Marigold halos refract through collected raindrops on the windshield as streetlights appear and slowly fade into the distance. Snuggled under the covers in the back of our 1978 VW camper bus, I squint at the headlights approaching through the back window. The steady thrum beneath me slows as the lights in the window transition from yellow to red. Red kaleidoscopes into green, the engine’s pace quickens, and we take a wide turn onto a tree-lined residential street.
As we pass cookie-cutter houses, I gaze through large un-curtained picture windows into an empty room filled with pristine furniture and a great statement piece clinging to the eggshell wall. The lights are on but no one is home. Next door, a football game plays on a large flat-screen TV. The faceless sports fan reaches forward for a beer, his sneakers propped up on the coffee table. I will likely never meet the people who live here, but somehow I know their lives. As we pass each identical driveway, the lyrics to “Little Boxes” by Malvina Reynolds permeate my thoughts.
“Here?” Hunter’s interjection steals me from my reverie. “Sure,” I reply. Leaves rustle and scrape the side of our sage green bus as we wedge into a parking spot in front of an apartment complex. Hunter cuts the engine and light raindrops fall on the roof as he removes the key. I swiftly close the curtains as Hunter douses the lights and checks the locks. He slinks between the seats and I slide the last curtain into place, shutting off the outside world.
June 28th marked one year of this nightly routine for me, my husband, Hunter, and our dog, Spaceman. When we first gave up our 1-bedroom apartment in Mountain View and moved into our camper bus full-time, evenings were not always this calm and contemplative. The early days were mired in the storm and stress of learning to navigate our newly nomadic lifestyle. Confronted with window leaks, breakdowns, interior repairs, parking uncertainties, and potentially dangerous situations, we were thrust fully out of the familiar and into the unknown. Gradually, though, we grew to love our spartan home-on-wheels—and while we questioned whether we could make it through a month at the beginning, now we wonder if we can ever go back to a more stationary way of life.
What led Hunter and I to ditch our fixed abode for an extended road trip was part-economics, part-adventure. Like many residents in the San Francisco Bay Area who struggle with soaring rents, we were confronted with a decision when our 1-year lease was up and we received notice that our month-to-month rent on a tiny 1-bedroom was going to increase from $2,300 to $3,500. We could afford it, but did we want to? We had read many stories of tenants being pushed out by astronomical rent increases all over the Bay Area, and reports of a mass exodus of middle and lower class families. In fact, the housing problem had become so volatile that we encountered new articles dissecting the detrimental impacts of the Bay Area’s housing crisis on a weekly basis. It was in this climate that we found ourselves morally opposed to contributing to a housing system that we viewed as broken.
Then, as we were contemplating our options, an idea began to sprout: could we devise an alternative living situation? Driving to work every day, I saw streets lined with RVs, and I had heard stories of people living in tiny houses, sheds, hammocks on roof decks, and in converted storage containers. The more we researched, the more ubiquitous these alternative ideas seemed to be. After years of being locked in the monotonous routine of work, home, dinner, TV, sleep, repeat, we wondered how living in extreme minimalism would push us out of our comfort zone and into new experiences. We had never had that much stuff. In fact, we never fully moved into our 1-bedroom apartment. How many things had we bought, used once, and put away never to be seen again? What did we really need to get by day-to-day? Without paying rent, how much money could we save in one year to go towards travel, or even a down payment on a house? The more we thought about it, the less outlandish it seemed to pare down and plunge into a new adventure.
We scoured the web for trailers, RVs, and campers, and 3 months before our lease was up, we discovered our nomadic holy grail: the Volkswagen camper bus. Sitting on my couch with Spaceman, I messaged Hunter with an eBay listing for an orange 1978 bay window bus with lime green racing stripes, a mini fridge, sink, and 2 burner propane stove.
Hunter: “Yes! I'm totally in.”
Me: “I honestly think it would be kind of cool.”
Hunter: “I kind of like this idea. It's even crazier than the trailer idea.”
Me: “It's like, ultra-crazy.”
Hunter: “But in a good way.”
Little did we know that in this text conversation we had predicted nearly everyone’s reaction to our scheme. “You’re going to do what?!” Prefaced by stunned silence, my friend Jenny’s countenance contorted with disbelief before she peppered me with questions: “But wait, where will you go to the bathroom? Where will you shower? What will you eat? Where will you put all your stuff? What happens if you two get in a fight?” Questions like these cascaded out every time we shared our plans with someone new. “We’ll figure it out,” I would say with a smile.
Convincing our parents this was a good idea, though, was a little tougher. “I told my Mom about it today, and she didn't hang up on me, so that is good,” Hunter exclaimed one evening as we perused the web for the perfect bus. His mom was horrified. My dad’s reaction was less extreme, though he strongly advised against going so ultra-tiny. In the end they both resigned to the fact that we had made up our minds and were likely going to do it whether they liked it or not.
