Two Nights Sleeping in a Van

It didn’t feel limiting, it felt like freedom

All photos by the author

If you had asked me 20 years how I’d feel sleeping in a van, I’d have dismissed you out of hand. Back then, I needed luxury. That meant lots of plush things—also, a margarita and a view.

Now though, my ideas about luxury and comfort are much different. “Things” no longer affect me the same way. Now, my luxury and comfort come from owning my life. It comes from freedom. (I’ll still take the margarita, thank you).

So, I bought a van, I’m earning money online, and I’m trying to see the United States.

The first leg of my journey started in Michigan and ended in Texas. I was only in Texas once before. I stayed three nights in Austin for a conference. I didn’t see much of the state then and thought it was time to remedy that.

Van packed, off I went

When I was a teenager, I had this fantasy that I’d get in my car one day and drive away. I never knew where I was going, just that I was free to go anywhere I chose, by myself and never look back. I’d forgotten about that daydream until I was heading out of Michigan down I-75 south with nothing but the road ahead of me.

Of course, I was young and cute and singing along to some poignant rock music in my dream. I also drove a fast sports car, not a cargo van. Now, I’m old and cute :D and listened to self-improvement audiobooks. Life goes quick.

The Midwest

The midwestern states aren’t that interesting overall, geographically speaking.

On my first day, I drove through Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. If it weren’t for the signs, I wouldn’t have known any difference. They all look essentially the same. But the sun was shining and the roads were clear.

My mom used to say that we “built up all the land,” but she’d never really left southeastern Michigan. I drove through wide-open stretches of flat land populated by widely spaced homes and farms, with the occasional suburb or small town popping up. Here it’d take you 15 minutes to walk to your neighbor’s house.

Misery or Missouri?

By the time I made it to Missouri, the rain came. I’d driven all day without stopping through Toledo and past Indianapolis, which looked tiny as I went by. Having spent my entire life there, I didn’t want to stop in the Midwest. I wanted to get out. So I drove onward.

The further south I went, the more the landscape changed from flat to rolling with an occasional rock outcropping along the freeway here and there. It let me know the land was I rolling toward something else.

As the weather became worse and the sky turned black, I envisioned a tornado forming in the big open fields around me. I tried to remember what I could about tornado safety. Everything I knew I learned from the movie “Twister.” I hoped it was based on fact.

In this fantasy, I took shelter in a ditch on the side of the highway. The eye of the tornado passed over me as I gripped onto the metal grates they had in the bottom of the ditches. After it was gone, I’d stand up, both me and vanGo intact and in awe.

Rest Stop

But that didn’t happen. What happened was I got tired and pulled into a rest area. I decided that if truckers slept in rest areas, I could too.

There were several trucks and a few other vehicles parked there. After I went to the bathroom, I got back in the van and sat in my driver’s seat for a few minutes. It was dark and quiet. People came, used the facilities and left. There was another van parked across the lot that wasn’t moving, probably sleeping, I figured.

So, I hopped out, opened my back sliding door and climbed in back.

vanGo

My van is small. Not much bigger than a minivan and not tall enough to stand up in, so recreation is limited. You can hunch over, or you sit. Because I built a small bed in the back, you can also lay down — sort of.

My bed goes across the back of the van, side to side, so it’s only about 5-feet long. I am 5' 3", so it requires me to lay down with my legs bent. I sleep this way anyway, so it’s not a hardship.

I have a lantern and a curtain and all of my usual bedtime rituals. So, I prepared for bed just like I would anywhere. I changed my clothes, got a drink of water, my ebook, mouthguard, earplugs and sleep mask. What? My bedtime rituals guarantee I’ll be asleep within five minutes of shutting my book, probably less.

Night to Day

The next thing I knew, it was 6 am, and my phone alarm was going off. I believe in keeping a schedule and figured sleeping in a van didn’t mean I should give it up.

My sixth-grade history teacher, Mr. Laurain, used to say that I could sleep anywhere. Once, he made a sarcastic comment about sleeping through the maiden voyage of the Titanic. He was annoying, but he was right. I can sleep anywhere at any time.

Sleeping in the van didn’t bother me. When I wanted to stretch my legs, I hung them angled off the edge of the bed. Noises didn’t wake me, and I didn’t feel unsafe at any point. There were, essentially, people all around me. If anyone paid attention to my van or wondered about it, I wasn’t aware. Nobody knocked, and since I parked at the end of the lot, nobody parked near me.

