The Cult of Cars, Racing and Everything That Moves You.
We may earn a commission from links on this page

Vanlife Can Be Cheaper, Weirder, And More Accessible Than Instagram Would Have You Believe

All Photos Credit Tod Seelie
All Photos Credit Tod Seelie
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

I woke up in a van in a Walmart parking lot in Phoenix, certain that I was choking.

It was mid-July, during a brutal, nationwide heat wave, and it was roughly 100 degrees in the van, possibly more. Though we’d done our best to prepare for it — set up a fan balancing on the armrests between the front seats, positioned our heads towards it, draped cold washcloths on our bodies, doused in melted ice water from our cooler — it was still so hot that I woke up from a dead sleep unable to breathe, my asthmatic lungs reminding me insistently that they don’t work very well at extreme temperatures. In my sleep-addled fog, I momentarily worried our brains would cook like soft-scrambled eggs. I didn’t get back to sleep, not really. In the morning I trudged into the Walmart restroom feeling wrung out, as though I’d sweated out most of my body weight and maybe some of my vital organs. I could’ve brushed my teeth near the van; what I really needed from Walmart was an immediate hit of air conditioning.

These are the potential realities of sleeping in a van, particularly when it’s the dead of summer, in one of the hottest parts of the country, your tires resting on a pavement upon which you could credibly cook an egg. Sometimes you wake up alone in a pristine section of a national forest to the sound of birdsong, as we did a couple days later, and sometimes you mildly unsettle a Walmart employee arriving for her morning shift as you both enter the building together, one of you considerably worse for the wear.

You won’t find these realities on Instagram, of course. In the past few years “vanlife” has become a bona fide social media phenomenon, a way for beautiful, mostly white, mostly heterosexual couples in Sprinters and Volkswagens to #partner with #brands to make a living selling a pristine, minimalist, aspirational lifestyle of sunrise beach yoga, morning acai bowls and romantic nights with two pairs of feet on the mattress facing towards some beautiful sunset mountain view or a lightly photoshopped sky full of stars. (Vanlife is now so popular that whole accounts exist to re-post vanlife photos from other vanlife accounts, usually hashtagged with robotic enthusiasms like “#couplegoals” and “Looks so cozy!”)

Vanlife social media influencers are selling a few compounding myths, of course. Being a free spirit is the obvious, central one: wandering through the world, alone save for your attractive, adoring partner and maybe a sprightly dog. The second is the seeming ability to make a healthy living without working a traditional job, and with the kind of lifestyle that allows you to go #offthegrid to #wanderlust frequently. All the while, of course, looking great and attracting legions of fans who are simply following you for your envy-inducing lifestyle, and who can be induced to buy whatever brand of granola or canteen you’re shilling as a result.

This is, of course, leaving aside that the beautiful heterosexual whites in their expensively-converted Sprinters did not invent “vanlife” or, more broadly, life in a van. Traveling by RV or van is a fact of life for a lot of people who earn their living through seasonal, migrant labor, as Jess Bruder’s exquisite book Nomadland chronicles. Living in a car is a reality for many, many homeless adults and children throughout the U.S., a reality often complicated by laws that deliberately make it hard for them to park anywhere for too long. And even that leaves aside that self-expressed Vanlifers who aren’t white face a particular host of challenges, hostility and harassment on the road.

(Vanlife has become so popular, in fact, that it’s spawning a counter-genre of stories about its “unglamorous realities,” as Outside put it a few years ago.)

Foster Huntington, the guy who moved into his van in 2010 to escape a career in fashion and a life he’d begun to find stifling — inadvertently launching the “vanlife” hashtag in the process — told Willamette Week last year the modern vanlife movement made him “queasy” in some ways. It seemed to be “really missing the point,” he said. He explained that what for him began as a way to live more cheaply and meet people unlike him had grown into something more predictably commercial, he said, a group of influencers “using sex to sell yoga mats and things like that.”

And yet, it is entirely possible to travel by van in a way that is cheaper, weirder, and way, way more accessible than the version you’re seeing on social media. It doesn’t take an expensively tricked-out luxury van. It doesn’t require an instagrammable face or cute accessories or a Pendleton blanket spread over some curiously clean white sheets. One might argue it’s sometimes better without those things.

