It’s June and I am sitting around a campfire in Northern California with a host of travelers, all complete strangers. Some have ridden the train here; some came on bikes and skateboards; others have their vehicle parked nearby. A few are sleeping on the streets of this small town on the river.
Others carry instruments, mandolins, accordions and trumpets. Rosalie is singing and playing the guitar and we’re exchanging stories. We learn that some of us have families, and some of us don’t. Some people are drinking and doing drugs, and some of us aren’t. We have a mutual understanding that we have arrived from different places for different reasons, but we share commonalities. These exist alongside stark differences. The community we are part of as travelers, vehicle dwellers, dirty kids, train riders, urban campers, crusties, nomads, squatters and people on the move offers us a close embrace, an acceptance of our common struggles and successes.
Travelers include anyone who might find themselves permanently, seasonally, or even briefly on the move or on the street; on couches or in camps, tents, or vehicles. We are multidirectional, reflecting a wide range of circumstances and choices that overlap and separate at seemingly random intervals. Travelers are part of the houseless community; living nomadically is just one of many ways people weather conditions of economic hardship and displacement.
In recent years, the nomadic lifestyle has become more visible, but not always in ways that bring to light the larger societal frameworks at play. For instance, despite it being a very small and privileged segment of transient living, the viral hashtag #VanLife has glamorized vehicle dwelling in a way that stands in contrast to travelers at large. Somehow, #VanLife has made having no permanent access to shelter seem aspirational, while also erasing those who live transiently in less privileged circumstances.
It would be impossible to fully encapsulate the multiplicity of experiences of those who are transient or live on the road. However, there is a wider community of vehicle dwellers, houseless folks, and dirty kids of which I am a part, and I’d like to tell you more about them. As someone who travels on foot and has been in unstable housing situations for the majority of my life, I hope that by sharing our stories I can challenge some of the assumptions about what it’s like to live on the road.
Life on the Road
It’s 3 a.m. in early April and I’m pissing into a Home Depot bucket inside of a cold, musty white van. In the back there is a mountain of stale clothes and food packaging so stiff I can’t dig through them to reveal where I assume a bed might be hidden. I am parked by Dolores Park, ashing my cigarette into a used Taco Bell napkin because if I take down my cardboard blinds to roll down the window, it will reveal that I’m sleeping in here, alone. The van belongs to my friend Dane, a university professor who lives in their vehicle—San Francisco is, afterall, one of the most expensive places to live in the US. Of the people I’ve known who live in their vehicle, their home looks and feels similar to this one. I doubt if I posted a picture on Instagram of my setup here, it would be very well-received.
It’s late July and Aisha and I are slugging through the Nevada desert in her 1990 Ford Taurus that has no working AC and a butter knife jammed inside the indicator socket. We are stopping at every single gas station we see, dousing ourselves in jugs of water and are clutching onto quickly melting bags of ice. The car smells like wet dog and the now-empty 7-Eleven fruit cups have attracted more than a few flies. There’s a slowly growing pool of melted ice water at our feet. We wonder to ourselves if our vehicle will be able to weather the seemingly endless miles of desert highway. The view out of the cracked windshield is beautiful, a sprawling barren desert wasteland, but the feeling of being there is almost unbearable. My feet sizzle on the hot rocks as we smoke on a parked plane outside of a brothel in Nevada. The sun burns and the car smells like vomit. We are both enthralled and exhausted.
I remember sleeping at the Roseville Amtrak parking lot bushes in late October; waking up to the sprinklers being turned on at 3 a.m., soaked, shivering, waiting for the sun to rise, dripping sleeping bags hung out dry out over the bus stop. Sometimes there’s a leak in the roof of your van so you have to park under the highway overpass for a couple of days to keep the rain out while the sealant dries. More often than not, you’re hiding in your vehicle in some motel parking lot somewhere, hoping you arrived late enough and will leave early enough to not be bothered. You’re waking up to the sounds of highway traffic, superstore shoppers and the morning bustle of other folks who are living on the street around you. I have witnessed beautiful mornings on the road, but still I woke up sweating and dirty in my sleeping bag worrying about where I could use the bathroom.
If you search #VanLife on Pinterest there is a wealth of aspirational photos and videos, all of beautiful people waking up to an empty beach on warm, clean bedding. The images offer a feeling of being comfortable and safe in some picturesque remote location, a complete escape from reality.
The fact is, most travelers wake up to the luxuriously empty early morning Walmart parking lot. They move on simply because they have to, toward nothing in particular. They are not afforded the ability to take up space; instead, they navigate cramped living conditions and hope their car won’t be towed today.
Often life on the road feels more like an ongoing endurance test than an adventure. Most of the people I know have not extensively equipped their vehicle for daily living. Generally, most people who find themselves on the road aren’t able to carefully plan and save to enter this “lifestyle.” These people are being actively pushed out of homes and even public spaces. Many folks on the road are there due to conditions of precarity and austerity, and are living in their vehicle because they don’t have enough to begin with. The substandard living conditions of the poor extend into tents, vehicles and other places we might call home.
