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Swifty’s Notebook: #Vanlife

From issue 60 • Words/images Heidi Swift

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To see nothing anywhere but what you may reach it and pass it, To conceive no time, however distant, but what you may reach it and pass it, To look up or down no road but it stretches and waits for you, however long but it stretches and waits for you… To know the universe itself as a road, as many roads, as roads for traveling souls.
—Walt Whitman, “Song of the Open Road”

She despised that shit then and she despises it now, but over the years she became better and better at playing along. My father, on the other hand, never really did. Probably Mom will deny the “ODS” nickname when pressed, but I have documentation from my father. It’s how she used to sign her old love notes to him. If she knew that he showed me those, she’d wring his neck, so let’s all be grateful she’s never been interested in reading cycling magazines.

Back to my father’s shoeless feet…. Dad ran barefoot on the farm of his youth for years and years, through white snow winters and damp spring showers, until the school system finally wore his mother down and made her shod him properly. It took a broom across his back (yes, it broke!) before she finally convinced him to see her side of the story. Or maybe that particular broom incident was for some other punishable offense and I’ve got the wires of my stories crossed. Either way, my father hated shoes. Never got over it, either. Still catch him barefoot and black-soled, grinning out in the front lawn on a soft, fall morning. Rain coming down all around and his red beard (mostly white now if we’re honest) gleaming in the cold damp of a Washington rainfall. “Damn shoes,” he’ll grumble, “make you soft.”

He’s right about that. They will and they do. But Mom’s right too and sometimes you do have to sit up and act right, which usually involves wearing shoes. As a kid I learned to be good at doing both—snag A’s and nods of approval in the classroom then run barefoot into the woods and refuse to shower or brush my hair for a week. Everyone seems to cut you more slack when you’re 14 years old, but you can still pull off this duality as an adult—you just have to get really good at shape-shifting.

Shape-shifting in this modern time requires some assistance, so we bought the adventure van to transport my animal self into the wilderness at the fastest clip possible. The dictionary tells us that transport means “[to] take or carry (people or goods) from one place to another by means of a vehicle, aircraft, or ship,” but the secondary definition is more applicable in this case: “[to] overwhelm (someone) with a strong emotion, especially joy.” Bicycles do this for us—both definitions of the word actually—but the van does it faster and farther, with better sleeping arrangements.

Now, after just a few minutes throwing clothing in bags, we’re rolling toward the nearby mountains. I don’t even really care what I find out there—dirt roads, good single track, sweet flyfishing pools, startling little lakes—but the second my phone throws up the “No Service” sign, I know I’m headed in the right direction.

Last Saturday, two clerks in a convenience store strolled outside to get a better look at The Beast (an interim moniker we’ve adopted until such point as our new baby reveals his or her true nature, which I’ve been told is a common practice among parents of human children).

“Can we check out your van? Maybe I shouldn’t call it a van…. Is it an RV?”

“It’s kind of a cabin on wheels,” I reply. It’s the best way to describe it, because this whole thing started as a vague desire for a cabin in the woods, but I was having a hard time figuring out exactly which woods. Nomads have a long history of commitment issues. People call all kinds of structures “cabins.” I have a friend who refers to their 3,900-square-foot home in Lake Tahoe as such. “Let’s go to the cabin!” he says. You arrive and certainly it’s made of wood (maybe even logs) but be careful or you’ll get lost just trying to navigate from the bathroom to the kitchen. My point here is that the essence of a cabin is a dwelling where you go to be away. My cabin just happens to roll around with me. The goal is tranquility and quiet; adventure may just be a happy side benefit, depending on how you choose to spend your time.

The Beast uses two 140-watt solar panels on the roof to generate his own electricity. An under-body reservoir lets us carry 14 gallons of water, with a sink and pump to make washing dishes fast and easy. The solar panels power a small refrigerator, among other things (toaster, electric kettle, camera batteries). We use a butane stove to cook everything from burgers to tacos and occasionally something more ambitious, like last week’s Tsuvian Mongolian noodle stew. If we find ourselves on a back road with a downed tree, we’ve got an electric chainsaw to clear the path. An onboard compressor lets us adjust tire pressure along the way and is also handy for bikes and inflatable boats. The 4WD conversion (adapted from an F350 pickup truck) with 3-inch lift creates clearance for rough terrain and adequate room for the beefy tires. The Beast goes almost anywhere, which is everywhere we want to go.

Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road, Healthy, free, the world before me, The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.

These days you can download USFS maps directly into your phone and examine them from there, but what fun is it staring into a backlit screen when you’re surrounded by evergreens, vibrant fall foliage or crashing breakers and craggy cliffs? I purchase paper maps and spread them out across the dashboard, referencing the compass and an occasional landmark, hunting for the tiny markers on the edge of Forest Service roads. I’m not an expert at this yet, so sometimes I take us in an unintended direction and usually that’s when we rumble into the best moment of the trip—an unexpected trailhead, a viewpoint tucked away on the top of a ridge, a jeep road perfect for deeper exploration on the mountain bikes.

Our plan is usually not to have a plan at all and so far it’s been working out. My only requirement is to find a location where I can wake up in the morning in the soft queen bed and open the back doors to a decent view. If we’re parked near a trailhead, we’ll set out in the dark and climb until we find a good place to cook breakfast on our backpacking stove while the sun rises. If we’re on a river, my husband fishes as dawn creeps in and I meander my way through a stack of library books with a strong mug of coffee.

When I was 24, I did a writing assignment that required me to detail my dream house. I wrote extensively about the reading nook with a view of both mountains and oceans. The property also had a lot of trees; it was in the country, I imagined. There were pillows and blankets and corners to tuck into. The nook in the back of the van comes close to fitting the bill, with the advantage of being able to rotate views as desired.

The efflux of the soul is happiness, here is happiness, I think it pervades the open air, waiting at all times, Now it flows unto us, we are rightly charged.

Maybe it’s the extra oxygen, but even a 24-hour escape into the wild will get me high enough to reconsider getting behind the wheel of a motor vehicle. Like many of us, I spend my weekdays lashed to a desk, staring at a computer, staring at a wall under fluorescent lighting. And though I actually enjoy what I am getting paid to do, the cumulative effect of the physical working environment is grim. The desk job is a temporarily necessary situation, but in the meantime all those weekend roads and trails are my antidote to the weekday crush of sitting around on my ass, renting my brain out, based on the questionable assumption that it will eventually be returned to me in an unaltered condition.

Like my father, I try to go barefoot as often as possible. In the wilderness, I wear the same clothing for the duration—battered hiking pants or running tights, a purple fleece jacket, a shiny green down puffer if it’s really cold. Wool base-layers are also optional according to the weather. I have an extra set of everything on the off chance that I fall into a river or otherwise find myself soaked to the bone. There are no mirrors in The Beast and I don’t bother to pack one. I’m most content when I lose all awareness of my physical appearance. I’m old and getting older…and I don’t need a piece of glass to tell me that.

But running through the woods in my dirty clothes and disheveled hair I feel more myself than at any other moment. Add in a healthy rainfall and I’m at my feral best…mud soft between my toes and all.

From issue 60. Buy it here.