Goldie next to various other traveling vehicles we encountered on our route.
Goldie next to various other traveling vehicles we encountered on our route.

In the spirit of making that point, photographer Tod Seelie and I set out from our home in Los Angeles—we are, I am sorry to say, a white heterosexual couple, an older, more sour, significantly more bedraggled variety than the ones I mocked several paragraphs ago—to see some of my family in New Mexico. We also wanted to chronicle, in the process, how we do “vanlife” together, in the least vanlife way possible. Despite deliberately planning this trip for a very, very hot time of year — both because it was when we could fit in a trip, and because we really wanted to test the systems we’ve set up — we also hoped, if possible, not to die of heat stroke in the process.

And so, we floated through the Southwest for a week or so, passing towns temporarily emptied for cooler climes, a hazy summer vacation vibe settling over every quiet place. We parked for the night in parking lots, national forests, and unincorporated land. I worked on blog posts using a lap desk from Goodwill and conducted a few business calls while balancing on the cooler, digging out sandwich supplies. We solved problems as they arose with makeshift solutions that basically worked, we replaced several fuses, and we escaped the week without any major mechanical issues. We picked such an unfashionable time to travel, in fact, that we barely saw a single Sprinter van on our route; plenty of generously air-conditioned RVs, yes, but the vanlife crowd were all evidently out seeking a more livable climate.

We’re not the best vanlifers, the most photogenic, the most professional or anywhere close to the most long-term; we’re just ordinary people attempting to have a good time, and you can be too.

Being a fan of culture — a real art-hound — I voted to begin our trip at one of Southern California’s finest remaining examples of programmatic architecture: the Donut Hole. It’s a drive-through donut place, shaped like two donuts stuck together, and it is perfect.

Vanlife Can Be Cheaper, Weirder, And More Accessible Than Instagram Would Have You Believe

Our vehicle, kitchen, library, bedroom and office was Goldie, Seelie’s 19-year-old champagne-colored Town and Country minivan, purchased from his grandmother a few years back and converted by Seelie in just a few days, when he was preparing for six months of DIY touring to support his first book. While Goldie is probably not a vehicle one could comfortably live in permanently, she’s extremely capable of short and medium-stint trips. (There is, for instance, no bathroom, although that’s a major issue for pro vanlifers as well.)

To make her into a sleep-ready vehicle, Seelie took the back seats out and built a wooden elevated bed frame that fits a full-size foam mattress. Beneath it is the storage: a portable kitchen — a two-tier plastic storage bin with drawers — bedding, emergency supplies, a cooler, a milk carton full of dry food, and all our bags. On the dashboard, we charged two solar lanterns and a crank-powered solar radio that also doubles as a flashlight.

Vanlife Can Be Cheaper, Weirder, And More Accessible Than Instagram Would Have You Believe

I took a risk at the Hole and ordered a cheese-filled croissant; obviously, it was wonderful, since nothing that comes from a donut-shaped donut restaurant could ever, ever be bad. We proceeded from donuts to the Cabazon Dinosaurs, a well-photographed tourist landmark just off the 10. It was already very, very hot. Children gazed in awe at the T. Rex, then retreated under the brontosaurus’s tail to escape the heat and process their feelings. An ambitious rocker dude wearing skintight black jeans, a black leather jacket and a bare chest posed for dinosaur photos taken by his obliging girlfriend. I tried to imagine that much fabric touching my body in air that felt like boiling soup and found that I could not.

Vanlife Can Be Cheaper, Weirder, And More Accessible Than Instagram Would Have You Believe

From the 10, we proceeded through Palm Springs and onto a smaller highway towards the Salton Sea, our first stop for the night. This stretch of Southern California is dotted in date farms: rows and rows of date palms dangling fruit, the only shade for miles. Everything else was sandy, flat, brown-white. I lobbied, unsuccessfully, to stop for date shakes, which are advertised on billboards every few feet.

