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Van Life and Mental Health
The stress of “living the dream”
Five weeks ago, I pulled my 1999 Roadtrek camper van out of the driveway of my home in New Hampshire, waved goodbye to my husband Seth, and started bawling.
The van was packed full of everything my two dogs and I might need to survive for the next 8 months, from tank-tops and sundresses to puffy jackets and wool socks, a year’s supply of medication, shampoo, and conditioner (the brand I use is not available in stores), guide books from Canada and Alaska down to Baja, pantry items like hemp powder and chia seeds that would be hard to find in small towns, emergency supplies including a tow rope, recovery boards, and SOS beacon, and gear for paddling, backpacking, and glacier-walking.
During the two months that Seth spent fixing up the Dream Catcher with new brakes, shocks, leaf springs, sway bars, gaskets, and steering, I gathered supplies on Amazon like a squirrel hording acorns for winter. Once I pulled out of the driveway, I knew I could no longer get my paraben-free hand sanitizing wipes at the push of a button, so I made sure I had five canisters of 100 before I left.
The months of packing and preparing and fixing came to a crescendo leading up to my departure as Seth uncovered more components that had to be ordered and replaced, pushing back the start of my trip by a few days here and a few more days there until suddenly it was the end of July. On what we thought was the eve of my departure, I finally bought Seth a $1,000 plane ticket to meet me in Alaska for our two-week honeymoon. Then, around 10pm that night, he discovered a faulty ball joint that he couldn’t get loose. He took an unpaid day off work to fix it that ended in a Friday afternoon emergency trip to a mechanic while I revised my itinerary and rebooked my campsites.
I finally rolled out of the driveway on Saturday, July 29, 2023, a ball of hopes and nerves and anxieties. The tears came the second Seth was out of view and the enormity of the moment hit me: I was about to drive 5,000 miles alone through some of the most remote parts of North America in a van that may or not make it. Earlier that week, Seth taught me how to change a tire and check the oil, but that was the extent of my mechanical expertise.
The van wasn’t my only anxiety. Bigger still was the question: would I be able to handle the stress of taking care of myself on the road? I had barely managed to function in my day-to-day life at home the past few years, relying on Seth to do groceries and cook meals and leave enough leftovers for me to survive while he was at work. I spent a lot of my days in bed, struggling to find the willpower to walk downstairs, open the fridge, and put something in the microwave. Where would I suddenly find the energy to drive 500 miles a day and cook three meals in my van?
And then there was the question of logistics. I’d managed to hastily plan my daily mileage and stopping points for the first seven days of the trip, but I’d been so consumed by packing and preparing for my survival needs that I had only the vaguest idea where I was going and what I was doing after that. I would have to figure it out on the way, and find enough cell signal to do the research, adding to the stress of my daily routine.
Planning for van life entails not only where to sleep (and how much, if anything, it will cost to sleep there) but also when and where to dump and fill. Every few days, the sewage and gray water tanks need to be emptied and the fresh water tank needs to be replenished, a process that takes me at least an hour start-to-finish. Some places charge for this and some do not. I’ve been lucky so far to find many that don’t, but it still disrupts a good portion of the day to find a dump site that fits into my itinerary and then to stop what I’m doing and splash shit-water all over my clean pants (dump day always happens after I’ve just showered and put on fresh clothes).
So there are the daily things to attend to, like getting out of bed and brushing teeth and getting dressed and letting the dogs out, then feeding the dogs and feeding myself, then figuring out where I’ll go and what I’ll do and driving there and doing the thing, then fitting in exercise and a shower if I’m lucky (showering in my vehicle is another hour-long project from start to finish), then figuring out where to sleep and finding the place and hoping I don’t get woken up by a cop or a murderer or a bear trying to break into my vehicle (which happened in broad daylight this weekend).
Then there are the weekly and biweekly things to attend to that are part of life in general, like grocery shopping and doing laundry, which are ten times more complicated when you’re trying to navigate the aisles of a different grocery store every week and racing the locals through the door to the laundromat to snag the last two washing machines and frantically stuffing ten dollars in quarters into the coin slots.
But it’s not even the stress of dealing with daily life that weighs on me most. It’s the FOMO (fear of missing out).
The most stressful part of van life is the weight of expectation. I am traveling through all these amazing places. I should be doing more or seeing more. I should be out on epic hikes and glacier tours and kayaking trips. I should be staying up all night to catch a glimpse of the northern lights, or riding jet skis to watch glaciers calve into the ocean, or hiring a water taxi to go backpacking in the remote park across the bay.
