Charley Julie and Christian
Towards the end of November we felt as though we were living in a Steinbeck novel, a combination of two actually, Travels with Charley and Grapes of Wrath. So many people are searching for meaning, inspiration, beauty, a simpler life, experiences instead of things, personal connections with like-minded people, work that makes them happy and fulfilled, a sense of place, an alternative to the predictable life that we have been conditioned to think we should live, you know the one. And an increasing number of folks are seeking a less sedentary, more nomadic lifestyle. That could or does describe us. We continually ask ourselves questions like what do we want, what makes us happy, where do we want to live/to go, what kind of work will excite and fulfill us, how do we achieve all or some of our goals while remaining close to family and friends. We keep asking and…. the answers keep changing.
Anyway, back to our Steinbeck experience…
The times they are a changin’, as Bob Dylan wrote, and it doesn’t feel good. Happily we live without a television. We are largely spared the incessant and repetitive news broadcasts. We do still get too much through social media! The United States not only feels like a different place than it did in 2014/2015 but it is a different place. All the way from Ontario to Florida and back we saw only ‘Trump Pence Make America Great Again’ signs. Huuuuuge signs. Many, many signs. We really never saw a Hillary sign, other than ‘Never Hillary’ signs. We did see signs that read, ‘Take America Back.’ We pondered, ‘back from whom? wasn’t it already taken from the Native Americans (sic)!’ People are either more guarded or much more vocal. For instance, a couple from Illinois approached us in a campground in Florida and after asking us why we were in the US when folks like them would rather be in Canada as the inauguration of the most backward and potentially damaging president in history was fast approaching. Meanwhile our neighbouring campers from Kentucky were slamming doors while eavesdropping on our conversation. Or on New Year’s Day, while we were stopped in front of a mural of Trump in Joker makeup strangling the Statue of Liberty in Miami’s Wynwood District. There we were approached by a young black American family that told us of increased racism and bigotry since the election which motivated them to move to Equador where they believe they can raise their teenager daughter in a supportive and healthy environment. We know it is not just America. The whole world is more scary and in the icy grip of a neo-con, alt-right revolution. The upside of living from our van is that we are light on our wheels and able to move on any time we wish.
The ‘Nomadic’ Lifestyle.
At one end of the spectrum there are so many retirees travelling; many living in fifth wheels and bigger; needing so much stuff, surrounded by bigger, better, more!, bikes, kayaks, scooters, televisions (indoors and outdoors), a gadget for everything, including a leaf blower to quickly and loudly move the sand off of their outdoor rugs. If they’re in a big bus they’re usually towing a full sized car. For some, this is their full time home. For others, they still have a traditional home in a city, town or village full of all of the above and more. Either way, in this scenario it is clear that folks want as many of the comforts of ‘home’ as possible!
On the other end of the spectrum are young wanderers in their 20s and 30s, recent graduates perhaps, looking for an alternative lifestyle. They may have given up a rented apartment, a tv and a few pieces of furniture and the change to vanlife didn’t require a tremendous lifestyle change. Other than their laptops, cell phones, yoga mats, hula hoops and surf boards these people live with very few possessions and opt to stealth camp as much as possible which means forgoing showers, toilets and electricity. They catch as much free wifi as they can and obviously don’t have wide screen televisions and outdoor kitchens mounted to the exterior of their campervans. We are generalizing here!
Walmart and Casino parking lots are something all of the aforementioned have in common at some point.
We probably fall somewhere in the middle of those two camps.
Everywhere people are spraying poisons to kill all of the bugs and more that are part of the natural environment. They spray the vegetation, the ground on top of which they set up camp, and everything else to try to direct the irritating bugs elsewhere, wishing for a sterile, bug-free, utopian campsite straight out of the ads that we see on billboards and in our Facebook feeds. The offending fumes always blow straight towards our home on wheels.
Everywhere we go people are burning wood, fallen wood, twigs, branches in the face of signage stating this action will result in a fine. Nature be damned. And the frequency in which they burn! Morning, noon and night. We have seen people light fires only to retreat into their trailers or drive off for a few hours leaving the unattended fires blazing or smoldering smokily. There simply must be a fire burning at all times, at all costs. Our favourite is the liberal use of gasoline as an accelerant – way too common!
