There was a hunk of sharp cheddar and 4 tortillas left in the van’s pantry. I timed this pretty well, I thought, and screwed the green propane tank into the black 2-burner stove. Breakfast on my 5AM USAir flight to Mexico would be two quesadillas. It was my first flight since hitting the Road – I had guessed which airport would be closest, and got to Seattle with an afternoon to spare.
Parked on 60th street in Ballard, I cooked in front of the house that would shepherd my rolling-home for the week. It was a friend-of-a-friend’s house – the first friend I had met in Bend several weeks ago, the other friend I hadn’t met but she had texted me, “Grab a beer from our fridge while you wait.” Good sign, I thought, as I sipped their Mirror Pond.
The skillet sizzled but I needed a new song. Looking at my phone, I saw the beginnings of an Instagram message pop up from a name I didn’t know. Swipe… the app refreshed. I stared at a picture of a guy cooking from a van on 60th street, taken from inside a house on 60th street.
The picture was from two minutes earlier… “@63mph is that you?!” the message read. I spun around, looking for the creeper… and there she was, coming at me – mid-thirties, long dark hair, dark skin, tattooed… “Hi, I’m Catherine.” “Hey, I’m Matt.”
Months before I met Catherine, I decided to spend my 30th year on the Road. It was to be a scouting mission for how to spend the rest of my life. Friends joked about my Vision Quest, but I went about selling my stuff and packed into a van the size of a California king.
The VW Vanagon was my choice because of its reliable uncertainty – a guaranteed adventure. Unlike modern vans, which easily run $60-80K, the Vanagon won’t guarantee you home by 10PM on a Sunday night after a weekend of playing, just so you can hop in your other vehicle and get to the office by 8AM.
"So how did you know it was me?" I asked Catherine. "Oh, my husband follows a bunch of van people on Instagram. When I posted this picture, he recognized your van immediately and told me to say hi."
We walked the 30 feet to their house, and Catherine fed me a local IPA while I asked questions about their 3 Volkswagens vans. She told their stories and talked about their family’s Vision – to eventually get their life small enough to live on the Road too.
"Not to be rude, but I gotta meet the family across the street who’s watching my rig for the week," I said. “Go go, I totally get it,” she said. “Maybe you, Michael (her husband), and I can meet for a drink later… I’ll text you.”
Later, with pint glass in hand, Michael told me he found me because I tagged one of my photos with #vanlife. I laughed. I had been reluctant to tag any posts on this trip. Trying to get followers by appending a search-engine tag felt funny to me. Simply caring about followers felt funny to me.
Plus, the #vanlife tag? In my mind, I was doing much more than just living in a van. That tag felt more like checking out from the world, rather than the checking in I was after.
But here I was, with Michael and Catherine and their friend Fel, sipping good brews in a dimly-lit Seattle bar, because of Catherine’s unabashed creeping and because I had experimented with the #vanlife tag.
After just enough beer to feel like old friends, we walked the dark streets back to our homes – mine parked on slanty 60th, theirs on a level spot in their driveway. Catherine and Michael had 3 empty bedrooms in their house, yet they still slept in their van.
I wiggled around, trying to find a sleeping position on the convex city street. My phone lit up, “@63mph goodnight from our van to yours… :)” read Catherine’s message.
During my week-long Mexican absence, Michael had inspected my van (he works on all his vans) and noticed a problem. He purchased the parts and anxiously awaited my return so he could go to work. Here I was. We slid under the van and I watched; Catherine, a brilliant photographer, snapped away on her Hasselblad.
The Road told me it was time to go, and Michael handed me a #Vanlife decal – a tattoo that would express permanence in this community. With #Vanlife sitting in my hands, I hesitated. I’ve never liked labeling myself or others… it felt like something the world did to simplify the complex.
But then I remembered I bought this van because of its legendary community and the philosophy of its people. I remembered back through every single VW van owner I had met in the last 3 months. I remembered how these people were reaffirming my faith in a world of cold news.
I reached under the seat for an old rag and started wiping the dirt from my rear window.
"5:30 AM, water on the windshield and a soft drizzle, this is Juneau. No sun in 12 days."
"I overheard the term for the retired folks who travel in Australia — Grey Nomads. Even though I’m not grey and nomadic now, I hope to be nomadic still when I’m grey."
"… perfect country, with the peaks rising high and jagged with their spines and sawtooth ridges. The Chilkat River, with its grey corners finding purpose amongst an assortment of rock islands that stretch to the horizon."
"At Canadian Customs I started to get the drill again, but when I told her that I had been on the road for 5 months looking for a new home, she perked up and laid off… "Well that’s kinda cool," she said.
"… in between passing rain showers and no passing cars, I saw my first brown bear, a grizzly I think… not a big one but on a mission for something, sauntering along, didn’t even notice me."
"I don’t know if it was a lot of coffee, emotions, the murder mystery I’m reading or the camp spot next to the road, maybe a combo?, but I felt alone and scared for the first time in a very long time. I awoke often, heard many fictitious noises, and kept peaking to see when morning would come and my brain could rest. I was disappointed that this irrational fear had made a return, but I couldn’t turn it off. About 4:30AM, the light in the East grew stronger, and I finally got some sleep."