In Mecca, our planned first stop, the International Banana Museum was, devastatingly, shut tight until August, though the liquor and bait stores next to it were open. Bereft, we proceeded to the banks of the Salton Sea itself. The sand isn’t sand at all, but millions of fish bones and barnacles, pulverized into fine dust and cooking under the broiling sun. It smells like it. The water looked shockingly blue; up close, it’s more clearly full of mud, which makes sense given that the Salton Sea is a delta of the Colorado River that flowed through here due to, basically, a 1905 construction accident. It remains: stuck, ruined, undrinkably salty and gorgeous.

The road that borders the Salton Sea undulates up and down, waves that feel like a hallucination until you drive over a few and become convinced they’re real. (It was built that way to prevent the road from washing out.) We drove it until we reached Salvation Mountain, the gorgeous, sprawling, technicolor landscape created by the late artist Leonard Knight, who intended it as his joyful offering to God.

Vanlife Can Be Cheaper, Weirder, And More Accessible Than Instagram Would Have You Believe

Salvation Mountain has lately become popular with influencers and would-be influencers for photoshoots, which has in turn driven up the number of tourists who visit; unlike years past, many parts of the mountain had “do not enter” and “stay off” signs, marks of where enthusiastic visitors were starting to crumble what they’d come to see. (This is becoming a common problem all over the world, to the point where a few social media accounts have sprung up dedicated to calling out the bad and sometimes illegal behavior of influencers. This point in our journey should be your personal reminder to tread lightly wherever you might go, and to try not to be a fucking dick in the process.) Yet because of the heat and the slightly off time of year, the place was nearly deserted: just us, a handful of other tourists, and a brave pregnant woman in a blue slip doing an impromptu maternity shoot with her partner.

A little ways down, we reached Bombay Beach, population 275, a former deserted desert resort that has, in recent years, seen a curious hipster influx. The town was mostly bare of actual people, but full of Art Stuff: sculptures, mostly, left over from the Biennale earlier this year. Trailers and portable storage units were converted into mini museums, and fake Sotheby’s signs wryly advertised beachfront property.

We roamed the empty landscape in Goldie, taking in the art objects and eating cucumber and cheese sandwiches and drinking cold, slightly stale leftover coffee. We got into a discussion about the meaning of the word “art,” and, just then, rounded a corner to come face to face with a lengthy handwritten wooden sign that began “What is art, anyway?” A lot of travel in seemingly “empty” places is like this — with any amount of self-awareness, you come to realize very quickly that you’re actually in well-trod territory.

From Bombay Beach we drifted into Niland, a mostly ordinary little town that’s a mixture of neatly kept homes and desolately abandoned properties, and into Slab City, an unincorporated community about five miles to the southwest. It’s been called the “Last Free Place in America” and a “squatter’s paradise.” There’s no official sanitation, law enforcement or other public services. It’s popular in the winter with the RV crowd and the rest of the year with people who’d like to live the kind of life where they’re basically left alone, save for the tourists who come through to gaze at the art in East Jesus, the gleefully anarchic artistic community of Slab City. (“Please review our guide to survival in the East Jesus wasteland,” reads their official webpage, “before you get yourself hurt or royally piss us off.”)

Vanlife Can Be Cheaper, Weirder, And More Accessible Than Instagram Would Have You Believe

We made camp for the night near some burned, half-exploded cars, put in the ground over time by a group of artists Seelie knows. (Then we moved again when we realized some dangling car parts were insistently clanging in the faint breeze, probably making it impossible to sleep.) Working from the light of one of the solar lanterns, we took out and quickly constructed our portable table — the legs unfold like a gigantic metal spider unfurling itself, and the slats fit over them to quickly make the top. I pulled out the cookware, a set of pots that fit neatly inside each other, and the denatured alcohol flame housed in a metal container we use as a heat source. We lit the flame with a lighter, dumped what seemed like the right amount of cous cous in the pot, miracuously estimated the right amount of water to cook it in — realizing in the process that we’ve somehow never bought a measuring cup — and mixed it with a package of Indian food and some arugula.

The sun set as we ate, the sky a powder blue that faded at the bottom to a soft electric pink. Here is where things got, shall we say, difficult.

It was obvious, from the start, that the challenge of this particular trip would be sleep. You can’t run your engine all night in order to keep the AC going, and a van, even with the windows open, becomes a toaster for human beings very quickly.

