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.

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