My Shitty Van Life

For four years now, I’ve called the road my home. The phrase “van life” as a colloquial term conjures up images of prayer flags and fairy lights draped around a van that looks like it belongs in an Ikea catalogue, where an Instagram model in a flowy dress with a sun hat looks out over the ocean as the sun rises on another perfect day in paradise.

Picture that in your mind, and then picture me- it’s the dead of winter, and I’m dressed from head to toe in down layers to the point that I look like an amorphous Michelin woman; a human marshmallow. It’s going to get so cold tonight that I’m filling all my pots with water, so I can melt the ice in the morning knowing even my five-gallon jug will freeze solid. I’m not desperately hanging on to a season that has long since ended, this is just standard practice. 

Now imagine the opposite. It’s a record breaking 115-degree heat wave. I’ve stayed up half the night waiting for it to drop down to a more comfortable ninety so I can go to bed, since that’s the coolest it’s going to get tonight. I try to open my van doors to get some fresh air, only to almost instantly close them again to prevent swarms of mosquitoes from taking the invitation. Instead I curl up around a gallon-sized block of ice, and drift into an uneasy sleep.

Driving to the crag one day, I swap stories with my good friend Dirtbag Kevin. He’s been on the road for sixteen years, many without a vehicle at all. He firmly believes he’ll never pay rent again. Compared to him, I’m an amateur. We talk about social media, and he jokes that if he ever joined Instagram, his page would be called “My Shitty Van Life,” and would only tell the stories that don’t make the highlight reel. Stories about the times when things go wrong. The real stuff.

[Kevin in a too small sleeping bag suit that he thrifted and then flipped for a profit, as he does]

Even someone like me who prides herself as being a dirtbag is probably guilty of making van life seem glamourous, albeit in a somewhat gritty kind of way. It’s not untrue, because to me being nomadic is the only kind of life I want to live, so it still seems like a dream even during the bigger challenges and moments of fear, stress, and/or discomfort. That being said, I still show mostly just the highlight reel when it comes to the lifestyle, so this time I thought I’d switch it up and tell a few of my favorite stories of when life on the road went very, very comically wrong.

Behold, my shitty van life:

1. Highs and Lowes

I awoke one morning to a familiar gurgle in my stomach. A street lamp contrasting with the darkness of a long winter’s night made it impossible to tell the hour, but the time didn’t matter; my bowels determined it was morning, and that I had better get up fast. I was parked next to my ex-boyfriend’s truck in the back corner of a parking lot just outside of Red Rocks in Las Vegas. Today it was Lowe’s, yesterday it had been Planet Fitness, and tomorrow it would probably be some random neighborhood or construction site. We had been here for three months, surfing from one shitty parking lot to the next, falling asleep to the rumbling of semis on the highway or the loud music of a casino. We were trying to avoid the main climbers’ bivvy, “Skid Row,” because a body had been found there recently. The climbing in Vegas is amazing, but it’s a tough place to be a dirtbag.

I needed to find somewhere to go to the bathroom. It was still too early for Lowe’s to be open, and I couldn’t hold it long enough to drive somewhere else, which meant today was a wag bag kind of day. Once finished, I hid the evidence outside of my van to avoid the smell, and put it out of my mind. Surviving Vegas was all about compartmentalizing.

I cooked some breakfast and said good morning to my then-partner. Eventually the sun came up, and I decided to go run some errands. I bid him good-bye, and revved up the loud engine of my van to drive away. I only made it halfway across the parking lot before being hit by a sinking realization: I had forgotten to retrieve the bag of shame that had been hidden below one of my tires. Knowing I could not leave it behind, I quickly returned to my spot, hoping against hope that I hadn’t driven over the bag of shit.

I had.

I had done the unthinkable. I had flattened my own used wag bag, smearing it across the parking lot right next to the driver’s side of my then-boyfriend’s car. What was worse, he probably had heard the distinctive roar of my van and was wondering why I had returned so soon. What was way worse, I had run out of literally everything I could have used to clean it up. I was out of water, and didn’t have even a single plastic bag to contain the explosion that I now had to somehow transport to a trash can.

