A psychic in upstate New York once told me I’d meet the love of my life on the road. That’s not why I moved into my campervan just two years after buying my first home. But I can’t say I didn’t consider the romantic possibilities of life in motion. I was broke and bored, terrified of settling for the wrong place or person, and looking in all directions for an alternative.
I found the 1986 GMC Vandura on Craigslist. Photos of the big white van with its red bumper and extended ceiling told a story of travel and life among big trees and bigger mountains. In one, the interior glowed through the doors like cottages do in fairy tales, an opening of warmth and comfort, surrounded by the dark forest at night. I wanted to crawl out of my job search and through that sliding door. I wanted to drive to the woods and forget about my mortgage. I texted the owner and bought the van the next day.
Here was my plan: I would rent out my house as a vacation home and hit the road whenever it was booked. I could be a homeowner with freedom. A van dweller with stability. It was just crazy enough to thrill me, and just practical enough to prove possible.
And I did it. People started booking my house, and I started living in my van. Sometimes I would get out of Portland and head to the mountains. Other times, I would stick around the city and park in crowded neighborhoods, my presence hidden by homemade window covers and Portland’s relentless rain. Living in a van proved challenging. I spent a lot of time looking for public restrooms and discrete places to park. But I also loved it. The smallness of that space felt like a hug, telling me this is right where you’re supposed to be.
One night I parked at a Walmart. I had an appointment nearby in the morning, and Walmarts are a popular go-to for RV and van travelers, thanks to their liberal policies around overnight parking.
I found a spot in the far corner of the lot. Just as I’d gotten comfortable, my phone buzzed with a text.
“Is this still you?” it read.
“Who? And who is this?” I wrote back.
“It’s Brian! I was just thinking about you.”
I hadn’t heard from Brian in almost 10 years, since we’d broken up.
My friend Jen and I had driven from Connecticut to Chicago on a whim, just weeks after graduating from college. Most of our friends were moving to New York City, an hour from our school, but we both felt drawn to go further. It was my first time in the Windy City, and I was transfixed by the glittering skyline.
We walked down a dark street lined with towering apartment buildings and ground-floor art galleries. At the end of this quiet tunnel of sleek architecture was the Ferris wheel of Navy Pier, its rotation of laughing riders making my head spin with romantic ideas.
“I’m going to find a boyfriend who lives in one of these places,” I told Jen.
Brian and I started dating just a month after I packed up my hatchback and moved there.
As it turns out, “Navy Pier is only for tourists,” Brian (whose name I’ve changed to protect his privacy) told me one night. I was sitting on his leather sofa, parting the blinds with two fingers while fireworks lit up the sky. It was not the first time I’d asked him to go with me to watch the fireworks over the Ferris wheel. I wanted to get out there into the night, into this new city I was trying to make my own.
“You couldn’t pay me to deal with those crowds.”
Brian was very committed to his lifestyle. No one was allowed to eat or drink in his BMW, and he would never go to Navy Pier. He had an expensive bike mounted on a clean white wall and he couldn’t wait to move back to Denver, where there were mountains and trails.
So I took the elevator to the ground floor on my own. I walked toward the Ferris wheel and let a few frustrated tears fall as families crowded me off the sidewalk, oblivious as they juggled their own realities—strollers and shopping bags and smaller versions of themselves.
We broke up shortly after that.
Three dots lingered on my phone as I sat in the van, waiting for another text, my body humming with confusion and curiosity.
“Can I call you?” he finally asked.
He talked about himself for awhile, with little explanation as to why he was calling. “I have a kid now. She’s awesome,” he told me.
Someone knocked on my window before I could respond, making me jump. Jackson, my dog, filled the van with his shrill barking. I dropped the phone and moved the curtain away from the passenger seat window. A security guard’s red, pinched face filled the open space where the last light of day might spill in.
“Are you trying to camp, ma’am? You can’t do that. You can’t park your van here.”
“But it’s Walmart…” I answered, confused.
“Lot’s owned by someone else. You’ll have to move.”
I assured him I would be on my way, then picked up my phone. Brian must have heard the whole ordeal.
“You’re... parked at a Walmart?” he asked. “In a van? Do you live in it?”
“I do. I also own a house!” My heart was racing from the confrontation. “This is just a way to make some extra money.”
I felt myself scrambling but couldn’t stop. My work was great. My dog was great. Didn’t he know lots of people live in their vans?
“Are you sure you’re okay?” he asked. “If you’re in a bad place and you need anything, I can help.”
I assured him I was just fine. “And really, are you okay?” I asked, suddenly wondering about the mother of his child and still confused about why he was calling.
“Well, you know. Marriage, mortgage, kid. Living the dream, right?”
He told me that his wife was asleep upstairs. And also, that if I ever found myself in Denver, we should get a drink.
I pictured him sipping expensive whiskey in front of a big screen while his family slept.
“I envy you, actually,” he said.
Brian asked if I would travel soon and I said yes, but I had no plans to pass through Denver.
I pictured him sitting in a finished basement of a house many times larger than the one I wasn’t currently living in, calling an ex from 10 years ago. His walls would still be white. I wondered if they’d ever watched fireworks together, Brian and his wife. I wanted to want him to be happy.
I drove to a nearby park to settle in again after hanging up. Tomorrow night I’d head out to the mountain, where fir trees would sparkle with dew in the morning. I never knew a forest so dense and green before I moved to this corner of the country.
I still haven’t met the love of my life on the road. A few months ago, I put the house up for sale. A big part of me would like to rent an apartment with a view of Portland. But then there’s the van, sitting out there on the rainy street, ready to go.
Britany Robinson is a freelance writer with endless curiosity for the people who make places unique. When she’s not tied to her computer, she’s exploring the mountains of the Pacific Northwest with her dog.