Urged to go home, van dwellers ponder where that should be
For some, home is on the road. So where do you go amid a pandemic?
On one of the first days of spring Lindsay and Leif Gasch drove to the Gorilla cliffs outside of Mesquite, Nevada. In January, the couple had sold their home and moved into a 23-foot trailer they tow behind their Toyota Tundra, seeking more mobility and better access to climbing. When they saw other climbers on the only dry routes at the cliff, they turned away, taking their two 14-year-old whippets for a hike instead.
That same morning, March 21, I was out climbing at the Virgin River Gorge, another crag near Mesquite. Like them, I live in my vehicle, a 2010 Sprinter, fulltime. In between routes, I swapped texts with Lindsay, debating whether climbing amid the coronavirus pandemic was ethical, and, in our case, what to do without a home to go back to. My two options for permanent shelters were two of the places hardest hit by the coronavirus, Seattle and the South Bay Area.
“We don’t have a home to go back to, similar to how you probably shouldn’t, or can’t, go back to Seattle or the Bay Area,” Lindsay texted.
“I’ve been in this area since December,” I responded. “I really don’t know what else to do.”
I had met Lindsay and Leif only a week before, on a particularly busy day in the Utah Hills. The coronavirus was on everyone’s mind, but full realization had not yet sunk in. The vibe was friendly, people were swapping beta and playing with dogs, and there were many cars at the trailhead. At that time we sensed no moral dilemma about climbing with others and felt no pressure from anyone to leave.
Within just a few days, though, there was a perceptible shift in the air.
I have been based in St. George, Utah, for nearly three months. I had planned to return to my home base in Seattle (where I still live in my van, parked in front of a friend’s house) in early April to finish up some work, meet with friends and tackle some climbing goals. Now, returning to Seattle, a hot spot, seems unwise, and much of my work as a graduate student has slowed down. If I am an asymptomatic carrier, traveling is particularly risky. When the crisis began to accelerate in mid March, I reasoned that if I maintained social distancing norms and recreated responsibly, it would be best to stay, both for myself and for the public.
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The calls to “go home” and “recreate locally” are growing in the climbing community. What do you do, though, when you have no permanent home to shelter in? What does “local” mean when mobility is built into your lifestyle? Is it more selfish to stay and use community resources or to leave in a time when traveling is deemed to be socially irresponsible?
For some, the compromise is to rent a room wherever you are, adopting your current area as your home base. For me, this would be difficult. I pay a loan on my van that I view as a mortgage. I am grateful that I can work remotely; however, the resources I rely on are quickly disappearing. The 24/7 gym where I am a member has shut its doors, making showering difficult. Cafés and libraries are also closed, barring access to WiFi.
For Ally Golub, a guide who lives in a car, not paying rent is one of the main reasons to live in a vehicle. Like me, she moves back and forth between local BLM land.
She says: “I like the extent of freedom that living in my vehicle allows me, particularly financially. Even though I have less space to ‘hang out,’ I ultimately feel much more comfortable not being locked into a lease. Also, if something unpredictable happens such as a lack of work or I need to pay for something unexpected I know I can live cheaply without worrying about that expense on top of rent.”
Others have said they did not necessarily undertake the lifestyle because it’s ideal for them, but fell into it, by need rather than choice.
Now, with social distancing norms fully in place, we van dwellers are experiencing a sense of isolation. Even in normal circumstances, van life can feel like a fugitive life. Particularly in towns and cities, I find myself almost hiding in the van, trying to not attract attention. Normally, I don’t mind the alone time, getting my social fix at the crag or at a friend’s house. Lately, the four walls of the van have felt much tighter, a sentiment others have shared.
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The current situation can be expected to “create intense feelings of isolation for many people living in vehicles,” Golub says.
Isolation on a day-to-day basis while seeing select individuals and getting outside is manageable and hardly exclusive to those living in vehicles. However, the implications of van life while getting sick are difficult to fathom. If I need to quarantine for two weeks, or if a federal self-shelter order is put in place, what would that be like in the van? Some have opined that going to obscure areas in the desert or the woods would be the best solution, but I worry about maintaining enough service to communicate with my family, be able to work and reach out for medical or other help if needed.
Still, I take comfort in the fact that my van is mine alone, providing me with an immediate and easy way to isolate myself if needed. This is the type of flexibility that drew me, and many others, to van life in the first place.
Along with mobility, many climbing van-lifers chose the lifestyle out of a genuine passion and love for not only the sport, but the way of life it brings: traveling, meeting new people and feeling the local buzz of a community. It allows for someone beyond the more common premise of moving through an area quickly, ticking the classics, and leaving again.
Luke Stefurak, another former Seattle-ite now living full time on the road, tells me he chose to leave Seattle for the road in his 2019 Escape Fiberglass trailer to “bring a sense of home while traveling to new places.”
Some, of course, find it easy to vilify a van lifer as some sort of privileged trust-fund baby who doesn’t need to work and gives nothing back to the areas he/she visits. Now, we are criticized for limiting precious community resources, from groceries to, potentially, hospital beds.
The conflict between trying to travel safely and fearing community resentment is being felt amongst many, including Stefurak.
“As an out of towner I feel pressure to ‘go home.’ I think this is a hard statement for those who are transient. … The scariest part of being on the road is the rejection from locals. While I may not live in an area full time, I’ve been trying to spend seasons. This means I do care about the place I go, and want to be a steward.”
I too recognize I am not truly a “local.” Yet I feel my three-month presence in the St. George vicinity has benefited the area’s economy in that I have bought groceries, gone out to eat, bought fuel and used local mechanics. More important, I have grown fond of the area, for its character, its rock and its climbing community.
Still, it feels different. When I opened my van-door at the grocery store, I was met with hard gazes from several individuals, looking at me, my van and my out-of-state license plates. To be clear, this isn’t an experience unique to the area I am in, and I’ve received respect and compassion from others.
But we all feel tense, nervous, agitated—not only for the risk of infection, the fear that our loved ones may get sick, and the massive economic impacts we are experiencing, but for feeling simultaneously pulled in and pushed away from where we are.
Like community members are increasingly relying on each other, especially now, I too value my “locals”—even if we might be thousands of miles apart, I do not feel alone. As I and many others living on the road grapple with ethical questions of where to move, I find myself drawn more to the community of others around me, even if we are all just texting each other from our vehicles.
We are all trying to navigate, albeit some of us in a car, through unprecedented times.
Jasna Hodzic is an avid rock climber and graduate student at the University of Washington in plant ecology.
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