And on top of all that, I should be capturing every detail and sharing it on my blog and my Facebook and Instagram. I should be inspiring people with the story of how, in the face of devastating infertility and debilitating depression and anxiety, I found the courage to buy a camper van and fulfill my dream of driving to Alaska. I should be filling my Instagram grid with technicolor photos of blue glaciers and turquoise rivers, reels of wriggling salmon and marauding bears, and blissed-out selfies of me on mountaintops.
Instead of doing all those things, I am sleeping as late as possible and then waking up in a panic until I remember I’m parked in a van on the side of a road. I feel the familiar ache in my jaw, strangling tension in my throat, and burning pressure in my chest as I assess the day ahead. My brain calculates which of the above duties I must perform in which order, then checks and rechecks the weather and the bank account and the map and stresses about all the cool things I could do if it weren’t raining or if I had more money or more energy or motivation or if I didn’t have to be in such-and-such place by a certain day or time or get south before the snow flies. Then I’m assailed by all the pings and dings and notifications on my phone that beckon my attention, demand a response, or present a distraction, and before I know it an hour or two has passed catching up on email and news and messages from friends and family and my stomach is growling and the dogs are whining and I crawl out from under the covers and get going.
Van life is more Walmart than Walden. It’s taking everything that filled my life at home and condensing it into 60 square feet and moving it every day to a new parking lot, town, state, province, or country. My anxiety is condensed and amplified in this tiny space, riding alongside me in the knots in my shoulders and the stiffness in my neck.
Yesterday I had my first scheduled commitment since picking Seth up at the airport three weeks ago (he took a bus back to Anchorage for his return trip, so I was off the hook). I booked myself a spot on a glacier cruise so I could get up-close-and-personal with blue ice meeting the sea, and if I was lucky, watch a chunk of it fall and splash dramatically into Prince William Sound.
I debated the glacier cruise for days. I had wanted to do it on Resurrection Bay in Seward, while Seth was here, but it rained all week, and the extended forecast called for another week of rain while I was in Homer. Finally, half of a yellow cartoon-sun behind a gray cloud appeared in my weather app amidst a string of rainy days, and I knew that was my chance. I calculated my timeline and planned to arrive in Whittier for a 26-glacier cruise on Saturday, September 2nd.
Miraculously, the long-range forecast played out as predicted and the clear weather forecast held even after I’d shelled out $179 on my credit card for a non-refundable ticket (I hated to pay in advance in case the weather shifted, but it was the Saturday of Labor Day weekend and I was afraid it would sell out). I had decided that I would do one paid tour on my trip, and cruising 150 miles of fjords through Prince William Sound to see 26 glaciers seemed like the best bang for my buck. I also hoped to catch the breech of an orca or the tail of a humpback whale as we cruised through the protected bays and inlets.
The cruise started at 12:30pm. Boarding would begin at 11:45am. This seemed like the perfect schedule for someone who hates to set an alarm and takes hours to get going in the morning.
I took the tunnel into Whittier the night before and situated myself at a campground a mile north of town. I decided I’d leave the van parked there with the dogs in it (which I’ve determined is perfectly safe with the windows open when it’s 55 degrees and windy) and leave at 11am to walk to the harbor, which would save me the $10 it costs to park in town. I pulled out my backpack the night before and piled up everything I would need: jacket, hat, gloves, Camelbak, phone charger with extra battery, N-95 mask, hand sanitizer, and my fancy camera with a zoom lens that I’ve only bothered with a handful of times on the whole trip. I figured I’d have plenty of time in the morning to eat breakfast, pack lunch, and throw in some snacks.
I awoke at 8:30am the morning of the cruise and dallied on my phone for half an hour. I told myself two hours was plenty of time to eat and get dressed. I crawled out of bed a little after 9am and let the dogs out. Since it was the first nice day in forever and they would be cooped up in the van all day, I tied them to the tailgate while I went inside to get ready. Then I decided I should join them for a bit, and I set up my picnic blanket on the picnic table (since the grass was still wet) and indulged in a stretch. Seth called as I made my way back to the van for final preparations and asked how I was doing. I told him about the strangling, suffocating feeling in my throat and chest and the knots in my neck and shoulders, which I’d also mentioned every day of the two weeks he joined me on the trip.
“Why are you so anxious?” he asked innocently, as if I hadn’t already explained it a thousand times.