The only thing I had was a small cardboard box, so with a plastic trowel I delicately scooped up what I could into the box, threw it in my van, and fled the scene of the crime. The open box reeked as I drove, but the horror of what I had done was a far bigger concern. I had just desecrated one of our favorite bivvies, and my then-partner was inevitably going to figure out what had happened.

At this point I had fully dug my own grave and nothing I could do was going to make it any less deep, so I figured I might as well own up to my colossal mistake. We met up shortly after at the Planet Fitness for a shower, at which point I knew I had to confront the situation lest I spend the rest of my days fearing his silent judgement of my sins.

When I confessed the morning’s events to my ex, he simply laughed and admitted that he hadn’t noticed any of it. I could have kept the whole thing a secret. I could have lived out the rest of my shitty van life with no one ever knowing that I had schmeared my feces across the Lowe’s parking lot, but now it was out there in the ether, beckoning karma’s wrath upon me.

Now equipped with trash bags and a refilled water jug, I returned once more to the scene of the crime to clean it up for good. In the time I’d been gone, the hot Nevada sun had baked the remnants of my wet slop into a crisp. A few kicks of my shoe and it was gone, the last of my dignity along with it.

2. The Pack Rat

Anyone who has lived on the road long enough knows the struggle of getting a mouse in your car. It starts with a little noise at night, as the nocturnal creatures start to make themselves at home. With the quick snap of a well-placed trap, hopefully that’s all it has to be. Sometimes however, problems with mice can spiral into an unholy nightmare all too quickly, once they start building nests in all your drawers, and spraying pheromones that attract all their friends. Soon enough it can seem like you might as well just start charging them rent, because they are there to stay.

That was how it started.

Vedauwoo is notorious for mice in general, though regulars of the Wyoming crack Mecca have said that it has never been as bad as it was in 2020. Everyone had mice that summer, but some of us had more than others. Unfortunately, I had the most of all.

I owned three mouse traps, and every evening I would set the trio next to where I knew the mice were getting in. I knew, because I had watched a pair of them fearlessly crawl right in as if they owned the place one evening. Horrified, I chased them back out, only to see both mice determinately return just a few minutes later. Before I would go to bed, all three traps would have been sprung and needed to be reset. Sometimes I would reset them in the middle of the night if I woke up, and I would always reset them again in the morning. The math adds up to between six and nine mice per night, every night.

In an attempt to control the situation, I started setting a rather grisly higher volume trap outside my van to try and catch the vermin en masse before they could get inside. I would fill a bucket with water, and put a rotating dowel covered in peanut butter across the top. The dowel would roll when the critters tried to eat, dropping them into the water from which they could not escape.

My trap became a slaughterhouse. I would average a dozen mice per night, and just as many during the day; that’s around one mouse per hour. As an avid animal lover (I’ve been vegetarian for fifteen years), I took no pleasure in the massacre, but it was doing its job at keeping the mice mostly out of my van.

My trap was so successful that eventually I grew complacent, and left my door open for a few hours one evening as I ambled around camp. As I tried to sleep, my mistake became hauntingly clear. Loud crashes woke me frequently. Something large rummaged around my van at all hours of the night, knocking over everything it came into contact with. In the morning my home was a crime scene. Splashes of neon yellow urine covered my dashboard, staining my laboriously painted skull collection and dripping down my stereo. Everything from my kitchen countertop was now on the floor, though the criminal was nowhere to be seen. This was no ordinary mouse.

I bought some rat traps in town, knowing the little mouse snappers were no match for my new unwelcome roommate. That afternoon I went inside my van to make some food, but when I opened my cabinet, there it was: a pack rat the size of a pika, sitting in my favorite bowl, probably peeing all over more of my stuff at that very moment. No wonder it had kept me up all night; the thing was enormous.

