Revisited: My Life Living in a Van.

mountains

Somewhere in BC in the middle of February. “Vana White” proudly on guard.

*This post was originally written five or six years ago. I wanted to clean it up and put it back out into the world. I still carry many of the feelings originally expressed with me, and it admittedly makes me feel even more nostalgic these days.

As I approach the ripe old age of 30 I find myself reflecting – as I’m sure many people do – on how I spent my late teens and most of my 20’s. I know so much more now about the “real” world. I consider myself to be at least 500% more financially literate, I feel as “up-to-date” on current events, politics and other nonsensical things as I want to be. I’ve gone through personal changes in attitude, confidence, and conquering fears. Still, I can’t help but think back constantly and analyze the past decade. Most of the time I find myself focusing on what I may feel is “lost time” or perhaps what you’d consider “wasted,” or “misguided” efforts. I spent many years swinging for the proverbial fence.

Going Big…and Going Home

I was a musician, a song writer, and a band leader/manager. It’s all I ever thought about. I studied Audio Engineering in college so that I could leverage that knowledge into the band. I organized tours, designed merchandise, recorded albums, successfully applied for and received financial backing through grants and industry programs. I rubbed elbows with industry folk while sporting the biggest, fakest smiles and delivering the most confident hand shakes I could muster. In the end, it didn’t work, and the band – myself included – burned out. But, after loosing too much sleep due to focusing on the negative sides of failure, it’s time to reflect on this experience in a different way.

Touring this HUGE country is not easy. There’s very few cities to play and vast distances to cover in between. On top of that, the pay for an unknown hard rock/heavy metal band is basically peanuts. You become, more or less, a travelling clothing store. Your music is your advertisement for your custom designed shirts. It’s a little strange. So many financial odds are against you that it can take a special person to really succeed. In fact, I’m willing to bet that many young bands fail because the members don’t take the time to understand how frugal you really have to be when chasing this lifestyle. If you are one of the lucky ones to realize this fact, then it automatically forces you to become the frugalest of bastards.

Our Mobile Home

My bandmates and I effectively lived in our van. For upwards of six weeks at a time our 15 passenger tour van is what we called home. I miss those homes…there were two of them.

Our first, a beat up old grey van we effectively named “GreyGore.” I can’t even remember the brand. When we upgraded we got lucky and found a relatively unused white Chevy Express, AKA “Vana White.” One of the best makes/models for touring. Anyway, it’s occurred to me a few times since the band “retired” that living in a van is what I miss the most about those days. It’s such a strange way to be, so care free, and it really shows you that it is possible to disconnect from the expected Monday to Friday, 9 to 5, lifestyle that’s been served up to us. Let me try and explain.

First, if I had to find a way to associate it with a feeling you get from working a regular job, every day felt like that vibe you get on a Thursday or Friday afternoon before a long weekend. The feeling that work, and work life responsibilities, were so far away. That this would be THE long weekend that would last forever. Know what I mean? I was conscious of this, and I loved it. Days of the week would cease to matter. You woke, you travelled, you explored, you met new people, you went to bed. There was no reason to pay attention to the calendar.

The Bench Seats Became Beds

I had some marvellous sleeps on those bench seats. I remember lying there, usually parked outside a Walmart or sometimes on the curb in the suburbs beside the house of a gracious fan who hosted an after party, sort of laughing and smiling to myself. This is the path we had chosen. Three friends and I were actively pursuing this sort of nomadic lifestyle and, in my eyes, we were doing it with ease.

I would wake up with this sense of humour and accomplishment. Just like the sun rising, it would dawn on me again that here we are, living in a van. I’d zombie walk into the Walmart, or nearest Tim Hortons, for a coffee and public washroom cleaning/toothbrushing thinking to myself: “our day jobs are a thing of the past.” All of my problems and concerns were left behind in my apartment. I never took that feeling for granted.

Untethered

As soon as you’d jump in that van on the first day of tour it was sort of like all these ropes that were tethering you down were cut away, and you were free to just float along, taking in the world instead of trying to force it to work for you. There would sometimes be all kinds of worries before you left:

  • What do you bring? (space is limited and you’ll be gone for weeks)
  • Do you have enough saved to pay for food in between shows? (no show, no cashflow)
  • Are your bills covered? (rent and utilities…they still want their money)
  • Is your relationship with your significant other strong enough to survive another tour? (better have a good cellphone plan)

The list would go on and on, but once those doors closed, and the tires hit the pavement, what’s done was done. There was no going back.

