I Lived In A Van Down By The River And It Was Rad

When most people think of someone living in a van down by the river, either Matt Foley, Motivational Speaker or some dude whose biggest accomplishment was going to every Dead show between 1976 and 1994 are invariably the sort that come to mind first.

But I lived in a van cerca de un rio for two years, and I was young, reasonably attractive (to a special few, anyway), and gainfully employed. And let's face it, I owned my own home and didn't have to sign a lease. I was master of my own destiny and it was awesome!

What do you do when you live in a van? You have parties in it, on it, and around it, light things on fire outside of it, and brag/lie about how many chicks you've lured into it. It's the ultimate mobile headquarters for any young man's life.

So the van wasn't actually a van, but a Class C motorhome, and the river wasn't a real river, but a rotten egg-smelling slough. I'd have killed for a real river.

At least the Pacific Ocean was a lot closer than was the slough. It's sparkling blue water was just across the street, as a matter of fact. The RV was parked next to a run down house in Isla Vista, Calif. — a student ghetto attached to the University of California, Santa Barbara — where thousands of 18- to 25- year old women live. I don't have to tell you what that means.

Let's see, Southern California beach, girls everywhere, my own room connected to electricity, running water, and a house full of good friends... Now you can see why it kicked so much ass.

I Lived In A Van Down By The River And It Was Rad

The idea to live in some kind of a camper van or trailer wasn't new to me. When I was a dredging company surveyor (we built beaches and dug holes in river bottoms — a different story for another time), one of the other guys on my crew always insisted on living in this really crappy 1979 Dodge van-based Tioga RV while we were out on jobs all over the East and Gulf Coasts. The rest of us accepted the luxury of rented beach houses while he pocketed several thousand dollars a year in per diem checks. His rolling home was small, but it had a good layout inside, and could have been a pretty cool place to live but for the fact that he didn't really keep it up. He also never seemed to find access to electricity and water, so his winters were, well, chilly. It wasn't for me.

But a few years later, during the summer of 2007, when I was the Santa Barbara County Parks Department's 20-something beach lifeguard supervisor, I remembered his idea and thought to myself, "Self, that'd be a great way to save money."

The idea was reinforced by the guards who worked for me up at Jalama Beach, a remote (and awesome) county park sandwiched between Point Conception, a handful of huge ranches, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, the Air Force's space and missile mecca. It's about an hour from Santa Barbara, so they would usually spend three or four days at a time up there, living in an old travel trailer donated by a veteran ranger who lived at the park. Every time I traveled up there to check in on them, I looked at the old trailer, the wheels in my mind spinning madly.

I had recently moved into a sublet with a bunch of guys I'd met on Craigslist, and the one whose room I was staying in (a room I shared with another cool, but very messy dude) was coming back to claim his space at the end of the summer. It just so happened that Dave, the trailer-donating veteran park ranger, was moving out of his park quarters after 13 years there and into a little cottage in a town a few miles away. That meant he had to get rid of all of his junk, including a weathered, but pretty decent 24-foot 1978 Holiday Rambler RV.

View gallery »

Although its sunbeaten exterior had seen better days — the metal parts were covered with light rust splotches that looked like leprosy and most of the plastic trim was warped or dry rotted — its interior was a 70s disco party waiting to happen. In more or less mint condition, it sported shag carpet on the floors and ceiling, wood paneling, ostentatiously embroidered upholstery, and a faux brick kitchen backsplash with plastic tarnished-brass-look outlet covers. Even though I never intended to drive it, the Ford van chassis upon which the aluminum body sat struck my gearhead chord. It had an unmuffled 460 cid V8 and a C6 transmission feeding a massive dual rear axle. But past its mechanical attributes, it had spirit, too. Maybe it was because there were always people in it doing things and carrying on and living life — it felt like a passive living thing.

The Rambler, as it came to be known amongst my friends, was fantastic, and I immediately let Dave know that I was interested in taking it off his hands. Dave is one of those old school guys who doesn't like to sell things unless they're in perfect working order, so I had to wait all summer while he fixed some fuel line issue and slapped on six new tires. But finally, September came and he was ready to let it go, just in the knick of time, for $1,200. After having paid $600 per month to share a small room in a run down house with another dude, having my own room — one that I could move somewhere else if I wanted to — was a dream come true.

And the best part? The roomies hadn't really factored an extra head into their already complex rent sharing scheme. There were already three guys living in the main house — a 1940s vintage hovel that had been moved from downtown, added to, and set up as one of Isla Vista's original beach cottages — two in a converted tool shed, two in a mildewy room behind the garage, and one in a tiny, uninsulated aluminum garden shed dubbed "le petit chateau." It was decided that I would pay the cleaning lady until they could cook up something better. She came once or twice per month, and charged $60 to do her best to scrape away caked on, stale beer-smelling grime and haul off piles of trash that inevitably returned two or three days later. I was A-OK with that arrangement. Did I mention that the Pacific Ocean was across the street and the place was swarming with coeds?

I Lived In A Van Down By The River And It Was Rad

I decided right off the bat that driving the Rambler, ever, even for a little vacation to another beach somewhere, was a terrible idea. Not only had getting it smogged at a local repair shop been a traumatic experience (I lost my friggin' room for a day, plus it was huge and not that fun to drive), but I had set up my books, a record player and a stack of LPs, even a lava lamp and some other things you find perched on bookshelves and end tables, and didn't feel like moving them once they were positioned. Also, let's not forget that a 460-powered Class C doesn't exactly get the best fuel economy. It pretty much gets the worst. And what if I wrecked it? I'd lose my princely accommodations and have to sleep on a couch that a million people had shagged/vomited on until I could find something better. No thanks.

