A Van Down by the Climbing Gym

This piece was originally posted on Environmental History Now.

A camper van driving through Arches National Park just outside of Moab, Utah. Image by Pexels from Pixabay.

When I worked for a rock climbing gym in Denver, Colorado between college and graduate school, I never asked my van-dwelling coworkers what they thought about living out of their vehicles across a fence from people experiencing homelessness. A few of my fellow employees lived out of their vans, which had full-sized beds with storage underneath and cupboards, a stove, and a sink towards the front. None of their vehicles had a bathroom, but they had building keys and could use the gym’s bathrooms and showers at any time.

The gym allowed them to park their vans in a small lot behind the building, where a chain link fence divided the parking area from a gravel alley in which a small group of people experiencing homelessness slept. A few of these individuals had tents, but most had less. They could not slip into the climbing gym, where a day pass then cost roughly $20 and a monthly membership exceeded $80, to use the bathroom or clean up.

I do not know if those coworkers thought of themselves as experiencing homelessness, but in conversations about and among those participating in the growing “van life” phenomenon, the term “voluntary homelessness” occasionally surfaces. “Dirtbagging,” once a term of derision, now refers to this desired and edgy lifestyle. Van life, in its current iteration, is a lifestyle choice practiced primarily by outdoor recreationists, especially rock climbers, skiers, and surfers. This community is also predominantly white. In many outdoor-oriented towns and cities in the United States, van dwellers find free parking lots or quiet streets to park their vehicles. Their mobility and reduced cost of living permit them, they say, to lead lives centered around their outdoor sport of choice.

Vans are a common sight around where I live and attend graduate school in Boulder, Colorado. It is a city full of outdoor athletes, where million-dollar homes and high-end vans exist alongside a substantial and visible population of people experiencing homelessness. I’ve found this contrast in a number of outdoor towns I’ve visited around the country, with “van life” and expensive outdoor activities occurring alongside affordable housing crises that play a role in people losing the roofs over their heads.

People experiencing homelessness face increasing threats, including physical violence and policies that criminalize homelessness. The current president even recently suggested that the Environmental Protection Agency would cite the city of San Francisco for supposed environmental violations caused by its “homelessness problem.” We should think about how van lifers have historically benefited from social acceptance or outright approval of ways of living that, when practiced involuntarily, have been criticized and criminalized.

Today’s “van life” phenomenon is simply the latest evolution of a long relationship connecting automobiles and recreation that are often juxtaposed with the lifeways of populations experiencing homelessness, transience, and precarity. Recreation and camping by vehicle first took off during the decades between the world wars, allowing those with means to “[play] at tramping when real tramps were the subject of national scorn.” Autocamping, as Paul Sutter writes in Driven Wild: How the Fight against Automobiles Launched the Modern Wilderness Movement (2002), was often called “gypsing.” Autocamping trips by Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and other prominent business leaders, Sutter writes, “confirmed for Americans that autocamping was a leisure activity worthy not only of hoboes, a group whose ‘leisure’ was suspect, but of industrial titans as well.” Supplemental equipment and even the vehicles themselves became increasingly specialized to cater to the needs of autocampers who wished to bring the comforts of civilization out into the wilderness. permitting them to “rough it de luxe.” The 1920s and 1930s witnessed the development of and boom in recreational trailers and automobiles that would evolve into today’s recreational vehicles (RVs), airstream trailers, and camper vans.[1]

Mr. and Mrs. Kinnear with mobile home (early recreation vehicle), Yellowstone National Park. National Park Service Historic Photographs Collection. This photo also appears in Paul Sutter’s Driven Wild.

Yet the autocamping of the interwar period can hardly be thought of as countercultural, unlike the “dirtbagging” that emerged in the post-World War II decades among Beats like Jack Kerouac and rock climbers in Yosemite. Kerouac’s “vision of a great rucksack revolution” inspired many climbers, surfers, and others to reject certain aspects of modern, consumption-driven society and pursue nomadic, adventure-driven lives. Although automobiles were not particularly central to the lifestyle choices of this group, a few early “dirtbags” lived out of their vehicles to facilitate their pursuit of climbing and served as the forerunners of increasing numbers of climbers, surfers, and other recreationists who sought a simpler, freer lifestyle.[2]

Once the domain of dirtbags and hippies, van dwelling is now #vanlife, a socially desirable and trendy way to live or simply to adventure for the weekend. As van dwelling has become popular, it has also expanded beyond its nomadic, countercultural origins. Some people live full time out of vehicles that they retrofit themselves in fairly basic ways to accommodate most of life’s essentials. Others purchase high-end cargo vans built-out by specialized van conversion companies with wood paneling, four wheel-drive, and even toilets. While some do indeed live out of these luxurious vehicles, which can cost upwards of $100,000 or more, others park them in the driveway for weekend and vacation use. Social media, particularly Instagram, has played an integral role in the rise of vanlife, or as some would argue, its corruption from its earlier ideals. It is hard, after all, to give the finger to the Man when you’re “doing it for the ‘gram.”

Not sure you are ready to drop thousands of dollarsor even hundreds of thousands of dollarson outfitting a van of your own? A number of companies now allow you to rent camper vans like this colorful vehicle and try #vanlife without the commitment, as my parents did a few summers ago. Photo by author.

Like the autocampers of the interwar years, today’s “vanlifers” continue to exist in awkward parallel to populations experiencing homelessness. Language like “funemployed” and “voluntarily homeless” used by the van life crowd mocks those who struggle with job and housing insecurity. Recent pieces in Outside and Climbing bemoan the growing numbers of cities and towns that have taken steps to restrict or prohibit sleeping in cars, with minimal reflection on the consequences this has for those for whom sleeping in a vehicle is a necessity, not a choice.

The history of van life, from autocamping to the Beat climbers to the hashtag, reveals the long tradition of van dwelling as a means to play at being homeless, providing context for ways that #vanlife uncomfortably glamorizes real struggles. Those who choose to pursue van life as a choice need to grapple with these tensions and begin to reckon with the inequalities that force one person to sleep in the reclined front seat of their sedan while enabling another to repose comfortably in a queen-size bed in their Mercedes Sprinter van. Instead of fighting laws criminalizing sleeping in vehicles on the basis of the threat these policies pose to dirtbagging, van dwellers should support the efforts of homeless advocacy groups to decriminalize homelessness more broadly. They could put their time, money, and social media influence to use in advocating for a living wage, affordable housing, universal healthcare, and other policies and structural changes aimed at reducing inequality.

There is much I admire about van life’s ideals of simplicity, freedom, and the pursuit of a meaningful life. But it is time for this community to confront its contradictions. As self-described “homeless bookstore owner” Mik Everett writes in her memoir, the difference between campers and people experiencing homelessness comes down to “whether or not you have anywhere to go when you’re done.”[3]  

[1] Paul Sutter, Driven Wild: How the Fight against Automobiles Launched the Modern Wilderness Movement (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002), 31-34.

[2] Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums (New York: Penguin Books, 1976), 97. For an excellent discussion of the influence of the Beats on rock climbers in Yosemite in the 1950s and 1960s, see Joseph E. Taylor III, Pilgrims of the Vertical: Yosemite Rock Climbers and Nature at Risk (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2010), 135-147.

[3] Mik Everett, Self-Published Kindling: The Memoirs of a Homeless Bookstore Owner (Self-pub., 2013), 170.

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