Written March 27, 2020
For the millions of RVers who use their vehicle for vacationing, they have another home to go to. For the thousands of van-lifers and full-time RVers that live out of their vehicles, these are extremely challenging times. They may not have homes, or family or friends where they can park and plug in for an extended period of time. So far, Americans still have farily reliable access to food and gas. But our typical sources for hygiene, power or wifi are closing up. And the risk to one’s mental health from living in isolation in a van or RV are serious.
I live in a van. By choice.
I lived on the road for two months (read about that here), and then returned to Seattle for the holidays. In January 2020, I began an upgrade project on my van, preparing for a six-month road trip to begin in March. During this time when I wasn’t on the road, I spent my days working (either on my van or my business), hanging out with friends, and visiting my mom to take a shower. As each day came to a close, the dreaded early evening task of figuring out where I was going to park every night descended. Sometimes I’d visit friends who had a driveway where I could park and plug in, but most nights I’d find a neighborhood to park in and a spot that wasn’t on a busy street, wasn’t right in front of someone’s house, and was relatively flat. I didn’t want to park in the same spot over and over, so every night I was looking for a new spot. This turned out to be very stressful and after a month, I found a friend who had a driveway spot and plug in where I could park every night.
Plugging in is a huge priority for van-lifers. Even if you have a robust ‘house’ electrical system, you either have to drive a number of hours each day or plug in to recharge your batteries. Some folks also have solar panels on their van roofs to charge their batteries, but that doesn’t work so well in a cloudy place like Seattle.
After working on my van for the requisite seven-times-longer-than-planned period of time (what I thought would take three weeks had turned into two months), the road trip was approaching. My route was to head down through California to the Southwest, cross through the deep South, head up the East coast, make it to Vermont by July, then drive across Canada to Alaska, and finish by taking the ferry through the Inner Passage back to Seattle by the end of August 2020. March 14 was my departure date.
I left Seattle on March 2, for a week of teaching in an off-grid resort in the mountains of Oregon. Little did I know that the first reports of the COVID-19 virus that we were just hearing about in the Seattle area would multiply into what would become the first epicenter of the virus in the United States.
When I returned on March 8, my life as a van-lifer and my future plans started to unravel day by day, hour by hour. Here’s what happened to this van-lifer in the time of COVID-19…
At first, the reports of more cases (and deaths) were surprising. The President said that the virus was not going to be a big problem like it had been in China, and since I don’t trust him as far as I’d like to throw him, I started to take it seriously.
I was staying at an RV park outside of Seattle, getting the last parts for my electrical system. On my runs into town for parts, I’d see a few people wearing masks but otherwise it was still life as usual. By Wednesday, March 11, as I was putting in the last components, I was hearing rumors about cities and states limiting crowds to less than 250. My first stop was going to be a women’s business conference in Santa Cruz, CA. The conference organizers expected over 300 people, and they assured us the conference would be held. Later that evening, my host for the conference informed me she would not be attending since her elderly husband was high-risk, she couldn’t risk bringing the virus home, and therefore I could not stay at her house. No problem, I would find somewhere else to park my van while at the conference.
On Thursday, I got word that the workshop I’d be attending in New Mexico after the Santa Cruz conference, was being cancelled. That evening, the Santa Cruz conference was cancelled as well. So now I had a delayed departure date, but nowhere to go. Little did I know that was going to be the least of my problems.
I spent Friday contacting all the friends I had planned to say goodbye to, and all the friends I was planning to visit on my way to California, telling them I was going to be delayed and would see them the following week. In the meantime, I was parking outside a friend’s in Seattle, and trying to figure out where I was going to go. It was unusually cold in Seattle, with nighttime temperatures in the low 30s. We had just survived weeks of pouring rain. I craved warmth and sun, so whatever my destination would be, it would include driving down through southern California!
On Saturday, March 14, I went to visit my son. By now we were practicing “social discernment” (not full-on distancing, but only hugging and hanging out with close friends and family). I was excited to see my almost-2-year-old grandson and my son’s fiancée before I left town, maybe have dinner, and show them the van. I ended up spending the night, and as you’ll learn soon, I never left.
By Sunday, the CDC recommended no gatherings of more than 50 people, and by Monday the Bay Area in California issued the first ‘shelter in place’ order in the United States. Oh shit, this was serious!
My grandson was born prematurely at 29 weeks gestation. He has a compromised respiratory system as a result, and had been hospitalized twice in the past two months for asthma-like symptoms (we now wonder if he actually had COVID-19 and why on earth they weren’t testing folks in January and February). He is high-risk and I was now staying in his home. I had to be serious about social distancing, only going out for a walk, or to the grocery store wearing gloves (remember that at first we were told to not wear masks), and began the daily routine of disinfecting that is now my morning ritual.