So it sat, more or less in the same place for two years. And what a time it was. Isla Vista is one of the craziest party towns in America, but the Rambler was an island of calm on an Isle of mayhem. During the time that I lived there, I definitely partook in some of the festivities, but there were times when I was feeling mellow and preferred to listen to music, read, or hang out with a few quiet friends. Often, when the main house hosted raging parties, there would always be a handful of people seeking refuge from the madness who would filter into the Rambler to chill out for a while.

By the end of my time there, the sounds of breaking glass, fights, urine splashing on the ground outside my window, and girls shrieking, "Shut. The fuck. UP, bitch!" did nothing to ruffle the serenity I felt reading a good book or just laying there, staring pensively at the shag on the ceiling.

I Lived In A Van Down By The River And It Was Rad

One of my roommates agreed that it was the quietest place in town, and made a nest in there when he was studying for finals each semester. It was peaceful, but better than the campus library because the comforts of home were handy. I'd often arrive home from a long day of work at the Santa Barbara Independent (I'd been fired from my job with the county before I even got the thing in the driveway, but that, too, is another story) to find him perched on its wildly patterned couch alongside a stack of books and energy drinks.

For my part, it was a perfect living space. It had a queen-sized bed, a large couch and some swivel chairs, a place for my stereo, a kitchenette, a functional bathroom, a closet for my clothes, and enough room to sleep, work, exercise, stretch out, and host six or seven (or sometimes an absurdly higher number more) people. One thing was for certain, in such a small space, things had to be kept shipshape and in Bristol fashion, lest I end up like my slovenly colleague from the dredging company days.

Other than the time when heavy winter rains caused a short in the wiring that shocked the shit out of me when I tried to pull the door handle, the Rambler weathered this debaucherous storm without incident. One time some drunk chick clambered up onto the roof with a Costa Rican guy and inadvertently stepped through one of the skylights (I fixed it with duct tape, naturally), but I didn't have to do much to it other than reseal the roof seams and one of the windows, put in a new battery, and rebuild its craptastic Rochester carburetor. I didn't even bother with the last two items until it was time to sell it.

I was a few years older than most of my housemates, so there were friends in my age range who resisted coming out to I.V. to visit. But those who did never regretted it (or forgot why they were supposed to through the pounding hangover). Once, a friend of mine from college had the balls to fly out from the East Coast. When he arrived assumed the standard position: Standing around stiffly like white guys, talking about work and trying to ignore the fact that we were surrounded by college students. But eventually, the drinks began flowing, and the years receded until we were running around screaming like 15-year-olds on an illicit bender. I'm pretty sure an upholstered chair got set on fire that night. That dude works for the Department of Commerce now, so believe me when I tell you that neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney can do anything for the government. It's fucked.

I Lived In A Van Down By The River And It Was Rad

Despite the fact that girls of all ages didn't seem to mind hanging out in the old RV that some people told me would be the antithesis of a pussy magnet (it must have been the Christmas lights I'd hung inside), the time eventually came when one of them became my girlfriend and let me know in no uncertain terms that she preferred if I didn't live in a motorhome in a raucous student district. So I moved in with her, but the RV came with me — much to her chagrin — beginning its third life as a guest bedroom, my home office, and a party lounge for Santa Barbarians of all ages. The records on the turntable gradually changed from Black Sabbath and the James Gang to Stan Kenton and Herbie Hancock. Wine and cocktails edged out Keystone tallboys as the crowd of boozy Rambler patrons increased in age by several years. But there were still good times had by many in there over the next year, although I rarely ever slept in it anymore.

All good things come to an end, and so it was for the Rambler. Having broken up with the largely RV-averse girlfriend (she really didn't like having it parked in front of her house) and having made the decision to move to New York City for a year, the time had come to part ways with the venerable party-on-wheels. It spent most of a summer sitting on my boss's ranch, so the only creatures living in it were some mice who made a nest out of the kitchen sink and some toilet paper they found in one of the cupboards.

Right before moving east, I cleaned up the mess the critters had made and sold the Rambler to a young hippie couple who said they wanted to live in it while they were attending Santa Barbara City College. I kept my fingers crossed that the old, undoubtedly dry belts and hoses would hold up until they got wherever they were headed. I'd told them that it was in "original condition," and what that meant, but you never know when someone as excited as they were to buy it is really listening. But I figured that the statute of limitations on my responsibility for its mechanical condition ended once I had cash in hand and they'd driven out of sight. That should have been the end of it, but the Rambler made a cameo appearance about six months later.

The RV-hating ex-girlfriend manned the front desk at an office located at the end of a cul-de-sac that was a popular spot for real van dwellers to post up. She hated the sight of the collection of dilapidated vans usually assembled there so much that she often called the city to have them towed away. Nevermind that they were somebody's home, they were unsightly in front of a respectable business wedged between greasy industrial outfits and low income housing.

Already settled into Manhattan life's maddening pace, I received an unexpected text from her. It said something to the effect of: "The Rambler is following me. It's been outside of my fucking office for a week." Not having found a driveway to park it in, the young hippies I'd sold it to took the Rambler to the most obvious place they could think of.

I don't know. Maybe the thing does have a soul, and came back to avenge her disrespect toward it and other defenseless beater RVs. Probably not. But it was a great platform for all of the different kinds of human drama that unfolded in it over the three years that I owned it. At the end of the day, you can't ask much more than that of an inanimate object.

Photo credit: Marissa Leigh Salem; Benjamin Preston; Liznasty; Claire Norman