Love at First Vanlife: Climbing and Camper Van Living
I am no stranger to unconventional and minimalist ways of living. Over the last six years, I have lived out of a Toyota Camry with three other people for three weeks. I lived out of a tent in my mother’s backyard for a month and even out of a backpack for a total of ten months. Perhaps most impressively, I had lived out of a tiny college dorm with two roommates I hated. But prior to a climbing trip to Bishop, CA early this spring, vanlife was something I had yet to tick off my list.
On the recommendation of a fellow Alaskan climber who had spent his fair share of time in the Buttermilks of Bishop, we decided to live out of a rental campervan and, after a bit of research, opted to go with a company called Lost Campers USA.
After extending invitations to pretty much any climber we knew, we got two bites from two younger guys at our climbing gym. With four of us going, we reserved a van that came with a Tepui rooftop tent. Chris and I would take the inside and the other two would take the tent. For 16 days, the van cost was just under $800 (included non-mandatory liability insurance we decided was worthwhile peace-of-mind). Split four ways, it would come to $200 each. Cheapest vacation ever. But as we should have known, perceived perfect plans are the recipe for disaster.
Both boys going with us had never truly dirt-bagged it before. While Chris and I were seasoned travelers and veterans in the art of suffering on the road, these two weren’t and that should have caused us a bit more concern than it did. One of the boys had never truly roughed it before and hated camping. Ignored red flag #1. Instead of being concerned, the other three of us poked a bit of fun at how what we assumed was going to be an amusing naivety. In hindsight, I should have maybe rethought some things when he asked, “Is there a bathroom in the van?”
When the long awaited day arrived, the stoke was higher than our stack of crash pads we lugged to the Anchorage airport to board a redeye flight direct to Los Angeles, where we arrived hours before the rental place opened up. Since none of us had slept much on the plane, we attempted sleep curled up on our crash pads at the baggage claim of LAX, meriting more than a few judgmental glances from other travelers and security guards.
As the clock approached 9am, we commandeered a ride on the free National Car Rental shuttle, which took us only one block away from the Lost Campers airport office. In ten minutes, we had signed all the necessary paperwork and were handed us the keys to a white minivan named Rachel. Rachel was small and unassuming, with simple but highly efficient features that converted her into a house. A wooden trunk rested at the base of the front seats, where all the bedding was stored and from which a wooden platform that dropped over the backseat would fold out to create the bed. In the rear hatch was a pump sink with both a fresh and wastewater tank.
Fully loaded, however, we brought her to capacity and Rachel became somewhat of a clown car for four people, eight bags, and four crash pads. Getting in and out of the van was, to the onlooker and anyone not in the backseat, a comedy show of the highest caliber.
From LA, we had a 300-mile drive out of the city traffic, across the windswept Mojave desert, and up scenic highway 395 on the stunning eastern side of the Sierras. Chris and I had been up that road before on our pre-South American roadtrip, though we had, for some reason skipped Bishop and instead stopped in two places that bookended it: Lone Pine and Yosemite.
By mid afternoon, we had reached the sleepy little town of Bishop, which wa,s for all our intents and purposes, one main street that looked like something out of a western film. We stocked up on gas and groceries and promptly headed northeast of town out to Buttermilk Road, a bumpy dirt stretch that led to the monolithic Buttermilk highball boulders. We stopped and groped at the granite on Grandma and Grandpa Peabody but quickly pushed on to a quiet, backcountry campsite so to get set-up before dark (which we did, but barely).
There, at the base of the Sierra in the harsh alpine desert, the sun set and sucked away heat rapidly, forcing us to our beds purely of the need to get warm. After nearly 24 hours of straight travel, Chris and I crashed on the thin but plentiful foam mattress.
A couple hours later, I was roused from sleep by a buzz on the dash. I winced at the phone light as I read the message from the boys up top.
“Dude, it’s cold a.f. up here.” I contemplated ignoring the message, acting as if I was never woken by it. It wasn’t my fault they had come completely unprepared for the cold, but I groaned at my damn conscience and sleepily replied back, “I have an extra sleeping bag in here you can grab.” My Marmot Hydrogen bag was bunched uselessly at our feet, anyway. As a regrettable afterthought, I added, “Worst comes to worst you guys can cram in here.” The second I hit send, the van rocked violently and the boys bailed into the van as though escaping a sinking boat. In minutes, they fell asleep flat back with broad shoulders selfishly taking up more than their share of the van. Our van, I might add. Chris and I together occupied the final third of van space, spooned tightly against the icy cold window battling for even a sliver of sleep.
