Lessons Learned in one year of Van Life

Parked on the rim of the Rio Grande for the second workday, I look out the window of my van to soak in the scene before me. A storm is rolling in from the east, on the opposite side of the river canyon. It’s still sunny where I am, but dark clouds are on the horizon. The wind picks up, and I get a notification on my phone that lightning is detected nearby. I smile. I love storms. 

Snow, my best friend and rescue mutt, looks at me expectantly. He noticed the wind shifting. A few droplets land on the window. I get up and open the sliding door. Snow doesn’t like to get wet, so now seems like to good time to go out and stretch our legs. We already ran along the canyon rim this morning before work, so being in the van for the afternoon watching a storm while working doesn’t sound so bad. 

Snow does his typical tour of our campsite and leaves his mark while I open my arms to the wind and close my eyes, letting the New Mexico air take me away for just a moment. It was a beautiful moment. 

We hop back into the van, and not more than 5 minutes later the van is being pelted by rain, swaying back and forth being rocked by nature. I check the forecast to make sure there’s no wind advisory… we are right on the edge of a cliff hundreds of feet above the river… I double-check my surroundings for signs of flooding. I had met a local the day before that said it was a pretty safe place and told me what road to take out if it got too muddy. I feel safe, and keep a window cracked to breathe in the refreshed air. 

This is my life. It’s not like this every day, but these are the days that make all the days worth it. It’s been barely a year since I left my apartment in Seattle to wander. I had a very nice apartment. Easy access to public transit, huge kitchen, full-sized washer and drier, dishwasher, view of the Issaquah Alps, and yes, even a shower. I was happy there with my dog. I had friends and a routine. 

I’d been thinking about “van life” for probably 10 years prior to making it a reality. My happy place is in the mountains, exploring, running along ridges and breathing in nature. I grew up without running water and didn’t have electricity until I was 9 years old, and even then it wasn’t like what most people consider as “having electricity”. It was simpler. I grew up with a simple, happy life. As I grew older and kept adding more things to my life, I started feeling the pull back to simplicity. Back to nature. Van life seemed like the logical, natural thing to do.

About a month ago “home” was by a river in Montana. (Yes, I live in a van down by the river sometimes… not the first time I’ve heard that one!) It was hot, and late in the evening after dark I stepped outside to enjoy the cool mountain air. I looked up at the stars and just started laughing. I was thinking about when I was in my 20’s, where I thought I would be in my 40’s. Holy crap, was I way off! I have to say I am so happy I was wrong. 

During my time as a “Solo Female Van Lifer”, I’ve learned a lot of things. The most important things I’ve learned aren’t what most people ask about. I’m not going to share how I work full time, or how I shower. I think most can watch YouTube and Google those burning questions and figure a lot more out than they realize all by themselves. This world we live in has become so fast-paced and revolves around instant gratification all too often. We forget that some things take time. Some things are worth learning on your own. For the things you might not think about Googling, here are the top five things I’ve learned since I drove away from my brick-and-mortar home in my new home on wheels that I thought might be helpful to share. 

Everything will work out. Over the past year, I have learned that everything will work out, even if it’s not how you expected. That epic spot you were hoping for might not be as epic as you were anticipating, but rest assured you’ll find those other epic spots that you want to share with everyone and tell no one about at the same time. You’ll meet people in random locations that will end up being your friends for life. You’ll meet someone you’ve been wanting to meet and that friendship won’t turn out as you’d expected. Allow opportunities to present themselves, and don’t allow unexpected challenges to be roadblocks. Learn from them. Grow from them. 

Love your authentic self. This past year I’ve never felt more comfortable, confident, and beautiful in my own skin. No one has looked at me differently or asked if I’m feeling ok if I’m not wearing makeup. I’ve never once felt uncomfortable while talking to someone, thinking “oh crap, I don’t have on mascara, what if they wonder why I look weird?” I am my authentic self, and I love her. 

Van life doesn’t have an age. I have learned that age is a number, and time is simply an agreement to meet. This lifestyle doesn’t seem to have an “age group”, nor does anyone I meet here seem to care. I have met friends 20+ years to my junior and senior and age was only brought up in passing when talking about grandchildren or college plans. You lose track of time, and find that it only matters when you have an appointment or have agreed to meet someone at a specific time. Even with working a corporate job full time, there are days I wake up and have no clue what day it is, and have to check my calendar to see when I have meetings. 

Have a plan, ask questions, and adapt. I’ve always been a planner, and I have to say that was probably the scariest thing for me embarking on this adventure, to be traveling full time, into the unknown. I have learned to do my research, have a backup plan, and ask questions. Now let me be clear, I don’t typically plan out more than a few days or a week in advance. I also learned quickly that is stressful, and too many variables come with this lifestyle to truly plan out long-term. My backup plan usually consists of a known rest stop or a Wal-Mart parking lot that allows overnight parking. To date, I’ve yet to sleep in a Wal-Mart parking lot and I’ve slept in a rest stop three times. I prefer to stay on public lands as opposed to in the city. I sometimes call the forest service and ask about dispersed camping options, what I should be aware of, and if they have recommendations. I ask questions everywhere I go. Even if I have my plan, I ask people if they are local, where they are going, what do they recommend. My best experiences have stemmed from random strangers sharing information with me. 

You can do it. I have learned that I can do a lot more than I thought I could, and I’m looking forward to seeing what else I can accomplish “all by myself” as a solo female van lifer. 

As I’m making my bed and running through what tomorrow will bring, I hear the yip of a coyote, followed by many more and mixed in with some howling. Snow looks out the window into the dark evening air and tilts his head to the side, listening. He looks at me, expectantly again, for what I’m unsure, and settles himself onto his pillow waiting for me to settle as well. 

This is my life. I am happy. What will the next year bring? What else will I learn? I’m excited to find out. 


If you’d like to read more stories like this, be sure to check out Campervan Cooperative! They have a co-written blog that is pretty inspiring from all walks of life among the nomadic community. There’s even a different version of this very blog post by yours truly on their website! Go on, click the link and read some more feel-good stories!

Published by sierrastraverse

We learned to be patient observers like the owl. We learned cleverness from the crow, and courage from the jay, who will attack an owl ten times its size to drive it off its territory. But above all of them ranked the chickadee because of its indomitable spirit. ~Tom Brown

3 thoughts on “Lessons Learned in one year of Van Life

  1. This resonated with me in some many ways. Congrats on your 1 year in. We just marked 6 months on the road and could not be happier. It is truly a life I love to live, even during the not so great moments. My biggest hurdle is the planner in me, wants to know where we are going next, etc. But I’m finding the new (better version) of myself and trying to let go of the planner part of myself and instead going with the flow. It’s a work in progress. Happy travels to you fellow nomad.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for reading. 💛 The planning has been the hardest part for me as well. I’ve learned to just roll with it, and not plan more than a few days at a time. Lol!
      I hope our paths cross one day!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I am the same way, now I look ahead a day or two before we are moving. Going with the flow has really helped. And it would be great to cross paths one day – you never know!

        Like

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