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Get Out of the Van

Are you living your best #vanlife? Is anyone?

By now you’ve probably seen the marketing campaign for Volkswagen’s unsightly new electric microbus, idiotically dubbed the ID. Buzz. The ubiquitous television ad forms an ideally cynical comeback for the iconic company, disgraced by its ongoing emissions scandal. Set to Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence,” it’s designed to appeal to the Baby Boomers whose 1960s suburban ennui made the classic VW minibus a symbol of seeking to begin with, while its Apple-style imagery of rebirth and revelation—the black theater, the blueprints, the performance of engineering—also nods to a new generation preoccupied with quick and “innovative” fixes for large-scale climate and financial crises.

But VW’s savviest appeal is to the #vanlife movement. Coined by Foster Huntington, a New York fashion designer turned vanfluencer, the hashtag denotes a lifestyle of perpetual, roving vacation—a kind of nostalgic wanderlust repackaged for Venice Beach Instagrammers. Browse its 5.8 million posts on Instagram and you will see custom-tiled Mercedes Sprinter van interiors and bikini-clad women perched atop converted VW Westfalias before neon wilderness sunsets. The image is one of utopian freedom. Buoyed by his success at van life, Huntington made a splash when he built a pair of luxurious treehouses in Washington state a few years back. “I think of it as a big-boys’ camp,” one of Huntington’s buddies told the New York Times of his dwellings in a 2015 profile. “It’s very much like Neverland up there.”

What is responsible for these big boys’ curious condition? There is, of course, the supposedly millennial ethos of perpetual adolescence. But it’s also true that, as profligacy has fallen out of fashion in the wake of the 2008 recession, many have adopted minimalist living as a kind of counterculture. A van may be the tiniest house there is, and those who can are capitalizing on the lifestyle—on both the influencer and industry level. The RV market has grown considerably over the last decade, and it’s projected to expand from $54.6 billion, where it stood in 2017, to $75 billion by 2025, according to one market research firm. A startup called Outdoorsy recently launched to help people share RVs, attracting more than $80 million in venture capital, while a host of van conversion companies have sprung up across the country. In Taos, New Mexico, you can spend the night in a charming Airstream hotel whose tagline is “Escape the grind and who will you find?” (similar operations have appeared in Marfa, Texas; Ojai, California; and other photogenic desert locales). Since becoming a van star, Huntington has worked as a paid consultant for outdoor cosplay company Patagonia and appeared in ads for HP and the German financial services company Allianz. 

What is responsible for these big boys’ curious condition?

But while van life enriches corporate and personal brands, for a growing population of retirement-aged Americans, it’s a measure of last resort. Jessica Bruder wrote about their plight in her 2017 book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, a bracing chronicle of men and women who have permanently hit the road in search of temporary work. “Many of these wandering souls were trying to escape an economic paradox: the collision of rising rents and flat wages, an unstoppable force meeting an unmovable object,” writes Bruder. “They felt like they were caught in a vise, putting all their time into exhausting, soul-sucking jobs that paid barely enough to cover the rent or a mortgage, with no way to better their lot for the long term and no promise of ever being able to retire.”

These nomads have met corporate America’s ravenous appetite for subprime lending and expendable labor, and it’s eating them alive. While many share an anti-establishment self-mythology of freedom with their young vanfluencer corollaries—freedom from debt, rent, and ownership of “sticks-and-bricks” homes—the chasm between them couldn’t be greater. Van life wants to convince us that its lifestyle is available to all who are bold enough to seek it. But like so much of our cultural economy, it’s often a symptom of narrowing options.

Social media allows no glimpse at these discontents. Look upon my #vanlife and despair, Instagram bids you. Search the hashtag. Search #homeiswhereyouparkit. Regard the aspirational images and feel the searing FOMO. Van lifers Tommy and MacKenzie post photos of each other wearing Patagonia or very little at all, zooming around on motorcycles and dirt bikes, and camping with expensive gear in expansive wildernesses across the United States with their Australian cattle dog, Banjo. “What would my life even be without dirt roads to explore?” writes Tommy in a typically inane caption. The couple started with a humble 2005 Sprinter conversion in 2017. Now, they drive a customized Ford F-250 flatbed with a pop-up camping rig. Eamon and Bec, a smiley couple of Torontonian entrepreneurs “living full time in a van,” maintain popular Instagram and YouTube accounts featuring van-door-framed shots of them cuddling amid tasteful throw pillows or striking yoga poses in international hot springs. Accounts like these have spawned countless imitators and aggregators. Vanlife Culture, for example, reposts images of West Elm-inspired vanteriors—all cedar wood and white linens—in which babies sleep cozily in artisanal baskets as fluffy dogs look on. Captions like “challenges you see in raising a family on the road? And would you do it?” point readers to a community forum on #vanlife. 