We have come to believe that people are afraid of the dark. They leave lights burning all night long to feel safe from nature. Much less so in National Parks and slighty less so in State Parks. Our favourite park for darkness so far was a park in the centre of Florida, Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park. This is Florida’s largest and only remaining tract of wild prairie, 54 acres. We were lucky enough to snag an Astronomy site from which to view the night sky. From this part of the park campers are not allowed lights of any kind including headlamps, cell phones, ipads and computers unless they are red lights that will not interfere with neighbouring camper’s appreciation of the stars above. Believe it or not with the light of the moon it is absolutely possible to navigate in the darkness.
The Downsized Lifestyle.
We were wondering about the retirees who sell their homes and nearly everything else to begin living from a mega bus or a fifth wheel… Do they ever regret selling everything and long to live a stationary life again. Although it should be said that many of those folks do live a stationary life for the most part – 6 months in a southerly spot for the winter and 6 months in a more northern spot for the spring, summer and fall. They don’t do a whole lot of moving around generally speaking. It seems to us that they cling to their motorized home the same way they did when they lived in a rooted home. Again, we’re generalizing.
Working from a van.
We marvel at the people that seem so very able to work and earn a livelihood from the confines of an 80 square foot van. We frankly find the conditions increasingly difficult. All the things that can be controlled from a home like temperature, insects, belongings, weather are all much more difficult from a 27-year-old van. Also each day you have to decide where you will park your home-on-wheels and you have to get there. Often it is determined by weather and sometimes it is far. In the first year or year and a half it was a challenge and exciting. We were mostly going to places we had never been. We also thought there was an end in sight to living in our home on wheels and so every moment counted. And now we’ve reached the elusive end of the tunnel.
Sunshine State of Mind.
We’ve been battling the feeling that we’ve been frittering away our time lately and we don’t like it. We continue to try to keep our costs as low as possible which for November through January meant camping, where it was both available and warm enough… Florida. That also meant spending Christmas on our own in a State Park. We knew we had to return to Toronto at the end of January to take possession of our new home base so we remained south of the border basking in the warm sun for as long as possible.
We have a funny relationship with Florida. It was the same in February 2015. From the moment we arrived we weren’t sure we wanted to be there. This time it may have had a little something to do with millions of biting no-see-ums combined with fumes from decaying rodents followed up with a chaser of bleach in the frame of our van…. We wished we were back in the west in the year 2015 – Arizona, New Mexico, California or Mexico. The turning point both times – people. For us, places are just places without human connections. We made some new friends, met up with old and older friends and spent 11 days with Julie’s dad, his dog, MacDuff, and her aunt and uncle in West Palm Beach which was super special. By the time we find ourselves leaving Florida we feel as though we are leaving home. We leave as slowly as possible, becoming more and more melancholy the further north we travel.
The future never existed and we’re hungry for it.
On February 1st (1,000 days!! since we sold our home + studio and became van based) we took possession of a one-bedroom co-op apartment across from High Park in Toronto and simultaneously moved into a basement apartment midtown while we renovate our new digs. Neither of which we would have envisioned for ourselves three years ago! However…we’re eager to feel productive, plan, earn an income, make things, to continue to build on what we started at our artist residency in September. So, we’re doin’ what we gotta do!
Upon arrival in Toronto we stopped at our storage unit to pick up some winter clothes and were faced with the fact that the real downsizing of our life has yet to begin. Our 500 square foot apartment simply won’t accommodate what we last spread throughout 3,300 square feet of house + studio, not to mention outdoor space. Simply put we will have to divest of nearly everything we have paid dearly to store these past three years. And that is daunting. Or challenging? Depends on the day. Or maybe liberating?!
Right now we are trying to navigate a renovation around the restrictive rules and regulations of an old co-op building while trying to satisfy our design sensibilities. If it were only about design it would be so easy. The old building just won’t support the modest upgrades that we envisioned and so, we are back to square two! With a whole lot of luck we hope to be able to move the stuff that will fit into our renovated apartment by April! We can hope! We do dream.