When You Try #VanLife for the First Time

When you try #VanLife for the first time, it becomes a priority to know where the nearest bathroom is at all times. 

My boyfriend and I currently live in a small town that I was born and raised in. I never envisioned myself here in Ojai, California in my late 20's but I also never predicted a lot of events in my life would happen. Jordan works at a local dentist office in town and I have the option to travel more often since I work remotely. It has allowed me to work from a friend's place in Portland, a cabin in Mammoth, and stay longer on the East Coast after a trip for a wedding. Getting away from Ojai on trips keeps me sane. When we get home, Jordan and I still feel that sense of wanderlust and the desire to just get up, get out of town, and go everywhere. That's why we did.

It was this past February when Escape Campervans announced a 70% off deal for relocating their van from LA to SF. I immediately booked it and two extremely cheap flights on the now lost Virgin America. I was so quick that I didn't even check with Jordan about his schedule, but luckily he had work off the Friday to Monday during the week that I booked. #VanLife, here we come!

Without establishing much of a plan for our road trip, the time to go came quicker than we expected. After returning late from a Mammoth ski trip with my dad the night prior, I caught a ride with my dad on his way to work in Santa Monica on Tuesday morning. From there I took a Lyft to Escape Campervans near LAX to pick up the van. After speaking with their representative and a member of their marketing team who was visiting from Denver, I was off! There I was, extremely terrified driving through the streets of Inglewood and onto the 405 freeway. This van was massive and so high off the ground. How am I driving? A bit nervous and overly cautious, if I do say so myself. I've never driven so intently in my entire life. My back was tense the entire drive back up to Ojai. Finally, there she was, "Lava Lamp", as they named her right in my driveway!

When my mom found out that I booked a camper van, she was extremely excited and asked, "Where are we going!?" Since Jordan wasn't available to leave until Friday morning, I told my mom that we could go anywhere she wanted. My mom has had health and back problems for my entire life, so we decided to not go far and head up to Gaviota State Beach north of Santa Barbara and Goleta. Unfortunately, a massive rain storm came into town and derailed our plans entirely. We were unsure if mudslides would occur in the area again and figured it would be best to stay home. Since we had the van, my mom and I hung out in the van in the backyard while the rain poured down on top of it.

Friday finally came and Jordan and I were off! We lucked out and got a last minute campsite at the Upper Pines Campground in Yosemite National Park. Everyone and their mom warned us off of going to Yosemite due to rain and snow storms in the forecast. Everyone and their mom also canceled their reservations in Yosemite, which was the positive side of going in March. I rented chains from Escape Campervans for an additional $50, just in case. I nervously hoped that we wouldn't need to use them even if it was a waste of money to rent them.

On our way to Yosemite, we stopped at Bravo Farms for a BBQ lunch in Visalia off of CA-99. If you ever find yourself passing through Visalia, I recommend the tri tip sandwiches here as a delicious break from any fast food you'll encounter elsewhere. Upon arrival in Merced, we turned onto the Yosemite Freeway and through Oakhurst up and over the mountainside. Every time we passed a cliff, my stomach leaped nervously hoping that we would get out before the snowstorms arrived tomorrow. I couldn't imagine driving this giant Ford E-series "Maverick" van near the edge of the road in a snowstorm or even with snow on the ground.

We passed Wawona and continued towards the Valley. Upon coming out of the Yosemite Tunnel at "Tunnel View", we realized that the fog was blocking views of El Capitan. Luckily, we had a clear view of the massive amount of water stroking down Bridalveil Falls. We continued further through Yosemite Valley, passed Curry Village, and arrived at Upper Pines Campground. After checking in, we noticed that the campground looked half deserted due to the snowstorm forecast. As we drove towards our campsite, we spotted two other Escape Campervans in the campground. At least we were in good company.

Jordan immediately broke out the whiskey and we settled into our first night in the van. We eventually explored the campgrounds and the creek running through it. A photographer was out and pointed towards the way of eight deer wandering in a pack. With a love for wildlife rooted deep in my heart, I was stunned by the majesty of their beauty. Before the sun began to set, we walked over to Curry Village. I know it's now called Half Dome Village, but I'm letting it keep its O.G. name in this blog. We ordered a couple of drinks at the local bar. Jordan got a Jack & Coke and I ordered a Hot Toddy. It was the first night that the bar was open for the season. If you've never had a Hot Toddy in cold weather before, do it the next chance you have. We ordered a bomb pizza from the Pizza Patio and enjoyed a great dinner with breathtaking views.

