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Before vanlife: revisiting the quest for meaning & “home” in transience

Life on the road is all about transience. Unsurprisingly, a country forged by a narrative around pioneers moving west feels comfortable with the idea of change —and that of self-reinvention and second chances.

With no strong bonding around roots or heritage (despite the efforts of many), it’s sports—and the westward expansion—that became a way to forge an idea of a national identity and (alleged) exceptionalism. Hence, traveling geographically to grow personally is allegedly a very American affair.

A landmark referencing the Oregon Trail (Prairie City, Oregon, United States)

However, road trips, travel literature, and economic mobility have explained two very different tales around hardship and transience in the US since the beginning: some people moved and embraced change to improve their lives, while others—like poor itinerant workers—allegedly were meant to remain in limbo, never quite ready to settle in and put down roots somewhere. Never quite thriving. In other words, Jonathan Chapman, aka Johnny Appleseed and similar characters may have been perceived more as bums than anything.

Can “living in the moment” carry the same meaning now —when, afraid of boredom or rumination, we fill any moment with whichever digital activity driving attention? Does digital escapism have the same effect on us as traditional escapism in the name of self-discovery and adventure?

Though ostracized by society, Nomadic peoples, hobos, and travelers across North America often found a sense of community on the road and formed bonds with others. And, very often, so-called bindlestiffs were celebrated when reaching excellence in their fields: writers Jack London and James Michener, musicians Ella Fitzgerald and Charlie Parker, actors Sylvester Stallone and Jim Carrey, and entrepreneurs Yvon Chouinard and Steve Jobs lived transient lifestyles.

Dan Price lives seasonally in Joseph Oregon; in winter, he leaves for the coast on a campervan to surf; he manages to live the life he chose with only a few thousand dollars a year

Rolling stones (not the music group) have inspired modern travelers in search of bonding and authenticity, perhaps because we are increasingly aware that we live in a moment in which convenience and the commoditization of experience contribute to a sense of (efficient) placelessness, or what French philosopher Jean Baudrillard called “acontextual” reality: buildings, urbanism, food, people (and their accents) become indistinguishable from one another.

Exploring what’s “home” when on the move

In the summer of 2013, when our kids were much younger (and the youngest was just a baby), Kirsten and I bought an air-cooled 1982 VW Vanagon L, a “Westy” in fair condition, with the idea to connect with ourselves, the places we visited, and nature. The experience helped me appreciate travel books on the topic. Blue Highways is one of them:

“I cranked the sluggish engine. Four lanes of easy interstate from Morristown to Missouri. One day. The engine fired, sputtered, and caught. I listened as I did every morning. Smooth but for the knocking waterpump. I moved out. A red light at US 11 East. Home was left turn, right was who knows. ‘A man becomes what he does,’ Madison Wheeler had said. I took who knows.”

Blue Highways, William Least Heat-Moon, 1982

When, in 1978, writer William Least Heat-Moon started his road trip around America’s secondary roads, or “blue highways,” he wasn’t only trying to elude the convenience of modernity —the standardization of interstate highways and strip malls making their way in the early ’80s. The quest was also internal.

Dan Price at his underground home, signing a copy of one of his books for us

His journey into America was a way to shake the blues away and try to sort things out after losing his job teaching at the University of Missouri and splitting up with his wife. Perhaps, he thought, that unhinged project of traveling thousands of miles on a big coast-to-coast loop using only secondary roads could finish in a book, and what a book. Lucky us, instead of a midlife eulogy coming from resentment and cynicism (he was 38 at the time), William Least Heat-Moon (of English, Irish, and Osage ancestry) created a text full of force and insightful yet poetical commentary.

Like all the good travel books, which aren’t an exclusive affair of North America—I’m familiar with those of French-Swiss writer Nicolas Bouvier and his ride across Eurasia on a Fiat Topolino, for example—William Least Heat-Moon encounters much more than landscapes, peoples, and towns: thanks to a storytelling ability that Bill McKibben describes as “Nikon-level observation and hard-won wrestling with the meaning of age, loss, change,” the reader feels he’s been taken on a delightful ride that has made him wiser. Good books are perhaps the best mentors.

