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  • Writer's pictureScott Carnahan

Van Life Guide: Not All Motor Oil and Roses

So you think you can Van Life?

The Spirit of the West van parked in the desert in front of a mountain range, with stormy skies overhead obscuring the setting sun

The Spirit Of The West - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan


Sitting under the stars atop a rock overlooking a moon-lit forest of Joshua Trees was the perfect time to discuss the pains of life. Six years of city life were taking their toll on my girlfriend and I. At twenty six years old, we'd spent the entirety of our young life either striving for success in school or in our careers, and everything was beginning to lose its magic.

On that special February night in Joshua Tree it was obvious to us both that a change was needed. Losing yourself in nature delivers a unique chance to revisit life with fresh eyes. A Joshua Tree doesn't try to be a Joshua Tree, it just is. The coyotes and crows don't strive for anything, they rely on instinct and simply live for every moment. When you can step back from the stress and anxiety of human life, it allows you to see what needs improving.

a solitary, noble Joshua Tree against a night sky laced with wispy clouds

Joshua Tree National Park, CA - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan

This was 2015, #VanLife had yet to be a popular hashtag. These were the early days of the modern outdoor movement, and both of us were highly passionate about nature; a world we'd felt too disconnected from after many years in Los Angeles. By some divine intervention I stumbled upon the book "Walden on Wheels", a memoir by Ken Ilgunas. A hero to anyone with debt - Ken set out on a three year quest that took him from New York to Alaska, where he embraced frugality inspired by Henry David Thoreau while working odd jobs to clear his $32,000 in debt. It was his goal to avoid accruing further financial obligation while attending Duke University. Accepting the challenge he opted to live in a van - parked in the campus parking lot. He embraced the essence of Thoreau's "Walden" while dodging campus police and enduring the challenges of a confined space. “Walden on Wheels” was published on May 14th, 2013 - Ken is one of our generation's original van life legends. He found promise in the lifestyle far before anyone ever made a dime as a #VanLife influencer.

I saw my van on May 14th - two years to the day since Ken's book was published. A full circle moment that, like the book itself - is forever printed on my mind. A 1988 Ford Econoline with a folding couch bed and camper top; a refrigerator, closet, shower, and toilet. More creature comforts than Ken's van, but this beast was meant for the open road; headlong into the wind at 55 miles per hour… and 12 miles to the gallon, with a steering wheel that danced as if it were a boat. I had my first experience driving this magnificent yacht on four wheels down U.S. 395, the beautiful byway that runs along the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains and down through the Mojave Desert. A radical first road to take my future home down while the whipping wind played with the top heavy camper - keeping my heart rate high as the van teased with toppling over.

But there I was, at the very beginning of my very own Van Life Adventure.

The Spirit Of The West van parked on US Route 395 in front of the staggeringly beautiful Sierra Nevada Range, with streaking clouds amidst blue skies overhead

The Spirit of the West on Route 395, NV - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan

It took us two months to remodel the van and sell off the majority of our belongings, as the thick fog known as 'June Gloom' covered coastal Los Angeles. The weather symbolizing the very fog of life we were intending to burn off. And we did! We left the gloom in the rearview - the van rolling north through the San Gabriel mountains, riding on the wings of adventure. We were in our new home on four wheels, the spare tire cover on the back reading #TheSpiritoftheWest, as we rode hell-bent and heart-first into the great beyond.

The Spirit Of The West van parked at night, nestled among the trees of Sequoia National Park

The Spirit of the West in Sequoia National Park, CA - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan

The leviathan moan of a semi truck's engine brake snapped us awake; we were hungover and covered in sweat again. The curtains of the van were closed, making it hard to remember exactly where we were: Was this Florida? Iowa? Maryland? It wasn't any of the above, we'd made it back to our home state of Nevada. The reason for the hangover being a misadventure in the Bonneville Salt Flats the day before; Nevada's casinos making up for Utah's mud. This was another exciting morning waking up with the urgent need to pee - now a normal part of life on the road. Squeezing through tight confines with a full bladder is a challenge, and was the main reason why we never slept in the narrow bounds of the pull out bed in the camper top.

