Author: John Lucas Kovasckitz
In two days, we’re leaving behind our dream kitchen. It’s full of natural light in the mornings, and usually smells of my wife’s coffee. The windows above the sink overlook a wooded area sloping sharply to a creek, and today melting snow lingers on the limbs outside. There are creaky hardwoods underfoot, with deep scratches - probably long ago from a beloved dog - and burn marks showing an outline of where a wood stove used to reside. Its cupboards and countertops are now bare, but cookbooks and handmade mugs were arranged just so on the shelves, with a red KitchenAid mixer on the counter. The kitchen drawers are the ones that you can’t slam shut - push them too hard and they glide into place. On the ceiling are a few yellowed spots from when the roof leaked on our first night in the house.
There’s a full basement below, and a loft above. In the adjoining living room is our rattly propane heater, next to which sat our record player. Bedroom to the left, bathroom to the right, and ahead is the guest room where we kept our large collection of books. Rocking chair and swing on the front porch, hot tub on the deck. From the front porch is a view of some of the surrounding ridges, and when the leaves are full the yard feels hidden from the rest of the world.
Simply put, we were renting a palace.
Danielle and I fell in love with this house a little over a year ago, and we’ve made it our home since. But somewhere in the hot tub, or on the way to the wine cellar (not really, but we do have a wine rack in the mud room…) we started dreaming about what it would be like to live in a van.
I think it was initially my wife’s idea. And that’s one of the great things about her: she’s up for trying crazy things. Because it is crazy. We realize that.
We began following a lot of Instagram accounts of people building out vans, and watched a lot of YouTube videos. We’re not trailblazers (sure, there were the original hippies), but there has been a recent upsurge of people - climbers, surfers, overall adventurers and lovers of travel - that have created a growing community of Vanlifers.
Although our building experience together collectively amounted to nil, Danielle was ambitious enough to believe that we could create our own home in a van, and she was convincing enough to persuade me.
We searched religiously for vans, and inevitably the ones we wanted were snatched away (or turned out to be Craigslist scams), but we managed to testdrive a few in the process. We looked at an older Ford in Waxhaw - not quite up to par, but owned by a friendly man who gave us glasses of sweet tea and eggs from his chickens as we left.
We tested an enormous Mercedes Sprinter - essentially a bus, that through a miracle I didn’t use to kill several people. The lot where it was parked was on a slope, and after putting it in drive I pushed the brakes to the floor (or so I thought), and yet still we were rolling faster and faster towards the road and traffic. It was fast-motion and slow-motion at the same time, and I remember yelling, “It’s not stopping! It’s not stopping!” Cars were coming quickly from both directions, and I rolled in front of one car that was able to stop, and hesitated on the gas before a car (that I didn’t see at all) sped past in the opposite direction. If I wouldn’t have hesitated on the gas, someone probably would have been killed...my wife, brother-in-law, mother-in-law, and the owner were also in the van - as well as the other drivers on the road. We pulled over, and I realized that my shoe had been caught on a lip a couple of inches before the brakes would have been fully floored. I was mortified, sweating bullets, and was fairly shaken up for days replaying it in my mind.
The Mercedes was rusty and had several warning lights engaged, but needless to say, we didn’t buy it. Danielle and I became discouraged with the search, and I vowed to stop looking for a certain amount of time for the sake of both our sanities. After about a week, I cheated and found Wadlow.
Wadlow is a 2008 Ford E250 with a high roof, which - at full height standing within - my head barely grazes the ceiling and Danielle is fine and dandy. Wadlow is tall, white, and a little dorky but loveable - aptly named after the late Robert Wadlow, who stood at 8’11”. He was “The Giant of Illinois”, and the tallest man who ever lived.
Our Wadlow came complete with berber carpet and ugly blinds, so we took it camping the first week. It was fairly functional as it was - before we ripped, unscrewed, and overall demolished the interior and threw its contents onto our driveway.
Sweet Lord, have mercy on us. We don’t know what we're doing.
Thank God for Josh, Danielle’s younger brother. He’s nineteen, and yet somehow has watched enough how-to videos to know how to do an array of handy things with confidence that we certainly don’t have. He was our general contractor; he wandered the aisles of Lowe’s Hardware with us (where inevitably I would become overwhelmed, and Danielle and I would get into a fight), he took our calls when we were in over our heads more than usual, and we bribed him with food to come guide and assist for long days on several occasions.
We certainly couldn’t have done it without Josh, but I’m incredibly proud of my wife and I (cue sequence music). We learned how to use power tools together, we laid floors together, we dreamed together. We sanded, stained, drilled, cut, painted, and we measured twice and cut once (although sometimes we still measured wrong). Building out a van is incredibly difficult. Hardly anything is square - the walls curve, the roof slopes, there are weird tubes and wires to factor, you generally can't drill where you'd like, and sometimes even nineteen-year-old wonderboy doesn’t have the answers.
But looking back and seeing Wadlow now, we kicked ass. Right out of town.
But all of this still certainly begs the foundational question: why? Why give up the palace for the chariot? The palace has ample electricity, a fridge and oven, a comfortable (large) bed, space for family and friends and all of our books and records and instruments and our red KitchenAid and our Christmas tree and our TV, and not to mention running water...leading to things we will unfortunately notably not have in the van - a toilet and shower...
The simple answer is this: because we want to live differently.
Danielle and I work half the month - week on, week off, fully immersed care - at a cottage (which, you will be happy to know, has toilets and showers) living with children within the foster care system. Collectively, Danielle and I pull an entry-middle-class salary, which around $1,000 per month was directed towards the rent and utilities for our house, where at most we were spending half the month. We love to travel, to meet new people and to explore new places, but our living situation made us far less likely to do so with our expensive rental house sitting empty.
Living in a van will cause us to buy less stuff, and to greater value experience and time together. Two plates, two bowls, two spoons…
We’ve been purging heavily over the last few months in preparation for move-out day - which the headache and process of subleasing our house is a novel in itself. We’ve given away many of our possessions and stored the rest that have made the cut, and it’s caused us to ask ourselves what we actually need to be happy. We’re planning on downsizing to one cell phone to share (without a data plan), and my beloved Subaru that I bought when I was eighteen will soon go up for sale.
We bought Wadlow in cash for $13,500, and have put about $2,000 in additions. It has 76k on the odometer, and around $15k for (hopefully) a reliable car and home in one isn’t too bad. No rental payments, no car payments, no debt.
For our time in the van, we want to live simply. We want to read good books and to write. We want to volunteer on small farms in the area when we aren’t working, and to visit with friends and family. We want to hike and camp in new places. It won’t be easy, we know this...we’ll be two people living in 65 square feet. We’ll fight sometimes. We’ll smell bad at times, and probably have a close call or two looking for a bathroom. We’ll measure twice, cut once, and still get it wrong in a lot of areas.
But I think that one day looking back, we’ll say that we kicked ass. Right out of town.
We’re excited to take our home with us on the road, and to see where it leads. I think the real answer to the question of why we’re doing this in the first place is simply this: we have no idea. We have no idea where we’re headed or why, but the unknown is calling and we are answering as practically as we know how.
Follow the unknown and see where it leads. Give up the palace for the chariot in your own way, and you may find that your comfort was a cheap sacrifice for the adventure and beauty ahead. We’ll see you on the road.