But how are these van lifers actually living—or, rather, making a living? Tommy and MacKenzie, for their part, started out comfortable. They’re woodworkers for commercial window displays, branded pop-ups, and gallery exhibitions, and they continue to earn their money that way, now without the overhead of rent. Recently, they bought a house—“the little A-frame of our dreams up in the mountains”—a development that would seem to undermine their commitment to the lifestyle. Eamon and Bec have been shrewder still at transforming their photogenic life into lucrative opportunities. They run a side business that sells “detoxifying” chai tea to cafes and consumers, while Bec recently launched an all-linen capsule collection in collaboration with the Canadian fashion brand Cedar & Vine. Eamon, whose dental hygiene is the stuff of WASP fever dreams, has begun to shill for a well-known natural toothpaste company. “Now these pearly whites are always fresh & clean,” reads one sponsored post. But you could have guessed all this. The lifestyle they present is the precise opposite of counterculture. They insist not that you can drop out but that you can uproot the American Dream—the dog, the baby, the rash of consumer goods—and take it on the road with you. It’s high fauxhemianism, aestheticizing what many have resorted to out of sheer poverty.

Contrasting this are the itinerant van-dwellers of Bruder’s account, for whom the American Dream seems increasingly remote. Linda May, a grandmother in her sixties, drives a Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo towing a 1970s-era mobile fiberglass trailer. She scrapes by on her $424 monthly Social Security payment and is loath to lean on her daughter’s family, who are also cash-strapped as a result of health problems, for help. Many share May’s predicament. Jen Derge and Ash Haag, a young couple from Colorado Springs, bought a 1995 GMC high-top camper and researched van-dwelling on a formative blog called after years of mounting student debt and declining job prospects. Chuck Stout, a retired McDonald’s director of product development and, later, franchise operator, lost his and his wife’s stock market holdings and house in a South Carolina gated community, after which they took to the road in a 1996 National Seabreeze RV.

These nomads have met corporate America’s ravenous appetite for subprime lending and expendable labor, and it’s eating them alive.

If there’s a counterculture anywhere here, it’s among the inhabitants of Nomadland. But they lack the Insta-friendly glamor of their young van life counterparts, and they’re vulnerable to the most voracious predations of the gig economy. They surf big box parking lots, relying for hospitality on companies like Walmart, Cabela’s, and Cracker Barrel that offer overnight parking for sleeping in some locations; they often forgo food and medication in favor of gas money. People who were once upwardly mobile now collect under $10 per hour to harvest sugar beets, take tickets at ballparks, or “workamp” as “hosts” for KOA sites. Amazon is particularly ruthless about recruiting these non-retirees, who form a desperate and quiescent “CamperForce” willing to live temporarily in local RV parks through the company’s psychotically busy holiday season. “One benefit that’s worth its weight in gold is the benefit of building lasting friendships!” reads the loathsome cheerleading of the CamperForce newsletter. These workers may build friendships, but they also need money, and that’s less forthcoming. Until last year when Amazon raised the minimum wage for all its employees to $15 an hour, many workers on the CamperForce earned wages like $10.75 for twelve-hour shifts in the company’s city-sized warehouses, where the temperature can exceed ninety degrees and workers can cover fifteen miles or more of ground in a day. 

“The Amazon encampments began to seem more and more like microcosms of a national catastrophe,” writes Bruder. “The RV parks were jammed with workers who had fallen a long, long way from the middle-class comforts they had always taken for granted.” Some form communities and blog their experiences, but these aren’t the “digital nomads” you’ll read about in the pages of glossy magazines. When they do cross paths with vanfluencers or traditional pensioners at RV gatherings like the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous in Quartzsite, Arizona, the class divide is unbridgeable.

Van life, as practiced by this new contingent labor force, is an outgrowth of larger-scale American ills, Bruder argues. Unions have declined; wages have stagnated; employment is precarious; retirement plans are a hollow joke. When Nomadland was published in 2017, only a dozen counties had a minimum wage by which a full-time worker could afford a one-bedroom apartment at market rent without spending more than 30 percent of their income. In her New York Times review of the book, Arlie Russell Hochschild reminds us that these structural problems are only escalating. “For years, stockholders have taken the lion’s share of rising corporate profits, leaving a shrinking share to the middle- and working-class worker,” writes Hochschild. “The current administration and Congress aim to cut the nation’s safety net and to loosen regulations on banks, stirring fears of another devastating crash. The stage seems set to leave Americans on their own to travel a potentially bumpy economic road, a scene that would seem to fly in the face of the picket-fence stability and localism bandied about in conservative rhetoric.”

On their own. The phrase means different things for different classes of people. For those with a safety net—those like Tommy and MacKenzie, Eamon and Bec—on their own means the freedom to take risks and determine their destinies, to create that picket-fence stability wherever they go. It’s not that they’re entirely immune to economic vicissitudes. But their austerity is self-imposed, a performance of good living that buys them the kind of social capital only the already comfortable can afford. Meanwhile, today’s nomadic workers have little freedom of choice. Unlike the “Okies” who traveled from the Dust Bowl looking for work during the Great Depression, they’re not expecting a return to the status quo, Bruder notes. They have resigned themselves to a new normal, trying—and often failing—at self-sufficiency in a country that has left them vulnerable to exploitation by banks and big business. It’s another object lesson in just which entities truly benefit from the American individualist ideology. Those of us who can should stay out of the van, no matter how “groovy.”