Vanlife

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.

It’s a complete roll of the dice every time you spin the keys, and this is exactly why I needed this van. I wanted a van that would become a relationship, not a simple utility. Catherine’s family understood this sort of delirium. 

"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. 

[All images by Catherine Abegg]

 

 Michael and Matt suss out an oil leak that's been coming from the '86 Volkswagen Vanagon
 Michael and Matt suss out an oil leak that's been causing issues on the '86 Volkswagen Vanagon
 A portrait Catherine took of me in my '86 Volkswagen Vanagon named Donnie
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