Against the grain

Sometimes, all it takes is a one-word prompt to get us writing. Today’s Daily Post writing prompt: AGAINST THE GRAIN.

THE MORE I READ about it the more I realise it is less the revolt of the dissatisfied and the disaffected and more a social movement. It is one of those social movements you don’t really notice until something reveals its true scale. It is not deliberately undercover, just unrevealed. It has been there for quite some time but because its numbers have been modest it was not noticed for what it was becoming.

It defies the conventional wisdom that has been handed down generation after generation since at least the 1950s, maybe before. That wisdom extolled the value of a life path that progressed through getting an education, finding a good job, finding a good partner, going into debt for decades to buy a house, making a family and then retiring. But, now, the world has changed enough to make that lifeway not only tired, but for an increasing number a model that has expired.

I’m not saying that this life pattern has or will suddenly stop, more that is is becoming less viable. And, also, less attractive. Millions still follow it and most of those, I think, will follow it through their lives. When you have been brought up immersed in it thanks to your family you are likely to adopt it yourself as a matter of course unless something drastic enough shakes you out of it or you meet people who reveal the reality of another lifeway.

One of those other lifeways is not only for younger people but also for those who have lived the conventional wisdom, sometimes for most of their life. Now, like that younger cohort, they seek escape.

A woman who was different

I met one such escapee. Was that what she was? I don’t know. She was a pleasant, easy going woman in her thirties. I met her while visiting a community garden, a place where people cooperate in growing some of the food they eat, though I soon realised that there were also social reasons they get together.

There she was, lithe of build, a wide-brimmed straw hat that did little to contain the mass of curly red hair that spilled below it. She was sitting in the shade of a pergola breaking open dry pods to extract little black seeds from them.

“I live in my van”, she told me when I asked her if she was a local. So, here was a young woman living by choice in her van. I wanted to learn more about how she lived but our conversation was displaced when others came along to help shell seeds.

Origins

Looking back, I realise it was the noted American novelist, John Steinbeck, who alerted me to the mobile life on the road in a van. His 1960s tale of his own months-long journey across the US, that he relates in Travels With Charlie, predates by decades the time when people would find that a van was all the home they wanted. Looking back further, however, I find that it was Jack Kerouac in his famous books, On The Road and The Dhamma Bums, that first made me aware that the peripatetic life was a real option.

Well before these writers, well before vans, well before motor vehicles took over the roads, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote about life on the road when he described his two month solo trek with a donkey that carried his load through the Cévennes mountains of France. Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes, written in 1879, is reputed to be “one of the first books to present hiking and camping as recreational activities”, according to Wikipedia. I don’t know if it was the first to extol the nomadic life as a voluntary choice, even if it was for only two months.

In an article I wrote some time ago I explained how it was in recent times, first, the surfers of the seventies, then the so-called hippies or alternatives of later that same decade who popularised life in a panel van or, for the latter, in any old van. The hippie in their Kombi bedecked with peace symbols and other signifiers of social difference has become cliche.

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Commercial van as home-on-the-road. Whether permanent  home, temporary home while touring or adventure vehicle providing access to and basecamp at the trailhead, commercial vans refitted to live out of are now a common site.

Now it is different

That was then and this is now, and now is different. Sure, you see the grey nomads on the highway, retirees with sufficient funds to buy one of those big, ugly, fuel-gulping motor homes and who have the superannuation to operate it. They ply the motorways like sailors of old plied the sea lanes where favourable winds blew. They’re quite a social phenomena, even their own subculture perhaps, in the US where they gather annually in the warmth of desert encampments to set up what become temporary towns.

For me anyway, there’s something inauthentic to vanlife about these grey nomads in their big rigs, though I understand the attraction of selling the family home occupied over past decades of working life and spending retirement on the road. That must impart quite a sense of freedom after the confinement of decades in the office. But… inauthentic? Well, van life has traditionally implied frugality, minimalism and modest living. In comparison, big motor homes seem like the consumer life translated into mobile form. Rather than a lifestyle going against the grain, against the conventional wisdom, they seem to embrace it. Maybe I’m being too hard and lumping all motor home dwellers into one category. I’m sure it’s not like that.

But why is now different? Reading the literature, talking with people, it seems that van life as a voluntary choice — not a necessity brought on by loss of job, loss of house, loss of relationship — is being increasingly fed by the high cost of living. Read the literature and you find people listing high rents, high mortgage payments, high utility (electricity, gas, water) bills as what they seek to escape by a life on the road. What they pay for fuel, maintenance, vehicle insurance and the other costs of van life comes out a lot less than would following society’s conventional wisdom of how people should live. Some choose van living as a way to build up their savings at a much faster rate than they could by paying rent and all the other costs of urban living.

Also feeding it is today’s lack of job security, short-term project work and life in the ‘contingent’ workforce of part time and casual employment. Lack of fulltime, permanent employment makes the economics of living in a van attractive. On one job ending, Van dwellers can travel to another city in search of work or, with somewhere secure to park, they still have affordable accommodation while looking for a new job in the same city.

Itinerant living and the dirtbag

Van living has the greatest number of practitioners in the USA where it has become a deliberate lifestyle choice and a social movement. But as that red-haired woman in the community garden demonstrated, we also find it in Australia.

Just as in the sixties and seventies when life on the road was linked with a particular demographic — surfers, alternatives — so in recent times it has been pioneered by another demographic — people traveling to participate in adventure sports.

That started back in the sixties, too, when climbers would camp out at popular rock climbing venues. Those without a vehicle to sleep in camped on the ground, giving rise to the term ‘dirtbags’ — people in their sleeping bags in the dirt. In magazines like Outside there are occasional discussions about whether dirtbags still exist and whether dirtbagging is even possible now.

While the dirtbag life has been closely associated with climbers, today many of those same people will participate in surfing, bushwalking, skiing and canoeing as well. This we realise on seeing vans with surfboards, mountain bikes and kayaks festooned over their roof and tailgate racks. It seems that the dirtbag life has diversified.

This trend forms a more recent motivation for the mobile life in which vans become what are known as ‘adventure vehicles’. While the vehicle is the only home for some, for many it is home away from home, a means of accessing wild places where it becomes a basecamp. Their travels extend from weekends to months to forever.

Now, vanlife as home temporary or permanent has become established. We need look no further than Volkwagen’s new model, complete with pop-up roof, camping fit-out and retro, two-tone paint work. The Kombi reincarnated.

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