Darrin Gunkel outside his van down by the Alaskan Highway, with a pug.
Photo: Karin Hedlund. 

by Jonathan Barrett

As a parent of a small child, I have a deep, almost primeval, fear of vans. As a child of the 80’s, after school specials and public service announcements warned me against people who called out, “Hey kid! I’m a professional photographer. Come with me to my van, and I’ll take your picture.” As a result windowless van is the first place I am going to look when my son’s face appears on the back of the milk container. The problem is that now, all these vans are filled with beautiful, half-dressed Athleta models and Patagonia ambassadors. Since when did prAna start hiring transients as marketing influencers?

As a result, I find the whole #vanlife thing really confusing, as does my kid. For example, I brought my son, Liam, to Smith last fall. We got out of the car in the bivouac parking lot, and there was a man sitting in the open door of his black Sprinter. Liam grabbed my hand a little tighter and said fearfully, “Daddy, don’t let him take me!” I turned to him and replied, “Don’t worry, son. He has a trust fund. He can’t hurt you.” Liam looked really confused. This man’s fingernails were black. He was barefoot. His beard was thick, but artfully cut. He was shirtless. In his fingers was a funny smelling cigarette. “Daddy, why is he smoking?” Liam asked. “Well, son. Sometimes adults have a hard time coping with reality.”

“So he’s doing drugs?”

“No, that’s why he bought the van. The cigarette is just cloves.”

That evening when we returned to the parking lot, there was a man standing on the roof of a ‘96 Ford Econoline. “Daddy, is he fixing his roof?” Liam asked. I looked at him skeptically. Was he messing with me? The dude was doing downward dog in the fading sunlight. My son had seen me doing yoga in the our privacy of our basement before. He knew I kind of hated it. In his mind, no one would ever do it in public. “Maybe he is looking for a hole that water is coming through,” he offered thoughtfully. The shirtless man in $100 shorts moved gracefully into tree pose. “Oh no!” Liam said. “He’s going to fall off!” A lithe woman appeared on the ground next to the van. “Maybe she will catch him.” She took out her iPhone. “No, wait I think she is going to take his picture. Daddy, why is she taking his picture?”
The rainbow is not Photoshopped. Photo: Darrin Gunkel

“Well, son. Sometimes when you live in a van, it’s hard to stay connected to people. Always moving around. Not being in the same place all the time,” I said. Vanlifer was now doing Pungu Mayuransana, wounded peacock, and the girl continued to take pictures of him. Secretly I wondered: if a climber falls off a van roof in the woods, can anyone hear him scream?

“So, he’s homeless. We should give him something to eat. He can have my apple. I still have it from our hike.” He started to reach into his bag.

By this time the man had finished his poses and was climbing down off the roof of his van. He took a long swig from his Hydroflask. “Honey!” he called to his partner, “Can you check the Goal Zero batteries? There is a crack in the solar panel cable. It might not be charging.”

“‘Scuse me,” Liam said. “Here. You can have this.” He held out his apple in a gesture of sincere concern.

“Is it organic?” he asked. Liam looked at him blankly as the man took it to inspect the sticker.
“Thanks kiddo, but I am really careful with my body. You can keep it,” he said as he handed it back.

As Liam and I walked back to the car, he shook his head. “What’s the matter, bud?” I asked.

“That guy. He makes bad choices. Maybe that’s why he’s homeless.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“He said he wants to take care of his body, but he was being very unsafe on the roof. And look,” he said as he pointed back in the direction of the van where the man was walking across the parking lot in his bare feet. “He should put some shoes on so he doesn’t cut his foot.”

Back at our friend’s house in Bend, Liam climbed into their truck-bed camper which served as guest quarters when we visited them. It was 8 p.m, his regular bedtime. “Daddy,” he said. “I’m really glad that we live in a house.”

“Why is that, bud?” I asked as I tucked him in with his stuffed moose, Mary.

“Because I’d miss my friends if we were always moving around, like that guy we saw today.”

“Well, I suppose that’s a fair point,” I said. How could I explain the fact that these people likely have many friends and acquaintances spread across the West, people that they regularly meet at Indian Creek or in Squamish. How could I explain that much of their community was online and digital? That even though they can open their doors and make a parking lot their new front yard, they can’t always know who their neighbors will be from one day to the next. That they are sacrificing a degree of regular, in-the-flesh human contact for space and mobility.

I pulled the fleece blanket up against his chin. “Well. They have friends online who like to see their pictures. They can share their lives that way,” I said.

“Oh,” Liam said. “Well, I like knowing that Owen is just up the street. And that he’ll always be up the street. He’ll never move away.”

“Yeah, kiddo. I don’t think that I would want to live on the road like they do, either.”

“What’s it like to live in a mobile home?” he asked as I was just opening Captain Underpants to read the next chapter to him.

“Well, actually it’s not really a mobile home,” I said.

“Oh, I mean RV.” I put the book down. How was I to explain that it was their home but not a mobile home. That old people live in RVs and go to national parks, like Yosemite. That young people live in vans and ... go to national parks, like Yosemite. But it’s not the same.

“It’s a van, son. Let’s just read some of the book so you can get to sleep on time.” Somehow the world of an ill-tempered grade school principal who transforms into a superhero made more sense to him in that moment than the subtleties of #vanlife.

We all remember the Chris Farley SNL sketch where he admonishes David Spade and Christina Applegate to get their lives in order, otherwise they will be, “living in a van down by the river.” Maybe my point of view needs to shift. Maybe there is nothing wrong at all with childless men living in a van down by the river. After all, if my son becomes one of them, I know where to find his picture.


