As I drove down the canyon and out of Sequoia National Park towards a town called Three Rivers in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas, I saw what looked like a painted wall of mountains that nearly brought me and my van over the cliff’s edge. I wanted to reach out and stroke my fingers against the trees on the other side of the canyon, to see if the vista resisted my touch. My favorite scenic Highway, the 178 between Bakersfield and Death Valley, appeared shortly thereafter. Navigating the dynamite-blasted twists and turns in the riverbed at dawn, left me slack-jawed. This is worth it, I said to myself, I am experiencing this, and the van trip is worth it. I had little idea California offered this abundance of beauty outside its cities when I lived in San Francisco during my early 20s, but, back then, I wasn’t seeking it out.
A few months earlier, on January 15, 2021, I departed my dad’s house in Eastern Pennsylvania in my kitted-out, white, Nissan NV200 van and was, finally, on the wide-open road and all by myself. I subleased my apartment in Brooklyn for six months and spent the first two weeks of the new year in PA preparing to crisscross the country alone. I bought van accouterments including a power station that I would charge while driving and which would power my appliances at night. I also had approximately seven apps on my phone with which to find free and safe overnight camping spots. The word camping, though, is used almost euphemistically in the van community. Residential neighborhoods without signs prohibiting overnight stays, Walmart and Cracker Barrel parking lots, and government-sanctioned Bureau of Land Management areas were all on the list of my future stealth parking spots.
I decided I had to do this trip as I saw the first New York City winter pandemic approaching and placing a gray cloud over what had been a rousing COVID summer. After hunkering down in my apartment since March like a pioneer, doing puzzles and baking breads, summer felt like a renaissance as I camped on weekends and biked to the Rockaways after work. I saw how I could have a wilder life than my gym-bar-repeat existence had provided pre-global shutdown. But, as the colder weather canceled this rebirth and romantic relationships that were blossoming now fizzled, I couldn’t let the winter pandemic lock me back up inside my cage of an apartment.
I cried hot, angry tears one night in the frigid November air while walking to pick up sushi, frustrated with the poor life options laid out in front of me. I concluded the only thing that would fix this situation, fix me, would be to escape it. I devised a plan to write a new history in which my summer arc would be kept alive: I’d head south to warmer climes and find solace in nature and movement. I set my sights on #vanlife.
I had a fling with a “van lifer” right before the lockdown, and I would follow his example which had piqued my interest as something to eventually check off a list — and why not now? Living in a van, after all, sounded like the moral thing to do during a global shutdown for people who were breaking free but somehow still staying confined. I’d cope with life by driving around it. I even pictured myself cruising back into the city that summer when I’d return to my apartment, COVID would surely be over by then, and we’d all be celebrating in the streets. A fantasy to return to.
My parents are pretty used to this kind of spontaneity from me. My dad, I’d say, is even a fan and my mom didn’t complain too much about my pick-up-and-go lifestyle before she died six months before the global lockdown. My mom once told me that my dad would check the weather in every location I was in when I backpacked Southeast Asia for over two years during my late 20s and early 30s. They even tagged along sometimes back then, too. Like when they visited me in Brussels when I had my first internship at NATO just out of college. Or when they came to Morocco and Romania as I embarked on my first international sales career. Or all the way to Cape Town where I got an MBA, after the Asia stint. Seeking greener pastures might have been formative in shaping my youthful perspectives, but I had a sense that this travel-as-escape lifestyle, at 38 years old, was becoming less original to my friends and family.
After booking it south from Pennsylvania, then west along the southern border towards Big Bend, mostly crashing with friends before having to face nights alone in the wild, it struck me how fast I went by. Not how fast the trip went by, those six months became increasingly slow, but how quickly I passed my surroundings. Often when I pulled up to a campsite I had targeted for that night’s stay, I’d slowly put the van in reverse, and continue along my route, passing sites I had planned for several nights’ stays into the future. I’d then show up, worn-out and stressed by my fickle decision making, at a free camping spot under cover of darkness, exhausting my options and therefore leaving me no choice but to settle in for the night.
One morning, early in the trip, I woke up in Terlingua on the border of Mexico, only to speed through Marfa, where I spotted influencers searching for the famed Prada store, and fell asleep on BLM lands on a hill near the Carlsbad Caverns National Park in the desert of New Mexico. I camped next to a friendly but deprived-looking young couple who were cooking their dinner on the windy, rocky landscape off the highway. I saw them in the overcrowded caverns the next morning and shopping at a Walmart, where I was getting my nails done, a day or two later. We never exchanged greetings.
It was on the night of the manicure that I stayed in my first motel in Las Cruces, where I discovered freezing, desert-dry temperatures in February, all the while keeping my van in the eyesight of my room’s window. I rationalized my decision to spend my first paid night indoors as deserved; I knew hotel nights would fit into the overall big picture of this trip, but I certainly wouldn’t make a habit of relying on them. The point of this journey was to tough it out in nature, and I fantasized about meeting like-minded travelers with whom I could scoff at those who needed the stability of creature comforts. If I had flashed forward to the last month of my trip in June, however, I’d have known that I would be spending the majority of my nights sleeping in paid accommodations.
