For This Couple, #VanLife Led to Married Life
John and I bought the van the June before last in a parking lot below the Rattlesnake range in Montana: a 1990 Forest Service Ford in that perfect mint green the agency phased out for cheaper white jobs in the early aughts. A rare-ish vehicle, for what we hoped would be a rare-ish life. For the next year, we’d try to live in that van. Neither of us remembers who thought of it. The main point was, we wanted to think about the idea of home pragmatically: It must be conceived of in ways that can be tested. What does home look like when you wake up somewhere different every morning? To a thin chain of stars, or a gash in sea-soaked clouds. You look at the sky and decide what it will do. Then you decide what you will do.
One of our first stops is the pipeline protest at Standing Rock in North Dakota. When we leave after a short stay, a tribal elder calls out, “There goes the green van. Are y’all coming back?” John smiles, and we say nothing. Who, honestly, knows? What we want is the not-knowing. Not knowing where we’ll sleep or shower, or if it will be too windy on a cliff off the 1 in California to light the propane stove to brew our morning coffee. We get so lost in personal time, in the unspectacular concerns of survival or desire, that we forget, often gladly, that somewhere a television is blaring the end of the world. We end up driving into New Orleans in the middle of Mardi Gras, navigating around potholes and mermaids. We stop sleeping in Walmart parking lots after I get harassed by a zealous mall cop in South Florida, who shines his flashlight in my eyes and laughs as I trip over the tiki torch display on my way to find John by the sale for citronella, a bandanna around his mouth to keep out the nauseous foam of mosquitoes. Turns out we’re only 20 minutes from the Everglades. We arrive at Lone Pine Key Campground at 1 a.m. and stay for a week in the denlike swamp with the wet heat and the reptiles. In northwest Texas, we try to map out a trip to the canyon at Palo Duro, but a ranch fire keeps us from entering the park, so that canyon will always be burning for us.
The summer before we left Montana, when I worked a steady job at a bookstore and John worked a steady job at a theater, when we were boyfriend and girlfriend who’d just begun living together, he started fixing up the rig. He built a frame for our mattress and put in what he calls our “solar system”: a few plates and panels and a box that together take the sun and turn it into what cools our yogurt and charges our laptops. We hid books beneath the mattress and filled all the van’s nooks with them, too. Books on travel, books on dogs, books we could read to each other as we fell asleep: A Secular Age, a Bible, A Time of Gifts. I glued an incense burner to the dash, tucked some sticks from the banks of the Clark Fork River under the window. Those sticks, smooth as lamb’s ears from years of lapping water, were John’s first gift to me, and they got pride of place, in front of us, where they’d reflect in the curve of the windshield, glinting there between shadows, as if beckoning again from the river. I made the bed up with his grandmother’s crocheted throw, strung up copper lights. We bought a used copy of Anna Karenina on CD, sold our furniture, and left.
Time to go. Which is to say: Time to stay our course. Be perpetual. Ann Arbor, Unionville, St. Pete, Marathon, Olympia. We left home to engage with the unknown, but what we find is a profound order in our life inside the van. How we talk and move around each other, who cleans and cooks and makes repairs. We find ourselves not in the scenes and stories we were pursuing, but in each other.
Halfway through the trip, John proposes on a beach in South Carolina. From that moment, temporality is no longer rendered by what passes and changes but by what’s fixed: This will be our family, around which all else can circle. I say yes, and under Christmas lights in Charleston that night, John’s mouth is crinkled like the moon off breakers. Six weeks later, in February, just after our democracy is handed over, we’re married. The two of us, in Florida, where there is no waiting time for a license, no permanent address required, no commitment to place but the one beside the other.
Over the many months seated next to John in the van, watching the highway in front of us, I realize we are admitting more to each other in better ways than if we were across a table with a candle and soft talk between us. There are certain beliefs, rules you live by, that are tested just by committing them to speech. But when someone is staring right at you, you can grow worried that you’re explaining yourself all wrong, or revealing a gap in knowledge, or becoming unable to admit that the thing you just said aloud you no longer believe. Love is often told in lingering eye contact and wide-eyed, whispered admission; in your gaze you’re meant to reflect your partner to themselves. But we’re always at risk, with that gaze, of becoming the reflection that insists on replacing its object, like wedding photographs of people long dead that ask us to remember them young and happy.
Sometimes John and I fight for hours while we drive. We fight about family—why did I
reveal that detail about his sister to his brother? Or because I should have remembered he hates pancakes, or because he did nothing for my birthday and assumed I wouldn’t care—we had no money; what did I expect? We’re fighting about things we did that we shouldn’t have done; we’re fighting for what we want to become. Until night falls, when we park on dark residential streets or in state parks, and lie facing each other in bed, hearing coyotes, waves, or the highway, sensing each other’s breath and body but still unable to see the other’s face, and we find resolution, feeling into what we cannot see. Frank Bidart’s description of a lasting love: “Two people / staring not at each other / but in the same direction.”
A year later, we’re back in Montana. We’ll stay a week, then put everything we’d left in storage into a U-Haul and head out to a new home in the middle of the country. Our friends are in Missoula, our old jobs, our teachers, old lovers, the bars. When I got married, I thought it was a way to escape, to move beyond the confusion of my past: who I was, what I wanted, what I’d done and to whom. I took my husband’s name partly to make it harder to be found—by people I’d known as much as by myself. Things would clarify then, simplify, settle. But by the time our trip is over, it’s clear that in committing to a life with John, the possible worlds I can inhabit are expanding. The ways in which our life can change, the things we can discover together, double, then triple, and will continue to multiply. A teacher told us before we left Montana, “The most radical thing you can do in this day and age is stay in the same place.” He was talking about how capitalism prompts people to follow “opportunity”—desperate for work or cheaper living, or from a real belief that out there life could be better. Keep moving. Keep trying. Progress. But the deeper learning that comes when you aren’t just passing through—a town, a state, a person’s life—could be radical and expansive and brave and have enormous creative power. When you have to figure out a way to make it work.
The Clark Fork River has soft, beachy pockets of still water you can wade into. Fish often feed there, pausing on their way through water to more water. Their mouths to the surface, seed-size pockets contract and expand like galaxies forming and fading in time-lapse. It’s cold when I visit, the sky grows deeper and blacker. When it rains, I tell myself, I’ll go back: back to my husband, back to bed in the van that in a few days we’ll take back on the road—to move to the new place we’ll call home. I watch the river for a sign of weather, but the fish are teasing the face of the water and the puckering there might not be rain. So I stay a bit longer, until I feel it.