In an effort to solve this problem, we purchased a 12-volt fan before the trip and charged an external 12v battery while we drove. At night, after we threw pillows on the bed, (and pulled out the cooler for extra support at our feet — very fancy), we rolled our windows most of the way down and put mosquito nets over them, which is generally only possible in a less-populated areas where there are no concerns about anyone trying to open the car door. Seelie positioned the fan in one of the back windows. Then, we attempted to sleep.

We failed. The car grew so steamy that in the middle of the night we had to regroup. Half-awake, Seelie moved the fan to what would become its new home, resting on the arm rests between the front seats. We flipped our position so that our heads were facing towards the fan and managed to grab a few hours of rest. In the morning, I noticed with interest that I’d already sweat so profusely the cups of my bra had become lined with salt stains.

Vanlife Can Be Cheaper, Weirder, And More Accessible Than Instagram Would Have You Believe

The second day dawned windless and — you guessed it — real hot. As I would every morning of our trip, I started the day by sliding to the bottom of the mattress and onto the van floor, then contorted myself into the front seat, without opening any car doors or knocking over the fan. I took a few minutes to participate in my obnoxiously elaborate skincare and makeup activities, then checked work emails and made some dumb jokes in Slack. When I was at the point of death and no longer reluctant to wake Seelie, I slid the back passenger’s side door open to find coffee concentrate and dig out almond milk from the cooler.

For caffeine addicts, coffee presents only a slightly less harrowing problem than sleeping. There are any number of elaborate methods for making good coffee on the road, but a lot of them involve boiling water. For me, at roughly 5:30 or 6 a.m., that’s both impossible and deeply unappealing. Instead, we rely on instant coffee packets from Starbucks — the best brand of them, by a mile — and jugs of coffee concentrate, usually from Trader Joe’s. Both can be mixed with water to make an entirely decent cup of cold coffee. I made a mental note to supplement our dwindling sugar supply by grabbing a few packets from the next coffee shop we happened into. Breakfast was granola and yogurt and bananas, prepared atop the cooler and eaten in the front seats out of our camping bowls with plastic sporks. (They’re very nice plastic sporks.)

Cleaning the dishes after meals is another problem that we hadn’t previously solved. The usual solution on previous trips was to slop a tiny bit of water into the dishes, along with a bit of dish soap, run it around with a sponge, then use more water to dump it out. The dishes never got as clean as I’d liked, and it felt like a waste of water besides.

For this trip, though, Seelie learned an invaluable tip from a Burning Man veteran: this multi-purpose cleaning spray from Trader Joe’s, which smells incredible and works like a fucking charm. I sprayed the dishes and gloated audibly for solid five minutes about how clean they were. (If this spray is somehow actively bad for human health, please don’t email me. I desperately don’t want to know.)

We proceeded back out of Slab City, passing the squat, empty stone guardhouse that marks its borders. REALITY AHEAD, read a mural painted on the side, bordered with drawings of Scoobie Doo smoking a joint and Snoopy pointing and laughing. Soon after, though, we stopped again. We were both still very hot and already unthinkably dusty. Luckily for us, though, some beautiful soul — a blessed person, beloved by God, who will immediately ascend to heaven when he or she dies — has built an outdoor shower somewhere near Slab City. (If you locate it and wreck it through carelessness or active malice, you’re guaranteed eternal damnation, and also, personally, I will find you.)

To get into the shower, we climbed a ladder about six feet down, into a cement-lined hole. The water runs from a spring and into the shower, then continues its journey through a drainage tunnel. It is, without exaggeration, the best thing I’ve ever felt. As we showered with a tiny bottle of Dr. Bronner’s peppermint soap, a huge dragonfly with red-rimmed wing alighted on the rim of the shower and looked down at us skeptically.

In Niland, we stopped for more ice at the only general store that was open, then chatted briefly with a local guy named Gizmo Joe, who stopped us outside.

“I figured out why New Yorkers have a reputation for being unfriendly,” he told us. “You live ten blocks from work, right? And if you walk there, you pass 200,000 people on your way. If you said hi to every single one, you’d be beat when you got there.”

