Travel Ideas

My Van Life Road Trip Helped Me Choose the Life I Want—Here Are 4 Lessons I Learned

Dominique Jackson

Photo: Courtesy Dominique Jackson; Graphic: W+G Creative
Toward the tail end of 2020, I booked my first van life road trip in a day—the quickest I'd ever seen a trip plan materialize. A few details still needed to be confirmed, but I was confident that I would be cruising into the New Year with a friend in my quarantine pod along the California coast in a 2015 Dodge Ram Promaster, fully equipped with a bed, a 50-inch projector, and a shower. Once I got the confirmation email, I knew there was no backing out. Excitement, fear, anxiety, and a million other emotions flooded through my body as I anticipated what this potentially restorative and transformative four-day road trip would entail.

As a Black woman, the idea of living out of a van initially scared me because, despite the growing popularity of the van life movement I'd read about in the months leading up to me planning my trip, I'd rarely seen people who look like me take to this lifestyle. As I researched further, though, I found communities within the van life movement catering to travelers who are Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) and other marginalized demographics, like Diversify Vanlife. These online communities helped me realize I wasn't the only person who looks like me looking into this way of travel, which put some of my anxiety at ease as I prepared for my trip.

When it came time to hit the road, I decided deactivate my Instagram account to facilitate mindful travel and take a break from my nonstop digital. And it worked: My friend and I cooked, explored, watched Netflix, failed miserably at putting a 1,000-piece puzzle together, watched the sun rise and set, laughed, got lost, and took cold showers (hot water in a van is indeed a luxury).

Did everything go as expected? Of course not; life rarely does. But I hope the lessons I learned about myself during my van life road trip will translate to my life beyond the van.

4 lessons I learned during my van life road trip

1. The only expectations I need to meet are my own

Life is full of checkpoints, and though I'm not sure who created them or why, I do know I'm done playing by others' rules and expectations. The pressure to hit certain milestones by certain ages can feel overwhelming, but being in a van and off the grid granted me the peace and space to reflect on how far I've come, aspects of my life I'm still processing, and the journey ahead. As someone who recently paid off $30,000 in student loans to have more freedom to travel the world, I'm always thinking of the future and the life I want to design for myself.

I decided to dispel any linear, narrow route for how my life should take shape or what milestones I can or should hit by any given age. I'm not living according to anyone's directions but my own.

During my van life road trip, the curiosity gates of my mind flung open wide to consider all the possibilities of a different way of living. I decided to dispel any linear, narrow route for how my life should take shape or what milestones I can or should hit by any given age. I'm not living according to anyone's directions but my own.

2. Nothing great happens within the confines of my comfort zone

The comfort zone is a great place to live a sheltered and safe life—and if that's your prerogative, no judgment at all. But if you want to grow? If you want to dare to believe that you can do hard things and chase wild, scary dreams? All of that happens outside the comfort zone and on the other side of fear.

"Do it afraid" became my mantra on my van life road trip. Because even with all my preparation, which I thought would sufficiently calm my nerves, fear awaited at each step: It was there as we picked up the van, as we aimlessly looked for places to park, as I practiced vulnerability, as I cooked while praying I wouldn’t set the van on fire. Fear always shows up. But I don't have to allow fear to overtake me. I can feel the fear and move forward in a way that best suits me.

3. It's all about living in the now

On our last day, I woke up to the sound of waves, explored Malibu, and walked along the beach. I didn't want to leave. I knew I would be returning home to work: Slack notifications, a pile of emails, and the monotony of quarantine life.

The thought of what's next? overtook my mind: Should I live out of a van full-time? Should I move? How much money would that cost? What's my word for 2021? What's the point of making resolutions after the year we've had? How do I find a community if I live nomadically? Would I be lonely?  

None of those questions could get answered at that moment, and most of them remain unanswered. But that's okay; a quote my friend shared with me that day from the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu spoke to my heart on the very matter: "If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present."

I now choose to live in the moment. I can't overthink the future or every little detail of my past that said van life wasn't for me. All I have is now. And for those four carefree days I had in the van, I was present and peaceful, and that was enough.

4. Possibilities are endless—so I'm getting my hopes up for them

A quick doomscroll will confirm that there's no shortage of gloom in the world. But living out of the van expanded my mind to the sunniness that being a digital nomad could afford me. I've read books, taken courses, and dreamed of traveling and working full time. At some point, each of us have to execute on our dreams. While travel restrictions abound right now in light of the pandemic, and even low-risk travel carries a certain level of risk, exploring this alternative means for traveling added fuel to my dreams of what could become of our future. Merely dreaming of future travel, after all, is connected to positive mindset shifts.

While my life was hardly perfect when I booked that trip, my experience taught me that I could choose to celebrate life anyway. I can't know what the future holds, but I hope we can all begin to safely live life in a braver, bolder way that's entirely at our own speed—and I have my van life road trip to thank for that.

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