My Life Living in a Van.


Somewhere in BC in the middle of February. “Vana White” proudly on guard.

As I approach the ripe old age of 30 I find myself reflecting – as I’m sure many people do – on how I spent my late teens and most of my 20’s. I know so much more now about the “real” world. I consider myself to be at least 500% more financially literate, I feel as “up to date” on current events, politics and other nonsensical things as I want to be. I’ve gone through many personal changes in attitude, confidence, and conquering fears. But, you know, I can’t help but think back constantly and analyze the past decade. Most of the time I find myself focusing on what I may feel is “lost time” or perhaps what you’d consider “wasted,” or “misguided” efforts.

You see, I spent many of those years swinging for the proverbial success fence. I was a musician, a song writer, and a band leader/manager. It’s all I ever thought about. I even studied Audio Engineering in college so that I could leverage that knowledge over into my band. I organized tours, designed merch, recorded demos and albums, successfully applied for and received financial backing through grants and industry programs. I rubbed elbows with industry fools while sporting the biggest, fakest smiles and delivery the sturdiest, most confident hand shakes I could muster. In the end, it didn’t succeed, and the band – myself included – burned out and fizzled away. But, after loosing too much sleep due to focusing on the negative sides of failure, it’s time to reflect on this experience in a different way.

Touring this HUGE country is not easy. There’s very few cities to play and vast distances to cover in between them. On top of that, the pay for an unknown hard rock/heavy metal band is basically peanuts. You become, more or less, a travelling clothing store. Your music is your advertisement for your custom designed shirts. It’s a little strange. So many financial odds are against you that it can take a special person to really succeed. In fact, I’m willing to bet that many many young bands fail because the members don’t take the time to understand how frugal you really have to be when chasing this lifestyle. If you are one of the lucky ones to realize this fact, then it automatically forces you to become the frugalest of bastards.

Me and my fellow bandmates effectively lived in our van. For upwards of 6 weeks at a time our 15 passenger tour van is what I called home. I miss those homes…there were two of them. Our first, a beat up old grey van we effectively named “GreyGore.” I can’t even remember the brand. When we upgraded we got lucky and found a relatively unused white Chevy Express, AKA “Vana White.” One of the best tour vans out there. Anyway, it’s occurred to me a few times since the band “retired” that living in a van is what I miss the most about those days. It’s such a strange way to be, so care free, and it really shows you that it is possible to disconnect from the expected Monday to Friday, 9 to 5, lifestyle that’s been served up to us. Let me try and explain.

First, if I had to find a way to associate it with a feeling you get from going through a regular work week, every day felt like that vibe you get on a Thursday or Friday afternoon before a long weekend. The feeling that work, and work life responsibilities, were so far away. That this would be THE long weekend that would last forever. Know what I mean? I was conscious of this, and I loved it. Days of the week would cease to matter. You woke, you travelled, you explored, you met new people, you went to bed. There was no reason to pay attention to the calendar.

The bench seats became beds. I had some marvellous sleeps on those bench seats. I remember lying there, most usually parked outside a Walmart or sometimes on the curb in the suburbs beside the house of the gracious fan who hosted an after party, sort of laughing and smiling to myself. This is the path we had chosen. Me and three close friends of mine were actively pursuing this sort of nomadic lifestyle, and in my eyes we were doing it with ease. I would generally wake up with this same sense of humour and accomplishment. Just like the sun rising, it would dawn on me again that here we are…living in a van…and as I’d zombie walk into the Walmart, or nearest Tim Hortons, for a coffee and public washroom cleaning/toothbrushing session I’d think to myself: “our day jobs are a thing of the past.” All of my problems, drama, and concerns were left behind in my apartment. I never took that feeling for granted. You see, as soon as you jumped in that van on the first day of tour it was sort of like all these ropes that were tethering you down were cut away, and you were free to just float along, taking in the world instead of trying to force it to work for you. There would sometimes be all kinds of worries before you actually left. Deciding what to bring. Do you have enough saved to pay for food? Are your bills covered? Is your relationship with that significant other strong enough to survive another tour? The list would go on. Once those doors closed though, and the tires hit the pavement, what’s done was done. There was no going back.