To my good fortune, a friend at camp happened to be doing some target shooting with a BB gun, and I screamed at him to come help me. Dan quickly pointed the barrel into the open door of my van and fired. The rat seized, but remained very much alive, so he fired again, and once more for good measure. The giant creature twitched and convulsed, bleeding out over all of my dishes. I grabbed it with a pair of barbecue tongs and quickly flung it outside to try and minimize the damage, adding it to a graveyard of vermin we had been rather psychotically collecting.

I spent the rest of the day bleaching everything I owned, and miraculously, haven’t had a single mouse in the two years since that macabre summer. Peppermint oil on the tires works extremely well, since that’s the most accessible entry point and they hate the smell.   

3. The Jabberwock

When embarking upon any difficult venture, one of the most paramount necessities is a solid partner, and few fit that bill better than Drew Marshall. It was 2019, and Drew and I had just met in Indian Creek during my first (very short) fall in the desert. We became fast friends, as one does on the road, thanks to a string of very exciting belays, team sends, and very cold nights. We closed down the season in early December alongside a handful of other dirtbags, and decided to all caravan together in search of warmer and drier conditions. Our cohort headed for Cochise Stronghold, one of the southernmost climbing areas in the United States, since it was on the way to Mexico where most of us were going for the winter. 

Just south of Tuscon, the camping was warm and friendly, and our all-star crew promised a good time. It was my first year on the road, and everything was new. Every crag, every dirtbag, every experience, it seemed like there were no wrong answers when every new thing felt like I was being given the opportunity of a lifetime. I didn’t have any plans or goals, just an insatiable hunger for this new lifestyle I had found.

I probably wouldn’t have ended up at Cochise otherwise.

Cochise is an adventurous place, and I quickly found the climbing there to be a bigger step outside my comfort zone than I was ready for at the time. The approaches are long, steep, and confusing. The conditions seem nice at camp, but at the end of the hike you crest over a hill and are suddenly exposed to relentlessly bitter winds, all day, every day. Most of the climbing is multipitch. While nowadays I love long routes, am not afraid of bad conditions, and am tougher than any approach, back then that was not the case, and I quickly began to feel very much in over my head.

One day Drew and I decided to climb a route called the Jabberwock. We planned to swap leads, giving me a bolted 5.12a, him an 11+ thin corner, me a 5.10 R (though the R part was supposed to be 5.9 slab), and him the final 5.4 hand crack. It seemed right up our alley.

As I started up the first pitch, I quickly realized that we had perhaps bitten off more than we had bargained for, as I took repeated whippers trying to get through the long and difficult runouts between bolts. This felt like a far cry from any kind of 5.12a I was used to. Eventually I got to the belay, assuming that the biggest trial of the day was behind me.

Drew similarly struggled up the first pitch, before taking over the sharp end for his lead. A wizard at stem corners, the next rope length would have had his name written all over it, had it not been just as mercilessly sandbagged as the first. Drew climbed slowly, fiddling in small nuts where he could and admitting to me that it was far headier than it looked. Eventually after a few falls, he escaped the difficulties and vanished out of sight onto the slab above.

I caught up to him quickly, grateful to be on top rope. Surely now we must be through the business.

A featureless granite slab stretched out above us, unmarred by even a single bolt or crack for dozens of feet. The R-rated pitch. My R-rated pitch. Suddenly I wasn’t feeling as bold as I had that morning when I’d volunteered, but my stubbornness won out as I began climbing. Soon I reached the end of what was supposed to be the runout, as the slab turned vertical and a flared butt crack appeared. Normally cracks mean protection, but no matter what I tried, no gear I placed inspired much confidence. Ever higher I crept, emptying out my entire rack into the flare in the hopes that something would hold a fall.

I reached the end of the flare with almost no gear left and a 5.8 horizontal crack traverse between me and the anchors. It didn’t look like 5.8, it looked like 5.11. It looked like something I could fall on, and I had no gear left to protect it. I didn’t even think any of the gear I had placed on this entire pitch would hold. Fear gripped me ever tighter as I began the traverse and then retreated several times.