I launched into my laundry list of worries: getting up and getting ready and eating and cleaning. Taking care of the dogs. Taking care of the van and the endless cycles of filling and dumping and trash and gas, and the ominous burning smell I’ve noticed when I start the engine in the morning. Figuring out where to go when and how to get there, and what to do based on the weather and the budget. Worrying that I’m wasting my time, that I’m not doing enough, that I’ll look back on my trip and remember only the series of parking lots and roadside pullouts I slept in. Worrying that it’s illegal to sleep in those places and I’ll get woken up by a knock from a cop in the middle of the night. Wanting to write but not having enough time, yet wasting precious hours staring at my phone. Wondering how soon I need to head south to avoid freezing my pipes and driving through snowstorms, and what happens if I miscalculate. Processing the reality that we are no longer actively trying to conceive, and the possibility that our foster parent application might finally get approved, and whether I’m ready to come home and pursue adoption. Stressing about my bank account and my budget and the fact that I’ve spent $20 a day on lunch the past three days because I’m too overwhelmed to feed myself. Stressing about not having $500 to spare for the flightseeing tour or glacier climbing or jet skiing with whales. Stressing about all the things I need to catch up on and the things I want to see while I’m here and the things I’ve tried to see but haven’t, like the northern lights and Denali. Stressing about getting off the phone and getting ready because now I’m running late to catch my boat.
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After ten minutes of rattling off my worries, my chest heaved and my heart pounded. “OK, I’ll let you go, I just thought it might be helpful for you to blow off some steam,” Seth said.
Newsflash: asking an anxious person to explain why they are anxious does not make them any less anxious.
My hands trembled as I hastily stuffed my gear into my backpack and tossed in some snacks. The neurons in my brain misfired as I tried to remember the things on my list and the things not on my list, and I spun in circles forgetting the thing that just popped into my head. My stomach groaned because I’d forgotten to eat breakfast and now I didn’t have time for breakfast or to pack lunch and I was about to get on a boat for six hours. I worried I might spend the entire boat ride vomiting over the side like the time my dad took me deep-sea fishing when I was a kid, though I had booked the only cruise in town with a “no sea-sickness guarantee,” so if I did puke all day, at least I’d get my money back.
As I turned in circles in the tiny hallway of the van, rotating from the kitchen to bedroom to bathroom and back, out of the corner of my eye I saw a black animal wandering across the campground that I thought was a large dog until I noticed the slinking way it moved: a black bear! It sauntered into the woods before I could take a picture, but I brought the dogs inside just in case.
Ten minutes later, I heard the sound of something scratching at the side of the van. I peeked out the side door and came eye to eye with the bear standing on its hind legs clawing at my window. The dogs went nuts, Baxter barking and Laney growling in the bear’s face on the other side of the glass. The bear persisted, scratching and clawing at the door, staring down two defensive dogs. Then it disappeared for a moment and popped back up at an open window on on the rear driver’s side. I channeled my adrenaline to cranking the window closed before the bear figured out how to stuff its paw through the screen. It went back on all fours and shuffled into the bushes.
The anxiety from the bear encounter overshadowed my baseline anxiety for a moment, but it was a different kind of anxious energy: exciting, action-oriented, directed. I did not actually feel endangered in the safety of the van; I was more shocked and amused (though I did make a note not to leave the dogs alone outside in bear country).
It triggered the worry energy, though, because now I needed a new plan. I couldn’t leave the dogs alone in this campground all day with a bear trying to break in. I had to drive into town and find parking and find a new campsite. And I had to do it fast, because now I was running late. I checked the confirmation email for the cruise and noticed a detail I’d missed before: boarding was 11:45-12:15pm, but they wanted me to check in by 11:30am. It was 11:29am.
I secured everything in the van into driving mode and hopped into the front seat, then stopped briefly at the camp host’s site to alert her of the nuisance bear. I made it into town and found the parking lot, paid my $10, and backed my van slowly over muddy potholes into my assigned space. The throat-strangling, head-spinning anxiety intensified as I scrambled to swallow a bowl of granola and grab everything I needed (including bear spray). I hoofed it a few blocks to the harbor and checked in, breathless, only to find that my boat was delayed half an hour. Stomach still growling, I set the timer on my watch and walked back to the van to make a quick sandwich. By the time I returned to the harbor and ate my lunch, I was sweating and shaking, but I was there.
So were several hundred other people. When I booked my glacier tour, I didn’t pay attention to how big the boat was or how many people would be on it. I just assumed it’d be like the ones I saw in Seward, with spacious upper decks for glacier viewing en plein air. I found myself corralled like cattle into a chute with hundreds of other patrons waiting to board. Then I saw the boat, a large catamaran with two levels of glassy walls and not much outside deck. My covid anxiety kicked in big time, and I donned my N-95 mask.
