I’ve been on the road for almost a month and am going to share how my mindset began shifting hours after taking off. It was that empowering feeling that I’d been craving for a long time, mixed with anxiety and uncertainty. Also mixed with, “wow, I already have to pee. Do I stop somewhere or go on the side of the road?” So, here’s what was going on in my mind. I hope it helps any other vanlifers feel mentally prepped.
1. Where Am I Going to Sleep Tonight?
I’m not much of a planner, and by design the van lifestyle is very “go with the flow”. This means I had no idea how many hours I planned on driving that first day, which meant I had no idea where I was going to sleep. I’d heard that Wal-Marts, Lowes’, and Flying J gas stations allow overnight parking, so I was banking on one of those places. But as sunset approached, I took an exit somewhere in upstate New York and pulled into a Wal-Mart. I instantly heard two people loudly yelling at each other from the back parking lot and saw signs reading, “no overnight parking”. Just as well, because I didn’t like the vibe I was getting from that place.
But then a little worry set in. Because one thing I’d heard repeatedly was to have your sleeping spot picked out before sunset, for safety purposes. So I quickly hopped back on the highway, caught an insane sunset with a New York city skyline silhouette, and was relieved to see a rest stop not even two miles further down the highway. There were a couple other cars in the parking lot and I pulled in right underneath a parking lot light. I put up my windows curtains, cooked up some food, and was far more relaxed and safe-feeling than I ever would’ve guessed for my first night on the road.
2. I Am Hours Away From Any Friends or Family
On one hand, this realization freaked me out because I was totally solo. I’ve done a good amount of travel that’s much farther away from home than a few hours (queue living in Spain for a month or Beijing for a semester) yet this felt oddly uneasy because I was alone! In those other situations, I was in groups of people I knew and trusted.
But on the other hand, this realization didn’t freak me out mostly for two reasons:
Even if friends or family were around, they probably wouldn’t be able to help much with a van breakdown or something mechanical.
While they may not be physically around, they’re still just a phone call or text away. Thankfully, technology makes it hard to feel totally disconnected from anyone these days.
3. I’m Going to Want Fast Food Way More Than I Anticipated
There’s how you think you’ll live and how you actually live. I was wise enough to know that, while I was hopeful I’d eat more healthy and work out more once living in a van, I wasn’t going to bank on it happening. Once I was on the road, my mind entered “road trip” mode that I’d developed over the last 29 years of my life. I don’t know about you guys, but when I’m on a road trip, that’s when I give myself free rein to junk food galore. All I could think about was treating myself to a TASTY LIL TREAT.
Also, driving for long periods is actually quite tiring! Especially if you’re making a lot of quick stops for sight-seeing (which I was doing). So the desire to make a deluxe meal by the end of the night ran low. The first day of travel, I was “good” and made my meals. I think I grabbed lunch on the go by day two or three though.
4. How Often Do I Stop or Keep Going?
It’s really easy to zone out when I hit the road for hours at a time–and I look forward to zoning out. It’s the guilt-free time to not worry about things, listen to my favorite crappy music on repeat, or my favorite true crime podcasts. But there’s also the part of me saying, “Hilary, you gotta sight-see! Don’t just drive by the pretty views and small towns. Explore them!”
So, I did make a couple scenic stops on my first day on the road, in Vermont and New York. But there’s no right answer to this because it depends on why you’re doing vanlife in the first place. If you’re doing vanlife to save money, you’d probably post up in one area for a while to save on gas! If you’re doing it to sight-see then you’re probably going to be making lots of stops while traveling a lot!
5. Holy Sh*t I Actually Did This
Yeah, this one doesn’t need a lot of explaining. Circling back to feeling empowered, it’s probably the most I’ve ever felt it. Anytime you turn a dream into a reality, it’s truly one of the best feelings in the world.