Jordan making whiskey cocktails in the "kitchen."

Jordan has a habit of telling me that he has never been somewhere and then later tell me that his parents said they took him when he was young. When we had been dating a few months, I took off for five days on the John Muir Trail. I remember telling him how beautiful the view was from Cloud's Rest and about the Narnia-like imagery of the Yosemite backcountry. He told me that he'd never been to Yosemite. Low and behold when we arrive in the Valley and I welcome him to Yosemite, he tells me that his dad told him that he went when he was a kid. He did the same thing when we went to South Lake Tahoe, so it's become a bit comical at this point.

For Jordan's at least second time in Yosemite, we went to Half Dome Grocery & Gifts and purchased Jiffypop. We ended up saving the Jiffypop for a rainy day, which did come. Back at camp, we packed up the whiskey and settled onto the somewhat comfortable bed in the back of the Campervan.

In the morning, Jordan opened the curtains to check for a snowstorm that we were expecting later in the morning. With clear skies, it looked like the snowstorm was behind schedule but it was still extremely cold outside. We got the Coleman stove going in the back and I took the eggs and bacon out of the refrigerator to cook. We flipped the bed inside the van into a table top setup with benches to eat. The air was so cold that our breakfast started to get cold really fast. In the process of cooking, an egg slipped out and fell on the ground when I cracked it. While we were eating, a huge raven showed up and started eating the egg. I was startled by the massive bird because I honestly didn't know ravens could get that big. Before too long, we drove off towards El Portal with a goal of getting out of Yosemite Valley before the snowstorm hit later that day.

Me in the van in Yosemite National Park.

By the time that we made it back towards CA-99, we realized that we were driving a gas guzzler. With loose plans to visit my friends in the Sacramento area, we decided to bail on our plans and head towards the San Francisco Bay Area due to the rise in gas cost and our small budget for this trip. At a gas station near the CA-5 freeway, we noticed a woman outside of the car next to us staring at the van. She asked Jordan, "Did you paint it yourself?" That got a laugh out of both of us. We must look like such freaks on the freeway in the middle of no where.

We continued across the Central Valley and headed north to check out Lagunitas Brewing Company in Petaluma. When we arrived at Lagunitas, I was overwhelmed by the amount of people after our night in the woods. We quickly left and found a place called Speakeasy online that had the promise of a good Neiman Ranch burger and it did live up to expectations. The restaurant was down the American Alley in downtown Petaluma, which proved to be an odd place when we found a woman who looked like Professor Trewlawney curled up and reading in a nook. "Good evening," she said eerily. 

After dinner, Jordan opted for trying to find a campsite near the beach and we headed towards the Marin Headlands. We found a campsite online that looked promising, but we realized that it was a backpackers campground and it would be impossible in the van. We kept driving around the Headlands until we came upon a spot that looked like a strong possibility. Before sunset, we ended up at Rodeo Beach and parked the van in the Fort Cronkhite Parking Lot. We weren't sure if it was legal at the time but we noticed a few others were doing it, so we decided to give it a shot and play dumb if a ranger came by. No one came.

The glamorous Fort Cronkhite Parking Lot at Rodeo Beach parking spot.

We saw surfers in wet suits finishing off their last rides for the evening. We got out the Jiffypop and ate the pieces that didn't burn in the ocean air. We drank whiskey cocktails and Lagunitas beer while watching the sunset. As the imminent dark filled the sky, we settled into the van (luckily near a bathroom) and laid down as rain showers began to sprinkle on the roof. There's something absolutely magical about listening to the rain on the roof as the showers come and go off the shoreline. A few cars arrived late in the night and parked near us in the parking lot. I was a little bit afraid of others in the night until I saw a young man in the light of his car that was setting up a bed in the back. I then knew that these people were likely normal and just like us for the finding a spot to car camp for the night.

If you haven't tried Lagunitas latest Sumpin' Easy Ale, I think it's about time that you try it.

In the morning, to my surprise the entire parking lot was full of cars by 8:00 a.m. Active Bay Area natives were jogging, hiking, cycling, surfing, and #doingthings. Jordan and I brushed our teeth and took off across the Golden Gate Bridge for San Francisco. We had plans to meet up for breakfast with one of my best friends, Maryrose, and her boyfriend, Brandon. 