As this was unfolding, the organization I co-owned was realizing we had to cancel our upcoming in-person trainings. My March training had already been cancelled for low enrollment, and now we were cancelling my April training. These trainings are my primary income. I get a small monthly stipend as an owner, but we’ve had to skip a few when income was scarce in the past. Without in-person trainings for folks to enroll in, income was going to scarce.
My heart’s question was: where do I go when I have nowhere to be? Do I dare travel if I have no foreseeable income? How can I afford gas to go someplace I don’t have to be? I decided to sit on these questions for a few days before making any decisions. I was getting many offers from friends to stay with them – with my best friend in Kansas, on a homestead in Orcas Island, an apartment in Seattle, on land in the Olympic Peninsula. I was overwhelmed by the love and generosity I felt from these friends, but felt the need to be in one place, to not ‘house hop’, to be close to family just in case… And remember that the topmost needs for a van-lifer are a place to plug in, a place to poop and shower, and for many, wifi so we can continue to work and stay connected to family and friends.
While I waited for clarity on where to be, I turned my attention to my financial situation. The doubts that had already been bubbling up about living in a van were now boiling over into pure regret. I had given up the beautiful urban farm I had created from nothing (I would have had a kick-ass garden this year with all the time to work on it!), my beloved home, my cute little car that was a month away from being paid off when I traded it in for the van, my thriving business in Seattle, and everything I used to own. I had consolidated all my debt and cleared my credit cards when I hit the road, but by now I had maxed them all out again on the van upgrade and living off credit as my new business’ income was not what we expected.
The process of contacting creditors for deferments was a full-time job. One day I spent eight hours ‘babysitting’ my laptop (moving the cursor every 5 minutes or less) so the chat window I had open wouldn’t time out. I started at noon as #286 in line, and by 7:45pm had worked my way to #3… and then #2… and then #2… and then #2… and after sitting at #2 for 30 minutes I realized the office had closed at 8pm. Other days I was on hold for hours with various banks, or waiting for call backs, or sending emails when the call systems wouldn’t even let me get in the long queues. I’m pleased to report that every person I (eventually) talked to was so kind and understanding, and every one of them was able to let me defer payments until I can start teaching again.
As a small business owner, I did not qualify for Unemployment. [At the time of this writing,] there are no programs to help self-employed people like me who cannot do their work because of physical distancing or ‘shelter in place’ orders. And because I now live in a household of a high-risk child, I can’t safely work outside the home.
Each day has been an emotional roller-coaster, as I know it is for just about everyone. I am grateful every day that I have a place to be, enough money to at least buy food, and health – glorious health! But living in a van means I have no ‘home’ in the common understanding of the word.
While social distancing is relatively easy to do in a house, and appears to be easy in a self-contained ‘house on wheels’, van-lifers may not feel safe going into public places multiple times a day to get gas, use a restroom, or buy food. Most of our usual wifi spots are closed. With threats of interstate travel restrictions, and closures of RV parks, campgrounds and rest stops, van-lifers and full-time RVers could be stranded. A mechanical breakdown, accident, or illness in a small community or place where services are limited or closed could turn a small problem into a major catastrophe. I can’t take that chance. I now realize I have moved from ‘shelter in place’ to ‘stuck in place’.
I’ve heard from other van-lifers that most are choosing to stay off the road. I had to make that decision as well.
As I said before, I never left my son’s home. I sleep on the couch, share cooking, play with my grandson, bake (what a treat to have an oven!), eat way more calories than I expend, and have watched more TV in the past two weeks than I have in the past 10 years combined. And every few days, I go out to my van and lay my head on my bed, look at my ‘stuff’, smell my smell, take in all the work that my van represents, and wonder if I’ll ever be on the road again.
Someone recently asked me what I do to calm or ground myself in this time of unprecedented crisis. I said “I think of others who are worse off than I am.” This article is dedicated to:
– all the folks living in cars, vans and RVs not by choice but by necessity;
– all the folks incarcerated and unprotected by our criminally injustice system;
– all the detained immigrants who put their lives at risk for a better life only to have their lives put at more risk;
– the doctors, nurses, midwives and others providing medical care with inadequate protection or support;
– the people giving birth – especially marginalized people of color, queer and trans folks, differently abled people, and those who don’t speak English – during these times without exceptional support;
– the people watching loved ones die alone and not being able to grieve in community;
– the people dying alone.