After years of living on the road, an adventurer seeks to find ways to root and grow in uncertain times.
My van sits parked, battery unplugged.
Several days have passed since I drove El Torito Blanco, and the three ducks—Carlita, Panchita, and Silver—nestle their feathered bodies beneath the undercarriage, quacking softly. They like the gravel, the warm river rock cradling them. Hearing them is a welcome backdrop to the banging of Johnny’s hammer or the roaring of passing pickups.
I sit in the van, working, as I often do. It’s cozy here, and after all, it’s still the closest thing to home I know. The shipping container dwellings remain unfinished, and the morning autumn air nips too much to work at the picnic table. Both the library and the coffee shop remain shuttered, an analogy for opposing social sentiments in this part of rural southwest Colorado. COVID-19 and church—who knew acts of science and God would unite to impede my remote work schedule?
I wonder, often, if I am losing myself out here, far from so much that I know. On the horizon, jagged peaks beckon. Between here and there, clear blue skies promise a canvas of possibilities. But my palette, my energy, and this pandemic told me: slow down. Don’t move. Deja de huir.
So down valley we went—to park the vans, plant a garden, and grow what we could as the world turned upside down. I accepted the challenge, but was this discomfort, distress, and duress ‘normal’? What does normal mean anymore?
Neither Here Nor There
There is a creeping tension to which I have become accustomed as a vanlifer. Over six years of constant travel ingrains the urge to constantly move. There have been different reasons: Seasonal change, the next big adventure, personal tragedy, and work opportunities all spur migration. The dance of a life untethered welcomes unknown steps.
Movement is medicine. Maybe this is because I’m ni de aquí ni de allá (from neither here nor there), and my DNA knows only motion. Even when I am anchored to a place or a community, I often feel caught in-between. Cultural attitudes, traditions, expectations, foods, and languages can’t fully represent la raíz de mi ser, the root of my being.
In the well-touristed, wealth-injected economies of mountain towns, it used to be easy to overlook my sixth- and second-generation immigrant identity. I learned to blend, to code-switch like a boss. I can make myself backcountry broheim as easily as bougie brunch babe, dependent upon my outfit and the location.
Blending wasn’t just a matter of survival: It was success, acceptance. When I lived in separatist Spain during the 2003 Iraq invasion, my American identity and accent invited hostility. Back in the USA years later, I found adventure partners by adopting their language, the lexicon of rocks, snow, and trails. Blend, baby, blend.
This spring’s string of racially-motivated murders—Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Philando Castile, and Andrés Guardado, to name a few—showed me that many of my adventure-town friends lived in a world of pernicious privilege—aka the sixth circle of whiteness—ready to diminish my experiences with elitist, oblivious attitudes and appropriate my culture, even as they scoffed in disgust when hearing “All Lives Matter.” My friend Joanna corroborated this: “Even in ‘woke’ Telluride, sometimes the most progressive among us is guilty of a self-congratulatory performative progress.”
Protests and candlelight vigils popped up in mountain towns. “We’re In This Together,” proclaims the public art underneath Telluride’s gondola.
After COVID-19 first erupted in spring of this year, I withdrew. I hid out in the AirBnb I’d rented for a month in Driggs, Idaho, to get out of my freezing van, away from the woman who’d verbally accosted me after skiing one morning, and into a space of healing after I’d broken my back. I did not contribute as I normally would to social media: murder, pandemic, and a broken body put me on the sidelines. Was this my story to tell? What was my role?
I couldn’t sleep, or I slept too much. The silence of dirt roads in the flat Idaho countryside amplified a deafening roar in the cacophony of my mind. Yet my keyboard keys clacked productively; I wrote that I might never see the light of day. I developed workshops that remained unlaunched. I could not move, literally. Thankful to COVID-19 for making an Airbnb affordable in a mountain town, I lay on my couch and watched fluffy snowflakes fall in April.