During the nights I did sleep in my van, I’d slip into the back, apply Reflectix (silver insulation squares) in the rear windows and replace curtain rods on either end of my boxed-in bedroom to completely blackout my shadow movements from passersby outside. From there I’d change into a t-shirt under a sweater, under a jacket, put on three more layers below the waist, and winter socks under ultra-thick winter socks to complete the outfit. I cut off the pom-pom from an orange winter hat so it wouldn’t scrape the insulating wood ceiling when I sat up on my mattress at night. And finally, I’d crawl inside a sleeping bag, under two layers of sheets, under a comforter, and roll into a fetal ball until my body heat created a nest of warmth in which I could fall asleep. Only my exposed nose would freeze in the numbing cold as I slept curled on my side, often passing out by eight pm. I ignored my failure to identify such cold temperatures in the higher elevations of the southwest that persisted well into April as I performed the nighttime ritual over and over again.
The other thing that struck me most was the unrelenting crying. I shook cried, I ugly cried, I cried while biking, while trying to spot burrowing owls at the Sonny Bono National Wildlife Reserve, while on the phone with friends who were uncertain how to console me. Travel for me is the purest form of distraction, but monotony revealed that the thing I was trying to escape could be found riding alongside me in the passenger seat. I mistakenly thought the van would mark a solution rather than a continuation of my state, but my issues manifested more strongly driving on secluded highways that had never-ending horizons. It struck home more potently that I was alone in the world, without a partner, without a mom, the world was sick, it was terribly cold — but a cross-country trip was supposed to fill a van-sized hole in my heart. I don’t think I cried at night, though, while settling into my bedroom chamber, exhausted and eager for the day to be over.
I met a girl named Summer from Minneapolis at the Chiricahua National Monument in southeastern Arizona. The booking system of this particular park had malfunctioned that day and after confronting the camp host, who had a chihuahua strapped across his chest in a baby sling, he told me I had to sleep in the spillover parking lot adjacent to his RV. Another van was already parked there. Did it belong to, perhaps, a sexy male traveler? Summer had the same unrequited thought as I, we later found out.
That night at our campfire, she and I discovered that we had overlapped with the same neighboring campers, by one day, a week or so prior back in Texas. One of the two men I had camped next to in the same spot Summer would soon occupy had an emotional breakdown (or breakthrough?) on mushrooms and spent the night shouting the name of his ex-girlfriend — Monica! — and weeping loudly. She was grateful to be locked inside her van that night unlike the tent campers that Monica’s ex-boyfriend could have broken into! My New York City friends might not have understood that nuance. Summer and I met up several more times on our journeys to rehash what made us leave, our fears and solitude, and we still text pretty much every day. It’s the most significant friendship I made on my trip.
Like Summer, I was never really afraid of being assaulted or robbed during my nights on the road because my home was literally mobile; I could crawl into the front seat and drive away from an assailant if ever there was a commotion outside. What I did fear was “the knock” from a police officer or vigilante warning me that, “you can’t stay here.” I’d jolt awake before 7 am each morning and find the closest McDonalds to wash my face, brush my teeth and, on occasion, wash my hair before hitting the road again.
I met my dad’s first wife, Beverly, for the first time when I spent a night at her Palo Alto home after making it up Central California’s Highway 1, at my half-brother Hank’s suggestion. My dad and she had met while attending two neighboring East Coast colleges in the late ’60s, had my brother, and divorced five years later. I immediately saw she was nothing like my mom had been. She is a tall, long gray-haired vegan who has no furniture. Hank said that growing up, when his friends would come over, they always thought his house had just been burglarized. My dad texted me before I reached her house that the topic of him was strictly off-limits! Nevertheless, Beverly and I spent the evening dissecting the minutiae of my dad’s personality, just the two of us, and the next morning when she sent me on my way, we hugged, and she said that she was sort of like my mom now.
My 75-year-old dad texted often. My mom’s passing left my retired airline pilot father grounded by the outbreak with few traveling companions, so he flew out to San Francisco in March to tag along with me to Portland and back in the van, fronting the bill at our rest stops, taking turns driving. We negotiated the winding roads of the Lost Coast in Northern California and gasped as my windshield wipers failed during a sleet storm. He detoured our trip to buy West Coast edibles and spent his evenings on the phone talking to women he met online, while I basked in hotel television and running water. We met up with an old Air Force buddy of his in Ashland, Oregon, and took pictures on the precipice of a cliff at Crater Lake National Park.
