The Dawn of Van
[I allude to it briefly in the ‘About’ section of this site, but should you wonder what this post is about - I live full-time in my van]
The idea first came to me mid-2014. I realised how often I was driving home from the beach after sunset, only to return the very following morning before sunrise to surf again. Time, petrol, sleep hours, car wear and tear - it all added up to a very simple solution: sleep in the car. At the time I was driving a Ford Escape, a mid-sized SUV I was incredibly fond of. Black paint adorned the wheels and front grill, my windows were tinted, the sound system was sick. Behind the wheel I felt the beginnings of the feeling lads must feel when they drive their lowered 12 year-old Supras through Chatswood during late-night shopping, shit mufflers blaring, plastic body kits scraping along the road.
I probably could have put the seats down and chucked a sleeping bag in the Escape, but that wasn’t gonna cut it. I need a bigger car, with a permanent bed and a place for my boards. I was meandering through random vehicle listings online when my light bulb moment came. I NEED A VAN!
A couple of distant mates had vans, keen surfers who I had gone to school with. Standard Roly, late to the party again - they’d had my lightbulb moment years ago, probably in year 8. But it was a new thing for me, and I mulled it over for a long time, browsing different models, thinking up different designs, daydreaming about future holidays.
I vocalised my plans to my old boy, who patiently listened to my inane musings as he always does, before one day mentioning that he knew of a company that needed to upgrade their old work van. It had about 270000kms on it, leaked oil from an unknown source, and had been used to transport motorcycles. I got pretty excited so we went out to see it.
The thing was huge, way bigger than what I anticipated my van to be. Toyota Hiace was my dream, Mitsubishi Express my more affordable and therefore more probable reality. This hi-top, long wheelbase Fiat Ducato looked like it could have had both parked inside it. It was covered in dings, had stuffing falling out of the driver’s seat and to top it off, was canary yellow. Referred to affectionately as “The Banana Bus”, it wasn’t exactly the mechanically sound covert camper I was hoping for. Pretty much the opposite in fact.
Funny how price can open a narrow mind! Utility vehicles hold their value far better than most cars, and I had been preparing to shell out some decent cheese to get my hands on a good one. Compared to the vans I’d been looking at, they were asking peanuts for this yellow monstrosity.
Things escalated quickly when I took it for a test drive with my mate Rupert. I had only driven a stick a couple of times before and wasn’t very good at it, but that didn’t stop me jumping in the captain’s chair of this 4-tonne beast for a spin in the middle of the city. Against all odds, I didn’t stall it once, despite finding myself lost behind the wheel in the maze of ridiculously narrow one-way streets that make up Annandale. Getting away from that test drive unscathed was nothing short of a miracle. Needless to say it was a sign from the universe that this truck and I were meant to be together.
That weekend I bought my other mate Ali breakfast in exchange for a lift to pick it up, promptly stalling it as he filmed me pull out from the kerb. He had the decency not to upload it to Facebook but I know it surely made its way out into the digital world somehow.
And so began what has been a long, tumultuous yet overwhelmingly positive relationship with my van, whom I since named Bosley (Boz for short).
I knocked together the first interior pretty hastily. In hindsight this was a bad idea, my tool supplies fairly limited and my carpentry skills sorely lacking. But my energy was just way too high, I was too excited not to go ham straight out of the gates. Within a week it had all the basics (well, both of them anyway) - bed and boards. My quiver was tucked in on one side and I was tucked in on the other. It was a terribly inefficient use of space, my hurry to get on the road obstructing my judgement on how I might possibly use it better. For my needs back then though, I didn’t have to.
Almost immediately I took off on a 10-day trip down the south coast, into Victoria, through Melbourne to the Great Ocean Road. It was an epic time during which I frothed non-stop. How did I not think of this sooner! The sense of freedom was something I had never experienced before. Yeah, it was a great feeling driving away alone on my red P’s for the first time, but this was on another level.
The solitude facilitated a lot of reflection, and heightened my appreciation for everything I returned to. I came home from that trip changed, more excited to work, to see family, to see friends, more excited to live than I had ever been. It was the prologue to an epic summer tootling around NSW, surfing my guts out and discovering an amazing new way of living.
