Van Life in the Time of Corona

Adapt for a Better Future


photo by Dani Reyes-Acosta

One thousand dollars: It could change everything. This time, though, I wasn’t choosing between new Pergo floors or a diesel heater in my van. These funds weren’t a down payment on next year’s multi-resort ski pass, either. That easy G, withdrawn from an ATM on the semi-abandoned streets of a popular mountain town in Idaho, wasn’t part of an investment toward ski bumming next season. No, this cash in hand would go straight to my new landlords, a lovely young couple who would rent me an apartment so I could follow the shelter-in-place orders issued in over 41 states in the face of COVID-19 in March.

I had been self-quarantined in my home, a 1995 Ford E250, since March 13, 2020. This van, an older, mid-sized rig built to function as my home office and gear closet, had seen the Sierra, San Juans, Rockies and Tetons so far this season, and proven itself to be a sanctuary in even the nastiest of winter weather. Yet the onset of the novel coronavirus—and social pressures that have accompanied it—left me questioning if public lands really could be my sanctuary. Maybe I needed to conform to a more traditional model of living, even if winters before this in my van had taught me the value of divergent thinking.

Things were different: I needed to adapt to a new paradigm, if only temporarily. If I ignored signs to change, I would just continue feeling anxious, trapped, and isolated as society shaped itself to fit into a new normal. Remote work and ski bumming while vandwelling could very well jeopardize my ability to pursue my passions in the future.

Powder to the People

Photo Courtesy Dani Reyes-Acosta

Vanlife (and truck-life and Subie-life) is about minimalism, rooting my happiness in experience and exploring the realm of my possible. For me, adventure travel—splitboarding, climbing, and running through the mountains—isn’t about wanderlust or escapism. Instead, it’s been about finding and creating the personal agency that comes with moving through beautiful, high-consequence mountainscapes.

That agency, independence, and freedom has also helped me build my dream career. As a strategist and consultant, I’ve been able to build my business without the massive overhead that a brick-and-mortar shop would incur. Even though I don’t always have a plan for where I’ll sleep in a week, I do have the security of knowing that my career path—diversified for economic resilience and mapped for future planning—follows an intentional, self-determined direction.

I haven’t owned a mega-resort pass since April 2018, which means that the past two snow seasons have been purely human powered. Even though this is my sixth season as a backcountry splitboarder, I realize that the more I learn, the more I need to root knowledge into experience. On dark and stormy nights in the van, friends have caught me poring over my original AIARE I manual or books like How to Stay Alive in Avalanche Terrain just as often as guidebooks and video edits on Instagram. 

A big part of my winter vanlife is about plotting next steps (and I don’t just mean where I’ll park at night). Where I’ll ski in the coming days is just as important as figuring out the skills I need to support alpine dreams. 

I’m blessed to have friends that love a good sufferfest or off-season-slog just as much as a bluebird powder day. Living in a van has taught me that I can find the types of people I want in my life only by putting myself out there. Four out of five of my best friends are people I’ve met at trailhead parking lots.

COVID-19 has changed everything about how I plan trips or find friends, though. Gone—for now—are the days when random conversations might lead to an impromptu adventure. After the resorts closed, it seemed the mania of powder panic poured over into the backcountry. I saw trailheads closed and locals-only policies enacted. I watched two men nearly get into a fistfight over parking and overhead several nasty smack-talking conversations on the skin track.

During the early days of coronavirus, I would quietly go ski with a single backcountry partner, avoid posting on social media about it, and do my best to “do my part,” even as norms shifted daily. But I noticed that I’d started parking to obscure my out-of-state license plates. Flying under the radar is one way to be a successful vandweller—but was I erasing myself for fear of judgement or because I was engaging in behavior that seemed wrong?

Finding The Gems

Photo Courtesy Dani Reyes-Acosta

I moved out to the country, up to the mountains, and into a van because inserting myself into places where people prioritize these experiences, daily, has helped me find (and support) my version of community. Living in a van meant I could volunteer as an adaptive ski instructor for Achieve Tahoe (support our program here, won’t you? bit.ly/AchieveTahoe2020) in a region known for its astronomically-priced rents and housing scarcity. Vanlife also introduced me to a group of friends who work with the Coombs Foundation in Jackson, Wyoming, where I got to volunteer as a youth ski mentor for a day.

The community of friends I have, far-flung as they may be, are the ones who called to ask how I was doing when shelter-in-place orders first took hold. They’re the ones that offered extra rooms to sleep in, land to park on, or virtual shoulders to cry on when their broader communities shunned non-locals and I worried, desperately, about what I’d do next.

“Where would I park?” I asked myself after a woman harassed me. “Go home!” she had snarled angrily. I’d been in this location for nearly two months. This was home.

It’s easy, I think, to feel displaced, isolated, and trapped when my lack of a home base means I don’t have a “home” to go to. But the phone calls, video chats, and memes have made a difference, even if I couldn’t always join the latest Zoom call (because I had to start using my data plan 100% for work since libraries and coffee shops are now closed).

My biggest pre-COVID-19 vanlife fears involved “the knock,” (late night rousings from authorities) or big storms that could spell dangerous travel conditions.

Throughout the past months, my fears have been a lot different: I’ve had to learn how to face dirty looks and overtly rude comments, typically not something I find when slow traveling through AdventureTown, USA. The human factor, something I’ve typically only considered risky when in avalanche country, is now part of my everyday life.

As a vandweller, I’ve been a hesitant outlier—in the past. Yet as our society evolves to place a higher value on seclusion and social distancing (for good reason), I’ve started to see just how insular the container of community can be. I’ve started to see that land ownership is inherently exclusionary, that those who do not ascribe to its paradigm can become objects of coercion and even intimidation. 

Luck and Privilege

Photo by Iain Kuo

Living in a van is a choice. It allows me to pursue my passions and prioritize personal growth over choices society (or my mother) would prefer I make. This nomadic lifestyle, driven by a search for good WiFi and light powder, has enabled me to work on growing into the self I want to become. And yet, this life is still a choice.

But I want to be clear: It hasn’t always been a choice. I haven’t always had the savings (or social connections) that would enable me to rent a house, easily. I don’t have a family or a trust fund to back me; I don’t have a fancy van or a huge quiver of skis. 

In fact, as a woman of color with one deceased parent and another with a disability, all signs indicate I should be doing something much, much different with my life.

Looking back on this journey, I recognize that my lot in life has given me opportunities not everyone gets. In the face of a global pandemic, I don’t want to see more public lands closed or trailheads shuttered; outdoors spaces give all of us the reprieve we so badly need, maybe now more than ever.

This is me recognizing my privilege: The resources (like time and money) that I have require responsible expenditure. At the end of this all, I’ll get exactly what I invest into caring for these lands, trailheads, and greater society. This responsibility isn’t just to myself and making sure I stay sane through self-care and responsible recreation. This is a time to tend to ourselves, those we love, and the things we care about. This time is an investment in friendships, work, and community.

This is spring, after all, a time to begin planting what we hope will blossom into something beautiful. Like all things #vanlife, this is a time to accept that most things are out of my control. The sun may not always shine and the rains may not always come.

At the minimum, though, I need to try, and I hope you do too. Remember: vandwelling is not always a choice. Support your friends: Offer a couch, but also do your part to keep our public lands open. Please, recreate responsibly: follow the rules and keep it local. 

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