Sleeping in a car is something about which people have strong opinions… most of them negative. The allure, for those who feel it, comes from what it represents. What is lost in creature comfort is gained in flexibility and freedom.
This is a post from my journeys collection.
As I work on building a tiny home in a van, I’ve been thinking back upon the few times I’ve lived out of a car. What started as a cost-cutting measure eventually became a love of getting off the beaten path. Now, though I’m less interested in saving money, I’m more enamored than ever with the freedom a vehicle represents.
Near the end of my European travels in 2011, I still had many countries left unvisited. Unfortunately, many of them were also more expensive countries. When I looked at the price to rent a car in Ireland, I was frustrated to discover it approached what I was paying for a hostel elsewhere.
Faced with the decision of skipping the country, staying in one place, or saving money by living in a car… I chose the last option. Ironically, I ended up spending a bunch of money when I accidentally put the wrong type of gas in the car and was forced to fork over a bunch of cash to have the engine drained.
In my defense, the owner’s manual was apparently printed for both models of car, and I was unclear which type I had rented.
It’s these kinds of small emergencies that have always made travel worthwhile to me, though. Over-prepared tours through foreign lands have always struck my palette a bit like over-cooked food: bland and unexciting. With a rented car, I found myself taking random turns down side streets. Sometimes, this turned up unexpected treasures.
Other times, it just got me lost. Wandering through small towns that even native Irish people have never heard of, I felt I had a clearer understanding than a thousands tours could impart. It was in those moments that I realized how everywhere is so similar with everywhere else. The rural folks I met, accent aside, could have come from my own country. I had to laugh when an old grandfatherly man in a bar insisted that I find myself an Irish wife. His paternalism was as good-hearted as it was dated. I loved it, despite myself.
Sure, the car was not comfortable. Some nights found me in a parking structure, others freezing my butt off on the coast. Showers were hard to come by. I ate crackers and tuna. After a month I was exhausted, but not done with living in a car…
Two and a half years later, I was working a steady job at Airbnb and needed a break. I had always wanted to go to Australia during their summer, so I took off in December 2013 for Sydney. I only had a couple weeks, so I decided to rent a car and drive up the East coast.
The moment I got in the car (again, on the “wrong” side and driving a stick-shift), I breathed a sigh of relief. Maybe it was just because I was finally properly on vacation. Maybe it was just because the sun was shining. But I think it was something else.
I began collecting tips from other travelers about the interesting places to visit. I found myself on deserted (albeit dangerous) beaches, and in bars at the end of long winding jungle paths.
Could I have reached this random place without living from a car? Sure. But as in Ireland, I found that I was forced to rely more upon others. When someplace looked interesting, I drove toward it. When I got lost, I asked for directions since I had turned off data-roaming on my phone to prevent a huge bill. From this, I began to realize that it was the very constraints I had placed upon myself which made the whole thing so interesting.
Living in modern abundance, as we do, makes it easy to take some things for granted (hot showers)… while entirely missing others (whatever is down that side-road). I was beginning to realize that most of the beauty of the world went completely unobserved.
Of the three times I’ve lived in a car, Iceland was perhaps the most challenging. I did not sleep entirely in the car, since the weather was simply too cold. Furthermore, the population density in rural Iceland is much lower than the places I traveled in Ireland and Australia. I was more alone than I’d ever been, and faced a different set of problems.
In fact, I had sought out Iceland exactly for the solitude. There wasn’t even a radio station to listen to. It was just me, my thoughts, and the beautiful sights on the road.
There’s a romanticism to self-reliance for some people. Henry David Thoreau might be the most famous exponent of living alone and relying upon oneself. In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport expands upon the benefits of long stretches spent alone and in focus. In Iceland, I found this.
A few days in to the journey, I got stuck trying to go through a mountain pass in the tiny car I had rented. The snow was mostly melted on the ground but not up in the pass. I couldn’t maintain enough traction to get around the bend. My only option was to floor it from the bottom of the pass and skid around the turn. So I did.
I survived. Probably not the smartest of things to have done, but it was the kind of mood I was in. I needed to do things for myself, even if it was not the smartest of approaches. By the time I returned to civilization, I had sorted a few things out in my mind.
At work, I had taken upon a more and more social role. I was losing touch with the “deep work” side of myself, but it was still there to be accessed. Though I missed solitary work, I realized that I could create the space to pursue it from time to time.
When I think, now, about traveling and living on the road… I’m seeking some combination of these experiences. The van plan calls for a lot more creature comfort than these tiny cars ever did. But, it’s still about the freedom to turn down a side road. It’s still about creating that space to think.