There are a number of ways people end up living in a van. At one end of the spectrum, there’s the romantic version where you and your yoga-loving, Instragram-savvy, travel-and-life partner trick out an old VW with white pine and handwoven blankets, take your dog, and cruise on down to Mexico to drink beer and salute the sun through a Lark filter. At the other end of the spectrum, there’s Chris Farley’s SNL character living in a van down by the river eating cold beans out of a tin can with a fork.
My story lands somewhere in the middle and includes my 6’4″ boyfriend Chris and Frances, my family’s four year-old Australian Shepherd / Portuguese Water Dog mix.
In 2015, my dad died, my eight-year relationship imploded (taking my 30s with it), I walked off a Broadway career, ditched my Manhattan apartment and nearly everything in it, and flung myself upon the mercy of the universe.
Some parts of what happened next were great, like working in theaters around the world, from Oslo to Hamburg and on to Sardinia, then back to NYC, sleeping in the provided apartments and housesitting in between gigs. And some parts were not so great, like sobbing on my knees in the grocery store when I saw the brand of peanut butter my dad used to buy or fielding the first Facebook photos of my ex-boyfriend with his new 20-year-old girlfriend.
By the end of 2017, I was nauseous, foggy-brained, and so exhausted that I was unable to sleep. My doctor’s diagnosis? I was travel-weary, which is apparently a real thing. Her advice? To go home and hold still for a couple of years.
In Need of a Home…Cheap
The only problem was that I didn’t have a home. Granted, I’d managed to be homeless in a pretty tony way, but I no longer had the liquid cash to secure a new lease in Manhattan. I liquidated some retirement stocks, paid the tax penalty, rented a U-Haul, and drove the remainder of my belongings 2,964 miles from West Harlem to my hometown of Bellingham, WA. Sad and exhausted, I crawled into the guest bed at my mom’s house and slept for days.
My mom was still working through her own grief. She was also dating again and needed her space. I offered to take over the care of Frances to give my mom a little breathing room. I also started looking for somewhere dirt cheap we could live.
Van Life Attempt #1: 1979 Bendix
In Western Washington, $3,000 could basically buy you a defunct meth lab on wheels, but just 30 minutes north in British Columbia, the same amount could get you a nearly pristine vintage RV with all the trimmings. I bought a 1979 Bendix Citation motorhome on a GMC chassis with only 22,000 miles on it and less than 30 hours on the Kohler generator.
After transferring the title, I parked my new home on an absent neighbor’s beach lot and settled in for a cozy spring and summer with Frances and my new boyfriend Chris. Our rental agreement was to fix up our neighbor’s house and yard, to take out his old wooden deck and replace it with a concrete patio, and to pay $100 a month to cover our utilities. It was the perfect set up. Because our neighbor had a port-a-potty for beach parties, we didn’t even have to use the tiny bathroom in the motorhome.
Will We All Fit? (aka Human/Canine Tetris)
My initial worry that the motorhome would be too small for the three of us was unfounded. Frances loved being where we were all within sight. Pulling out the couch and club chairs and replacing them with a queen mattress that spanned the width of the motorhome turned it into a bit of a nest, but it was a comfy nest with a fantastic view of bald eagles, herons, flocks of Canada geese, and coyotes dashing down the beach at night under the moon.
To acclimate Frances to her new surroundings–and to make sure the humans were comfy too–we started with the basics. Frances needed her own space and so did we. Chris had the idea to make Frankie a special place up on the dash where she could watch everything that was happening outside. The minute she’d come into the motorhome, we’d cheerfully say, “Get in your spot!” If she paused halfway, we’d follow with, “All the way!”
After a week or two, we didn’t need the command anymore. Frances would go directly to her spot when she came in the motorhome and would only jump up on our bed after Chris went to work in the mornings and I patted the comforter to let her know the coast was clear. Up on the dash, Frances would spread out to watch the rabbits darting in and out of the sea roses. If she needed me, I was always within reach, typing away at the dinette or cutting paper for a commission. #VanLife was definitely Doggie Heaven.
