“That’s an interesting setup you have there,” the police officer says as he leans through the passenger window, past the seat that faces backward, and into my van. My sleeping bag is tossed across the bed, and my Coleman stove sits folded on the shelf.
“Yeah, I live in here,” I answer. “I’m a traveling rock climber.” That description hardly made sense to me, but I figure it somewhat justified the fact that I live in my car.
“You live in here? Where do you go to the bathroom?” he questions, suddenly forgetting about the rolling stop I just pulled. When people find out I live in my van, this is usually the first question they ask. It’s something I have never thought about, and every time I’m caught off guard. What’s the correct answer? The bushes? The Chevron station? The outhouse at Beef Basin in Indian Creek? Belay ledges?
Where do you go to the bathroom, officer? I think. Probably in as many places throughout the day as I do.
I’ve lived in rooms of many sizes—closets, basements, attics. I’ve lived in floorless tents in the Oregon backcountry, college dorms and apartments, Swiss chalets, a Subaru, and a renovated garage. My current home, Ol’ Blue, is a 1995 GMC Safari that I bought for $1,500 from an ex-boyfriend, my first adult relationship. I was 28 at the time, and completely broken. Not over the failed relationship, but more so over the cracking open that the end of the relationship initiated. He didn’t complete me like I thought a man would; he didn’t make life happen for me like I was hoping. My world was small, and fear had ruled for so long. Boxes and checklists—graduate high school, go to college, get a degree, get a job—all in black and white, vestiges from my religious upbringing.
Despite the turmoil, this newfound separation prompted the bubbling up of an inner strength and yearning for independence within me. I wanted to feel big, powerful even. I wanted to know what true freedom felt like, to have ownership over myself and my life, and I wanted to do exactly what I had to do to take care of myself. I wanted to not feel so much fear.
The breeze filters through the bright green forest, and the sun hits the south-facing wall. It’s a busy Saturday at Index, the local crag outside Seattle. Climbers lap the popular routes on toprope, and the usual crowd gathers at the base of Tatoosh and Thin Fingers. These are Index’s moderates, and as far as moderates go, they’re pretty hard. I gear up for Tatoosh, a varied 5.10, and my cousin Jon hands me more finger-sized gear.
I start to question myself. I hate leading; I hate the fear, and yet something in me wants to face it. Something in me wants to learn how to be afraid and not let it control me. I climb shakily, hanging on every other piece. I feel angry at Jon for thinking I could handle this, annoyed by the sun, frustrated with the moves. I want someone or something to blame, anything so I don’t have to handle this fear myself. At the crux, my body refuses to move above my cam, and I ask Jon to lower me. Words of frustration and hatred fill my head. I feel like a failure.
A few days later, on my final day as a teacher’s assistant at a middle school in Seattle, I move all of my belongings into a friend’s basement, putting aside two plastic bins of gear, a box of books, and some clothes. I won’t need anything else.
The next day, I drive north from Seattle and meet my mom in Bellingham. She buys me a cooler and a floral rug that gives Ol’ Blue a real homey feel. In a pullout on Chuckanut Drive, we cut Reflectix for all of the windows, creating both insulation and privacy. My mom and I share my tiny one-person bed that night, and my dad texts me a photo of the van he lived in when he was 23. The next morning Mom heads north and I head south toward California.
Growing up in a fundamental Christian culture, I was taught that God had a plan for my life. I should think of myself as an empty vessel, devoid of identity. I took those ideas to heart, probably more than my parents and teachers intended. At 27, I was unable to make decisions or feel any sense of self-worth. I didn’t know what I wanted, and if I did, I certainly didn’t think I was allowed to have it. I had to stay on the right path, even though I wasn’t sure where it was or how to follow it.
Fear was a convincing voice that wouldn’t shut up about how people are intimidating, the unknown is terrifying, decisions absolutely paralyzing, and emotions crippling. I said “I can’t” a lot, believed I wasn’t good enough for that group of people, not charismatic enough for that job, not strong enough for that climb, not free-spirited enough to live in a van. So many excuses kept me from living the life I wanted. To-do lists, volunteering, work, and school kept me busy but drowned my soul.
Moving into Ol’ Blue was the first big step I took in the face of fear. I knew what I wanted, and I was tired of letting my desires be trumped by terror. And I started climbing. Not just tiptoeing around the edges of climbing like before, but really climbing. Setting goals. Taking initiative. Leading. Thinking of myself as a climber. Trying hard. Falling and getting back up.
Perched on the side of the Black Canyon, a notorious area with runout climbing, hard route-finding, and questionable rock, I face a 5.10 move with my last piece a body length below my feet. Holding on to a jug, I search for holds and my next gear placement and come up empty. Chalk up for the fifth time, climb up, get an undercling, move my left foot up, and reach high with my right hand. That hold sucks! I think as I downclimb to the safety of the jug. Again and again I climb up and down, wishing for better holds, wishing this was my partner Whitney’s pitch, wishing there was a bolt. Part of me wants out.
But the bigger part of me wants to face this challenge. I’m not swept away by emotion like I used to be, flooded with anxiety and unable to think rationally. Keep focus, assess the risk, figure out the move. I shout down, “Watch me!” Not because I want her to save me—I am the only one who can save me—but because I want her to know I’m going for it. I head into 5.10 terrain, with no idea where my next hold or piece of pro is, because I trust myself.
It’s been more than three years since I first moved into my van. Ol’ Blue has watched me drive teary-eyed and sobbing through landscapes one day and singing along to the radio and dancing in the driver’s seat the next. She’s been with me through my first 5.12, my first published article, and my first understanding of true love. Ol’ Blue and I have been through the most fantastic and terrifying growth together. I have learned what strength looks like, what it means to be empowered, independent, and capable.
She’s getting old now, and I’m not sure how much longer she’ll last. Bumps in the road affect her more than they used to, and half her doors don’t open. But I’m getting older too, and I have felt the shift of the tides changing. Monotony laces my driving, working its way into this climb, eat, sleep, repeat lifestyle. Maybe I’ll never fully “settle down,” but I can’t imagine living in Ol’ Blue forever. These days I find myself wondering how much she has left to teach me, how much more we can learn together on the road.