He paused and looked us over. “Where are you from?” he inquired. New York, more or less, we admitted. He grinned, satisfied. He treated us to a few more, slightly spicier stories about fighting and traveling before, at last, we climbed back in the car.

From here, our trip settled into its rhythm: during the day, Seelie drove and I worked, with a few sightseeing stops along the way. The first were the Imperial Sand Dunes, a staggering sight that seems to come from nowhere, hallucinatory cascading hills that ripple into the distance until they’re stopped, abruptly, by a border of mountains. Usually, the dunes are crowded with four-wheelers and jeeps, but again, the heat worked both for and against us. We climbed out of the car and wandered through them for as long as physically possible, which was maybe 30 minutes. As soon as we started driving again, I peeled two grapefruits and we consumed them with water as fast as possible.

Vanlife Can Be Cheaper, Weirder, And More Accessible Than Instagram Would Have You Believe

As we crossed into Arizona and the dunes faded behind us, the landscape changed yet again; mountains loomed in the distance and the land on either side of the car was dotted with low green sagebrush. We were climbing, and the temperatures were just beginning to cool. We stopped for a moment in Quartzsite, an extremely cute town where many, many RVers like to winter. I’d hoped to visit Paul Winter, a bookseller known for his great supply and for not wearing any pants, but his shop was shut tight. I later learned he passed away earlier this year.

We poked around in souvenir shops, hefting chunks of rock and buying a rabbit’s foot, before continuing on. Soon enough, the road rewarded us with tiny baby saguaros, blossoming from the hillside as we drove.

In Phoenix, we made the executive decision to eat a meal outside of the car and by “we,” I mean “me” and by “a meal,” I mean “ice cream,” purchased at McAlpine’s, one of the last original soda fountains in the country. In a weird mood and possibly addled from the heat, we got an ice cream float with pickle soda; it turned out to be improbably delicious.

McAlpine’s, Phoenix.
McAlpine’s, Phoenix.

With a few hours of daylight left, and wanting to be as cool as possible, we trawled the internet until I found what I was looking for: a hotel whose pool was open to non-guests. We hurried over, paid them $10 each, and threw on our bathing suits— only to slide into the pool and realize, miserably, that it was heated, barely cooler than the hot tub next to it. We sat in the tepid water and looked at each other. It was 108 degrees, and we knew what was ahead: Walmart.

We had agreed before we set out, for the purposes of this story, that it’d be necessary to sleep in a Walmart parking lot at least one night. A few big national chains allow RVs and vans to stay overnight in their lots — Cracker Barrel, some Big 5 locations, many casinos — but Walmart is the gold standard. Their parking lots are so vast it’s easy to park with some degree of privacy, and 24-hour locations mean round-the-clock bathroom access.

We’d made a mistake, though, and chosen a Walmart near downtown Mesa, way too close to the city center. Things tend to be less friendly at urban Walmarts, and this was no exception: signs all over the parking lot made it clear that overnight camping wasn’t allowed. But an unassuming minivan like Goldie has one major leg up over Sprinters: stealth. We both knew if we put up a sunshade over the front windshield, weren’t ostentatiously camping — i.e. cooking dinner over a fire in the parking lot — and got an early start the next day, we’d likely be fine. Dinner was a bagged salad, locally sourced from the Walmart produce section.

And we were fine, more or less, minus the hottest single night I’ve ever tried to sleep through and my momentary worries we’d poach our brains. By mid-morning, we’d gratefully left Walmart behind and were heading into the Tonto National Forest, where the air was, at long last, a bearable temperature.

A funny thing about bodily discomfort is how intensely it grips you, and yet how easily it’s forgotten. As we entered the forest, we paused at a campground and I took out a foldable, portable yoga mat I’d bought at Walmart the night before and did some stretching. (Yoga is another cloying visual cliche of vanlifers, but it also feels excellent after days and days of being crunched up inside a tiny space.) The air smelled like pine. The road turned to forest, and the temperature dipped to a chilly 86 degrees. A female elk looked at us, annoyed, as she tried to cross the road. We passed the most baffling sign for a strip club I’d ever seen: an old plaster cow, riddled with arrows, standing atop a sign that read ADULT CABARET. We paused to appreciate the cow.

