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Bonus Columns

Alpine Knee: Is Van Life a Sacrifice—or Another Form of Privilege?

It may be time to rethink the mythology of dirtbagging.

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Corey Buhay once scared a party off The Diamond because they misinterpreted her battle cries as death throes. Alpine Knee is her column celebrating the scrappier, messier, sometimes comically unglamorous parts of climbing.

The author cooking a meal in the \”kitchen\” of her former residence.Courtesy Corey Buhay

When I first moved into my car, I was scared. I hardly slept at all that night. I wasn’t afraid of being robbed or kidnapped. I was afraid of the police knocking on my window. I was afraid of getting chastised and being asked to move. Only now do I look back on that fear and realize how trivial it was.

That was back in 2017. I’d just broken up with my live-in boyfriend, and he understandably wanted me out of the rented room we shared. So, I moved a bin of climbing gear into the trunk of my 2011 Subaru Forester, rolled out my sleeping pad, and moved in. I’d always been drawn to the minimalism and independence of the dirtbag lifestyle, I reminded myself. This was my chance to try it.

After a few weeks, the fear of a middle-of-the-night knock faded. A few more weeks and I forgot about it entirely. I took pride in my independence and the rebelliousness I felt in bucking the system and avoiding rent. Before long, the pride turned into a sense of superiority. Living in a car, I believed, was the climber’s ultimate badge of honor: I was giving up the creature comforts of the material world in pursuit of the ultimate dream. Anyone else, in my mind, wasn’t a true climber. They were just dabblers.

Van life has long been a staple archetype within the mythology of American climbing. So many of my heroes—Cedar Wright, Fred Beckey, Renan Ozturk, Alex Honnold, Julie Ellison—had lived in cars (or tents or caves) at some point during their careers. I’d always looked up to them: The Stone Masters shirking ranger patrols in Yosemite Valley in the 1970s, Jim Bridwell relying on his seasonal unemployment checks to buy enough food and gas to fund a summer of climbing. To me, they were rebels. They were heroes. They didn’t need anybody, and neither did I.

That’s what I thought—until about four months ago. When COVID-19 hit the American West, I quickly realized that my “independence” relied on public institutions like libraries, city parks, and public restrooms, and on businesses like gyms and coffeeshops. With all those places closed, I found myself begging at the doors of friends with permanent residences. Close acquaintances started getting furloughed or laid off. For the first time, I knew people who were desperate for unemployment money. Bridwell’s nonchalant withdrawals from the public fund stopped seeming quite so heroic.

Then, in May, the killings of men like Trayvon Martin, Elijah McClain, and Ahmaud Arbery were wrenched back into the spotlight after the death of George Floyd. I started to think about what actions resulted in their deaths: Walking. Running. Wearing a hoodie.

As a van-dweller, I spend a lot of time loitering in parks and parking lots with the hood of my ratty jacket raised against the cold. I started to wonder: Can I only count on my security in these places because I’m white?

Then there’s the strange irony of choosing to be homeless, when there are so many people who would give anything for a house or an apartment. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read an Instagram caption that says “We gave up our corporate jobs and sacrificed everything to live on the road!” next to a photo of a smiling white couple with a $50,000 sprinter, purchased with the huge paychecks that those corporate jobs provided. I’d always scoffed. Honey that’s not sacrifice. That’s early retirement.

But the truth is, I, too, have a safety net. I don’t have a huge nest egg or a trust fund, but I have a well-off, loving family. And, well, all the opportunities that come easily to me because of how white I am. Am I any different? How much of van life is sacrifice in pursuit of the sacred, and how much of it is privilege?

“I think there’s a lot of privilege that comes with being able to do van life,” says Laura Edmondson, the corporate responsibility manager for Brown Girls Climb. She’s been in her van since October 2019, and this is her second stint of living on the road.

For one thing, she says, you have to have a lot of financial freedom to buy and build out a van. For another, there’s having access to power tools and information, and being plugged into the van-life community. When I built out my Subaru and, a year later, my current residence, a Ram ProMaster, I relied heavily on beta and tools from friends who had built out vehicles of their own. And I know plenty of them relied on being able to park in their parents’ driveway and use dad’s power tools and carpentry know-how.

