The Peanut Gallery: The #1 and #2 Problems With Van Life

By Julie Ellison ,

Julie “Peanut” Ellison is the Editor at Large for Climbing. She often gets worked up about things she reads on the Internet and then falls asleep mumbling to herself about it. The Peanut Gallery is her monthly column.

When you live in your van, the world is your bathroom, or so the myth goes. Photo: Julie Ellison.

The incident happened a year and a half ago, which, it turns out, is just enough time for me to laugh about it without puking in my mouth. Spoiler alert: That’s precisely what I did when I accidentally drank piss.

In February 2016, I was in Bishop, California, for the inaugural Women’s Climbing Festival, and my then-boyfriend had driven solo through the nothingness of Nevada to bring the dog and the van so we could climb for another week after the festival. We parked at the Vons grocery store around midnight, tucked away in a dark corner to get a few hours of sleep. I woke up in the wee hours of the morning with a thirst only the High Sierra desert can induce, so I reached for a water jug on the floor near the bed.

Our fresh water system at the time was a handful of one-gallon Arrowhead jugs acquired at various points in two years of van ownership. We’d refill all the jugs at spigots and faucets, and after a few months of use, each jug would get smashed or lost, so we’d buy a new one to replace it in the arsenal. At no point did we ever use these jugs for any kind of waste water. We dumped gray water outside and each had our own pee vessels, old Nalgenes or jars that were also replaced after taking on a permanent yellow tint.

So when I blindly fumbled under the bed in the throes of a sleepy haze and grabbed a one-gallon jug, there was no reason to think I should be cautious. I unscrewed the cap and chugged.

There are moments in life when your brain shuts off in order to protect you from intense pain or discomfort, like during childbirth or a car accident. This was not one of those moments. It was the opposite. Time slowed down, and I tasted every tepid, acidic, tart, earthy note of that vile liquid. I would describe it as licking fermented sweat directly from Satan’s armpit after he road tripped to Coachella. (The back of my throat burns as I write this.)

Over the next 30 seconds, three things came out of my mouth: the upcycled liquid (which travelled five feet from the back of the van up to the driver’s seat), a portion of that night’s bean burrito, and a string of expletives that would have made Andrew Dice Clay blush. Up until then, my boyfriend had been asleep. He woke up to me enraged and dry-heaving. When he finally got the picture, he offered some explanation about not being able to reach his pee bottle when driving. I think that’s what he said anyway, I wasn’t really listening. There was pee in my mouth.

As climbers, we can’t be shy about bodily eliminations, number one or number two. We go outside for long stretches of time, willingly distancing ourselves from modern plumbing. We pee on multi-pitches, glaciers, our shoes, and sometimes each other. We defecate in a tube and then carry it with us for five days on a 3,000-foot big wall. One time from a neighboring route in Red Rocks, I listened to a girl at a very small belay say: “I’m so so so sorry, I have to go. I just have to.” Then she proceeded to poop right there on the 10-square foot ledge next to four people she didn’t know. At this very magazine, we’ve published countless stories centered around excrement. But in the two years I’ve lived in a van, my relationship with bathroom stuff has become, well, intimate.

An idyllic view of van life: a good dog and good mountains. Photo: Julie Ellison

The picturesque version of van life has a backdrop of craggy peaks and vast forests where you can walk a little bit, drop trou’, and do your business. Basically, the world is your bathroom. But the reality is that I drive a lot, bouncing from state to state for various work projects. In my first two months on the road, I was in 12 different states, most of those spots for less than a week. When I’m in a place, I don’t just head off into the woods to live #vanlife. I have constant deadlines, phone calls, and Skype meetings, so I stay close to civilization for Wi-Fi and cell service, as well as groceries, laundry, and showers. After working in a coffee shop for 12 hours, I find a nice Walmart parking lot or suburban street and crash out, then get up and go stare at a screen some more. Livin’ the dream!

While my pup can hop out of the van and squat on a random patch of grass, I don’t have that luxury. The first question people always ask is: Where do you go to the bathroom? The clever and truthful answer is, “I go where you go: the woods, the mountains, and various toilets across the land.” But the more-truthful answer would include: "I also pee in my van in a small lidless Tupperware that I discreetly empty every morning."

I made the switch from using jars and bottles with screw-on lids because they got disgusting real fast. Initially my thought was that a sealed container would mitigate smell, but that was not the case. The odor when I opened the empty container to use it would hit my nose as if I'd snorted a line of ammonia-based Comet bathroom cleaner. This new lidless system is working out much better stink-wise, but no top means spillage is an issue. Once I spilled coffee and pee with one clumsy footstep. Another time I got up to pee in the middle of the night and squatted, but I forgot to pull out my jar. Take a blacklight to the inside of my van and you might mistake it for a Jackson Pollock original.

At this point I’d like to point out that my parents did, in fact, raise me better than this. Sorry, Mom and Dad!

While it’s easy to be stealthy with pee, poo is trickier. In that department, I’ve always been a morning person, which is great for climbing. Get it done and out of the way before heading to the crag. Living in a van, not so much. Because it’s my first order of business everyday, it’s imperative that I park near a bathroom. No problem when I’m staying at a Walmart or grocery store, kind of a problem everywhere else.

A few months ago, I was in a midsize mountain town (which shall remain nameless) to work on a few different stories. I had found a church that was near my favorite coffee shop, with a secluded parking lot, a water spigot, and a shady yard in the back. They didn’t seem to mind me staying there, and it was a great setup, so I made it my basecamp. I’d head straight to the coffee shop every morning, so bathroom access wasn’t an issue—most of the time.

One morning I woke up around 5 a.m to a rumble in my stomach. Whatever was going to happen was going to happen, and soon. It was too early for most public restrooms to be open, and I wasn’t sure if I would make it anyway. I started to panic.

The author works on her laptop in the parking lot of a different church than the one mentioned in the story. Photo: Julie Ellison

Then it hit me: There was a perfectly good toilet a few hundred feet away in the church. But could I get to it? With growing urgency, I had to try. I hopped out of the van and walked quickly to the nearest door. Locked. Went to the next one. Locked. As I walked around the building, I scoped out the window situation. They were pretty high off the ground, but hey, I’m a climber, and desperate times… I tried two more locked doors. I was at DEFCON 1; there was no turning back. I saw the fifth and final door and started praying.

“Dear Lord, please give me the strength to hold it. Oh God in heaven, please help me not shit my pants.”

I turned the handle, and the door swung open. Hallelujah! I made it to the bathroom just in time. When I got back to the van, I realized I had just broken into a church to defecate. This was a new low point.

But of course van life bathroom stories aren’t always so crappy. My morning constitutionals have also included moose, bears, and other wildlife, not to mention stunning vistas of the West’s great mountain ranges. I have a deeper appreciation for pit toilets and the organizations that keep them stocked with toilet paper. I’ve forged friendships with fellow travelers who share my bathroom woes. Vomiting pee onto my driver’s seat was a small price to pay for the freedom to chase seasons for rock climbing, working when I want, and enjoying a simpler existence. I’m not sure when I will live in a house again, but I do know one thing: Whenever I trade in van life for regular access to a bathroom, I will thank God everyday for indoor plumbing.

Follow Julie Ellison on social media: @joolyhart

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