Thought-provoking like granite since 2015

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#vanlife

#vanlife

{ Writing and art by the great and spectacular and lovely Astra Lincoln herself }

The story we tell about living in a van (or a truck camper, or over the folded-down seats of a hatchback) goes that it is a sort of moveable feast. That it’s a room with a view. That one morning, many winters ago, a sweet boy spent a whole morning making eyes at her through coffee steam. He broke the silence of the horizon cracked open by the rising sun, and said, “every morning could be like this”: cold, fragile, vaguely odorous of propane from the leaky two-burner, wherever the fuck they felt like waking up, drinking joe under two or three layers of goose down until the day had warmed.

The story goes that, in some fit of love-drunk courage, two kids drove 1,500 miles each to meet up for a beer in the desert. That the desert sky sparkled with as much might as everyone had always promised. That there’s something about pounding pavement and listening to the sound of stranger’s laughter that will always make life seem easy.

The story goes that there is freedom in a future without walls. The mirror-image of the same cliché claims that only shackled to the road may I find freedom.

The story goes because no one asks: no one ever demanded that I justify my decision to move into a vehicle. The hashtag was already too damn hip to inspire doubt.

  • -  - -

I’ve put a lot of language to the silly drama of living in a vehicle; of being a woman somehow deluded into occupying traditionally tough, masculine spaces; of the grace that I find in instantiations of grit. Inhabiting a roughly converted van has appeared to me to be the living reification of something I’ve always tried to accomplish in writing or art, but seem to do best in “real life”: to exist in the space created by contradiction.

For instance, last summer I started a piece called Woman of the Woods and devoted three whole pages to describing my disgusting routines as sultry, trying to live myself into a context in which they could actually be interpreted as such. Like:

In the distance, the moon and stars give a little light. From the way the moon was perched behind the juniper on the eastern flank of camp, it was 4 a.m., if the girl had to guess. Maybe 4:30. She picked at the crust in her eyes and then sucked at her fingernail to free the eye-goop lodged beneath. The black-whatever under her nails tasted like dirt and dead skin. Moving left from her pointer she cleaned the four nails and then absent-mindedly bit at a hangnail on her thumb. Cocking her chin, she aimed for the cast iron and – phoo! – spat it off-center onto the rim of a cast iron pot sitting on some rocks a few yards away.

This morning she wouldn't have enough coffee to justify boiling, so the girl stuck her thumb into the crinkled Ziplock and packed a lip with the grinds – just on the one side, so she could continue to use a half-jaw to clean under the right hand's nails. Cold oat concoction again? She hadn't known before packing for this hitch that flax seeds needed some form of pre-processing in order to digest and she'd quickly become sick of seeing her shit speckled with their teensy yellow husks. Rolled-oat-whole-golden-flax-and-coconut slop. Breakfast of champions. Breakfast of aspiring Pollock potty artists. Fast she'd rather take. Her stomach yawned and she patted it like a zookeeper would a sick, small, spotted fawn. Lying back, she watched for morning and pondered the predawn.

Depending on who I might be speaking with, I’d explain such writing in a couple different ways: like, maybe something can’t be gross after it’s honestly examined. Maybe I outgrew the maleness of Kerouac and Abbey and wanted to provide my own model wanderer. Maybe I was just really, really lonely. And loneliness demands narrative. “Tell me the story about myself that means what I’m experiencing is what I’m really experiencing!”, begs the lonely heart.

The loneliness of living in a drafty vehicle -- vulnerable to the world but lacking anyone with whom I can exist in cozy vulnerability -- means I spend many nights re-reading old journals in the half-light of a busted solar lamp. Doing so, I rediscovered Martin Heidegger. This was around the same time I moved out of a rickety VW hatchback and into a giant, ridiculous van -- a move which felt equal parts committal and unfounded and absurd and jubilant. That summer, I was working on a backcountry trail crew and the gender disparity was real, harder to crack than the rocks I was tasked with smashing by sledgehammer for ten hours a day. I was the only person on the trail crew who had declined to live in employee housing that season, and that fact made me feel more tough, even if such toughness was unnecessary and had never been asked of me. And somehow that extra demand of my toughness made the fact of being female seem more pronounced, as though it was another thing that was trying me when I hadn’t committed any crime.

Flipping through old annotations on Heidegger’s Being and Time one night that summer, a passage on building, dwelling, and being caught my attention. In it he seems to claim that only through a semi-permanent, meditative style of living can we find freedom; that freedom is not something that can be ascribed to, or described by, language.

In the passage, Heidegger was writing about language by means of an analogy about a bridge. And he writes: “The banks emerge as banks only as the bridge crosses the stream. The bridge designedly makes them seem to lie away from one another.” Which is to say: only with language does difference exist. By building a bridge, a whole network of relations is allowed to exist. The bridge brings the banks to the stream; it creates the relation of water and shore; it allows the landscapes stretching out on either side to know each other -- to exist in opposition to each other.

And when the stream passes under the bridge, it ceases to exist in relation to the “vaulted sky.” Does Heidegger think, then, that when things are hidden under language, they lose access to the heavens? Earlier in the same passage, Heidegger writes, “Language is the master of man.” Only once the flow of the stream has moved beyond the bridge is it “free once more.” And so: perhaps freedom exists, in a way, by moving beyond language - by moving into a state of existence so pure that we don’t have the right words to explain it.

