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.

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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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