Bree Contreras (they/them) is a freelance writer, dog lover, avid outdoorist, and newly initiated Not-Van lifer, currently living in a self-renovated vintage camper with their two giant dogs, Zeus and Apollo. Follow Bree the Builder on Instagram.
Ed Note on Vanlife: Be smart when traveling. Follow local COVID guidelines, wear a mask, wash your hands, limit travel to rural communities, etc. TY
When I announced last summer that I would be quitting my high-stress corporate job to renovate and live in a van, everyone thought I was out of my mind. Why was I throwing away my perfect situation? I had gotten the degree, I had secured the beginnings of a career, had a baller ass apartment in Midtown Houston, had paid off my student loans and was on track to buy a home and live out the American Dream by 35. I had done all of that, and I was absolutely fucking miserable.
I hated the fact that every week felt the same—five days of waking up early as hell, dragging myself to the office to sit and watch the clock, two days to run errands and hang out with my dogs. Rinse and repeat. I resented the fact that I spent close to $20k a year just to keep a roof over my head in a part of town that didn’t give me a two hour daily commute.
On a good day it felt like the adulthood I had been taught to live was a scam. On a bad one I felt utterly hopeless and defeated, like I was getting my ass handed to me in a race I couldn’t quite remember signing up for. Once my lease was up, I knew I needed something else.
"The idea that I could drive to a place that made me extremely happy and then pack up and do it again without ever leaving my home was intoxicating."
At first I opened myself up to the possibility of a career change and started looking for work and apartments in other cities. I quickly realized that I didn’t just want a new job in a new city where I would spend my weeks doing exactly the same thing I was trying to get away from in Houston. I knew I wanted to travel on my own terms, and spend as much time as possible exploring the outdoors with my pups. I’d been interested in the tiny living movement since I was in college and figured there would quite literally never be a more perfect time to go for it, so I researched different options and decided an RV was the best choice for me and the life I wanted to create for myself.
The freedom of mobility is what first drew me in. The idea that I could drive to a place that made me extremely happy and then pack up and do it again without ever leaving my home was intoxicating.
Then Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade were all murdered in their hometowns, on their morning jogs, or in their beds.
The recent surge in attention to police brutality and white supremacist violence by the ongoing murder of Black people reminded me—and I think all of us—that while the pursuit of a nomadic lifestyle is a worthy one, bigotry and hatred cannot be outrun. Black and Queer vanlifers are forced to scope out potential danger zones, and rely on community members to gather information on places that might not be safe for us because of our skin color or our gender identity.
Black folks living in vehicles, particularly those who choose to stealth camp in cities and residential areas, are also more vulnerable to interactions with the police than white vanlifers. Even in the face of this, the ability to pack up and move without, you know, packing up and moving is truly liberating.
Prior to living in a van I’d done a backpacking trip through Europe, spent a year on the road with my college debate team, and then spent my first year in Houston bouncing between my partners’ apartments and my own home. Always being on the move was exciting, feeling like I lived out of a bag was not. Yes, searching “racism, transphobia, homophobia in [insert small town]” before every trip leg gets tiring, but the freedom of being able to find a little corner of the universe to be alone with your traveling companions (or just your thoughts) never gets old.
Saving money is another big pull towards vanlife for most folks, and I am no exception. Life on the road gives the Millennials and Zoomers—two generations with the cards decidedly stacked against them—accessible ways to pay off debt, save their money and reduce expenses as they work towards long term goals (or just buy themselves time to figure it out). In a country where Black folks make between .58 and .70 cents to the white male dollar, and many don’t have access to basic things like healthcare, saving money is critical for marginalized communities.
That is not to say that vanlife doesn’t cost money. Some purchases can raise the up-front cost of a van build substantially. Solar setups, off grid capable toilets, and even showers can eat up a hefty part of your budget before you ever hit the road. While there’s really no way around it, I’ve found that considering these things investments in your autonomy and your dream lifestyle may make each sting a little less. Outside of the must-haves that make vanlife doable for you, the cost of living is generally minimal once you own your rig.