Sleeping in your vehicle is often illegal, and people often talk about the dreaded ‘knock’ from authorities at early hours of the morning, being asked to move and/or ticketed, punished and fined for lack of housing. If you’re riding a train or hitchhiking, urban camping or living in a vehicle you run the risk of being towed, ticketed, moved on or having your tent be swept at any time.
Most of us are very aware of the fact that we aren’t allowed to be anywhere, being actively pushed out by authorities and punished for not holding permissions you cannot afford to obtain. Freedom is part of life on the road but when you can’t buy it, it’s something you have to search for. Avoiding entrapment is very seldom talked about or experienced by those with the financial means to pay for and adapt their nomadic lifestyle in a fully legal manner.
Behind the Hashtag
Friends of mine have been abandoned in the desert with no water by rail cops. We’ve been victims of illegal evictions, street sweeps and vehicle tows. I’m currently in an ongoing court case for trespassing.
Another friend’s vehicle got into a collision on the highway in San Diego, their whole life gone in minutes scattered across the freeway. They had to travel on foot after that for almost a year until they could afford another used car.
I recall another friend’s car breaking down in a small Utah town. They had to abandon it in a Walmart parking lot because they couldn’t afford to fix it. They ended up kicking it in Utah for three months.
I met an older man named Dave in Portland while we were waiting on a train under an overpass. We went dumpstering together and snacked on the fresh tangerines we found back at his camp. He shared with us that he was originally from Long Island and had been unhoused for over 40 years. These moments of connection with strangers, sharing and helping one another are common among people in the unhoused community. Solidarity is something I find to be missing from the circulating discussions that are supposedly about the freedom of the open road but it is the only way we’re all getting by out here.
Part of the beauty of living on the road to me is not perfect beaches or national parks, but knowing people’s stories, finding connections and sharing what little we have with one another. There is this intersectional community on the road that comes from having to radically place your trust in strangers who maybe do not have a lot in common with you.
I remember peeling off three layers of my now stiff woolen socks from my unwashed feet outside a thrift store in a small town in the high desert and throwing them directly into a garbage can in order to replace them with the socks I’d just pocketed. It was simply too cold for too long and I had at some point decided that being warm felt better than smelling nice.
Many of my friends would identify as Crusties. Crusty is the name for a subset of punk subculture that manifests in this dirty aesthetic. It’s about repairing and patching your clothes because you can’t afford new ones. Crusties and Dirty Kids are often associated with houselessness and poverty and traveling culture. We look this way because we live this way. It’s this kind of wearing of your struggle on your sleeve, fashioning something creative out of the scraps you have and refusing to perform clean and put together—realistically, because you can’t.
Crusty has a class and spatial implication. Usually Crusties are travelers on foot, by vehicle, or on the rails; squatters and bike riders; taking odd jobs, seasonal work or without work at all. The term Crusty conveys the layers of struggle involved in getting by without a lot more than repaired clothes held together with dental floss. Crust is something that builds up over time: worn bodies and clothes and vehicles alike. We refer to the DIY skate spot as crusty, as well as the holes in our shoes and the matts in my hair.
Crusties get looked down on for their heavily visible choice to opt out of society. We fashion something out of our struggles that feels good to us—a kind of coded fuck you to clean society.
It’s interesting: minimalism is often portrayed as a simple clean and chic aesthetic, but Crusties, who have little to begin with, are perhaps the reality of minimalism. Wearing your boots till they fall off is something you do because you have no other option. I have been made very wary of the unfortunate consequences of boot rot.
Furthermore, crusties are actively part of the fabric of houseless folks sharing shared spaces and resources, camping, biking and riding our bikes together. The visual signifiers of tattered clothing and packs communicate their position in the transient lifestyle spectrum.
But it also can make you a red flag to the authorities.
Freedom to Choose
Batsy, age 26, is a van dweller, self indentified queer traveller and Crusty who, in their own words, “chose the lifestyle.” Initially they refused to refer to themselves as houseless because they believed that would imply a struggle they hadn’t faced. They worried the term undermined their autonomy over their current living situation.
Often there is so much negative stigma attached to the word homeless or houseless that it kind of makes sense that people would find other words to describe their lifestyle. There is such a broad spectrum of experiences of those facing houslessness and often these words can be offensive when used against people.
Upon later reflection, Basty came to understand that they could not achieve a more sedentary lifestyle even if they wanted to, that there in fact wasn’t a road out of “the lifestyle,” as they called it. They came to realize the tension between their autonomy and socially imposed conditions, of living in late capitalism in the midst of a housing crisis and ever-widening wealth gap.
There is a class divide on the road. There are those with options to easily leave this lifestyle whenever they want, and those who would find it very difficult to assimilate back into society even if they desired to do so. I’ve always heard stories of trust fund kids on the road. It’s true some people are able to call their family for help when they fall on tough times. But I think the influencers who are able to use their cultural capital to profit off of being unhoused is something more insidious; class consciousness has seemingly been abandoned.
