The Love/Hate Relationship with Vanlife
’m parked at the backcountry trailhead at White Sands National Monument in New Mexico. The landscape is transportive; the white dunes bring to mind snow fields of New England, stunning beaches in the Hamptons, the Oregon coast. These white gypsum dunes came out of nowhere — southern New Mexico is all sage brush and sudden mountains. In short, it’s beautiful. And at this moment, I don’t want to be here. At all.
Life on the road is grand vistas and dirty bathrooms. Its romance lies in the freedom to find home in far flung places. Photos of campfires, his & hers stockinged feet, starry skies, and the wide open road have become visual tropes that perpetuate the romance and shortchange what’s in between. Here’s the thing, though: for most, living on the road is not a vacation. Life goes on and life gets in the way — all the time.
My boyfriend Jon and I spent the summer before we hit the road building out the van and living with Jon’s parents. The van looked like a dirty construction vehicle and I was nervous about fitting our lives inside. I began researching other couples: googling “roadtrip” and tracking #vanlife on Instagram. I reached out to the women to find out how they got alone time in such small quarters. I asked about the ups and downs. I wanted to know how they managed to make it work. To my surprise, the answers were overwhelmingly positive. A few weeks into our travels, I learned why.
Our van is 21 feet long, meaning most days Jon is no more than 10 feet away. He knows when I’m sleeping, hungry, bored or annoyed. He knows when I need to go and — worse — when I go to the bathroom. There’s literally nowhere to hide and it’s awful and wonderful. We went from separate apartments in the same city with 9-5 jobs and special date nights to sharing everything. Small spaces breed compromise. If Jon is frustrated with me, I know it. There’s no point in letting that frustration stew when there’s five hours of pavement ahead of us or a mountain to be climbed. If something comes up, we talk about it.
Similarly, tight quarters foster closeness. Most days, it’s just the two of us. Think about pressing the fast-forward button on your own relationship, except your backyard is perpetually changing and there’s no running water. I now know that Jon will stop at every historical landmark on a twisty drive in the forest. He’s a compulsive collector of patches and postcards. He’s better than I am at staying in touch with friends back home and he handwrites letters to his elderly relatives. Where I see landscape and abstractions, his photographs pull the humanity out of a scene and are best complemented with a story. Give him a stout and he’ll build you a campfire and tell you all about it. I appreciate these small discoveries, the result of long-term travel with the man I love.
The frustration I feel at White Sands is not new. Armed with a tent and about to sleep under an almost-full moon, I want to be back in my city apartment curled up watching Netflix. I want to know where I’ll sleep tomorrow night and I want a working refrigerator. I miss showering regularly. I crave more than 10 feet to call my own. I’m even tired of taking photographs: my camera is already bursting with images, what’s one more?
The sun is setting at White Sands and twilight turns the dunes blue. We have twenty minutes to find our tent site before dark and it’s still a mile away. But it’s settled. I’m here and it’s lovely — I can shower tomorrow. [H]
Gale Straub is currently traveling North America with her boyfriend in the Huckberry Sprinter Van. She loves landscape and believes you don't need to travel the country to see something new every single day. En route, she started She-Explores, a site for inquisitive women in the outdoors, on the road, and besides. You can buy her prints here.
All images © Gale Straub
Except for the photo in the water, which is by John Tremblay