The film Nomadland came out at some point while I was on the road. Beverly said it was her favorite movie and suggested I watch it. I’m so glad this film focused on the Great Recession, van-as-only-option lifestyle, rather than on pleasure-seekers such as myself. The bucket scene was my favorite — the part when Francis McDormand’s character rushes to hers and has lightning-fast diarrhea. I had barely come to rely on my bucket as sink, toilet, and dirty dish collector (er, sometimes at the same time) by that point, but when I finally broke that thing in, I never looked back — and never left my van again at night. I took selfies sitting on my bucket perfectly cramped in the foot space between the sliding side door and bed platform, legs angled 90 degrees over my mattress. I sent these to friends and sometimes family to let them know I was doing alright.
An encounter that didn’t go as planned was with my mom’s extended family in Webbers Falls, Oklahoma. My mom left her hometown when she was 17, moved to New York to work in the burgeoning airline industry, and later met my dad in the Philippines working a charter as a flight attendant. In her childhood, she shared one bedroom with her 8 brothers and sisters and picked cotton and soybeans in the fields in place of going to school during harvest seasons. As the only child to leave the state, save for a few of my Dallas area aunts, she was considered a golden child. I thought as her surviving offspring, red carpets would be rolled from their trailers and prefab houses, welcoming me as a golden descendant. I wanted to stay for weeks and collect enough stories of their near-forgotten American way of life to fill a book to honor my mom’s legacy. I left Webbers Falls within 24 hours of my arrival.
My mom’s fraternal twin, Jimmy Dale, who goes by just Dale (like my mom, born Ruby Gale, who went by Gale), moved into my grandparents’ two-bedroom home after they passed and after his oldest son shot himself. His youngest son, whom I remembered as a nice boy 5 years or so my junior, was so afflicted by schizophrenia that he was non-verbal. Standing 6 foot plus, at 300 some pounds, he was a menace of unflinching stares. My uncle Dale wasn’t much better. He was vaccine-hesitant (to put his political views lightly) and chain-smoked with a TV dinner atop his lap on a recliner, hardly looking up at me. Stares from the one and general aversion from the other were enough for me to slowly get up from the couch in their living room and see myself out, mumbling, see you soon. I drove straight to town and checked into a motel I remembered staying at with my mom and dad 20 years earlier. I left without saying goodbye the next day.
My crying reached new levels driving through the Ozark forests of Arkansas. The trip was more than halfway over, and I just wanted to go home, but I had reserved campsites with friends in West Virginia and a house-sitting gig in Asheville, and I felt obligated to see those through. I spoke with my dad on the phone, and he was in love, he said, and was moving out of the house I grew up in, ripping more roots from the old version of my life. This was it, I surmised, I don’t belong in a van, but I also don’t belong anywhere. I felt the spring breeze on my face as I biked around the perimeter of Mount Nebo State Park and bought stickers from the gift shop with which to embellish the inside of my van.
The last leg of the trip along the I-40, traveling through Tennessee and North Carolina, saw my nights go from cold to uncomfortably hot and humid from one day to the next. I found that the eastern half of the United States, upon my graceless reentry, offers excellent truck stops as alternatives to paid state or private campsites (which are hardly less money than motels!) but I had to prop up a Walmart portable fan on a hook to cool me at night during those evenings. I started fantasizing about the routine things I would do back in New York to make up for lost time.
On the final night, before I drove a seven-hour stint all the way back to my dad’s house, I sliced my leg open under uncertain, albeit alcohol-induced, circumstances. I was camping in Virginia Beach with a couple who had let me sleep in their driveway the very first night of my journey when it started to rain, and we gathered under a tarp suspended above us. Suddenly, one of my friends said, Sadie, you’re bleeding. In fact, I had yellow fat globules sticking out of my lower right leg and my crocs were glued to the bottom of my foot by a pool of blood that had trickled down. This friend meticulously wrapped toilet paper secured by duct tape around my leg, and we sauntered off to bed all a little bit soberer.
The following evening, when I got home to my dad’s, and the day before I met the woman he would marry a few months later, we went to the Doylestown, Pennsylvania, hospital emergency room. The doctor said I came too late; you need to seek treatment before the 24-hour mark to successfully stitch and heal such a wound. I got three stitches nevertheless.
When I finally moved back into my Brooklyn apartment that July, I sold my van to an 18-year-old girl who flew in from Michigan to buy it. By then I was fully vaccinated, but still, no parties were to be found in the streets. I got prescribed Zoloft and settled into a slower-paced routine of endemic COVID existence. Winter returned as expected and yet I was still a bit surprised by its arrival.
I didn’t learn how to be comfortable alone or that I needed a sense of belonging, I always knew that. I did figure out that it was the same old me riding in the passenger seat the entire time, full of conflicts and curiosity. That person was still able to connect, see beauty and endure hardships — all while solo and pushing her limits on the road — regardless of what answers she found. It took me months to look back on this trip with an appreciation for the mundane and magical things I encountered and to understand that freedom alone can’t give me the purpose I am seeking. And though I felt bad for the girl who bought my van, it was cathartic to finally see it be driven away. And maybe she knew what she was getting into. •