Jordan taking in final views of Rodeo Beach on Sunday morning.

We ended up at Brandon's gadget, book, and art filled apartment at Lake Merced where we starting putting a golf ball in his living room before heading out to Boulevard Cafe in Brandon's Audi. A little bit of an upgrade from the Campervan, don't you think? After breakfast, Brandon and Maryrose checked out our hippie camper van and we probably laughed the entire time talking about #vanlife. Next, we headed towards the beach to watch Brandon's competitive soccer league game. Jordan challenged me to a one-on-one soccer match and it quickly became a game of him kicking a long ball and outrunning me without much skill. He wanted to prove that he could beat me at soccer and I guess he did although he did admit that I have more skills and technique. 

Katelyn and her Law School classmate/friend Johnny during dinner at El Rancho Grande in the Haight.

After Brandon's game, we drove up to Haight & Ashbury and we finally felt like we fit in somewhere in our hippie van. We met up with my friend Katelyn and her friends from UC Hastings Law School for delicious Mexican food and a deal on Coronitas at El Rancho Grande. Following dinner, we took a Lyft to my sorority sister, Adele, and her three rabbits' apartment. We caught up with her and the rabbits in her high rise apartment while overlooking downtown and the Bay Bridge. Later that evening, we headed back to the van to search for a place to sleep.

Stunning view of the city and Bay Bridge from Adele and her three rabbits' apartment. This was the hardest night of #vanlife for us. We drove through Golden Gate Park to find a spot but instead found a sign saying that we couldn't park overnight anywhere in the Park. We headed towards the beach and Highway 1 and all of the spots along the streets were taken. We continuously drove around for over an hour and finally happened upon a spot that we needed to tightly parallel park in near Lake Merced. There were multiple other people living the #vanlife along the street we parked. We felt a mass amount of empathy for anyone and everyone who lives in a van in a city with limited parking like San Francisco. This was our most difficult night to find a spot. 

A San Francisco ordinance apparently prohibits people from inhabiting cars from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. We broke the law again. #VanLife can be really hard and the reality is that San Francisco is not affordable. Also, please help me if I have to go the bathroom in the middle of the night. There wasn't a public restroom in sight this night.

In the morning, we headed towards the Mission district to visit Jordan's friend, Nic. Nic welcomed us with fresh brewed espresso drinks and avocado toast on bread he went to pick up from Tartine Bakery. Tartine is a game-changer. I think Nic quickly realized how exhausted we were from the past three days of #vanlife and asked if we needed a shower. We really did. As Jordan showered, I asked Nic on his thoughts about Burning Man. After #vanlife, I finally felt like I could handle something like that. We laughed about it. After I showered, we departed from Nic's to let him get back to work. It was a Monday after all. We headed across the Bay Bridge to Oakland because we had to drop off the van in Hayward that afternoon. Jordan and I walked around downtown Oakland and ended up eating lunch around town. I showed Jordan the Fox Theater, where we hope to catch a show together someday.

At last, our trip and experimentation with #vanlife was coming to an end. We got on the 880 freeway and headed towards Hayward. I was on the home stretch to dropping off the van without a stretch. At this point, I was used to driving it but that doesn't mean that I wasn't as cautious as Adele's rabbits on that freeway. The Escape Campervans representative checked out the van, gave us the thumbs up, and that was it. We ordered a Lyft, took it across the Bay to SFO, and went through security and on to our flight. Not much longer until we were back in Los Angeles waiting for our shuttle home.

#Vanlife full time would be hard. After enduring the California drought for so long, I loved that living in a van made me more conscious of my water consumption and electricity use. However, the gas emissions likely heavily outweighed any full effort to be eco-friendly on this trip. Throughout the trip, it was rough to be constantly conscious of parking near a bathroom. For Jordan, I think the lack of a morning shower was one of the hardest parts. Otherwise, cooking, sleeping, washing our hands, and other common household activities went surprisingly really well. Escape Campervans was easy to rent from and their vans were clean and well-equipped. Overall, it was an extremely positive experience and we both like how grateful it made us for every shower, toilet, and comfortable bed that we'll ever have in our lives.

As for #vanlife, I don't think Jordan and I will be living in a van full time anytime soon. We would love to have a more fuel efficient van to adventure on the road with, so that is something to look forward to. Living in a van full time would be a commitment and we commend anyone who has made that happen.

Lexie Gritlefeld