March of this year I re-fitted the inside, about 6 months after building the original. My lease was running out. I weighed it up for a long, long time. Is this really possible? 4 weeks before eviction I decided to push the button… I was moving in.
I had been spending most nights in my van anyway. There were a few weeks in summer that were just unbearably hot, and despite my best Mortein-based efforts I was playing host to an armada of mosquitoes that made my bedroom virtually uninhabitable. For too many nights in that townhouse I was robbed of sleep by temperature and fucking bugs. Rent became basically just for storage, and I was sleeping mostly out on the street instead. My van was far better ventilated with the door cracked open, and had a kickass mosquito net.
Outside of a very small group of my closest friends, the first person I told about it was our leasing agent. I didn’t know him well, but he was a nice dude and really down to earth. He came by unannounced one day when I was working outside the house, and was pretty blown away seeing a nicely made bed in the back of a grubby panel van.
“I’d never think of doing that!”
Oh good, I’m glad to know I wasn’t literally the last one to think about this.
“So you just sleep down at the beach and shit?”
“Nah Jacob, I’m moving in after you kick us out.”
“Bullshit. What, like actually moving in??”
Thankfully I had some new additions to the interior and I ran him through the basics. It was a cool opportunity to outsource the concept to a completely foreign party, without warning, and receive the first of what would be countless interrogations about my living arrangements. I felt like I had passed a little test when Jacob eventually left, Smug Rolls had delivered answers for everything.
Boards on the ceiling, bookshelves, a miniature larder and cooking gear, carpeted floor. Most of the wood from the board rack had been repurposed into a makeshift chest of drawers, hanging above my lush new king size bed. Everything had a place and generally speaking the spatial sensibilities had greatly improved. Behind the dirty, beaten-up yellow facade of the exterior it was quite a sight to behold. I was absolutely stoked.
This setup lasted me a good while. During the weeks leading up to moving day, I realised that in order to fit in the van my possessions were in drastic need of consolidation. The purge that followed was a huge release. I gave my TV to my housemate, sold a couple of bits of furniture, dropped shitloads of clothing at Vinnies and chucked a lot of stuff out. I’m not even a hoarder, I’ve always had a less-is-more approach to life - I still had lots to get rid of. Once I did, I felt fantastic. It’s awesome knowing exactly what you own, and now I think about it seems crazy to accumulate enough possessions that you don’t know exactly what you do and don’t have. Discovering long-forgotten trinkets, pieces of clothing, equipment from hobbies of my past, everything was a reminder that I had plenty of room to grow into a more mindful and considerate headspace. This process is ongoing, and I find it very therapeutic to frequently conduct inventory and purge the things I don’t really need.
By July of this year, the novelty of being on the road had all but worn off, such were certain difficulties that became more pronounced as time wore on. I was getting along fine, but Boz needed a lot of upkeep. I hadn’t bothered to properly insulate him and the colder winter mornings, - aside from being pretty bloody cold - had begun to make things a little damp. No warmth, little light, lots of maintenance. It was time to renovate once again.
Two weeks was all that passed from the time I ripped out all the fixtures to putting the final decorative touches on the new interior. It doesn’t sound like much, but mentally it was a very trying time. I certainly wasn’t roughing it in my parents’ spare bedroom, but I had become so used to my cosy little existence in the van, everything in it’s place, Lord Rolls, master of his own life and all he surveyed. Losing hold on my insular personal kingdom unraveled the strands of my being, and life began to feel like one big mess of loose ends. All of my belongings were split between mum and dad’s, my little rented storage unit, my van and my work. Cognitively my day-to-day peace of mind reflected my scattered possessions, and the mental flow I had worked so hard to achieve disintegrated rapidly.
But it was totally worth it. I had a clear mental picture of what I wanted, and despite a stressful build it came out better than I could have imagined. It was an affirmation of the progress I’ve made in efficiency of interior design, carpentry skills and practicality of ergonomics. I now have a cosy, purpose-built insulated wooden cubby house on wheels, designed specifically to accommodate my life and engagements, in which I feel more relaxed than anywhere else.
Life’s never been better.