Living nomadically, there is constant tension between circumstances and agency. Sometimes I tell myself I could leave the road at any time, that I have an out. It seems comforting that this could be a choice I made, rather than a set of cards I’d been dealt by my immigration status and the $19 in my bank account. In some moments I feel completely free and in some ways I feel completely trapped by my own set of circumstances.
Often we are bound by where the driver we’ve hitched a ride with is going, the distance the amount of gas you’ve been able to jug can get you or simply how much energy you have that day. There is this constant game of cat and mouse out here on the road between you and the rather harsh conditions of the world we currently live in. Accepting the fact there is no route out and instead trying to navigate an alternative way through. I think for many of us, the glimpses of the possibility of freedom are worth the struggle.
Choice and Consequence
I recall being stuck in a small town outside of the Nevada border for a week until my friend’s unemployment came the following Wednesday so we could buy gas again. We were both completely free and completely trapped.
I recall my last stint living in a house in Oakland. We had no locks on our doors or glass in our windows but rent was still due in full. Things began with us making minimum rent payments under the Ellis Act and ended a few months of eviction defense later with our landlord splitting my housemate’s head open with a shovel in the backyard. One thing I’ve learned is that rent is owed and it always gets paid, one way or another. Poor people are always ‘moved on,’ often suddenly and violently.
I think of a good friend of mine who purposefully keeps herself two parking tickets below the maximum number you can get in California before they take you to court. I think of all the hundreds of unpaid parking tickets of my friends living in their cars scattered across state lines. I think about trespassing fines and illegal camping tickets, I think about the cops on the road and on the rails and the ones in national parks. I think about what living anywhere costs you when you can’t pay rent and how landlords carry a badge and a gun.
I recall wanting to go home many times during some depressive episodes whilst being on the road and simply thinking to myself, “you can’t return to something you don’t have.”
The van life movement often perpetuates this portrayal of the “lone traveler” that is self-sufficient and in a dreamy world of their own, posting photos and videos in picturesque isolated natural landscapes. By doing this, they erase the existence of the communities and histories and connections you often find in circles of transient folks.
In fact, in most transient circles I’ve witnessed, community and mutual aid is such a huge part of how we survive. We know each other’s stories and we share them through music, telling stories, sharing resources and knowledge with each other. Van lifers often end up missing out on this culture partially due to not needing the support it provides. Part of the beauty of living on the road to me is not perfect beaches or national parks, but knowing people’s stories, finding connections and sharing what little we have with one another. There is this intersectional community on the road that comes from having to radically place your trust in strangers who maybe do not have a lot in common with you.
I often think that the #VanLife movement in popular culture replicates the isolation of capitalism because of their wealth they I guess can forgo community which is kind of diseharenting. I often see online people commenting, “I wish I had the money to live on the road,” when the reality is most people I know who live on the road do so because of lack of money. This idealization of the lifestyle perpetuates false narratives and romanticizes what is ultimately a form of homelessness. These narratives of exceptionalism erase necessary conversations that need to happen about the state of homelesess in the US and beyond and the culture and communities of transient folks in the US.
The landscape of our current capitalist hellhole is filled with tents, broken-down cars packed with garbage and high-rise plastic condos. I think about how we are confined by our homes bound by bills we can’t pay serving seemingly indefinite sentences to banks. How people living on the road are all trying to escape to a safety that can never be truly granted under our current system. I think about how more and more of us are forced to flee economic disaster and persecution on the lands we reside in search of a safety and security that simply doesn’t exist. Forced to leave our homes in order to survive and punished for doing so. How conditions of precarity are packaged up into a nice four minute YouTube video about life on the road in a beautiful spacious van and sold back to us as the promise of ultimate freedom.
It makes people ask us questions like, “How do you afford to live like that?” when they find out we live nomadically. Their first thought isn’t that we’re homeless but that we’re tourists. When you’re hitching a ride in rural Montana you have to talk to the people who live there, hear their stories, experiences, struggles and the beauty of the landscape comes with this cultural context you will never experience in isolation. The beauty, in my opinion, lies in each other and not our location, where we fall asleep or wake up. I guess we’re not trying to see the world pass by the window but be in it instead, which is a radical act when you’re actively being pushed out.
I know we live in ways that seem and sometimes feel impossible because they’re fraught terms. I feel that living a transient life for many of us has been a way to navigate a life with agency to have access to things we have not been afforded by society. Our communities, stories, history and illicit ways of being cannot be bought or sold and probably won’t be sponsored by a big car company any time soon.
I remember late night in Utah sleeping by a chain link fence in the rain crying myself to sleep hungry, exhausted and ready to never travel again. I couldn’t do this anymore and my body and mind were giving up on me. The very next evening we were riding across the Great Salt Lake at night seeing the stars from the very same sleeping bag and feeling like the luckiest person in the world.
It’s mid-May and we’re sharing a floor in a DIY distro in Houston with five traveling musicians and a cockroach or two. We’re packed in all sleeping bags, mats, packs surrounded by masses of patches, shirts and instruments. The weather is hot and sticky and we’re all huddled on the porch sharing breakfast, coffee, cigarettes and stories before we all move on. Where exactly we’re headed next, I don’t know.Become a Patron!