One night down; fifteen more to go. We were off to a rocky start, and that was nothing to do with the actual rocks we were there to climb.
The next night was much the same despite efforts to ease the cramped living situation and by the third morning, three sleepless nights in, I broke down and agreed to something one of the boys had been begging for all along: a hotel. For Chris and I, it was only for a couple nights, but I somehow felt I had betrayed Rachel and, in doing so, the essence of dirtbagging.
For the boys, however, it was a permanent retirement from vanlife and, a few days later, the trip altogether. Vanlife isn’t for everybody, after all. It’s like mushrooms: you either love it or hate and there doesn’t seem to be anybody who resides in the middle.
Once left to our own devices, Chris and I took to vanlife like climbing shoe rubber to cold granite (Sorry for the super obscure climbing joke… For you non-climbers out there, shoe rubber is optimally sticky in the cold). Even the mini van was more than luxurious for us. Sure, Rachel had her frustrations, like the practically bald city tires that once got stuck in an unexpected snow on Buttermilk Road and the straps of the Tepui tent that always seemed to come loose and flap obnoxiously on the room of the car in the wind until we pulled over to re-secure them. Then there was the hatch with struts that failed halfway through the trip forcing us to hold it up on our heads any time we needed to use the sink or retrieve food. But really, what more could we ask from mini-van converted into a campervan? Rachel kept us warm and dry and she transformed any patch of dirt into home. To me, that was pretty magical.
It was the simplicity I so craved in every other part of my life. Between juggling three jobs and moving apartments two weeks prior to the trip, I had become accustomed to chaos. I no longer remembered what it felt like to just be. To wake up to the sun, not an alarm, and allow our vitamin D deprived skin to soak in the morning sun as we drank bitter instant coffee. To show up at the crag without an agenda. To climb until our fingers and bodies told us, No more. To camp anywhere that gave us a front row seat to the cotton candy pink and purple sky cast shadows and fiery alpenglow across the white-capped Sierras. And finally, to drink bourbon and play cards until the fatigue and the alcohol in our blood carried us gently off to sleep. Repeat.
Our biggest concerns were limited to if the wind would cooperate enough for us to cook dinner outside and if our skin would be healed enough to climb the next day. Were we going to spend the next rest day at the Looney Bean or Black Sheep coffee shop? Where should we try to go hot spring hunting? Should we go to town for a shower tonight or tomorrow? How many days had I worn the same pair of pants and were they too smelly to wear again? There was no glamour to the lifestyle, no fancy staged photographs that clutter the #vanlife feed on instagram. It was just rocks and desert and sublime freedom.
Before we knew it, those sixteen days were over and, though our granite-shredded skin would disagree, they had ended too soon. We said our goodbyes to Rachel back in L.A. and headed back to the snow covered choss of Alaska and the responsibilities we held there.
“Hey Chris,” I said looking around our small, one bedroom apartment that now seemed obnoxiously big. “Let’s buy a van.”
Post Script: So here we are, five months later, currently in the market for a van, floor plans drawn. We’re hoping to have a rough version of our van ready for the next Bishop trip in November. If all goes well, we will move into our van full-time sometime early next summer.
About Lost Campers:
For any of you out there considering temporary vanlife excursions or perhaps who just want to try it out before getting your own, I cannot recommend Lost Campers USA enough. For budget car rental and accommodation combined, there is no more wallet friendly option. With offices in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and Salt Lake City, they work with pretty much any major trip in the western states. The pick-up and drop-off process is simple and the staff is helpful, but at the time of pick-up and remotely if you have any questions or problems. They have several vans to choose from and provide all the camping essentials like a stove, bedding, cook wear, a cooler, and camp chairs so you don’t need to worry about packing cumbersome items. If anything, their fault is that they did their job too well and made us fall so in love with vanlife that we wanted to go full time. Regardless, if I’m ever in need of a temporary camper van, they’ve got my business!