I can’t do this, I thought, I can’t climb this, but I also can’t fall nor retreat. It seemed like there were no options except falling off 5.8 and zippering an entire pitch of slab. Paralyzed by my predicament, I started to cry.

Just when all seemed lost, the glint of a shiny metal bolt caught my teary eye. A dozen or so feet to the left, I suddenly noticed a neighboring route that in my tunnel vision I had at first missed. Not knowing what else to do, I built a belay off the single bolt and shakily called down to Drew that I was off. It wasn’t ideal, but it was the best I could do.

Equipped with the full rack, Drew was now able to adequately protect the traverse as he linked it into his final lead, but as he shuffled sideways he was suddenly airborne. The two of us were stunned. Drew had just fallen on 5.8. That meant I could just as easily have too, only with far worse consequences. Suddenly my single bolt belay didn’t seem like such an embarrassing cop-out after all.

[Did I mention it was cold as shit? Really not our day]

Drew tensioned back up to my awkwardly hanging perch and caught my eye. “Today just isn’t our day,” he said, and we both started to laugh. It sure wasn’t, but suddenly the situation no longer felt quite so intense. The day 5.13 climbers cry on 5.10 and fall on 5.8 is the day we remember why we’re really there in the first place: to share wild experiences with incredible people, even if they leave us humbled and shaking in our boots for a little while afterwards.

4. Sand Trap

The desert can be a pretty inhospitable place certain times of the year. The climbing season can extend late into spring and even early summer at shady crags, but when temperatures start to creep into the eighties and nineties, the problem becomes existing during all the moments when you aren’t out climbing. Thanks to Covid-19, pretty much everywhere was inhospitable in 2020 however, so my quarantine crew consisting of Jeff, Diana, Justin, Nick, Matt, and I returned to the freshly re-opened Indian Creek in late April after rising temperatures chased us out of the North Wash where we had been hiding for the past few weeks.

Jeff and I led the charge, having the perhaps once in a lifetime experience of being some of the only climbers in the entire canyon while the others remained a day or two behind. Our primary objective was to find somewhere shady to camp, because otherwise it was simply too hot to be there. We quested out into Davis Canyon where cottonwood trees line a dry riverbed, but the road was too rugged for a daily commute, and the only shady places to park were in deep sand where Jeff’s van immediately got stuck.

Next we tried Creek Pasture, our regular haunt. A few scraggly cottonwood trees that seem to die a little more each year shelter a few of the sites, but we weren’t there for more than a few hours before the familiar truck of the Sherriff who had kicked us out just a few weeks ago came coasting into the campground. We couldn’t stay there, he said, because it was technically a part of Canyonlands National Park which was still closed.

Running out of options, we agreed to scout a few other spots and then rendezvous in the Cottonwoods, an informal campsite down Beef Basin Road. When I got there, I was disappointed to find that the trees were still sparsely foliated from the winter. They would be in bloom soon enough, but we needed their shade now. I kept driving down the dirt road, wondering if there were any secret spots out beyond where I’d ever been before. Supposedly these roads went on forever, after all. A half a mile past Pistol Whipped, the last well-known crag in the area, I came to a fork in the path, where one way dipped down into a copse of dense trees by the river. If there were any spots for a few vehicles down there it would be perfect, I thought.

As I excitedly veered onto the mysterious single-lane track and dipped down into the trees, the well-travelled crust of the main road quickly turned to soft sand. Suddenly, my van came to a halt as the road spontaneously ended where it met the creek, and did not begin again on the other side. This wasn’t even a jeep road, there was nothing here!

So much for the perfect campsite, I thought, as I began to make a twenty-point U-turn. I made it halfway towards facing the correct direction to escape when my tires lost all traction and started to spin uselessly in the soft sand. It had been easy enough to get Jeff’s van out the day before, but it didn’t take me long to realize I had just dug myself into a much, much, worse situation.

