Before there was #vanlife – or any hashtags – I had my own van life adventures. It was the mid-90s; I was freshly out of college and had my first adult job working at a bank. I was following the path I thought I should follow but was also disillusioned with the idea of being trapped in an office building for the rest of my young life.
When I met and started dating someone who spent most of his time traveling around the country in an old Chevy van, I was enthralled with the idea of this alternative lifestyle and fascinated that anyone lived this way. So, quit my job at the bank, got a job as a waitress somewhere I could take off as much time as I wanted, as long as someone covered my shifts, and spent months at a time joining in his travels.
The van we traveled was a big, old Chevy cargo van – the kind that people use for work vans. My then-boyfriend had built a platform with a mattress on it and storage underneath. There were some hooks for hanging things, but other than that, it was pretty bare bones.
Today, most of the vans you see with the #vanlife are much more elaborately set up. Thanks in part to Pinterest, you can find way more inspiration than back in 1994. And of course, thanks to mobile hotspots, people can work basically anywhere they can get an internet signal, so many van lifers today have a workspace incorporated into their van. But back in 1994, we basically packed some duffle bags and a cooler, some snacks for the road, a few gallons of water, changed the bedding and headed out on the highway.
Having grown up on the east coast in an outdoorsy family, I had traveled extensively east of the Mississippi. However, my first trip in the van was the first time I went west of the Mississippi. We followed the basic path of old Route 66 with the Grand Canyon as our first destination. I will never forget my first trip, driving through Illinois to Missouri, then through Oklahoma, across the Texas panhandle, and New Mexico and Arizona. As the scenery changed with every state, I was speechless, in awe of the natural beauty that was so different from the mountains where I had grown up and the prairies where I had lived since I was a teenager.
After spending a week at Grand Canyon, we continued to Lake Powell, Utah, staying on a houseboat. A local friend of my then-boyfriend was a park ranger and took us to once-in-a-lifetime places where we saw dinosaur footprints forever imprinted in the rocks. We visited long-abandoned ancient ruins that had once housed early Native American tribes. We hiked up and down sandstone canyons and formations, marveled at Moqui marbles, and slept outside on top of the houseboat each night.
Over the course of several years, I would get to see so many amazing places out west on these van trips. All these years later, my traveling partner has faded to a distant memory, but the experiences remain. I can still taste the fantastic burger on fry bread at the Tuba City Truckstop, during which we learned about the Hopi culture. I can picture waking up in the van in the desert outside of Flagstaff, Arizona, with antelope running nearby, driving past thousands of prairie dogs on the way to Moab, Utah, and adding my name to the cars at the Cadillac Ranch along Route 66.
Eventually, I would start to feel the pull of living a more traditional life. The boyfriend with the van and I would part ways. I would embrace corporate America (for a while, anyway), adopt my first dog, and ultimately meet my husband and his kids and become a family. Sleeping on a mattress in a Chevy van would lose its appeal, but as our kids got older, we would make our own tradition of road tripping to Florida every spring break. I know that my van life days of my 20s have made me an easy-going road trip companion, able to drive straight through from Illinois to Orlando without complaint, take over for a driving shift at 2 in the morning, and share the driving with my husband.
I remember worrying that I had wasted those days traveling while my friends were getting promotions, climbing the corporate ladder, buying homes, and doing all the things that make up the American Dream. But those experiences and that time spent traveling helped me in the corporate world. I could meet people from all over the country and probably have a story about visiting that location or an experience over which we could bond. Those experiences helped me connect with people throughout my corporate career and still do as a freelance writer and blogger.
The Covid-19 pandemic has really brought to light the things that matter the most in life. So many of the younger generations are placing value on experiences over possessions. I love this approach to life, and I hope that they can go and see all of the places that I saw and carry those experiences with them throughout their lives. There is so much of the United States to see and experience, whether by van, RV or just in a regular car.–Lynn Stacy-Smith