The interior of the author’s current residence, a retrofitted Dodge Promaster.Courtesy Corey Buhay

Edmondson’s own dad, who is white (she’s a trans-racial adoptee), helped her with her build. “Having parents with the skill set and the time to share their skills with you because they’re not working a second job or doing something else—that’s huge,” she says.

Then there’s the safety aspect. We’ll get back to police in a minute, but let’s start with interactions with strangers.

Dani Reyes-Acosta is a climber, splitboarder, and van-lifer who’s been in “nontraditional living arrangements” since she first moved into a Subaru in 2014.

“There’s a lot of history around the hypersexualization of Women of Color, and Women of Color being treated as objects and commodities,” says Reyes-Acosta. (Studies show that Women of Color are more likely to experience sexual harassment and assault than white women.) Reyes-Acosta says she’s learned to adapt to that reality: She’s careful not to tell anyone she’s alone, avoids doing yoga outdoors in revealing clothing, and only jogs during the day. Even so, she recalls spotting a man videotaping her on a recent run in broad daylight.

Sasha McGhee echoed some of those concerns. An IT professional and a Black woman, McGhee moved into her van with her partner, who’s a white male, in December 2019. She says she definitely feels safer with him around, for better or for worse—they’ve both noticed that people are more comfortable interacting with him than her. For that reason, and because of ongoing racial tensions, the couple decided early on that he’d be the one to respond to any police interactions.

And, living in a car, police interactions are a given. It doesn’t matter if you’re doing it for some philosophical allegiance, or because you have nowhere else to go: More time in a car means more requests for license and registration. For one thing, car-dwellers drive more, so they’re statistically likely to get pulled over more. But there’s also the matter of hanging out in parking lots, sleeping on neighborhood streets, and rolling around in a large vehicle with darkened or curtained windows. Everything about #vanlife, dirtbaggery, stealth camping—whatever you want to call it—attracts attention.

Lovell and Paris Lee, both Navy vets, have been living on the road for about three years, and they’ve experienced plenty of that. When it comes to driving, “there’s definitely privilege to being white,” Paris says. “I think by people’s skin color, [if you’re white] you’re just less of a threat than I feel I am by being a Black woman and my husband being a Black man. We are more likely to be looked at as trouble.”

The Lees have been stopped by police on more than one occasion, with little to no cause, says Paris. Lovell was once forced to exit his vehicle and handcuffed during a laundromat stop because someone called the police saying they suspected him of kidnapping (needless to say, no kidnapping ever took place). On another occasion, outside a San Francisco climbing gym, the cops were called to investigate the Lees’ van after a report of suspected robbery. When Paris walked out of the gym and asked what the issue with her vehicle was, an officer refused to believe that she owned it. She says the interaction started to get aggressive before she was able to find her ID.

Now, the Lees always make sure they have their licenses and registration handy so they don’t have to rummage in the back—so that officers don’t have any reason to suspect that they’re reaching for a weapon. Reyes-Acosta has a similar system. She keeps documents in a bright yellow envelope at the front of her van.

Hearing this, I thought back to my first night in my Subaru, falling asleep afraid of getting a verbal slap on the wrist for parking in the wrong place. I’ve gotten that slap on more than one occasion, but never a ticket. Never handcuffs. No one has ever called the police on me, something that happened to two Black men I spoke to for this story.

The Lees point out that there are plenty of Black and Brown folks living alternative lifestyles—they’re just not blogging about it with high-production photos and YouTube videos. But there’s no question that #vanlife is still pretty white, and that those demographics often boil down to privilege.

If we want to diversify van life and share the freedom, opportunity, and climbing access that it provides, we have to stop pretending we’re better than other people. We have to stop pretending that the only thing separating the truly devoted from the dabblers is passion, and that passion is all it takes to live in a car. Because it’s not.

I could end with a conclusion about my own life and my own musings, but I can’t provide any takeaways better than Laura Edmondson’s:

  1. Share the resources you do have. If someone is crowdfunding for their van or their build, support them in that way. If you have power tools or knowledge, share that.
  2. If you’re using an app like iOverlander, leave thorough reviews on legal places to park. That makes the lifestyle safer and more accessible./
  3. Be welcoming when you meet other people living on the road. “Niceness isn’t going to solve the problem but it can help,” Edmondson says. “It helps to know the community at large wants us here.” 

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