My boarding pass indicated an assigned seat for an indoor lunch at a table with other patrons. As someone who’s avoided even the grocery store for the past three years up until this trip, I knew there was no way I was sitting maskless among hundreds of people from all over the world. As soon as I stepped into the crowded room, my head spun. I found my table and awkwardly informed my seat mates that I wouldn’t be joining them but would be back to pick up my lunch later. Hordes of unmasked faces streamed past me in the crowded aisles, and I pushed my way towards the door. I intercepted a crew member who saw my panicked eyes bulging above my mask before I even opened my mouth, and she ushered me out a side door to the boat deck and directed me to the outdoor seats. Tears poured out of my eyes as I followed her, and when she left, I pulled off my mask and started sobbing.
I tend to forget just how delicate my mental health is until I’m thrust into a normal, everyday situation like sitting down for lunch with other humans. Most people wouldn’t panic and cry about that, I realize. Most people would introduce themselves and say hello and have a nice time. Instead, I spent my cruise alone in 40-mile-per-hour winds sitting on a cold metal bench, until lunch ended and we arrived at the glaciers and hundreds of people spilled out of the dining room and surrounded me on the upper deck, elbowing in to taking glacier selfies with their cell phones as they breathed and coughed on me. I put my mask back on and hunkered down. I was miserable.
After the first big glacier, the crowd thinned and I was able to squeeze my way to the deck rail for some photos and selfies of my own. By mid-afternoon I went downstairs to use the bathroom and saw that most people were back in their seats, chatting or napping. They might as well have been sitting at a table at The Olive Garden as cruising in a glass-walled boat through Prince William Sound. I warmed up with several cups of hot tea and went back out to enjoy the views, finally able to relax a little and take in the rivers of blue ice flowing through the Chugach mountains, the otters rolling around in the sea, and the waterfalls tumbling down the verdant slopes of Alaska’s temperate rainforest.
I hung back as the boat unloaded, then shuffled to the van and collapsed on the bed. My body was a gelatinous blob with pulsating nerves. I took half an hour to decompress before I could deal with finding a new campsite and driving there. I fired up the generator in the parking lot and microwaved popcorn for dinner. I would have fallen asleep right there if I could have, but I didn’t want to risk getting a ticket.
The glacier cruise reminded me why I’m not doing much on this trip besides driving and hanging out wherever I end up: because the travel itself consumes my reserves of physical and emotional energy, along with the daily tasks of living, and adding scheduled activities in public places where I don’t feel comfortable is more stress than I can handle. My vacation is not supposed to tie knots in my shoulders and strangle my throat and bring me to tears. The point of this trip is to relax and inspire me, not push me over the edge emotionally.
I know I need to slow down. If my road trip thus far were a three-act play, Act One was the two-week sprint driving 5,000 miles across Canada to pick Seth up at the airport in Fairbanks. Act Two was the two weeks he spent here for our belated honeymoon, in which we drove another 1,000 miles from the Arctic Circle to Denali National Park and south to the Kenai Peninsula. Act Three commenced a week ago when Seth boarded the bus to the airport and I returned to the van alone, then spent a soggy week playing fetch on the beach with the dogs figuring out what comes next.
My mental health wasn’t much better the two weeks that Seth was here, even though he took over the cooking and cleaning and driving. If anything, it was worse, because the careful systems my brain had designed to make it feel safe in the van—like where a towel goes to dry, or what drawer the clothespins live in, or where a can of chickpeas fits in the cupboard—were upended by his new systems. I will concede that he made some improvements, like hanging the dog food bowls from magnetic hooks on the heat vent, but we couldn’t stop arguing about what to do and how to do it. I needed control over my new home in order to feel secure, and he thought he had better ideas. I freaked out a lot and screamed and cried. A part of me breathed a sigh of relief to have the space to myself again.
After fortifying myself with popcorn at the end of my cruise day, I followed directions on the iOverlander app down a dead-end dirt road on a bluff overlooking the bay. I found a gravel pullout with a campfire ring and a view of a glacier, and I pulled in for the night. I watched the light fade on the blue ice hanging from the mountainside across the bay, then kept my eyes open as long as I could, head on my pillow, looking out the window of the van, hoping to catch the green glow of the northern lights.
I awoke to more rain. The forecast compelled me to postpone my hike of Portage Pass and spend the day in the van writing, listening to the roar of the waterfall cascading down the cliff across the street and out the culvert below me. Every so often I turned to look out the window and check on the view of the bay, where the mountains and glacier emerged and then hid behind clouds and fog. Five jet skis buzzed by like mosquitoes across the water below, then zoomed back two hours later. A bald eagle landed on the tip of a spruce tree below me. Baxter curled up and leaned her warm body against my legs as raindrops tapped the roof.
My breath slowed and deepened. My brain focused. I got up to let the dogs out and make tacos.
I could use a lot more days like this.
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