We searched for two more months for a good deal on a VW bus. Finally, one month before our move-out deadline, we made the plunge and purchased our sage green 1978 Volkswagen Riviera camper bus, lovingly dubbed “Kurt Bussel” for $7,000. Then we began the real work. We had one month to strip the interior down to bare metal and build it back up to the point where we could call it livable. This was no small task! The original 1978 sink, fridge, and propane stove had all gone the way of the dodo bird, and thus had to be torn out. Bolt by bolt, and screw by screw, we removed everything ourselves. We took the seats and sleeping cushions to be re-upholstered, ripped out the 40 year-old carpet, scrubbed the entire thing down, and treated all of Kurt’s problem areas (rust, rust, and more rust). On top of the monumental task of stripping down the bus, we were simultaneously stripping down the rest of our lives. We purged all of our possessions: selling all of our furniture, donating all of our non-essentials, and moving what was left into a 7x10 storage unit. It was a scramble job, to be sure, but we had a hard deadline to be out of our apartment and onto the road.
For all our best efforts, our deadline arrived and to our dismay the bus was nowhere near ready. All the upholstery had yet to be finished, and we hadn’t even come close to having the time to put in the insulation, vapor barriers, paneling, and window seals. This is when we became resourceful. “Do you think it will fit?” I queried as Hunter peered skeptically into our empty metal box. We had a choice: hastily build a makeshift plywood platform and either shove our queen mattress in the back, or break out our camping pads and sleeping bags. After much grunting, sweating, and cursing, the mattress wedged snugly into the back. We both stood beside the bus, inspecting our accomplishment when it hit me. Curtains! We hadn’t gotten any curtains! Hunter looked at me with exhausted saucer-eyes as he questioned, “What are we going to do?” I dashed into our storage unit, rummaged through what was left of our belongings, and emerged triumphantly holding an old navy-blue bedsheet. I did my best reverse-Scarlett O’Hara, fashioning curtains by cutting the fabric into strips and pinning them above each window. Nearing a state of sheer exhaustion we stood back to take stock of our handy work. “What are we getting ourselves into?” Hunter said with a tired smile.
Thus our journey into the unknown commenced. I buckled in, and we began our search for a place to park for the night. With each house we passed, tensions rose. “This one?” I inquired. Hunter shook his head. It was well past sundown, and the hot summer night showed no sign of relenting. We stopped in front of a house, angling to parallel park. Relief washed over me until I spotted a pair of eyes peering out at us from a kitchen window. “We have to go, there’s someone in there watching us,” I groaned to Hunter. He sighed audibly and maneuvered back to the road. As we drove on I watched out the window in disbelief. How were all of these people still awake? Joggers, dog walkers, and bicyclists abounded. It felt like all eyes, both real and imagined, were on us. Finally exhaustion won out and we settled on a parking spot on a quiet condo-lined street. We scrambled to shut the curtains, and held our breath with each pair of headlights that passed by. Our restless night was filled with Spaceman’s low growls at unfamiliar noises and our own imaginings of being discovered by unknown foes.
After a few hours of tossing and turning we rose with the sun. Much to my surprise, as I furtively peered between slits in the bedsheet curtains I spotted a white 1980s VW Vanagon camper bus parked across the street. The couple inside slid open the curtains, migrated to the front seat, and drove away. Did this mean that what we were doing was more commonplace than we had previously thought? In the months that followed we discovered that we were a part of a burgeoning community of people in the area that had opted for life on four wheels. While it took some time to get the kinks worked out in our daily routines of showering, using the bathroom, preparing food, and finding places to sleep, each day brought more feelings of familiarity and security in our new domicile. Aiding our comfort was also newfound knowledge that we were operating within the area’s laws regarding mobile living as long as we moved the bus at least every 72 hours.
Our first year of bus life has also brought plenty of adventure. Suddenly, on weekends, we didn’t have to pry ourselves off the couch and force ourselves to go somewhere—we were already on an extended road trip. We have traveled through 14 states and visited over 20 national parks, monuments, and forests. We have skydived, spelunked, climbed mountains, driven the length of California in search of wildflower superblooms, chased sunsets in Arizona, sledded down gypsum dunes in New Mexico, braved snowstorms in Colorado, watched the stars in the Nevada desert, foraged for mushrooms along the Marin coast, and connected with a myriad of fellow VW bus owners and van dwellers across the country.
We have also changed our mindset on living. We take with us only what we can carry, and while we no longer possess the material things that people tend to associate with prosperity, we are instead rich in experience. Through our year of perpetual travel we have come to strongly value both our newfound financial freedom, as well as our freedom from a life consumed by consumerism. While our brand of extreme minimalism may work for us, we understand that it may not be for everyone. Some people respond to our lifestyle with the query, “But, why?” We prefer to ask, “Why not?” After all, if the least we come out of it with is a great story, a renewed sense of adventure, and the desire to explore more, the whole experience has been worth it.