Chicago, IL

Vanlife: First Stop Detroit? Then ... Texas

Rene Cizio

I’ve finally done it. I bought a van to solo travel around the United States. I suppose I’m jumping on the “van wagon.”

I’ve thought about it for a long time, but a year of lockdown in my tiny apartment in downtown Chicago was the final breaking point.

I moved to Chicago from Detroit for a new job just a few months before COVID-19 struck. I was traveling a lot and didn’t have time to make friends or establish connections. So, when lockdown happened I was completely isolated and alone. I made the best of it, but the idea of van life grew.

#Vanlife has been taking the country by storm. Over the last few years, Americans have been casting aside their possessions and living in tricked-out vans while traveling the country. The New York Times says the trend has seen a nearly 400% increase. So I won’t be lonely.

Apartment Renewal

My apartment was in the River North area of downtown Chicago. When I chose it, I envisioned museums, nights at the theatre, festivals, events, posh dinners … what I got instead was looting and protest (rightfully) and sirens and a nearly destroyed neighborhood almost entirely boarded up. There were several days, between COVID and the looting that I couldn’t even get cream for my coffee because nobody would deliver and all of the stores near me were closed. Oh, the woes.

As spring turned to summer I stood out on my balcony looking out at the vacant city, watching my little tomato and pepper plants grow (I figured it would be good to have a food source if the stores closed again). I felt like Rapunzel trapped in her tower. But nobody was coming to save me. I had to save myself.

My employer announced our Chicago offices would stay remote into the foreseeable future and then I received notice of my apartment lease renewal. Serendipity.

Van life

I hadn’t owned a vehicle in over five years, but that week I started searching the internet for vans and watching videos about #vanlife. One thing led to another, an inquiry here, an email there, and before I knew it, I was sitting across the table from a van salesman.

I annoyed him a bit with my waffling, I think. But I couldn’t help it. How could I, a minimalist, just sign? I didn’t even remember how to own something that big. I didn’t know where I would park it. What in the world was I, a 45-year-old single woman, thinking?

Saturday Night Live Actor Chris Farley used to do this skit called, “Van Down by the River.” It was a cautionary tale about having failed at life and ending up homeless living out of a vehicle. I always related more to the older sister in the skit (Christina Applegate), who after Farley berates the younger brother (David Spade), says her life goal is to live in a van down by the river. Ha.

Thinking of that, finally, is what allowed me to pen my name to the papers that made “Van Go” mine.

Van Go

A vehicle, I knew, needed a name, and as soon as I held the key to my van in my hands, I knew it would be named after my favorite artist, Vincent van Gogh. It had a perfect symbolism that I couldn’t ignore.

Van Go is a 2019 Ford Transit Connect cargo van. It’s about the size of a minivan. I nearly went for the full size, but not being a regular driver and never having driven anything that big, I wasn’t comfortable with it. Plus, I’m not planning on living in Van Go full-time.

I plan to stay in various Airbnbs around the country and will only use the van as a home for camping weekends.

Still, it’s a cargo van, which means it has two captain chairs up front and is nothing but empty metal in the back. I’m working to insulate it, build a little sleeping area, and make it a livable space. I’m doing most of the work myself, but while I’m here in Detroit near my family, my Dad is helping with the scarier power tools.

Upcoming plans

At the end of March, I’m heading to Texas for an adventure in tiny living, where I’ve rented a secluded, tiny cabin ala, Henry David Thoreau in San Antonio. I’ve heard the spiders are something to be reckoned with, so we’ll see how I overcome that fear. I plan to see Big Bend and do a lot of hiking and canyon exploring.

In May, I’ll venture on to New Mexico, exploring “earthen houses” and what real, sustainable living is all about. I plan too, to check out the Carlsbad Caverns, Roswell, of course, and the Rio Grande.

In June, I’ll move on to a little cottage outside of Zion National Park, and you can expect some beautiful photography coming your way! I can’t wait to start hiking those trails and slot canyons.

Being a Nomad

As of this writing, I’ve been functionally “homeless” for one month while I stay in my Detroit Airbnb. I say homeless because, with my belongings in storage, and only a few bins in Van Go, I feel a bit unmoored.

It’s strange not feeling like I have a “home” to go back to. Because, in truth, I don’t know if I’ll return to Chicago to live. I’m unsure how long I’ll actually be on the road before I settle down in one place again.

Not feeling like I have a place to go back to is disarming in a way I didn’t expect. I’ve been fortunate always to have a home, and now I don’t. I feel like I’m molting, and I wonder how long this feeling will last – this concept in my head that I’m past due to go “home.”

I keep wondering if you can lose that feeling of “home,” of thinking that I need one. If so, how long it will take, or do I even want that? Who will I be without that big label? How will I answer when people ask where I live?

The answers, I suspect, I’ll find along the way.

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Digital nomad, solo traveling full time. I write about travel, adventure, universal energy, and the journey through life. Pictures on Instagram @renecizio

Chicago, IL

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