But, then, freedom was never the goal in Heidegger’s writing; Being was. Being, as in to cherish and protect, to cultivate with such a degree of habitude that it’s described as “to inhabit a specific way of being in time.” Being refers to having a substantive relationship with the fact of existence: for your existence to have an autotelic validation -- for it to move you, in and of itself.

Heidegger ends the passage with the maxim: “to persist in a location through time.” And, living more or less in the backwoods at the time of my reading, brushing my teeth with pine needles, being more or less always covered with at least a week’s worth of blood and sweat and grime, I thought about who was allowed to persist in certain locations. I thought about my female body living in the woods as a sort of disruption. It was not persistent -- it was insistent. I, at that time and at so many others, had chosen to exist in a space in which I was not allowed to persist.

  • - - -

After almost three years of living on the road, I started sleeping with someone who (gasp) actually paid rent on an actual, four-walled house. A favorite joke of his was to interpret my fear of any form of lived intimacy as discomfort at being indoors. During one moment of dizzying proximity, he made a joke about how uncomfortable I must be feeling, playing house rather than kicking it in the parking lot with the other boys and their various carpartments and vansions. I caught myself saying, “It’s so, so stupid. Living in a van is so stupid.”

“It’s stupid, eh?,” he responded with an edge in his voice, us in the early stages of romance when every quip exists as a test. “Your life is so stupid then?”

Rather than responding to his jokey accusations I kissed his face, because sometimes language is inconsistent with a feeling. But the exchange, inconsequential and coquettish as it may have been, made me realize how often I lambast the structures of my life as being completely fucking dumb.

Which is to say: living in a van is completely fucking dumb, and this language is coded to mean that modern society is facing an epidemic of purposelessness and the people that live in vans for any longish duration are by-and-large those most acutely affected by the lack of meaningful socioeconomic opportunity. Masses of folks are being denied the chance to persist. Car-living is a lifestyle chosen by folks whose interests, or education, or passions, or gender, or lifestyle, or any other facet of identity is incompatible with the particular set of conditions which makes one fit for a very limited, hyper-competitive selection of jobs, which increasingly exist only in urban places.

I wrote an essay last month about the forms of escape that often preëmpt the decision to hit the road. What that essay lacked, but which I’ll note here, is the information that while traveling across the European winter, basically penniless, and having my sense of self royally fucked, I realized that if I bought a car, I couldn’t be homeless to such a degree ever again, because I could always sleep in my car.

The friends to whom I’ve admitted this who have reacted with shock or alarm (as though living with regards to avoiding homelessness was, like, bad?) are friends who have not lived in cars. They are friends who have never known hunger; whose families have never subsisted on chips and salsa for weeks, months on end; who have never slept in their sleeping bags on the doorsteps of abandoned shacks graffitied with slogans such as “watch out for the rabid dogs.”

These experiences, I insist, are not bad -- they act as an access point to a more nuanced mode of existence. What is bad is that our society does not provide meaningful opportunities for the folks who have lived such nuance and for whom the status quo no longer applies. If Henri Amiel is right in claiming that “every landscape is a condition of the spirit,” then mine belongs in the dark corner of the grocery store parking lot. Here, the streetlights blot out the stars and the smudgy sky in the middle of the night feels as familiar as the back of a lot of hands, and I know: this is the best that I can do. When my friends in nursing school or tech start-ups call to check in and I tell them about all my wild-eyed, dead-beat friends, and am asked what the end goal is for all of these drifters, I wish my response was: this is the best that we can do. Because we know intrinsically, having been borne into this century and its circumstances, and having undergone the insidious rites of passage it necessitates, that to speak maybe doesn’t make you heard; that to organize maybe only makes you easier to oppress; that there are no spaces big enough left for all of us to occupy. The endless horizon of the lonesome, crowded west is an autotelic end. It is enough.

Thinking back to Heidegger, I know that I can only glean so much from his writing because freedom is, for me, something of an ultimatum. But freedom is only an affect of language when it comes at the cost of renouncing a status quo that has denied you. Does the hashtag-hip vanlife refer to the sentiment of the freedom of the hills -- the freedom I carry up in the dank, peanut-y space of my scratched-up pack -- or the state of freedom in which my life, my relationship to existence, has taken on an element of rebellion?

When the ability to persist in certain spaces has been denied to you, perhaps freedom exists in reformatting your relationship to existence as one that preëmpts narrative. If I get pissed and think living in a van is stupid because the social structures that be are, themselves, stupid, then perhaps the answer is to live in a van, or to live in some other circumstance which demands constant revision, innovation, vigilance re: doing whatever the fuck you want.

Yes, it is easily romanticized. Yes, it allows us to wake up each morning and window-browse the realm of the attainable. Yes, it allowed me -- has allowed me several times now, actually -- to drive through the night in the chase of some flame.

But don’t let the cute IG filters cover the fact that it is a lifestyle whose hipness is predicated upon total failures of our late-capitalist economies. That for many it is the last resort, not the realized dream -- and that sometimes calling it such is just a salve on the open wound of being young in a land with opportunities that are less than the narratives we’ve inherited to explain ourselves.

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