Purchasing the rig is frequently the most expensive part of vanlife and renovations can be done on virtually any budget. I’ve found that a fully functional van setup can be DIYed for less than $500 with some creativity and a little know-how. (Conversely, for those willing to pay, professional van buildouts can also scale up to amounts well beyond reason.) Vanlife is truly all about preference and building a home that best facilitates your dream life. Did I personally gag at the $600 price tag on my tankless water heater? Yes. Is the ability to take a long, hot shower after a strenuous hike in the middle of nowhere worth it? Also yes. You might disagree though, and if so, you may have just saved $600 on your build. See? Preference.
After the build is complete, gas and vehicle maintenance—and paid camp spots if you want them—become the main expenses of nomadic living, next to things like food, wifi, and shower passes/gym memberships, of course. Taking rent out of the monthly expense equation makes affording necessities easier and saving towards bigger goals like debt freedom and property ownership more realistic.
As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on and our government seems incapable of providing assistance to citizens in need, especially the Black and LGBTQ communities, being able to save money has never felt more important. Some folks have lost their jobs due the pandemic, while others are paying to live in expensive cities just to work from cramped apartments they would otherwise only sleep in. Still others are being asked to choose between their lives and their professions as states rush, in face of science and reason, to open up and resume normalcy. People are being evicted in a pandemic and harassed by landlords, and housing insecurity is threatening both the physical and mental wellbeing of those most vulnerable.
This is real. And taking the road isn’t a cure all. Of course, a vehicle that is also a home comes with its own set of costs, though generally speaking, none as steep as rent. There’s all the usual maintenance costs associated with a home—plumbing, roof maintenance, tank maintenance—plus the usual costs of maintaining a vehicle. Things like oil changes and tire rotations are all infinitely more important in a home on wheels, and heaven forbid something major happens like an axle break or a transmission blow out. These big ticket fixes can occur unexpectedly, but still, in a world where we can’t know for certain when, life will safely return to “normal,” the stability of an eviction-proof and remote-friendly lifestyle is in itself an advantage that cannot be discounted.
"In a moment where marginalized folks are fighting harder to have our existence valued than we should ever have to, redefining the American Dream and reclaiming the power of constructing our own narratives is priceless."
Ultimately, a nomadic lifestyle brings with it a level of autonomy that is unmatched by any other living style out there, at least as far as I’ve seen. Being able to dictate exactly how much money and time you will spend on building your van, and then choosing how to spend your time and money on the road is nothing short of revolutionary. It is an act that defies every expectation set for the pursuit of the traditional American Dream. It turns the idea of accomplishment on its head and welcomes those of us willing to take the leap to determine their own definition of success.
The shift to road life, while very much big and intimidating at the beginning, brings with it an inherent sense of freedom. The freedom of ownership—home ownership no less—translates to freedom from fear of being left without shelter. The freedom to leave a career that’s just not working out because affording rent or breaking a lease is no longer a concern. Vanlife affords us the freedom to explore, both ourselves and the world around us. The freedom to create, to love, to hurt, to make wrong turns and mistakes and to enjoy all of the things that make us human.
This kind of freedom, the freedom to determine one’s own path to the letter and push the boundaries of one’s existence, is something that many of us as Black folks, and LGBTQ BIPOC folks, haven’t had the privilege of experiencing without consequence in the so-called Land of the Free. In a moment where marginalized folks are fighting harder to have our existence valued than we should ever have to, redefining the American Dream and reclaiming the power of constructing our own narratives is priceless.
Where the old American Dream requires us to follow a strict, predetermined path to a certain point before our needs are met, vanlife (or, if you’re like me, not-van life) offers a new American Dream that encourages us to take our needs into our own hands and meet them before we proceed to carve out our own paths. If there’s anything in this world Black and Queer folks are known for, it’s forging our own way through this world and clearing the way for others in the process. If you ask me, that just means we were made for this.