Health Checkup 

It was living like this that forced me to make some positive changes in my life. Living in close quarters with the same people for extended periods of time, while meeting swarms of new people on a daily basis and travelling to new areas over thousands of kilometres, means you’ll be face to face, and hand to hand, with lots of germs. There will be many handshakes and hugs with folks who may not be in the best of health. To be effective at touring, you need to be healthy.

I figured this out on our first outing and immediately started thinking about my diet. Every musician who has caught a cold while on tour and can relate to how awful it is. It happened to me on the first one, and I was determined to do what I could to avoid it from there on out. This analyzing of my diet may not have ever happened had I not spent a large amount of my time living in a van.

I use to weigh close to 300 pounds. I ate a lot of fast food, frozen pizzas, sandwiches upon sandwiches, and other garbage. Sure, I always knew I was fat, overweight, and lowering my life expectancy, and I had tried to lose weight before, but it was really my love of touring that brought upon real change.

I decided to become vegetarian.

It was the best way I could think of to force myself to stay away from fast food, deep fried goods, greasy pizzas and the like. I didn’t necessarily believe in all the political and moral reasons of becoming a vegetarian – I was in it for the health – but it worked. I cut my weight down from 300 to 208 pounds.

I exercise now, and I’ve learned a few other health related things, but had I not spent time living in a van I may have never been sent down this path. I could very well still be 300 pounds, nearing 30, with busted ankles and knees. I’m so grateful that I am not.

Forced Frugality and Discovering The Love of Nothing

Going without my possessions was another eye opening experience.

We’re all guilty of it. We collect things, we feel pride about our things, and we worry like hell that someone might steal and/or damage our things. They’re beautiful to us. They shine, shimmer, make noises, contain 1’s and 0’s, and bring some of us a great deal of satisfaction. So, I was a little surprised to find out that by living in a van for extended periods of time didn’t cause me to worry about these things that were way back home, not under the guard of my watchful eye. Here I was, with only a bookbag full of clothes, my laptop computer and my toiletry bag, and yet I didn’t feel a longing for my other collections and possessions. It was actually relieving to have them so far away. That was a big realization to me. I remember thinking, and vocalizing to some friends, that one of the best things about having hit the road for an extended tour was that I learned just how little I/you/we really need to live, get by, AND be happy. I’d found my bottom line and now I feel insulated from being worried about ever “going without.” It seems difficult to explain, but if I could be so comfortable and stress free while living in a van, why would I need to stress and worry about finding that “perfect apartment” ever again? Why waste time panicking about the layout of the living room, the size of the TV, the mismatched plates and bowls in the cupboards? All these things began to feel like luxuries.

Transformation Complete

These massive shifts in perception, these forced situations that made me question why and how we “have to” live our lives was the true reward of having the courage to get out there on the road and live like a working musician. I’m not sure I’ll ever have the opportunity to live like that again, but given the right situation, I’d be all over it.

I think I’ll end this post with a song by the Canadian band “Belvedere” that seems to put these feelings into words pretty accurately.

“distractions from the ordinary
real life just not good enough
explanations hard to come by
living outside the institutions
waking in awkward situations
i wouldn’t have it any other way
i can’t recall a better time,
each day felt like the next would never come
i realize i couldn’t get enough
alternatives all felt like death
i wish i could safely say
all the right decisions were always made
ya we were young but we’re still here
happy to starve for another year
it seems so right for one to assume
that what we are is what we see
what we buy who we do
i would have ended up that way if not for those miles
those endless days
i know it’s not for everyone, empty halls,
empty stomachs, empty hopes
in retrospect we had it all
we didn’t choose this life, this life chose us long ago
a web of friends and moments impossible to let go
though we surrendered what others want to treasure
we ended up with so much more
we didn’t choose this life, this life chose us long ago
a web of friends and moments impossible to let go
though we surrendered what others want to treasure
we ended up with so much more”

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