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Jen: Van life across America

Jen Converso set off on a four month-long road trip this year, starting in New York and ending in San Diego, where she lives now. She reflects on her journey and life on the road with her partner Sean.

WC: What spurred a conversion to life on the road?

Jen: I grew up in the suburbs outside of New York City, where so many people hold the belief that everything you could ever want is right where you grew up. Once a year when the stars align and you get time off work, vacation meant going to an all inclusive resort on a beautiful island and never leaving the comfort of the resort. I was never drawn to that kind of travel, but instead looked toward the unbeaten path. I thought I needed half a world’s distance from my home town to find that sense of adventure, but when it came time to return to America, I wanted to see every unbeaten path of my home country as well. 

Within the first few weeks of being back in New York, I bought a 1983 Chevy van from a man in Brooklyn. It had shaggy carpet and stalled every time you stepped on the brakes. It made for a stressful ride home, but I fell in love with the potential I saw in it. The next day, I gutted the van until it was just a metal box. My boyfriend, Sean, and I built it from the floorboards up. From the wooden floorboards to the wires that powered the lights overhead, we spilled our blood, sweat and tears into our new home on wheels. I learned how to use power tools so that we could design our own couch that converted into a bed and kitchen where we’d be cooking countless bowls of tomato soup. When we first got the van, it barely started, but Sean worked on the engine until it was a smooth running machine. It took around three months to complete. We say we’d never do it again, but I’m already daydreaming about the next conversion. 

WC: What were some of the first things that surprised you when you started your journey?

Jen: There were so many surprising things about traveling over land across America. America has the most diverse landscape I have ever seen in a country and every place has its own unique beauty. Even while driving through Kansas, where my presumptions made me believe it would be a bore to drive through, my eyes were glued to the window as we drove through endless untouched grassy plains. In just one day you can experience snow capped mountains, arid desert, and bustling cities when driving through America. 

Another very common theme that followed us on our journey, was encounters with homeless people. As it turns out, it is not just aspiring adventurers that live in their vehicles. We’d often find campsites where homeless van or tent dwellers were living and, though it’s unsettling to admit, it was the first time I had interacted with homeless people in a personal and neighborly way. I’ve spent most of my adulthood living in cities, where the homeless population is seen as a burden as opposed to considering the burden of being homeless. In many places where homeless people can find better resources, like clean water, shelter and community, strict laws are implemented to keep homeless people from sleeping in their vehicles and in return will get fined. Yet, when we had camp neighbors that were homeless, we received the kind of hospitality and desire to give to others that is rare in most places. Some of the people we met were eager to share their food and give us gifts as a momento. I really value those interactions. 

WC: What did daily life look like for you and Sean?

Jen: Life on the road means constant change. Most days, we’d wake up in a different place and sometimes I’d wake up confused where I was. Sean and I loved having rituals to keep us grounded despite the ever changing horizon. Every morning, I’d wake up just as the sun starting creeping in through the windows. While I made Sean and I coffee and oatmeal, he would make the bed and clean up the van. We’d sip our coffee and answer “the daily riddle,” which would always pop up on Sean’s phone, since we used an app to answer riddles when we were doing long drives.

 

We always made an effort to camp near a stream, so after breakfast we could collect water and filter it into our drink bottles and clean anything that needed cleaning. Whenever we arrived at a campsite, Sean and I made it a ritual to follow the stream in search for a swimming hole. I love plunging into freezing cold water while camping. It’s almost as good as coffee. 

At night, if there was no fire ban, Sean would make a fire while I prepared dinner and we’d sit by the fire to eat and watch the flames until the darkness made me want to seek comfort in our cozy little van. 

WC: What route did you take on your road trip, what places did you connect to most? 

Jen: Our journey started in New York and Sean and I cut straight through the country from east to west. The first destination we were excited about was Colorado, which ended up being my favorite. Every state surprised me on how varying and intense the landscape was, but I was most surprised to find desert-like areas in Colorado, a state known for its snow fields and alpine mountains. Colorado is filled with adventurous people and was so easily accessible for free camping in beautiful areas along lakes and rivers between snow capped mountains as far as the eye can see. 

When we got to the west coast in Oregon, our original intention was to go straight up to Washington for the final leg of our trip, but we decided last minute to pop into California to explore the redwood forests. It was definitely the right decision. Those forests are full of magic and adventure. Actually, when we finally made it up to Washington and realized that the rain was there to stay, Sean and I decided to scrap our plans and go back to Northern California. Chasing the warmth, our trip ended in San Diego, where I’m currently living. 

WC: Was there a particular moment on your journey that changed you or how you see things? 

Jen: The moment that really change me happened a little while before even setting off. Before leaving, I spent weeks covered in sawdust while designing and building the van into a home. When Sean and I installed the final piece, it was the first time I really took the time to appreciate how capable I am of doing things I never thought I could do. That project in itself gave me the confidence to climb mountains that I would’ve otherwise left to the experts. As an adult, it can be intimidating to throw yourself into something new without guarantee it’ll work out. In retrospect, I think that fear held me back in the past, especially when it came to skills that people tend to look 

towards men to do. The boundaries I created for my limits have been knocked down because of this journey. 

WC: How much of your journey was planned vs. spontaneous? 

Jen: Against all advice, I didn’t plan a single thing when setting off to explore the country. I only knew that I wanted to end up in Washington, but even that didn’t go according to plan. I made an effort to talk to locals for advice on where to go and had the help of a few apps like Alltrails to find trails to hike and iOverlander to find amazing free campsites in the area. 

I think people choose van traveling for the aspect of spontaneity. There were times where I’d see a mountain in the distance and say, “let’s head there!” Other times, you have no choice but to chase the good weather. Once you start driving, it feels as if there is too much to explore and the best locations are the ones you stumble upon by accident. 

WC: How did living in a van change your definition of ‘home’? 

Jen: Living in a van is anything but easy. There's a certain ease about living in a house that you don’t quite get in a van, like taking a hot shower after a long day, having fresh water at your fingertips, and being in a private space where I can stand and walk around in. Yet, despite the extra effort, I grew to love the routine of turning any new campsite into a space that feels like home. Personally, where there is a cozy space to sleep, someone I love, and ample snacks, I’m home. 

WC: What are the biggest lessons you took away from van life?

 

Jen: Now that I’ve moved out of the van, I carry with me so many memories. I have pictures from amazing places, but the most valuable moments are weaved in between those photos. For me, living in a van became less about seeing as much as I possibly could and more about the simplicity of living immersed in nature. The internet and cell service were mostly out of the question and it’s funny when you realise you’ve been watching a slug make its way across bark as intently as you’d watch television. The greatest lesson I learned is that the simpler your life is, the easier it is to find gratitude. I found gratitude in clean clothes, playing cards at night with my boyfriend, talking with new friends, and so many other simple joys. I think that the more that you can cut out from your life that may only be a distraction, the more connected you will feel with gratitude. 

All photo credit: @jenconverso