfire. Bothe–Napa Valley State Park lies just outside the low-key town of Calistoga. Compared to our original itinerary I suppose Bothe is nobody’s idea of a bucket list place—just a few years ago the park was slated for shuttering. But it’s full of shady trails and ferny nooks, scrub jays scrabbling around in gnarled manzanitas. And so we settled in. The kids got to work on some kind of mud pie operation in the dirt, Amy and I cooked dinner, and then, at an hour when ordinary mortals climb resignedly into tents, we popped the roof of the VW, folded out the seats below, and voilà, a two-bedroom palace. That night, I read aloud from an essay about a famous old piano composition, and then we listened to that piano composition (technology!), and Lassen and Crater Lake and all the other marquee destinations had nothing on us.
The first motorized camper was unveiled at the Madison Avenue Auto Show in 1910. The Touring Landau featured a bed, a sink, a chamber pot, and a telephone that connected passengers to the chauffeur. But it was the Tin Can Tourists, hauling campers behind sputtering Model Ts a decade or so later, who elevated early van travel to a way of life. They weren’t wealthy, but they had style. Aspiring Tin Canners had to possess good moral character, learn a secret handshake. They had an official song.
Of course the ’60s produced the VW Bus and related conveyances away from the dominant lane. By the ’70s a dusting of seediness had settled over the van—think “sin bin,” think “screw canoe”—but it was an endearing one, in retrospect. For the segment of the population conceived to “Houses of the Holy” in a customized Econoline, godspeed.
And then, somewhere along the road, van life strayed from its humble roots. Or rather, those humble roots became a pricey prop. Today you can easily drop $30,000 on a vintage Westfalia with an iffy carburetor. Double that for a new Sprinter van. For most of us, the simple life is simply too expensive.
But now, with a nod to Jim, my family could reclaim those roots—and invent our own van culture. We could hunt down pinto beans in this town and soy sauce in that. Arriving in a new place, we could debate which house was the best. On highways we listened to a marvelous Roald Dahl memoir and only once strapped on our white N95 smoke masks; to anyone glancing our way, we were a family of strange doctors. When the kids squabbled, I told myself they were restoring realism to the #vanlife genre.
From Calistoga it was just 60 miles to the Anderson Valley, a heavily forested, under-appreciated wine region stretching from inland Mendocino County toward the coast. We kept stopping—to swim in a sunny, teen-thronged pool, to ogle some soft blond hills that looked like knuckles, to clomp around in a cute apple orchard we came across. Maybe those don’t sound remarkable, but they were to us. When you are the destination and aren’t rushing to reach one, you’re suddenly free to do the exciting thing of whatever you damn well please. That afternoon we found Hendy Woods State Park and its old-growth redwoods, some dating to the High Middle Ages. As we walked through them, we told the kids about Petrov “Petro” Zailenko, a Russian immigrant who reportedly came to the States after being wounded in World War II. He’d found work at a local mill, but when asked for his Social Security number, he took to these woods. For nearly two decades the so-called Hendy Hermit lived there, sleeping in tree hollows and subsisting on chipmunks. He lived in perpetual fear of being sent back to Russia, but he never was. After his death in 1981, his ashes were spread there in the forest.
At one point I attempted to position the Hendy Hermit as a kind of proto-vanner, albeit without a van.
“You know, living off the grid, living by his wits, no fixed address—like us!” I said.
“I mean, we don’t eat chipmunks,” my daughter finally put in.
We slept at Hendy for two nights. In between, we roared up and down Highway 128, climbed on some old machinery we found, read the fire news at a local café. When we found an abandoned car on the shoulder of a steep hill, we rifled through the registration papers in the glove box. Where did you go, Gary of Ukiah? Off into woods of your own?
That evening we made our way to a dark field. We arrived to find a dozen people sitting in folding chairs, a slender ranger standing before them. For the next hour, this reincarnation of Carl Sagan lovingly debunked Polaris misconceptions, revealed the thinness of Saturn’s rings (only a kilometer!), and pointed out constellations I’d never heard of. But the highlight was a speck that came skimming over the northern edge of the sky—one that was too bright to be a satellite, too distant to be a plane. We were looking at the International Space Station, Ranger Sagan explained. We sat in awe as the station and its inhabitants arced overhead, from one horizon to the other. More than 250 miles above, the most ambitious Tin Can Tourists ever were almost certainly practicing their secret handshake.
The plan was to hit the coast the next morning, but we didn’t—maybe we preferred the inland heat, maybe we were drunk on improvisation. Anyone tracking our path southeast again, this time to Healdsburg, would’ve concluded we were insane.
Having been driven from the better-known destinations, we now tolerated nothing but off-the-radar places. Which downtown Healdsburg—a deeply cute place with a charming plaza, two cozy bookstores, and 8,000 excellent restaurants and bars—is not. So we went to the public beach instead. The Russian River slithers just below town and attracts a diverse, squealing, grilling, inner-tubing clientele. It was glorious. The kids practiced their crawl, and I thought, as I always do in rivers, of this Chekhov scene where a character is struck by the simple of joy of swimming and can’t help exclaiming oh, my goodness . . . oh, my goodness . . . oh, my goodness! Thinking about Chekhov was more fun than worrying about where to sleep. That’s the thing about vans: You may be self-contained, but you still have to park somewhere at night—no easy task when the nearby campgrounds are all full.
Or so I thought before I remembered that elemental truth, the one you always rediscover at some crucial moment when traveling, and too often forget when not: People are good. Drive up their gravel driveway, introduce yourself, and chances are, they’ll let you park right there under their maple tree.
A woman named Bonnie Z. planted that maple three decades ago, when she created Dragonfly Floral, a six-acre organic flower farm buzzing with ducks and bunnies and every pretty thing ever grown. If you promise not to make her repeat her act of kindness for you and your van, I’ll tell you that she didn’t just allow us to overnight on her property. She invited us to use her bathroom, and in the morning delivered us a fragrant bundle of fresh basil, some tomatoes, and lemon verbena for the kids to make tea with. Her generosity might’ve been the pinnacle of our 12 hours there, but no.
That came later, after one final van dinner, when we went strolling through the darkening rows of dahlias and roses. Everything was quiet except the crickets, stridulating about whatever crickets stridulate about. We helped ourselves to Bonnie’s blackberries, stood under a pear tree, consoled my son when a pear fell on his head. Beyond the flowers stood a ring of willows that Bonnie had planted back in the ’90s. They’re enormous now and form an otherworldly sanctum, maybe 25 yards in diameter. We walked around inside, just inky forms to one another in the fading light. It’s a prance-ortunity, Amy declared correctly.
She began to prance around moronically, and so did the rest of us, swerving to avoid each other like bats. Above, the willows swayed their timeless gentle sway, the tippy tops so fine they faded right into the night air. I took no photos, contributed nothing to the #vanlife image library.
Somewhere in that reverie, the kids and I noticed that Amy had become naked. My daughter groaned. In solidarity I got naked, too, and we ran around together, teaching some obscure point. In the morning we’d return to civilization, return to a fixed address, return to a boring old car whose parts didn’t ingeniously fold into anything. The kids would start school, Amy and I would go back to working, and getting the dishwasher fixed, and apologizing for late emails, and watching whatever mediocre series we watched. But for now we belonged to the world of the untethered and impulsive, the world of peeing in the bushes and the holy nude gambol, the messy and smoke-concerned and sometimes bickery but free.