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."

Because your car is your main companion, your transportation, and your shelter twenty-four hours a day, you can develop a relationship with it that edges at times into the unhealthy. An early symptom is the anxiety that comes over you at the thought of being parted from your car for any duration. This makes engine breakdown and even simple tuneups events of greater stress than they would be for an average motorist. Once, near Canyon, Texas, my van developed trouble in the solenoid. At unpredictable moments it wouldn't start. I took it to a service station, where it refused to start at all. A mechanic named Harry Buster examined it and told me what part I needed and that it would take a few days for him to get one. We rolled the van to his small lot out back and got to talking. Harry Buster was a descendant of the famous pioneer cattleman Oliver Loving, and knew many details of a battle Oliver Loving had with the Comanche which I had never read anywhere. At some point I offhandedly mentioned that of course I would be living in my van in his lot until the van was repaired. I have suppressed the memory of Mr. Buster's reaction to this news. I do know that I walked with my suitcase to the cheapest motel in Canyon and waited out the operation there.

WHEN I was little, my parents could drive great distances without tiring. They would load my brothers and sisters and me into the back of the station wagon and drive from our house in Ohio straight through until we were way out west. My father liked to drive at night; often we would go to sleep in one landscape and wake to find another, completely different, in its place. On our way back from Arizona one winter we went to bed with windows down in spring weather in the Ozarks and woke in a snowstorm someplace in Illinois. During the night Dad had rigged a long tubular duct out of a bedsheet and safety pins and attached it to a vent under the dashboard, to bring warm air to the back. I remember the ingenuity of this device, and us kids warm in our blankets, and the snow-covered farmland outside. I suppose that happy moments like that are what I hoped to reproduce as a grown-up spending the night in my car.

And, despite the frequent lonesomeness and strangeness of the experience, I sometimes succeeded. Falling asleep by a side road, I could feel as if I were a tiny part of something big, a corpuscle in a bloodstream. Though waking up in a motel room is always more or less the same, waking up in a car is different every time. The sunlight, the windshield vista, the morning sense of renewal, the thought of the forty dollars saved on a motel--all can combine to create an unexpected burst of exhilaration. Once, after spending a week with a person I was writing about in San Antonio, I got in my van and drove 400 miles at night through the Texas Hill Country and onto the high plains. I pulled over, slept, woke at dawn, got out. The land was vast and flat, and the day empty of obligation. Sun streamed from the eastern horizon and the wind carried the smell of dust and cured hay. I drove to a café and ordered a big breakfast and began to eat. The waitress came to ask how everything was, and I said, "Great! Just great!" and she backed away from me cautiously, eyes wide.

Now the sight of junk cars makes me think of the hours people spent in them, driving and waking and sleeping. At a monster-truck car-crushing competition I went to--an event where souped-up pickup trucks with tires six feet across try to crush as many junk cars as they can--I looked through binoculars at an about-to-be-crushed sedan. Someone had left a magazine on the ledge behind the back seat, under the rear window. On the back cover of the magazine was an ad for a premium Scotch. The monster truck roared onto the sedan's trunk, all the sedan's tires went flat, its window imploded, and the forgotten magazine disappeared under shattered glass.

The time people spend in houses, the sense of life lived there, stays with the houses even as they fall apart. Lived-in houses, no matter how ramshackle, somehow remain animate, storied. But the time people spend in their cars seems to have no dignifying effect on the cars at all.

After I had driven my van for about 80,000 miles, I returned to New York for a while and left the van in a paid parking lot on a pier by the Hudson River. One day I came to check on it and saw that the doors were open. Thieves had broken in, and had cut parts from the engine. They had cranked open the skylights, too; the time of year was early summer, and I knew that they, like me, had found out how stuffy the van could get in the sun. I called a wrecker to come for the corpse. I imagined welding long steel spikes to the van's roof, so that it could never be used in a monster-truck car-crushing show. But I didn't actually do that, of course. I watched the van recede up the West Side Highway, tilted at that woeful angle behind the tow truck. I walked back to my apartment, surprised to discover that although my van was gone, apparently I was still in this world.

Illustration by Caty Bartholomew

The Atlantic Monthly; March 1996; No Phone, No Pool, No Pets; Volume 277, No. 3; pages 48-49.