Subtitle: What van life taught me
Words by Amy Lewis
For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been a last-minute person. I’m the kid who didn’t tell her parents about needing a poster board for school until the night before. I buy concert tickets twenty minutes before the show starts and submit work at 11:59. So, when the lease was almost up at my first solo apartment, I decided it was time to take a big risk.
I was living in downtown Nashville, halfway through my second semester as a teacher, and I wasn’t ready to commit to any decisions for the next year. Another lease meant another year in the same place, so I looked for anything without a contract. I was tired of landlords and ready to stop throwing away rent money for an apartment I couldn’t afford to furnish.
It wasn’t until my mom brought up the idea of taking over her car payment that I started to think of van life as a possibility. At 23, it never even crossed my mind that they give car loans to people who still call their mom for help at the grocery store. I’d been watching van builds, solar installs, and travel vlogs since I was a teenager, so once the idea took hold, it wouldn’t let go. I’d recently become close with a co-worker whose husband builds Vanagon engines for a living, so I secured a long-term parking spot on their property and started the search.
The buying process was the easiest part. It was so much fun to search for vans, daydream, and consider what I really need out of a home. I spent hours on the phone with my friends and parents, talking through every detail. I eventually found a 2005 Dodge Sprinter in Pennsylvania that fit my needs and was only a couple hours from my sister’s house.
I went over everything in my head again and again, double checking and staring at the van listing until I had it memorized. I was so nervous that I was buying a bad van, or that something would happen that I couldn’t afford. I bought a mobile inspection through Lemon Squad, flew up to Pennsylvania, and drove the van to my sister’s house. And that’s when my worst fear came true. I drove it to a quick oil change shop, and the brakes went soft. I was blocking the line for a garage bay, and the van wouldn’t move out of park.
I did what every independent woman in her 20s does when she has car trouble—I called my dad crying. With his and my brother-in-law’s help, I managed to get the van towed to a Dodge dealership in the next town over with space to lift it. I called the previous owner, and he kindly bought me a flight home and helped pay for the repairs. After $900 in brake line repairs and new tires, I finally brought the van home on December 26.
The van immediately felt like home. I loved being in it, and every day reaffirmed my decision that I was exactly where I was supposed to be. There were hard days, of course. It rained six out of seven days of the week for most of February, so much so that it was hard to leave the van to cook, use the bathroom, or run to my car for work. But on the days the sun came out, my neighbor Amanda and I would lay out in the sun and talk or build fires and sip boxed wine all night. She was briefly working on the property through the winter, and we became fast friends. That winter taught me that van life is always better with friends around you.
The next few months were some of the craziest months of my life. The Nashville tornado hit on March 3. I woke up in the middle of the night to alarms and calls from my landlord. I rushed down from the peak of their property to find a safe spot for the van and woke up to news of destruction. I was lucky to be just a mile or so out of the tornado’s path. The next week, spring break came, and I got the call that school was closed for the foreseeable future. I ended up living with my parents on and off in Knoxville, due to gym and laundromat closures in my area.
Then, in June of 2020, I made the single best decision of my entire life. I left for a road trip with one of my best friends and spent the month hitting whatever national park or forest felt right that day. Emily and I made all our decisions on the fly, driving from Chattanooga to Denver, then to Utah, Montana, Idaho, Washington, down the Oregon and California coast to San Jose, and southeast to Joshua Tree and the Grand Canyon. We protested in Denver, swam in the Pacific Ocean for the first time, saw some of the most beautiful places in the country, and bought more art than we knew what to do with. It was heaven, and I wish I could go back every single day. We still look at each other sometimes and say, “Can you believe we did that?”
I sold the van to a videographer based out of California at the end of 2020. People were crazy for vans at the time, and I was ready to move on. It took time to start daydreaming about van life again, but now I find myself drawing van layouts, or watching Eamon & Bec videos on YouTube. I’ve gained the emotional and mental tools I need to handle emergency situations such as breakdowns, missing keys, bad weather, or last-minute changes. But more than anything, I learned to trust myself. I know that if I put my mind to something, no matter how impulsive or far-fetched it seems to anyone else, I can make it happen.