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June 5th, 2013 PETE COTTELL | Culture Features
 

Vanifest Destiny: When In Roam

Why I left a comfy job and sweet apartment in Ohio to live in a van in Portland.

cultfeat2_3931-VanifestILLUSTRATION: Hawk Krall
I’m lying on the backseat of a busted old conversion van that reeks of oil and cigar smoke in the parking lot of a Space Age gas station near the Portland-Gresham border. It’s not quite 6 am, and I’m trying to sleep. But a man who looks like the strung-out ghost of River Phoenix will not shut up. He’s posted up on the hood of an Impala parked next to my van in a dirty Detroit Pistons Starter jacket. He spends a good 20 minutes exclaiming gibberish to someone he kept calling “Toothy” through a disposable flip phone. Between his fiendish chatter, phantom noises from the van’s diseased engine, and the skittering of other transients waiting for the nearby plasma clinic to open, it’s been a long night.

I have learned an important lesson: Now that I live in a van, I will no longer park outside plasma clinics. Or anywhere near Gresham.


Two weeks ago, I was living a relatively cushy life back in Columbus, Ohio. I had a decent job as an assistant manager of a local cafe, a grossly underpriced apartment in a desirable neighborhood, and a massive constellation of friends ever-expanding since my graduation from Ohio State University in 2007. My job afforded me the liberty to show up hung over on a daily basis and skip town with just a week’s notice, luxuries that I assumed drove my attorney friends insane with jealousy. I spent the better part of five years kicking the can down the road with the assumption that “growing up” was as easy as waking up one day and declaring yourself officially an adult. My friends were running laps around me. Dread started to overtake me when I realized I was quickly transitioning from charismatically underemployed lovable fuckup to bitter, college-educated service-industry lifer.

I spent the better part of the winter showing up to work in an existential funk. My malice for yokels ordering Starbucks drinks at my non-Starbucks shop started to bubble past manageable levels. I found myself doing strange things, like pouring drinks into my empty left hand and onto the floor because I forgot to pick up a cup to serve as a receptacle for the liquid.

The president of my company took notice and urged my boss to have a chat with me. She let me know that with my long tenure and dedication to the craft of coffee making, I was just as disposable as I was the day I walked in the door a broke and confused 24-year-old. Disheartened by the reality of being a lot less important than I allowed myself to believe, I spent the slow parts of most mornings staring out the window. I watched a guy I remembered from a computer science course in college illegally park his Land Rover in front my shop and dart across the street to the Starbucks that had been burying my store, and wondered where our paths had diverged in such radical ways. Juggling an iPhone, a set of keys and a frozen brown drink covered in whipped cream and caramel, he climbed back into his SUV, made an abrupt U-turn, and sped toward downtown. 

Within a few minutes, his spot was snatched by a grungy old conversion van with tan racing stripes and tinted windows. Between customers, I kept glancing at the van, becoming increasingly curious. The windows and the area behind the captains chairs were blocked out by ugly curtains, making whatever may have been happening inside the thing a complete mystery to passersby.

The van remained in the same spot for three days, lingering like the random dirty wet sock you inexplicably find on the sidewalk that everyone would rather look at with a confused grimace rather than be the person who finally tosses it in the trash. No one was seen entering or exiting the van during business hours. It became obvious that no one really gave a shit. It finally accrued a ticket for being parked for more than two hours in a zone that required a parking permit. Then it vanished.


I started thinking about the life I’d made for myself up to this point. I took careful inventory of what I had. With the exception of my computer, a closet half-stocked with plaid shirts and Levis I purchased secondhand and some camping equipment, there wasn’t a whole lot of stuff that I needed to keep me going. I threw the essentials in a heap that took up about half of the surface area of my busted queen-size bed, took a hesitant step away from the giant mess, and felt a strange, warm feeling envelop my body.

“My life can totally fit in a van.”

My head burst apart at the realization that getting stuck in a place I wasn’t in love with was soon to be a thing of the past. I rushed to my computer, googled “how to live in a van” and dove headlong into a vagabond rabbit hole. Within just a few clicks, I stumbled upon a Yahoo group devoted to all things “Vandwelling” that has almost 9,000 members as I write this. A massive community of radically diverse individuals have banded together for the sake of sharing tricks of the trade, as well as the story of how they chose to turn their back on  conspicuous consumption.

They’re everywhere. But I had to be somewhere. Where would a weirdo with aspirations to be functionally homeless as a means of growing up go?

I first visited Portland last September, and it only took two hours to feel what so many have trouble expressing with words:  The “Weird” thread runs through the fabric of daily life in these parts. Where better to begin a journey inward undertaken while living in the back of an ugly old conversion van bought for $1,100 at a sketchy used-car lot with a doublewide for an office?

And so I drove out for Sasquatch in May, and I plan to live here in a van until MusicfestNW in September. Maybe longer.


As soon as the mechanic’s shop adjacent to the plasma clinic finished extensive repairs the van required to get up to DEQ standards, I left that filthy strip mall. Just because I live in a van doesn’t mean I need to sleep through the howls of zombified plasma donors.

So I drove into Portland proper, rolling aimlessly throughout Southeast for a good half-hour, soaking up my surroundings.  This city is lousy with crusty old vans. I found a street littered with old Volkswagens and Chevy cargo vans caked in stickers from the 1996 Vans Warped Tour. I parked under one of the many tall trees that make Portland such a beautiful place to call home, and slept like a rock.

If it weren’t for the crowing of my new neighbor’s urban rooster, I probably would’ve slept until noon. 


ALONG FOR THE RIDE: Pete Cottell will be living in a van, in Portland, all summer. Look for his Vanifest Destiny column at wweek.com. See here for a round-up of van types and what they say about you.

 
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