The heat of Northern Nevada's early morning sun was already at work, emphasizing the hangover as we shuffled across the parking lot and into the casino - neither of us talking in order to conserve energy. This morning, like many others, regret ran through our minds - wishing we'd kept the toilet in the rear compartment of the van. A regret that always seemed to fade upon enjoying the added space between our refrigerator and closet. The added storage in place of the strange, cramped, shower in the rear.

Spirit of the west camper van interior
Spirit of the west camper van interior
Spirit of the west camper van interior

An array of moments, stretched out across 30,000+ miles, showcased the grit of Van Life. Bedding down in the parking lot of an Arkansas Wal-Mart, being watched by shifty eyes. An Oklahoma rest stop - sleeping with a Red Ryder BB gun to keep away the fears of roadside robbery. The cowboy hat clad road worker waking us up on a dirt road in Utah. A flat tire in Northeastern Oregon - saved by the kindness of locals. Drinking beer on the steps of the Lincoln Monument in the National Mall in DC. A gas tank overfill that led to a siphoning experience on the side of a Louisiana highway. Speeding to camp in the abysmal swamps of North Carolina, on bridges over dark water with no phone service. A sweaty hangover in a New Orleans RV park, and a race across East Texas to make it home after my father's heart attack.

The Adventures of the Spirit of the West were well catalogued on our old blog, the wealth of experience from the year 2015 that seemed to be the catalyst for our adulthood. Our friends and family assumed that we'd snapped, losing our minds in this dual mid-life crisis, but we felt as if we were reborn; children of the road - raised to adventure. It is one thing to live constantly moving and exploring - but things changed as we got a gig as night security for a ski area in Lake Tahoe. By November 1st, the van was covered in two feet of snow - entrapped behind the lodge, where we would live until that snow was coerced once again into water by the Nevada sun.

Spirit of the west camper van, snowed in at a ski lodge in Lake Tahoe

Snowed in up at Lake Tahoe, CA - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan

The winter was an adventure in itself. Learning to live in the tiny and frozen confines of the van, staying up all night for the job while huddling around a small electric heater. The lodge provided power and a restroom - though walking through the dark halls in the middle of the night was often unsettling, especially after employees shared their multitude of ghost stories about the old building. Sunrises were the mark of coming bedtime, and sunsets began our day for three months. Come early March, the snow was low enough for a tractor to pull us out - finally freeing The Spirit of the West from icy confinement. We sped our way south, intending to spend the springtime boondocking around the Mojave Desert until we could find work back in Los Angeles. It was ten months to the day that we'd left when we once again moved into a small apartment back in Southern California.

Moving out of the van and into an apartment brought a mix of feelings. Through our window we could see it parked with sunlight shimmering off the camper top - as if it was screaming to feel the wind once more. Pitying us for giving up on it; seeming to forget our frenzied bathroom needs, roadside anxieties, and close calls with strangers thousands of miles away from loved ones. True Van Life isn't something you can show on social media, it is sweaty and freezing; terrifying and exciting; inspiring and devastating. It will show you the inner workings of your psyche as you face challenge after challenge. Some days you smell, finding yourself covered in motor oil and exhausted from the day's chores; and other days you've bathed in a river and find yourself in an open field of super-bloom flowers upon the desert.

Spirit of the west camper van parked in Death Valley National Park amidst a Super Bloom of flowers on the desert grounds

Super-Bloom in Death Valley, CA - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan

The Van Life is a fantastic way to discover who you truly are. The way you occupy yourself completely unplugged while worrying about the weather; how you find yourself waking up each morning; and how you face the darkness of each night. Each and every mile that passed under those four divine wheels brought me closer to who I am today. I think back on the time in the van with great appreciation; knowing that in some way it saved both of our lives because it forced us to reshape our thought patterns with each challenge. It was absolutely the most influential period of my life, and because of that I decided to tattoo it on my left arm. I will never forget the many challenges my passion for the road has brought, and each beautiful lesson I've learned because of it.

Scott's tattoo commemorating his van life experience, black and white drawing of a range of icons representing Los Angeles, storms, the open road, the desert, the night sky, the camper van, and maybe some aliens

Scott's Tattoo, (his arm) - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan


Join us next Monday on the Pathloom Blog as we continue with part 2 of Scott's Van Life series, going into detail about Boondocking, finding free places to park your van for the night to sleep, finding showers, and more!


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