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My seduction began with the click of a mouse. For the price of my email address, I entered a raffle during the long winter of 2022 to win a fully rigged Mercedes-Benz Sprinter motorhome. It was an impulsive decision, when my highway escape fantasies were as strong as they had ever been: After two years as coronavirus captives, my wife and I needed a road trip . And we needed a way to take the two dogs for the ride because, well, Coloradans.
Once I hit the “Enter” button, Facebook’s algorithm worked its magic. My news feed started flooding me with one glamorous #vanlife fantasy after another. Other gifts for campers. Van transformation companies. Custom vans for rent or for sale. Non-stop blog posts.
The most persistent dream peddler was outdoorsy.com, where RV owners offer you the opportunity to rent their custom rides. Dozens were available in the Denver area. Determined to seduce, each owner posts alluring photos of the limitless possibilities of their van. Look, this one has an outdoor shower! This one has a surfboard rack! Are these incredibly attractive young people sharing a candlelit meal in the dining area of their RV? Of course they are! And see what happens when they open the side door? They enjoy a panoramic view of the sunset over the Grand Canyon! Or the ocean! Or a pristine lake surrounded by forested mountains!
Now listen, I’m an adult. At 65, I know more than most about the persistent gap between fantasy and reality. And even….
Our motorhome sat like a beached whale in the Denver parking lot of VanCraft, the company we rented it from. A spotless 2021 Sprinter model with just 14,000 miles on the clock, it was pumped up not only with expensive diesel fuel, but also with five gallons of clean water under the kitchen sink and another 20 gallons in the outdoor shower tank rear heatable.
The bed was made with fresh linens and the kitchen utensils in the kitchen drawers were sparkling. The fridge was cooled with electricity generated by a solar panel on the roof of the van, and the company had preloaded small tanks of propane for the two-burner stove. Two camping chairs and an outdoor rug in the rear storage area were waiting to be rolled out under a roll-down awning when we came across an Instagram-worthy sight.
Also there was the mysterious “cartridge toilet” that I had rented for an extra $95. My wife, whose puritanical reserve is legendary, watched the rental agent demonstrate the mechanism of the toilet flush in the parking lot with a look that somehow mixed amusement and abject dread. I knew right away that she would never use it.
Our 10-year-old Lab queen, Callie, and her hyperactive two-year-old Aussie tormentor, Finn, stepped in and settled into the house. We stocked the fridge, loaded up our bags and supplies, and added two of our own folding chairs to accommodate the friends we were sure to make around various campfires. Ahead: 10 days and 2,500 miles of adventure. We had planned to travel to Glenwood Canyon and other favorite places in Colorado to visit our son in Las Vegas and our daughter in Los Angeles. In between are national parks, deserts and beautiful wilderness.
Everyone was in place: me driving, my wife next, Callie claiming the kitchen floor, and Finn bouncing into the double bed on the back deck. I launched the whale and we set off into the misty Nomadland between fantasy and reality.
Turns out the reckless, impulsive freedom that we were looking for also requires planning and foresight at the championship level. Some obsessive-compulsive traits would also have been helpful.
In a perfect world, we would have planned our trip months or even a year in advance. We would have identified the national and state parks where we wanted to stay and monitored the park websites to reserve our places as soon as they became available. We reportedly spent $99 on a Harvest Hosts membership and used its app to book us into campsites available at private ranches, farms, wineries, and even museum parking lots.
But I never lived in a perfect world. Getting on the road with two weeks’ notice requires an immediate and drastic reduction in expectations. National parks? You should have booked a site six months ago. Cheaper national parks? Full. But my capacity for self-delusion is wide and deep. I figured we could always engage in what the RV folks call boondocking – just finding some neglected paradise and hunkering down for the night.
I know what you’re thinking, because you’ve seen the same pictures as me. You imagine yourself enjoying a nice glass of wine while your van is parked on a beautiful turnout overlooking a crystal clear mountain stream. In the distance, the sun sets over the Maroon Bells. Life is Beautiful.
Maybe one day you will find such a place. We do not have.
More likely, you’ll find yourself in the sprawling, soulless parking lot of a Walmart, Cracker Barrel, Cabela’s, or other mass retailer that allows free overnight parking. Or you’ll engage in moochocking – spending the night outside the homes of indulgent friends willing to offer a shower or access to their toilets in the middle of the night.
Or you’ll end up booking yourself into a commercial RV “resort”. We did this on our first night in Moab, Utah. We arrived after dark. Even so, I could tell our road beast was a dwarf among the Jurassic and back-to-the-wilderness transport machines we found ourselves among. Behemoths the size of Greyhound buses bristling with satellite dishes and worth more than the average starting house sat side by side on concrete slabs. Electrical wires and septic pipes snaked their way to outlets and dump stations. Most of the sites were also filled with all-terrain vehicles, trailers and dirt bikes, which the RVs had dragged along to explore Moab’s stunning red rock topography.
I felt like we had gone straight to the heart of what cynics call “Peak America.” We left directly the next morning.
By contrast, in Kanab, Utah, we spent the night in an RV campground carved into a patch of dark-sky desert. It was extraordinarily pleasant. We enjoyed seeing countless stars before bed and woke up to a beautiful red mesa landscape the next morning. We didn’t need showers, but we took them anyway, as the bathrooms were nicer than ours at home.
Van life became much more complicated once we reached the cities. We spent two nights in the parking lot of our son’s apartment building in Vegas, hoping no one would notice the squatter family hiding behind the tinted, shaded windows of the van. We moved twice, like fugitives, so as not to arouse suspicion. Rather than hitting our $95 toilet in the middle of the night, I found a reason to visit a nearby dog park at 2 a.m., taking the dogs in as cover.
We spent two more nights dodging our daughter’s nosy owner on the crowded Redondo beach. His lease prohibits pets. One night we checked into a cheap motel near LAX, just to take a break. No worries about dogs smelling the room; it already stank of weed. We spent our last night in Southern California having fun with friends, enjoying the expansive luxury of a hot shower and a fenced yard where the dogs could fight.
Fantasies have enormous value. They bring comfort and hope. They keep us sane in times of stress. They feed our ambitions. Without them, human progress could stagnate.
But let’s recognize that we are all quite vulnerable these days. COVID-19 is a big part of that. There is also a savage war in Ukraine, near-daily mass shootings, and political discourse that continues to have all the civility of a behind-the-scenes cockfight. Don’t even tell me about Twitterverse as the main source of “news”. Honestly, there are more reasons than ever to flee.
I don’t blame the van life industry and its dream weavers for meeting this demand. What they sell has a lingering appeal, like comfort food. The freedom of the road! Accessible natural beauty! Mobile comfort! Just know that, for us, what they sell was rarely as good as Instagram photos, and it’s barely cheap. To spend 10 days cruising the Southwest in a claustrophobic, diesel-spitting RV, we paid about as much as if we’d stayed every night in a pet-friendly hotel at $350 a night – and that we did tip.
Still, we could try van life again. The dogs were able to swim in the Pacific, explore Moab’s Grandstaff Canyon and hike Red Rock Canyon outside of Vegas. They slept better than usual as part of our tight little pack, and the little one’s persistent digestive issues suddenly improved. Plus, after successfully testing our 40 year marriage, we now know we can survive. this a lot of friendliness.
The final leg of our trip took us back to Grand County in a storm, along the swampy Trough Road from State Bridge to Kremmling. The sides and back of the whale were covered in mud. What we returned to the rental company looked like a madmax battlewagon, and I found a certain satisfaction in it. I apologized and assured the check-in manager that the dreaded restroom was as clean as the day we left.