Vanlife Can Be Cheaper, Weirder, And More Accessible Than Instagram Would Have You Believe

That night, we reached Holbrook, an old railroad and cowboy town in the middle of the Navajo Nation, bordering the Petrified Forest. We spent a while roaming around, looking at petrified wood and charming, very homemade plaster dinosaurs, before camping for the night in a campsite just outside the forest entrance, which is ringed with fake tipis. (By this point, we’d reached the remnants of historic Route 66, which meant we saw a lot more dinosaurs, and a lot more faux tipis, both hallmarks of the road that have managed, improbably, to survive in fair condition.)

The WigWam Motel in Holbrook, Arizona has been a roadside Route 66 attraction since 1950. It was originally part of a chain of seven WigWams across the South and Southwest.
The WigWam Motel in Holbrook, Arizona has been a roadside Route 66 attraction since 1950. It was originally part of a chain of seven WigWams across the South and Southwest.

That morning, we made breakfast in the shadow of a faux tipi—oatmeal this time, which was too hot for the season but still delicious with a handful of trail mix thrown in, cooked over the denatured alcohol flame — and hit the road again, taking a brief hike through the hills of the Painted Desert, then exploring an abandoned trading post where I rescued a toy jackrabbit, lying dispirited in the dirt. In the late afternoon, we reached Gallup, New Mexico, which has some of the best remaining neon signs of all of Route 66.

The last night of our trip into New Mexico, before reaching my parents’ house in Santa Fe, we slept for the night in the Cibola National Forest, pulling off the access road and making camp near some picnic tables. (Pull-offs on BLM land and in national forests are a well-recognized part of vanlife, and some websites and apps—that I don’t necessarily want to overcrowd with new visitors—make them easier to find. On our way back, we found one just west of Flagstaff that was a series of dirt roads threading through juniper trees on BLM land, dotted with yucca, and as beautiful a place to stop as you could possibly hope for.)

Vanlife Can Be Cheaper, Weirder, And More Accessible Than Instagram Would Have You Believe

One of the joys of vanlife is how easy it is to set everything up and break it down, especially when you’re not setting up a tent. With no phone service, we had nothing to do after dinner except stare into space, drinking beer and canned wine, while enjoying the by-then novel sensation of being a normal temperature. Seelie fiddled with the solar-powered radio that had gone unused most of the trip and found a classic rock station, John Cougar Mellencamp interspersed with ads for God, safe grilling practices, and denture glue. That night, for the first time, we didn’t need the fan. We both slept blissfully.

Vanlife Can Be Cheaper, Weirder, And More Accessible Than Instagram Would Have You Believe

After a few days in Santa Fe, the return trip was swifter and far cooler, with a brief stop only a few places, including Stewart’s, one of the best petrified wood stands I’ve ever seen, with some of the best dinosaurs and an array of irritable-seeming ostriches that are, theoretically, there to be fed. Inside, I picked out a flat, glossy, deeply blue hunk of agate. Gazell Stewart, the co-owner of the business, shook her head at me as she wrapped it up.

“You come all the way to Arizona and buy something from Brazil,” she mock-scolded. I apologize, laughing, and we went outside to gape at the ostriches again.

A few moments later, Stewart beckoned me over and handed me a lump of petrified wood. “Rub this with olive oil, baby oil, any kind of oil,” she instructed, “and it brings out all the beautiful colors.” She dumped a little water over it to show me, and together, we all watched as the most ordinary thing — a hunk of wood, a car trip along a well-traveled stretch of road — blossomed into something beautiful, the striations and colors within it beginning, all of a sudden, to glow.

Vanlife Can Be Cheaper, Weirder, And More Accessible Than Instagram Would Have You Believe
Gazell Stewart of Stewart’s Petrified Wood
Gazell Stewart of Stewart’s Petrified Wood
Vanlife Can Be Cheaper, Weirder, And More Accessible Than Instagram Would Have You Believe

Anna Merlan is a Senior Reporter with the G/O Media. Tod Seelie is a photographer and journalist whose work can further be found at his website and on Instagram.