No Phone, No Pool, No Pets

Living in a van

RECENTLY I went around a small western city looking at used cars for sale. I needed a four-wheel-drive vehicle with room enough to sleep in. When I told the sellers this, they always said, "Yeah, I've slept in this," or "I've spent many a night in this." Then they would open up the back of the vehicle and we would stand with our hands in our pockets and contemplate its interior space--the fold-down seats, the carpet on the wheel wells--in companionable silence. Sometimes we would talk about what various cars are like to sleep in--about the relative comfort of a Chevy Blazer, say, where you can stretch out in the back, versus a Ford Bronco, where you have to lie diagonally. All the sellers were male and over twenty-one years old. In my experience, anyone in that category out west has spent a certain amount of time living in a car.

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For me, the first time was in a blue Chevy van. The year I turned thirty, something came over me and I left my apartment in New York City and flew to northern Michigan and walked and hitchhiked to a small town and bought a used van and paid a local mechanic who said he specialized in van conversions to put a bed and a fold-down desk in it. The pattern he chose for the back-window curtains exactly duplicated the tread mark of a heavy-duty tire. I lived in the van at a public campground for nine weeks or so, in the spring and early summer. During the days I read the middle volumes of Remembrance of Things Past on a hill above my campsite, and in the evenings I fished a nearby trout stream. One evening on the stream I met a good fisherman named Neal, and after we had talked a while, he asked where I lived. I told him I lived in my van. "It's tough living out of your vehicle," he said, flicking his Marlboro butt into the current. Until then I hadn't considered whether living in a van was difficult or easy or anything at all. At night when I got up to go to the bathroom, I would turn on the overhead light dangling from its two wires, put on my shoes, climb over the front seat, open the driver's-side door, climb out, and close it with a sound that was singular and lonesome in the stillness. Sunrise in midsummer at that latitude was at about six o'clock, and as soon as the light hit the van's metal it started to tick, and the air inside got stuffy, and the sleeping flies awoke and headed for my nostrils. I would climb out unwillingly at six-fifteen with nothing to do but sit at the picnic table and yawn: a tough way to live, as I now saw.

I owned the van for four years and drove it all over the country--to both coasts, and to Canada and southern Texas. I had a real place to live, a house or an apartment, during that time, but the van was my second address. Living in it on the road was different from living in it at a campsite. At a campsite you get used to your surroundings over time, but on the road each new place you stop for the night has a strangeness that makes for fitful sleep. Ideally I wanted to stop before dark, so that I could take a wide-range view of the surroundings and dispel a recurring fear that I had accidentally parked on an airplane runway. But in practice I usually stopped after sunset and could judge my sleeping spot only by what showed in the headlights. I wanted places that were quiet but not scarily remote. I learned to identify and avoid lovers' lanes, which would crowd up with cars later on and draw cruising cops, and teen party spots, full of shouts and breaking glass and engine roar. Any edge-of-town place I stopped I always checked for cigarette-butt heaps and sacks of empty beer cans.

IF you spend a lot of time in your vehicle with the motor off, you will find that it has a consciousness like any quick thing. Just as a horse is aware of other horses, a car is aware of other cars. If you are parked by the side of the road and another car goes speeding by, your car will shiver in longing and sympathy. When a big truck passes, your car will flutter in awed excitement for minutes afterward. Even passing airplanes cause it to prick up its ears. Sleeping in a car is harder to do if the car is not itself asleep. For its comfort I always tried to park near other sleeping vehicles. Idling trucks snoring at a truck stop provided a good neighborhood. Once, not in the van but in a vehicle that succeeded it, I found myself in a western Nebraska town on the Saturday night after an important school football game, perhaps the liveliest night the town would see all year. Parking on the streets was out of the question, police were high-beaming the town park, and no truck stops happened to be close by. Passing a used-car lot, I noticed an empty space in the back row. I pulled into it, shut down my lights and engine, and climbed into the back. Among the sleeping used cars my car and I spent as peaceful a night as we ever had.

WHEN you first get under your blankets or into your sleeping bag in your car, usually you lie quietly and just watch for a while. Your mind naturally will parse the lights and shadows filling the car's interior, will assign to each shadow its corresponding streetlight and to each moving plane of light the traffic pattern from which it comes. What you don't want at all is to have parked in a place where passing headlights fall right on your face. Also, for a while you listen--to engines near and farther away, to tires bumping over cattle guards, to wind. My van had leaky skylights, which I was always patching with sealant and waterproof tape, so in even the lightest rain I listened for drips. At the side of untraveled county roads I have tensed to the sound of my own stomach rumbling, so similar to the quiet crunch of gravel under the wheels of a car with headlights turned off, sneaking up to do me harm. But from a supine position inside a car you will never detect approaching people as easily as they will detect you. Once, parked in the parking lot of a railroad station, I woke to see a bearded man in multiple layers of clothes peering through the driver's-side window. For some reason I quickly grabbed a road map and became intent over it, as if I were a traveler who had paused only a moment to get his bearings. The bearded man rapped on the window and I reached across and rolled it down. "I seen you last night," he said reprovingly. "You sleep here, same as me."

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