Rude Awakenings

I’d brought a tiny space heater, which, much to my dismay, I realized pulled too much voltage to work with the power inverter I bought. It was about 50 degrees in the morning, and vanGo is insulated pretty well, so it wasn’t too cold. But it was about to get a lot worse.

The heater I could live without, but coffee was going to be a problem. I’d also brought my coffee grinder and one cup coffee maker. What? I like freshly ground, premium coffee, so sue me. I didn’t say I gave up all luxury; I’m not a masochist.

I was greatly distressed that, after several attempts, I accepted there wouldn’t be any coffee. There just wasn’t enough power. I am not a joy, even to myself, without coffee. It is the thing that makes me human. Without it, I’m no different than a badger in the forest. A hungry, angry, unshowered, noncaffeinated badger.

I drank my water instead and made a note to buy some cold brew for next time.

Arkansas

Somewhere in Arkansas, the temperature hit 80 degrees and I rolled the windows down. Finally. After the mid-40s in Michigan. The dreary grey midwestern winters kill my soul. I sorely needed some sunshine and warm weather.

I’d never been to Arkansas before, and essentially, I still haven’t. I stayed on the highway and drove through. I’m sure it’s a beautiful state, but the highway I was on didn’t show much of it.

At one point, I drove through a spray of large trees for miles. They were starting to get tiny green buds mixed in with the brown branches. Every couple of dozen feet, a splash of purple from a flowering tree would pepper the landscape.

The Lone Star State

You know you’re in Texas as soon as you enter it because it is a proud state. The state symbol lone star is present on everything. The signage, underpasses, stores, license plates, cars, homes, gate posts, windows, you name it. If you’re ever not sure what state you’re in, look around. Do you see any lone stars? Yes? You’re in Texas. No? Probably not Texas.

I’m immediately surprised by the number of cows on the cattle ranches. They span for miles and miles over the seemingly verdant landscape and … they look happy. I’ve always pictured them as living in metal stalls hooked up to feeding tubes and having milk pumped from their unwilling utters. These are different types of cows, I know. Still, I didn’t expect to see them looking so free.

The landscape, though, isn’t much different than Arkansas or Missouri before that. It’s flat. Though a bit greener. Less grey is always good.

Dallas, not the TV show

I stopped in Dallas for the day because I can’t pass up good urban art or architecture. My only knowledge of Dallas is from the 80s TV show. I was too young to watch it, but my Gram did. I remember it being really glitzy with 10-gallon hats and fancy leather cowboy boots. There was also a lot of slapping. So that’s what I thought Texas was.

I wasn’t that wrong. The first gas station I stopped at did have two flamboyant cowboys. Out front, there was another guy with a guitar and speaker who said he was Elvis. He sang me “Suspicious Minds,” and I gave him a dollar. He was good. Coulda been Elvis’ cousin. What do I know?

Downtown Dallas was lively. The entire place smelled liked smoked meat. People in their 20s walked through the streets, meeting at breweries and restaurants. It had glitz.

There was a lot of public art, great buildings and several unique and lively streets and neighborhoods like the Bishop Arts District, which was adorable. I spent several hours in Dallas and nobody tried to slap me. I was a little disappointed.

Bix Box BS

One of the things that surprised me — that always surprises me — is that they have the same big box bullshit stores here we have everywhere else — Walmart and Pet Supplies Plus and McDonald’s on every corner. There are dozens of fast-food or chain restaurants like Texas Roadhouse, Olive Garden, and Applebees. I keep waiting to find the one place in America that isn’t crowded with this stuff.

When you get right down to it, most places in American can’t escape being American. We are one big country with few variances not that noticeable to outsiders. I worry about the death of the small-town business after the pandemic. It seems like there are fewer of them each place I go. Of course, there are millions online, but I’d still like to see them dot the downtowns.

Aside from being the place that killed Kennedy, Dallas was a great place.