It was living like this that forced me to make some positive changes in my life. Living in close quarters with the same people for extended periods of time, while meeting swarms of new people on a daily basis and travelling to new areas over thousands of kilometres, means you’ll be face to face, and hand to hand, with lots of germs. There will be many handshakes and hugs with folks who may not be in the best of health. To be effective at touring, you need to be healthy.

I figured this out on our first outing and immediately started thinking about my diet in a very serious way. I’m sure every musician has caught a cold or flu while on tour and can relate to just how awful it becomes. It happened to me on the first one, and I was determined to do what I could to avoid it from there on out. This sort of analyzing of my diet may not have ever happened had I not spent a large amount of my time living in a van.

I use to weigh close to 300 pounds. I ate a lot of fast food, frozen pizzas, sandwiches upon sandwiches, and lots of other garbage. Sure, I always knew I was fat, overweight, and lowering my life expectancy, and I had tried to lose weight before, but it was really my love of touring that caused this paradigm shift. I decided to become vegetarian. It was the best way I could think of to force myself to stay away from fast food, deep fried goods, greasy pizzas and the like. I didn’t necessarily believe in all the political and moral reasons of becoming a vegetarian (I could rant about the reasons that I do agree with but not now) I was mainly in it for the health. And it worked. Though I’m no longer a vegetarian I cut my weight down from 300 to 208 pounds. I mean, ya, I exercise now, and I’ve learned a few other health related things, but if I had not spent time living in a van I may have never been sent down this path. I could very well still be 300 pounds, nearing 30, with busted ankles and knees. I’m so grateful that I am not.

Shedding my possessions was another realization. We’re all guilty of it. We collect things, we feel pride about our things, and we worry like hell that someone might steal and/or damage these things. They’re beautiful to us. They shine, shimmer, make noises, contain 1’s and 0’s, and bring some of us a great deal of satisfaction. So, I was a little surprised to find out that by living in a van for extended periods of time didn’t lead me to worry constantly about these things that were way back home, not under the guard of my watchful eye. Here I was, with a bookbag full of clothes, my laptop computer and my toiletry bag, and yet I didn’t feel a longing for my other collections and possessions. It was actually relieving to have them so far away. That was a big realization to me. I remember thinking, and vocalizing to some friends, that one of the best things about finally having hit the road for an extended tour was that I learned just exactly how little you really need to live, get by, AND be happy. I’d found this absolute bottom line and now I feel sort of insulated from ever being worried about ever “going without.” It seems difficult to explain, but if I could be so comfortable and stress free while living in a van, why would I ever need to stress out and worry about finding that “perfect apartment” ever again? Why waste time panicking about the layout of the living room, the size of the TV, the mismatched plates and bowls in the cupboards? All these things began to feel like massive luxuries.

These massive shifts in perception of how we have to live our lives are the true rewards of having the balls to get out there on the road and live like working musicians. I’m not sure if I’ll ever have the opportunity to live like that again, but given the right situation, I’d be all over it.

I think I’ll end this post with a song by the Canadian band “Belvedere” that seems to put these feelings into words pretty accurately.

“distractions from the ordinary
real life just not good enough
explanations hard to come by
living outside the institutions
waking in awkward situations
i wouldn’t have it any other way
i can’t recall a better time,
each day felt like the next would never come
i realize i couldn’t get enough
alternatives all felt like death
i wish i could safely say
all the right decisions were always made
ya we were young but we’re still here
happy to starve for another year
it seems so right for one to assume
that what we are is what we see
what we buy who we do
i would have ended up that way if not for those miles
those endless days
i know it’s not for everyone, empty halls,
empty stomachs, empty hopes
in retrospect we had it all
we didn’t choose this life, this life chose us long ago
a web of friends and moments impossible to let go
though we surrendered what others want to treasure
we ended up with so much more
we didn’t choose this life, this life chose us long ago
a web of friends and moments impossible to let go
though we surrendered what others want to treasure
we ended up with so much more”

One thought on “My Life Living in a Van.

  1. Pingback: Hitting the Brakes on My Savings Rate | The Frugal Bastard

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