8/27, Tuesday (Quill Creek, Yukon to Yarger Lake Camp)
"Groggy wakeup, around 9:30, after losing that hour yesterday only to regain it today. Not really sure why I’m keeping track of time as if it really matters."
"… I felt something change today, like the way you feel rain coming… and that change was Fall. I felt it, it asked me to use two blankets for the first time since May in Oregon, it asked me to wear my down jacket more often than not, it asked me whether I really wanted to take that swim at lunch, to which I answered No but would later answer yes, YES! It’s the time of year where the No Vacancy signs remove the No and the first dusting of snow reaches the uppermost heights, as it did when I reentered the Yukon and saw the Yuke (as I like to call it) alive with real mountains, not merely an infinite pine tree in these parts."
"I drove down the narrow dirt road to Yarger Lake to inspect (although it was earlier than I had planned on stopping). Saw that all of the requirements existed here, so I pulled into site #11, right on the water, collected fire wood, and had my first naked swim in some time."
"After my gut-bomb dinner and quickly-burning but adequate campfire, I turned to the Lake for one last sunset peak before bed, around 8:30. The damn thing was fiery orange with purple and blue cloud reflections and the Wrangell-St Elias Range’s jagged teeth standing in a noble upright stance in the far distance, near the horizon. My brain was quiet, except for the thought that we had so many adventures ahead of us in this overwhelming place."
8/28, Wednesday (Yarger Lake Camp to Nelchina Glacier pullout)
"Probably another 2 days to Anchorage, could do it in 1, but why rush to the big city?"
"Got to Tok and and finally got a gas break… $4.15/gallon, felt like I had just hit the lottery. Met Bradley, the rural mail carrier for these parts. He loves living in the Bush and he’s "got two ex-wives in the lower 48… couldn’t get far enough from ‘em." He went on to warm me that 7 years ago, Tok reached -76.6F and that "trucks would drive in and their gears would freeze up." Warning for keeping Donnie here longer than his fill :)
"Talked to mom, told her I was eating Ramen. "You’ve resorted to that?" she said… little does she know about its perfect body-warming qualities on days like today."
"At 2:30 I made pancakes for the first time (great decision) and was eating them off my cutting board overlooking the Cooper River, when a couple from the Netherlands stopped. The old woman thought I was painting (Europeans), but I told her it was only pancakes that were painting my belly. She was very disappointed."
"After being stuck behind the school bus for the first time in 12 years,I met the road Laborer [what they call those who operate the stop/slow signs up here]. Kendall and I talked the whole 10 minutes I was waiting, and I learned why the laborers were almost all female. She said, “My theory is that if you’re going to tell someone they’re about to wait 10 minutes, they might take that better from a woman.”
"Found a nice pullout by the Nelchina glacier and typed a letter to Kyle about the Internet and made pork chop tacos and started reading, getting back to my road rhythm just to get out of it again tomorrow… the eternal change that the road is so good at.
8/29, Thursday (Nelchina Glacier pullout to Anchorage)
"… cold morning, need to check the elevation, I may have been higher than I thought. Temps felt below 40 for the first time in some time."
"Put on the arctic pack boots[knee-high rubber boots with insulator] - who knew how handy these would become? - could I have ever imagined trotting around Alaska in these things when I was 16 and looking through the LL Bean catalog to buy them? The answer to that rhetorical question is no, definitely no. But that I liked prancing around in the snow, shoveling the snow on the coldest Midwest mornings could or should have been foreshadowing of some sort.”
"This section of the highway (entering the Chugach Mountains) was the best since leaving Seattle — behind the first 4-5,000 foot peaks laid taller snow-covered peaks, their spines proudly boasting "climb me if you dare," their hanging glaciers somehow hanging on for dear life… and on-n-on into the infinite imagination. You know from the topographic map that an ice sea exists just out of the vision of the eye, which stokes the imagination that much more."
"Found a perfect lil’ pullout to make a bulging brunch and stare at the Chugach Range, which rose above a river and pines and foothills and more pines to the waterfalls that led to the glacier terminus. It’s brunches like this, letting this place that isn’t home but also is home, fill you completely with that feeling of Home. A feeling of ownership - you own it and it owns you, an equal respect between land and man. Here at this pullout, I felt home."
"Entering Palmer and then Anchorage was, not surprisingly, a bit of a shock. The comforts of community living - mostly grocery stores and strip malls and gas stations, plus other scars on the landscape - are unavoidable, unless you leave. The benefit is you get gas for $3.85/gallon and free wifi with a $2.50 cup of coffee. Amazing how quickly the wilderness butts up to the Land-of-Man out here. Bam… just like that… back in a city, a proper city, that is Anchorage… over 250,000 people, skyscrapers, a downtown, midtown, suburbs, etc. Not sure what I expected, but not something this big."
"… easy to be down on a place when you come in from the Bush on a dreary, rainy day. And so with that in mind, off to some lettered and numbered street I went to street-sleep with Donnie."