To Pee or Not to Pee…
Cozy togetherness aside, there were a lot of early adjustments. Bathroom breaks during the day were easy enough, but the final potty break before bed was a little tricky. At my mom’s house, there was a fenced yard and Frances could go out any time she pleased, but now we were free-ranging it. Frankie quickly learned that if she pretended she needed to go out, I’d open the door for her and she could dart out the door and down the beach after whatever caught her eye.
Frances had also been with my dad when he died, an experience so traumatic that it left her shaking and skittish for months. When she emerged from her initial grief, nearly every command she’d learned during training had been erased. I could call her name and clap my hands until dawn, but unless she wanted to come back, it was all for show.
We quickly learned that night time meant leash time. Whether it was raining or clear, I was outside in my pajamas so Frances could do her thing without disappearing.
We came to see that the leash wasn’t just a convenience for us, it actually protected Frances. Northwest Washington State is home to a number of predators, from coywolfs to bear to eagles to big cats.
Down on Lummi Bay, we didn’t see much aside from a coyote or two, but after Frankie was sprayed by the neighborhood’s ancient resident male skunk and brought that delightful experience inside with her, we knew that there was more going on at night than we could see with our human eyes.
So, despite the fact that we grew up in a part of the country where leashes were generally tossed aside, it became part of our nighttime routine.
A Place for Everything
After stepping in Frankie’s water and food bowls and showering ourselves with kibble and lukewarm water five or six nights in a row, we knew that getting organized was going to be key to our success. The problem was where to put her bowls. Every square inch of floor space was also a hallway or entry or covered with the queen-sized mattress. We ended up creating space underneath the dinette table and got used to stepping over them if we needed to sit down to work. That didn’t stop us from finding kibble under the sheets from time to time, but it stemmed the tide.
The leash and baggies hung by the door, her blanket was on the dash, her toys were on her blanket. If I’m totally honest, Frankie was everywhere.
The more the motorhome smelled like her, the more pleased she was, particularly if she had just rolled on a dead crab or seagull. Frances loved attacking the strings of seaweed that lay in heaps on the mudflats, so she often came in covered in sandy silt and looking like Sigmund the Sea Monster. I don’t know if you’ve ever woken up with mudflat silt on your face and pillow and in your mouth because your dog is standing over you, but I highly recommend it.
Frances is also one of those dogs who never sheds. All that curly fur is a magnet for dirt, sand, seeds, and burrs. Despite our best attempts, every morning, we had a layer of dirt and sand covering Frankie’s bed on the dash, our bed, and the floor. To combat this, we started vacuuming every morning.
I also gave Frances a summer haircut so we could brush away the majority of the silt when she came in from the beach. Of course, when it rained–as it often did–all that silt and dirt became fine-grained mud that settled into every crack and crevice.
Puppy le Pew
The thing very few people mention when talking about how awesome and amazing VanLife is with your pet and partner is that smells–all the smells–are up close and personal. The breeze blowing in off the salt water mixed with the warm scent of blackberries and wild ocean roses fills the entire space…but so does one toot.
If you’ve ever seen a dog scare themselves awake with an epic fart, then you know what we were up against. Luckily, we had an air purifier that we ran when the windows were closed, but we had to get very comfortable with the natural gas we were passing, Frances included.
The Heat Index
From May through early October, the weather in the Pacific Northwest hovers between 55 and 75 degrees, but there were some excruciatingly hot days that summer and, being a freelance writer and artist, I worked from home. We all know not to leave our dogs in the car on a warm day because the temperature inside the vehicle rises like an oven, but it had never occurred to me that the motorhome would work the same way. There’s only so much an open window can do.
Frances liked to sleep in the shade under the motorhome, but I didn’t have that option. I was baking. Sitting on polyester velour from the late 70s in your underpants while you make a papercutting of Hamlet while sweat pours down your face and cleavage isn’t exactly what I’d call comfortable…or glamorous. On the days where the heat in the motorhome neared 100 degrees Fahrenheit, the only reasonable option was to go stay with my mom.
The Weather Turns
Then, just like that, it was September. The temperature began to plummet at night. Frances needed to sleep with us to help generate warmth, a perk that both Frankie and I were happy about. Chris had a couple of space heaters, but the thin walls of the Bendix let the heat out faster than it could be generated. We suffered on for a few more weeks, then gratefully agreed to housesit through the holidays while my mom went down to Portland to help my sister with her new baby. Our five months of living in a (big) van down by the ocean were over.
