There is so much history being written this year. In years to come, we’ll reflect on cultural and policy shifts and remember 2020 as the pivot point. These past 10 months have been a catalyst at the micro level as well. As individuals, we are assessing through this new worldview and rewriting our personal stories. Quarantine slowed us down, returned us to the quieter rhythms of life. Zoom and Google Meets have shown us how much can be done from our kitchen tables—sans pants, even! We have learned the privilege of being outside in the sunshine and how little we actually need to make our lives feel full. As the fear, frustration and uncertainty subside, may these happy discoveries remain.
If you think our mountain towns have felt busier than ever this year, you’re not wrong. It is this phenomena driving Denverites and suburbanites into our hills in large quantities, on more days than just the weekends. As the masses press further out of the city in droves, so is there an exodus into wilder lands. What was once reserved for two weeks of family vacation or for the more extreme adventurers has now become a lifestyle for many, simply because, well, they can.
According to professionals in the RV lifestyle industry, the market for camper vans is up more than 100 percent in general, and as much as 500 percent in some segments, says a representative of Flarespace, a locally-owned van accessory company. Whether people have lost jobs and are cutting expenses, or they’ve determined that their once in-person job can be accomplished from anywhere they can get cell reception; whether the outdoors has always called, or COVID-19 has introduced fresh air to a new audience; the fact remains that more and more Americans are hitting the road, taking the trail and finding that the adventurous lifestyle suits them just fine.
The campsites of Colorado suggest this is true. “Outside everywhere lately has been more full,” says Matt Appel. Appel, who took to a nomadic lifestyle long before COVID-19 struck, was raised in Conifer and works here as a carpenter, but is known to pack up his current rig (once a sailboat, once a Volkswagen, now a big truck) and head for spots that he could once count on for some quiet. “You have to know spots where other people aren’t likely to be to have seclusion,” Appel says. “Seclusion is a big part of the lifestyle.”
But, for as much as people “want to get away,” the Van Life (which endearingly includes the nomadic lifestyle of living out of one’s vehicle) has even greater elements of community. “You can roll up to a campsite in Joshua Tree and park next to a similar vehicle, and you automatically feel like you’re allowed to approach that person,” Appel explains. “Chances are, you’re going to end up drinking a beer with that person because you’re in the same place, in the same situation. And generally, the [van] crowd is outgoing and social.” In a phrase, you get the sense of, “These are my people.”
In the adventurer world, these people, who feel like they belong to you, are also the people you belong to. It isn’t just a community based on similar interests or styles of living, but of genuine care and camaraderie. “If you’re in a van and you see one on the side of the road, it’s almost like an obligation to stop and help, and then you keep driving. People have stopped for us too,” Appel says. “I feel like, deep down, people feel good when they help other people and they have knowledge that somebody else needs because they’ve been there and done that—and there might be more of that now. More human connection.”
Certainly, we’ve reawakened to human connection during this strange moment in history, much like we’ve connected back to that which is truly important. For many hoping to preserve this feeling of focused simplicity, moving off-grid has been ideal. Appel agrees. “The freedom is unparalleled. You can do what you want. You have options. If you decide that your original plan isn’t a good one, you can change it. You can go somewhere else and have a different set of experiences.”
More and more, flexibility is an option as employees everywhere continue to work from home. Appel suggests, however, that when choosing the Van Life, flexibility becomes like a religion. “You have to plan,” he advises. “Things don’t just come together. You also have to understand that you don’t have control. You can plan something out to a certain extent, with a certain itinerary, but all of a sudden, a wrench gets thrown in. You can only plan so far.”
As much as this suggests that anything could go wrong, it’s also necessary to leave space for the flip side of the coin: anything could happen. And this, Appel says, outweighs concerns with a sense of thrill. “It’s still fun and exciting,” he exclaims. “It’s easy to focus on the things that go wrong, but I’ve never known freedom like when I’m living out of a vehicle.”
There are some things that can be accounted for. For example, professional adventurers set goals and questions as guidelines: What will be your source of income? Are you a weekend warrior or a long-haul adventurer? Are you following the snow or chasing the sun? Appel, too, has some broad advice that can take first-time adventurers a long way. “The number one thing… ” he says, “every single thing you are bringing with you needs to have a home.” What sounds like an elementary suggestion is actually the framework for success. “If you’re in a vehicle and something doesn’t have a proper place, it’s actually going to get in your way. It gets chaotic.”
A close second to space management is time management—though Appel’s suggestion is to be less stringent. “Sometimes people go on a trip with expectations of seeing certain places and ending up somewhere specific, with certain stops along the way. I can almost guarantee they don’t hit all of those places in those number of days.” This is where the unique beauty of a traveling lifestyle shines, however. “Sometimes you stop someplace and it touches you,” says Appel. “You might want to stay there more than your one-night plan. That makes it more rich than making all of those other stops combined. Experience each moment as it happens.”
Van Life manifests the adage that we love to use but have trouble executing—it really is about the journey. Throughout the year, we have been finding joy in the everyday, but when you’re on a 10-hour stretch of seemingly mundane highway, it can be difficult to put those words into practice. “Chances are, there is a lot of beauty somewhere in that 10 hours of driving,” muses Appel. “You’re going to experience it whether you want to or not, but my advice is, just soak it up. Honestly, the slower things are, the happier you are—or at least I am.”
Matt’s List of Must-Haves
for Life on the Road
- You need a place to sleep—preferably one that’s insulated. “Even a sleeping pad in the back of a van can make you a lot more comfortable.”
- An awning (for a van) or some form of shelter. “If you’re happy with the inside of your rig, next focus on your outdoor living space. It’ll heighten your experience to not be baking in the sun.”
- Figure out your coffee situation (and how to boil water). “I’m really attached to my coffee press. All you have to be able to do is boil water. The difference is night and day—you can make so many good meals just by having water.
- Extra gas. “I’ve only needed it twice, but it’s a nice thing to put a little money into for that peace of mind.”
- A heater. “I highly, highly recommend this. If it’s cold outside but you have a heater, sleeping in a vehicle is way more pleasant.”