[image by Catherine Abegg]
There was a hunk of sharp cheddar and 4 tortillas left in the van’s pantry. "I timed this pretty well," I thought, and screwed the green propane tank into the black 2-burner stove. Breakfast on my 5AM USAir flight to Mexico would be two quesadillas. It was my first flight since hitting the Road – I had guessed which airport would be closest, and got to Seattle with an afternoon to spare.
Parked on 60th street in Ballard, I cooked in front of the house that would shepherd my rolling-home for the week. It was a friend-of-a-friend’s house – the first friend I had met in Bend several weeks ago, the other friend I hadn’t met but she had texted me, “Grab a beer from our fridge while you wait.” "Good sign," I thought, as I sipped their Mirror Pond.
The skillet sizzled but I needed a new song. Looking at my phone, I saw the beginnings of an Instagram message pop up from a name I didn’t know. Swipe… the app refreshed. I stared at a picture of a guy cooking from a van on 60th street, taken from inside a house on 60th street.
The picture was from two minutes earlier… “@63mph is that you?!” the message read. I spun around, looking for the creeper… and there she was, coming at me – mid-thirties, long dark hair, dark skin, tattooed… “Hi, I’m Catherine.” “Hey, I’m Matt.”
Months before I met Catherine, I decided to spend my 30th year on the Road. It was to be a scouting mission for how to spend the rest of my life. Friends joked about my Vision Quest, but I went about selling my stuff and packed into a van the size of a California king.
The VW Vanagon was my choice because of its reliable uncertainty – a guaranteed adventure. Unlike modern vans, which easily run $60-80K, the Vanagon won’t guarantee you home by 10PM on a Sunday night after a weekend of playing, just so you can hop in your other vehicle and get to the office by 8AM.
It’s a complete roll of the dice every time you spin the keys, and this is exactly why I needed this van. I wanted a van that would become a relationship, not a simple utility. Catherine’s family understood this sort of delirium.
"So how did you know it was me?" I asked Catherine.
"Oh, my husband follows a bunch of van people on Instagram. When I posted this picture, he recognized your van immediately and told me to say hi."
We walked the 30 feet to their house, and Catherine fed me a local IPA while I asked questions about their 3 Volkswagens vans. She told their stories and talked about their family’s Vision – to eventually get their life small enough to live on the Road too.
"Not to be rude, but I gotta meet the family across the street who’s watching my rig for the week," I said.
“Go go, I totally get it,” she said. “Maybe you, Michael (her husband), and I can meet for a drink later… I’ll text you.”
Later, with pint glass in hand, Michael told me he found me because I tagged one of my photos with #vanlife. I laughed. I had been reluctant to tag any posts on this trip. Trying to get followers by appending a search-engine tag felt funny to me. Simply caring about followers felt funny to me.
Plus, the #vanlife tag? In my mind, I was doing much more than just living in a van. That tag felt more like checking out from the world, rather than the checking in I was after.
But here I was, with Michael and Catherine and their friend Fel, sipping good brews in a dimly-lit Seattle bar, because of Catherine’s unabashed creeping and because I had experimented with the #vanlife tag.
After just enough beer to feel like old friends, we walked the dark streets back to our homes – mine parked on slanty 60th, theirs on a level spot in their driveway. Catherine and Michael had 3 empty bedrooms in their house, yet they still slept in their van.
I wiggled around, trying to find a sleeping position on the convex city street. My phone lit up, “@63mph goodnight from our van to yours… :)” read Catherine’s message.
During my week-long Mexican absence, Michael had inspected my van (he works on all his vans) and noticed a problem. He purchased the parts and anxiously awaited my return so he could go to work. Here I was. We slid under the van and I watched; Catherine, a brilliant photographer, snapped away on her Hasselblad.
The Road told me it was time to go, and Michael handed me a #Vanlife decal – a tattoo that would express permanence in this community. With #Vanlife sitting in my hands, I hesitated. I’ve never liked labeling myself or others… it felt like something the world did to simplify the complex.
But then I remembered I bought this van because of its legendary community and the philosophy of its people. I remembered back through every single VW van owner I had met in the last 3 months. I remembered how these people were reaffirming my faith in a world of cold news.
I reached under the seat for an old rag and started wiping the dirt from my rear window.