Nothing about skiing uphill, backcountry splitboard days, or winter vanlife is easy. Yoga tells us that embracing healthy discomfort is a way to accept growth, a path to find something bigger than ourselves. But alone in this dark room, in pain and feeling more alone than ever, I asked myself: was choosing the hard way the only thing I knew how to do?
I didn’t grow up in a ski town, so when I first started living in them I tired of shoveling snow, quickly. Maybe the 2019 “Febru-buried” winter in the Sierra exhausted me. Daily pre-dawn shoveling to escape the Sno Park’s snowplow grew old, fast. Or my first winter in an Andean ski town, freezing my nalgas off in an uninsulated cabin, could have set a precedent. Maybe it was the constant search for internet to be able to work, or the hounding of friends who wouldn’t show up to ski. Or maybe, just maybe, something else moved me to settle in.
I met Johnny in 2015, while climbing at Refugio Frey in Argentina. He was the reason I moved to Colorado in 2016—he “imported” me (a non-local) into Crested Butte. I remember walking out of his house in CB South awestruck in the wee hours that first day. The embrace of the tall peaks excited me; the sub-zero temps froze my eyeballs.
Over the years, we’d travel across continents and states, together and apart. Our hunger for adventure and our taste for creation defined us. We pushed each other—sometimes too much. I couldn’t understand his self-centered drive to ski and climb until I, too, caught the bug. I discovered that I love sandy cracks and steep couloirs; but I was constantly cold, and I hated him for showing me this new love. Colorado helped push me, higher up into places where I really wanted to be. This relationship, rife with chances for growth, kept us both moving.
And movement, as they say, is medicine.
After Vail Resorts acquired CBMR, Johnny traded the cozy condominium for a plot of bountiful land in remote, rural southwest Colorado. This new experiment, close to both Telluride and Moab, offered endless possibilities with its long growing season and vast tracts of BLM land.
At last, there wouldn’t be any snow shoveling. I would drive to the mountains, just an hour away. And food sovereignty—not to mention housing security—were both within reach. After years of facing housing scarcity in mountain towns, this was a chance for something tangible.
It was the next year—when we returned in the spring to plant a garden—that the trouble began. I’m still not sure if it was the shipping container homes-to-be or the composting toilet that ruffled our neighbors’ feathers. Unlike many of our neighbors, we didn’t want to live in a prefabricated home. Of course, we’re also an interracial couple.
It’s not the Trump signs and Confederate flags that make me uneasy. It’s the statements from the town’s former building inspector like “I’m going to make an example out of you,” at public meetings blocking permits for our shipping container dwellings that do.
Or maybe it was the cowboy who spit at my feet after a morning run. Or the man recording me on his phone as I rode my bike down a dirt road. This experiment in stillness got to me. We were being singled out for our differences, punto. Overlooked for our value.
Our garden grows, endlessly, abundantly. Our love blossoms more fully and vibrantly than ever before. We are dandelions, thriving everywhere. I embrace my heritage as a cultivator, the offspring of farmworkers and craftsmen. I focus on the beginning of generational wealth creation. With regenerative gardening and a commitment to help southwest Colorado shift to a recreation-driven economy, the future looks bright.
We find local adventures with a new community of friends, people who reject the privilege of indifference many Coloradans choose when they escape the city for the mountains. Our vans purr on weekends, transporting us to local adventures so that we can recreate responsibly. We love it here, even if we’ve traded the covert racism of privileged mountain towns for the overt racism of conservative Colorado.
In her reckoning of race in the outdoors, in the world, Latria Graham writes: “…when the violence of white supremacy turns its eyes toward you, there’s nothing I can give you to protect yourself from its gaze and dehumanization.”
But my existence, my joy here, is resistance itself.
As I watch the world burn around us, I encourage you to consider the same strategy: Take a lesson from plants. Under the harsh gaze of light overhead, grow and thrive. Turn to your heritage, the DNA of who you are, and think of the future you can grow.
Cover Photo: The author climbs Otto’s route in Colorado National Monument.