Every once in a while, the desire for a van creeps up and I can’t stop thinking about them for a few weeks. It’s so easy to get lost in the nostalgia, the myth and romanticism of the van: The open road, a tank full of gas, traipsing the countryside, me and my old lady having everything we need just behind the front seats, sleeping incognito on wheels.
I’ve desperately wanted a van ever since high school, when my friends drove classic VWs, when the bullet-like Mitsubishi Delica first entered my consciousness. And the more bus-like, the better, where the steering wheel is almost horizontal, where the front seats sit above the front wheels, where you can peer out the windshield and see over your bumper.
But when it came time, I’ve always gone for something more practical, something more suitable for my normal passenger situation, which usually consists of just me and no cargo.
So what’s keeping me from becoming a van guy? Two things. (1) New vans are firmly out of my price range. (2) This leaves used vans, and used vans seem to require a lot of work and upkeep. And if you know me, you know that handy I am not. Fix anything, I can’t. Work on stuff? Wield a wrench? Replace parts? It’s not in my repertoire. Filling the gas tank and topping off the wiper fluid is as close to “working on cars” as I get.
I was half-hoping to have my mind changed this week over the course of interviewing van owners about their vans’ general reliability and how much work vanners put into their rides. But then, after all the what’s-so-great-about-owning-a-van-type questions, I had to ask another: What are the downsides? What is challenging about van life. Here’s what they said:
Annie Brooks: “It’s not incredibly reliable. So if you do set out to go somewhere that you would like to end up, it’s not guaranteed that you’ll actually end up there. But with that comes a different mentality for traveling, that it’s about the journey. And that’s not so bad.”
Jesse DiMarco: “Just hemorrhaging money. Like you’ve tied two tourniquets above, a tourniquet below and you still don’t know how the money’s coming out. There’s a lot of money and time that goes into it. That’s hard because eventually it becomes a passion, especially when you start putting your creativity into it. You’re going, ‘This is the perfect medium to express myself. This is what I want to do,’ and then you find it takes up most of your time. These things will easily eat up your day, week. It’s time and money. OK, it’s just money, because the time’s rewarding. I feel very rewarded by the time I put into it.”
Charles Newmyer: “Really, it’s hard to complain about anything because the good outweighs the bad, by far. That being said, winter IS hard. Three years ago, when I moved into my first van, Boulder – where I was living at the time – got hit with a gnarly cold front a couple months after I moved into it, and temperatures dropped to 20 below for a couple of days. One morning, I woke up with a sheet of ice on my blanket from where my breath collected, and icicles hanging from the ceiling, and that was a wake-up call. I also had my van towed a little while after that right after I had surgery, so my house was gone and I couldn’t do a damn thing thanks to the post-op pain pills. It was all part of the learning process though, and by god, it’s made me a stronger person.”
Even after hearing these stories, I have to admit I still want a van. Maybe it will be something new for me, working on my van, wearing a pair of coveralls, replacing parts, putting in new electric, solar, and water systems, going to junkyards and finding a replacement for the out-of-production windshield on my van.
If it means the open road, a tank full of gas, traipsing the countryside, me and my old lady having everything we need just behind the front seats, sleeping incognito on wheels, then maybe it’s worth it.