Book Review: The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative

Author: Florence Williams; Reviewer: Brian Goldman

Have you ever wondered what compels hikers and climbers to endure fatigue, insect bites, blisters, and cold? Is there something about immersion in nature that we inherently need? Are we collectively suffering a “nature deficit disorder?” Do some countries have better national policies of improving health by providing access to nature? Florence Williams, author of The Nature Fix, traveled the world to uncover studies in neuroscience, medicine, and big data about the restorative influence of nature on our physical and mental health. In short, informative, and witty chapters, Williams displays a gift for clearly explaining the science behind nature’s positive effects on our brain and health.

In Japan, where they’ve coined the word karoshi—death from overwork—the government is creating over one hundred forest therapy sites for people to engage in shinrin yoku, forest bathing. Williams visited Yoshifume Miyazaki, a physical anthropologist whose research found that when people take forest walks, there is a 12 percent decrease in cortisol (your body’s main stress hormone), a 7 percent decrease in sympathetic nerve activity (which governs fight-or-flight behavior), a 1.4 percent decrease in blood pressure, a 6 percent decrease in heart rate, and a better mood and lower anxiety. In a country with a high suicide rate and tsukin jigoku—commuting hell—where workers shove you into a train during rush hour, nearly 25 percent of the population now walk forest therapy trails yearly. As Miyazaki explains, “we’ve spent 99.9 percent of our time in nature, a feeling of comfort can be achieved if our rhythms are synchronized with those of the environment.”

Immunologist Qing Li, a collaborator with Miyazaki, has studied natural killer (NK) immune cells, a type of white blood cell that can send self-destruct messages to tumors and virus-infected cells. Sure enough, three days of hiking boosted these NK cells by 40 percent for an entire week. Although not completely confirmed, Li suspects that NK cells are boosted by phytoncides, otherwise known as “nice tree smells.” These are essential oils emitted by evergreens and other trees. Li himself uses a humidifier with cypress oil in his house since he found that those who sleep inhaling a cypress scent experience a 20 percent increase in NK cells and less fatigue.

In Korea, where forest bathing is called salim yok, the Forest Agency has established dozens of healing forests with dominant cypress trees. Scientists in Korea confirm the medicinal aspects of phytoncides as antibacterial and capable of “reducing stress 53 percent by lowering levels of cortisol and blood pressure 5–7 percent.” The soil also contains geosmin, which holds streptomyces bacteria, a key to many antibiotics. Two other studies looked at eleven- and twelve-year olds who suffer from “borderline technology addiction” (BTA). After two days in the forest, researchers found lower cortisol levels and improvement in self-esteem. Armed with this research, Korea has planned a National Forest Plan “to realize a green welfare state, where the entire nation enjoys well-being” through work and school programs.

In Finland, economist Liisa Tyrvainen tweaked the experimental design of Miyazaki and concluded that Finns have elevated measures of restoration, vitality, and creativity when walking outside, but they must be in nature at least five hours a month. If you’re outside even longer, “you will reach a new level of feeling better and better,” she concluded.

Singapore is considered one of the top “biophilic cities” in the world. Almost half of the country’s 276 square miles are under some sort of green cover. The population has grown by 2 million; however, the percentage of green space has increased from 36 to 47 percent. Although many of these green spaces are gardens, greenhouses, paths with green corridors, and parks with constructed nature, the government’s vision has succeeded in making this country an oasis in SE Asia. Studies have shown that mortality rates are lower near urban parks.

Other positive health effects of nature: Williams uncovered research in Ohio, Singapore and Australia suggesting that being outside in sunlight stimulates the release of dopamine from the retina, which prevents the eyeball from getting too oblong, thus preventing myopia (nearsightedness).

Awe: According to the author, Irish philosopher Edmund Burke may have understood the effect of transcendent experiences in nature. He traipsed the countryside and found that for something to be “awe-inspiring” there must be “vastness of extent” in which our senses find it difficult to make sense of it—which in turn inspires feelings of humility and a more outward perspective. Dacher Keltner and colleagues at UC Berkeley have found that experiencing awe was the only emotion to significantly lower levels of IL-6, a marker for inflammation. Lower levels are better; higher levels are linked to depression and stress. Keltner also suggests that the emotion awe causes us to reinforce and share emotional connections. Ever wonder why you take those pictures on your cell phones and send them to family and friends?

The book continues by showing how military veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) have diminished symptoms when rafting or backpacking, and how exercise and exploratory play among children increases verbal and math ability, lowers impulsivity, and leads to a threefold decrease in Attention Deficit Hyperactivity (ADHD) symptoms.

Could the positive effects of immersion in nature apply to our educational systems? Yes, indeed. The author states that Germany has more than 1,000 forest kindergartens called Waldkindergarten, where students are out in all kinds of weather. In one instance, after a large tree fell during a storm, the teacher launched a nature-based curriculum in which children sawed off branches to make the tree safe for climbing. In so doing, students practiced dexterity, teamwork and learned about cause and effect. In Scandinavia, 10 percent of preschoolers spend their entire days outside. In Finland, students have recess outside 15 minutes out of every hour. In contrast, two-thirds of the students in this country are Vitamin D (the sunshine vitamin) “insufficient.” In both the U.K. and the U.S.A., rickets, a disease caused by a lack of Vitamin D, has quadrupled in the past 15 years.

The Nature Fix confirms that even small amounts of exposure to the natural world can improve our creativity and enhance our mood. Williams shows how time in nature is not superfluous but is essential to our species. As our modern lives shift dramatically indoors, spending more time in nature is more urgent than ever. As the author succinctly states, “Go outside, often, sometimes in wild places. Bring friends or not. Breathe.”