My One Good Idea

It is hotter in Texas. At the end of March, when I was driving, it got up to 84 degrees, according to vanGo’s temperature gauge. I traded my pants and shoes in exchange for flip-flops and shorts. When my Dad and I cut the hole in the roof for the air vent, I had immediate regret — maybe I shouldn’t have cut that hole — perhaps it wasn’t necessary. But on my second night sleeping in the van, as it was still 78 degrees at 9 pm as I tried to fall asleep — I was glad I did it. That was some smart foresight. Because it wouldn’t be safe or smart to leave the windows open, I also ran my little desk fan, and I couldn’t have been more grateful for that either.

So, About my Big Box Rant …

On my second night sleeping in a van, I slept in a McDonald’s parking lot of all things. Thank you very much. For any complaining I might do about them, they are consistent. The rest areas in Texas have all been closed so far and I didn’t want to go a far stretch in the night as it was getting dark and I was tired and there was road construction. A recipe for disaster if you ask me, and since I’m the only one to ask, well, I stopped at the McDonalds.

They had a sign that said “RV parking” and “Truckers Welcome,” so I figured that applied to me too. It turns out it did. I had another restful night in vanGo. This morning the coffee was right there, already brewed when I woke up.

I pulled out of Dallas by 10 am after doing some work in the van. I had a story to file and McDonald’s also offers free wifi. No wonder old people love hanging out there so much. Maybe it’s not so bad.

Austin

Drove to Austin on my way to San Antonio. The first thing I saw was when I got off the freeway were the tent cities. I’d heard of this, but it was the first time seeing it myself. Dozens of tents of homeless people lined the streets and open spaces under the viaducts in encampments. Most of the people looked young and like they were on heavy, serious drugs. Nearly every block I drove, I saw people passed out, dead to the world, sprawled across the sidewalk. It looked like they were dead, but of course, they weren’t. I’ve been to many places, but I don’t recall seeing a homeless drug problem like this one.

All the people in Austin were young too. Out having brunch and day drinking. My 20s were so different than that. I couldn’t afford a day downtown if there were any places to go, and where I grew up, we didn’t have a downtown until recently. Brunch wasn’t a thing, and “day drinking” was reserved for the most solid alcoholics. And trust me, uncle Joe was not cute when he had his day drunk on.

Is That All?

I didn’t spend a lot of time in Austin or Dallas, but they didn’t seem entirely special. To be fair, I was only in the downtowns for half a day. I’m sure there are lots of neighborhoods I’d have liked better. But there are many bars and restaurants in the downtowns, and none of it was entirely interesting or unique.

But what do I know? I guess bars and restaurants are what makes a city great—places for young people to go. Young people buy products and clothing in bulk, get married, buy houses and have children. We’re breeding the ultimate consumers. And consumers aren’t too picky about where or how they spend.

San Antonio

Traffic was thick all the way into San Antonio. It was slow going and there wasn’t a lot to see. The freeway all the way through Texas is lined by service drives with businesses. You know the ones. It’s different than midwestern freeways because you can actually see all the businesses as you’re driving past. You can get on and off about every mile. Super smart and convenient.

One the way to my Airbnb, there is a Super Target. I stopped for food. It was amazing. It’s like a supermarket they’d have on Wisteria Lane. Everything is perfect and beautiful and clean. They have clerks all over organizing the shelves constantly, so they’re always perfect. I’m serious. Once done with that, they clean. Everything. Meticulously. I’m serious. Highly recommend.

Blue Bird Cabin

Shortly thereafter, arms loaded with LaCroix and microwave popcorn, I found myself at my little Blue Bird Cabin. It’s going to be my little Thoreau-like cabin in the woods for the next month. It is one room with only a small fridge and a microwave. The bathroom is a short walk through the woods. I’ll write more on that another time.

Living in a Van

So, driving cross country alone and sleeping in the van a few nights wasn’t a hardship. It granted me a lot of time and freedom to explore how I wanted. It was nice having all of my things with me. Being able to pull over and sleep was mighty convenient. It saved a ton of time and money. As someone constantly trying to figure out a workable balance between time and money, this seems like a good compromise.

Besides, in America, we have so many easy, nearby amenities you can’t go far without bumping into them. I didn’t want for anything. I didn’t ever feel unsafe. Truly, I felt free. That’s what it was like living in my van.

Follow along on my journey as I keep traveling and sleeping in my van occasionally at www.middlejourney.com

Adventure, travel, wellness and the joy of satisfying curiosity one experience at a time. www.MiddleJourney.com

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