- Have a designated place for everything.
- Invest in a top-notch dustbuster or hand vacuum and an air purifier, if you can swing it.
- Pay to have the air conditioner fixed if you can afford it.
- You can live happily and functionally in a much smaller space than you think you can.
VanLife Attempt #2: 1979 Dodge Cobra Sportsman
After all that togetherness, a four-bedroom house with a heater dial on the wall and three beds to choose from seemed excessive. I missed the ease of the motorhome where my next can of seltzer was always an arms length away. Now, housesitting in what I used to consider a medium-sized home, I found we rattled around and drifted apart. We weren’t laughing as much or cooking as much. We certainly weren’t snuggling as much.
Accustomed to less–and the low-cost, low-stress life that goes with it–Chris and I moved into a 300 square foot tiny house, slightly larger than the Bendix, but not by much. Frances was reunited with my mom, her primary owner, and we all settled into our new routine.
But something was missing. And that thing that was missing was…a van.
Near the end of the summer, Chris and I had picked up a 1979 Dodge Cobra Sportsman for $500, one of only two of that particular model that we could find in the United States. Our plan was to flip it, but we missed the golden days of living wherever the wind blew us…and I missed Frances.
The Cobra was built on the exact same chassis as our old cargo van and had a zombie apocalypse ambulance vibe to it that we loved. It was easy to drive, easy to heat and cool, easily fit in a standard parking spot, and ready to roll. I called my mom, asked if Frances could join us on a trip, and we took off up into the mountains.
As we raced up the Mount Baker Highway, Frances was enjoying the beautiful scenery as much as we were. To her, all the best parts of the world are a park…and we were headed to mega park central, aka The Wilderness.
Back in the Saddle
When I first showed Frankie the Cobra, she went bananas, jumping from couch to dinette bench to captain’s chair and wagging her tail like crazy. She was as excited as we were to get back together in one big, friendly dog-pile heap.
From the first moment we all piled into the Cobra, Frances was full of joy. She settled back into her special “moho” blankets and chose a seat with a good view. Riding high on her perch, Frankie seemed to revel in the scenery and it dawned on me that our dogs–and all animals, really–delight in the beauty of this world, just like people do.
We pulled into the campground and I put Frankie on her leash so we could explore. Another family was roasting a goat and gave Frances an entire leg bone, which she carried home through the darkness. She chewed on her bone all night, nestled between the two twin beds, and finally fell asleep around 4 am.
I will never forget when I pulled up the shade the next morning and Frankie realized we were STILL in the forest. Somehow, during the night, she ended up on my bed under my blanket with her goat femur. When she heard the curtain whiz up, she groggily looked outside, then leapt straight up in the air, did a 180 turn, and looked at me with such unbridled joy that it changed how I felt about animal emotions forever.
- Your dog just wants to be with you all the time and is happiest when you’re a team.
- Once you go tiny, you can go tinier.
- Our pets enjoy the beauty of nature as much, or more, than we do.
- You can survive anything with a true companion by your side, human or otherwise.
The Modern Cave
Living in a van together brought Frances and me much closer. After living in what is essentially an ancient cave on wheels, Frances and I got to the point where we often acted as one organism. Since then, we’ve been inseparable. She truly is my “little sister.” She’s also my friend.
The relationship between humans and dogs is precious. We evolved together. We depend on each other. We play together and share our meals. Living in a van felt much more human to me than living in a house. It felt more natural to be all together in a great big pile laughing and snuggling the evenings away. It wasn’t necessarily sustainable for the amount of work I need to do from home, but it definitely changed my perception of what was “necessary.”
Now, VanLife consists of splitting time between a tiny house and a 17-foot van-a-home. Chris and I have sold or donated more than 3/4 of our belongings and live more fully with much less. Our expenses are a fraction of what they were in New York City or even Bellingham. And I treasure the immediacy of having everyone and everything I love within reach, even on the days when I want to shoot everyone, including myself, out of a cannon because we’re so on top of each other.
But one thing is for sure, whether or not VanLife was for me, it was definitely for Frances.