My van was perpendicular in the single-lane road, with sand reaching halfway up my tires. The back bumper was pushed up against a bank of tree roots and more sand, wedging me into place like a big bro. No one knew where I was, and no one was going to come down this road, because no one was in Indian Creek at all. For a little while I tried fruitlessly to rescue myself, but quickly realized I had no chance.

[My poor van, perpendicular in the road]

Jeff should be in the Cottonwoods by now. Looking at a poorly rendered no-signal version of a map, I concluded that I was about a mile and a half away. I jogged back to find him, and explained the situation. There was an Access Fund trail crew camp nearby that we stole a shovel from, and quickly returned to my hopeless van. I thought with a shovel and a second set of hands we would be able to dig me out no problem, but no matter what we tried, nothing seemed to work. Every log or rock we put under my tires just got pushed deeper into the sand. Eventually, the sun began to set and we knew we had to wrap up our efforts for the night.

One last try, I thought, as I went to turn the key in my ignition. Nothing happened. The mounting panic I had been trying to subdue all evening reached a crescendo. Being stuck was one thing, being stuck and broken down was a much different thing. No tow truck could get to me in this position, if any were even willing to try during these crazy early pandemic times. I quickly began to run through worst-case scenarios in my mind, imagining that this was to become my van’s final resting place. It was a part of Indian Creek now, I thought, destined to rot and rust away as a cautionary tale to would-be adventurers, that they should know their limits better than I had thought I’d known mine.

I tried the ignition again, still nothing. The battery was still clearly alive and well, so why wouldn’t my van start? I hated to leave things like this, but it was fully dark now. I tried to pull the key from the ignition, but it wouldn’t budge. Now my key was stuck too? The van chimed at me to remind me not to forget my key, surely a noise that would drain the battery if it continued all night, but luckily if I closed the door it fell mercifully silent. Even though it wouldn’t start and was hopelessly stuck, and there was no one around for many miles, leaving the key in the ignition sparked an uneasy flashback to the traumatic theft of my previous car/home the year prior (story here).

With my seldom used tent in hand, Jeff quietly drove us back to the Cottonwoods. “I don’t know how much it will help,” he told me, “but my mom used to always tell me, ‘This too shall pass.’” It helped as much as anything really could.

Diana and Justin were supposed to be meeting us there, but when we returned to camp it was empty. The sun had set a long time ago and it was starting to get pretty late; had something else gone wrong? I never should have left the North Wash, I kept thinking, as worry over our friends mixed with all my other concerns. We had been like the Lost Boys out there, full-on rebels without a cause, carving out a little corner of the desert that belonged only to us, forever lost in time and space to the rest of the world. Suddenly I couldn’t remember why I had been so eager to leave and come back here.

Eventually two familiar vans came rattling into camp. Turns out they had either gotten off route, or tried to put up a first ascent, or some other mild shenanigans had kept them out late.

After hearing their story, I told my own.

“Did you remember to put the van in park?” Justin asked when I was done.

Had I? Now that I thought about it, I had turned my van on and off so many times it did seem plausible that I had simply forgotten to put it in park, and since it was so stuck and wouldn’t be rolling away, it was easy not to notice. That would explain why the key wouldn’t come out, and hopefully also why it was no longer starting.

The next day the four of us swung by the Access Fund site once more, where they had left us a nice note and a few more pitchforks and shovels. With eight strong climber hands, we shoveled sand for almost an entire day. With the tires finally free, we managed to put chains around them, and lined the road with half the rocks in the riverbed. With a mighty push from everyone, at last my van broke free.

[Jeff, Diana, and Justin next to the giant hole we dug around my van]

I have never gotten it stuck since, but the off-road limitations of an old Econoline was not the only lesson I learned from that sand trap. Whenever times get hard, I often replay Jeff’s voice in my head repeating what he told me that night: “This too shall pass.” It always helps as much as anything could.

3 thoughts on “My Shitty Van Life

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