Full disclosure: That van, the 1990 Chevy Astro, you see down by the river? It’s mine. It’s been my longest running habitat since leaving my parents’ house some 15 years ago.
As someone who’s constantly traveling, I have a hard time coughing up to pay rent for a house that I’d hardly use throughout the year. Writers like Edward Abbey and Jack Kerouac tug at my heartstrings. They make me think I should have lived 40 years ago, sticking my thumb in the air, traveling across country with a backpack and my ethos. And so my life has been one on the road.
One of my most recent winter travels found me heading to Maui. The first two days, I’d shoot some family portraits, then I’d head to the wedding of an old friend. After the wedding I’d explore Maui, surf and swim. I’d eat fish, and drink ample amounts of coffee. Now how does One Who Inhabits a Van travel in Maui? Reserve a U-Haul cargo van for 10 days, of course.
The plan was perfect. I’d save money, avoiding hotels and resorts. The U-Haul would offer ample room for camera gear—and sleeping space, if needed. As a cold winter set in on Colorado, I dreamed of nights falling asleep in my underwear and T-shirt, 0-degree sleeping bag long forgotten. I wanted to wake up to waves with minimal covers and less clothing. With a van-slash-hotel set up, my Hawaiian paradise dreams would soon unfold.
After a long travel day made longer by delayed flights causing missed flights resulting in a long layover, I finally arrived in Hawaii. Shedding layers as I took in my first deep breath of the warm air, I set out to find my van. But the airport car rental was closed for the night—no U-Haul! The island had few other options, but after a few hiccups, I drove away in a Mazda3 Sedan.
Windows down, I finally found myself zipping into the warm evening night toward a sushi dinner and some downtime. I was happy to be cruising, happier still to be driving my hotel. No U-Haul, no problem. While this small sedan was no cargo van, it did have excellent gas mileage. I planned to sleep out in the open, but if rain started to fall, the Mazda3’s back seats folded down, giving me just enough room to lay out from inside the cab with legs stretching into the trunk. All of my gear fit in the trunk, making me less conspicuous while parked at beaches or trailheads. It was indeed the perfect bargain hotel for the iconic North Shore roads of Maui.
When it came time to turn in my little sedan, I had a tear in my eye. It had served me perfectly for my time in Hawaii, costing a grand total of just $391 and 22 gallons of gas over 500 miles of driving. One night at a hotel would have cost that or more. Some may call this being cheap, I call it being smart. I’ll sacrifice a bit of creature comfort for more plane tickets and trips. So next time you are considering a vacation, look into a hotel-free experience.
Devon Balet is a Colorado-based (and, ahem, van-based) photographer and longtime contributor to Elevation Outdoors. You can see his work and follow his travels at devonbaletmedia.com