Read Blue Highways, see reality differently

Though we all have favorites, I haven’t felt this that strongly with many books. Bouvier’s The Way of the World and Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance are up there, too. Unlike other anthological road trips in pop culture (let’s mention the totems: Kerouac’s On the Road and, perhaps, Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test), these are books of initiation in the deepest sense. They aren’t trying to be the books they become, for they are artifacts made by people who seemed to sense (at least at the moment they experienced their adventures and wrote them down) that something more important than the landscape, the thoughts, the people, the conversations, was going to transpire through the pages. Raw gemstones can’t be planned.

To Least Heat-Moon, driving across the Blue Highways is a new beginning, the hope a solo traveler may feel during the undecided moment of early morning or late evening when twilight inspires our poetic selves as if it wanted to make us believe that, whatever it is we are hoping, it’s possible:

“On the old highway maps of America, the main routes were red and the back roads blue. Now, even the colors are changing. But in those brevities just before dawn and a little after dusk—times neither day or night—the old roads return to the sky some of its color. Then, in truth, they carry a mysterious cast of blue, and it’s that time when the pull of the blue highway is strongest, when the open road is beckoning, a strangeness, a place where a man can lose himself.”

I felt the ride would be worth it as long as I saw how this proto-vanlife adventure was going to be funny (but avoid gags set up to make you laugh; witty remarks can’t be forced, or they feel cheap) and describe a reality that was disappearing with the advance of non-places (or placelessness) and homogeneous accents, stores, and experiences.

When I got to the car, I took this picture (July 11, 2015)

He travels in Ghost Dancing, a 1975 half-ton Ford Econoline riding “like a truck. Your basic plumber’s model.” On it:

1 sleeping bag and blanket;
1 Coleman cooler (empty but for a can of chopped liver a friend had given to me so there would always be something to eat);
1 Rubbermaid basin and plastic gallon jug (the sink);
1 Sears, Roebuck portable toilet;
1 Optimus 8R white gas cook stove (hardly bigger than a can of beans);
1 knapsack of utensils, a pot, a skillet;
1 US Navy seabag of clothes;
1 tool kit;
1 sachet of notebooks, pens, road atlas, and a microcassette recorder;
2 Nikon F2 35mm cameras and five lenses;
2 vade mecums: Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” and Neihardt’s “Black Elk Speaks.”

In my billfold were four gasoline credit cards and twenty-six dollars. Hidden under the dash were the remnants of my savings account: $428.

Blue Highways, William Least Heat-Moon, 1982

Adjusted for inflation, $428 in 1978 would be $2,114 today.

There’s rumination, and there’s a meaningful road trip

Like the first people traveling seasonally across North America, William Least Heat-Moon had a legitimate reason to start his trip traveling east instead of heading west: he was following spring and wanted to get warm weather after a punishingly long winter. That’s why he first headed southeast so that by the time he reached the Rockies and the Pacific Northwest, the cold weather would be long gone.

Dan Price showing us one of his books of the series Moonlight Chronicles

Among other things, his was a road trip relying on printed maps and lacking the convenience of computing or the Internet. However, unlike other initiation books from the era, it’s aged unscathed. From today’s perspective, it feels refreshingly apolitical while making insightful remarks across the country that feel alive and genuine and never paternalizing. We learn about landscapes, people, and their experiences instead of projecting on others a preconceived narrative of the world or displaying a manifesto of victimhood and resentment.

Among all, the author manages to confer an appreciation of experience on the road that many people spending long periods on itinerancy, often perceived by society as “bindlestiffs” (a word used by Least Heat-Moon), may recognize: when on the move, it’s crucial to embrace change so experiences can be enriching and not alienating. More than “escaping from,” people who thrive being itinerant embrace an open attitude about the world, evolving into explorers of little things around them that make enchantment in life possible, turning apparent chaos into melodic beauty (a landscape, a seasonal change, the sign of birds migrating, a conversation at a dinner with a stranger):

“On the road, where change is continuous and visible, time is not; rather it is something the rider only infers. Time is not the traveler’s fourth dimension —change is.”

Blue Highways, William Least Heat-Moon, 1982

When he’s perceived as a hobo living on the back of his Econoline van, Least Heat-Moon manages the situation with ease not only thanks to his empathy and charm: he has an education, he can vaguely explain that he’s traveling with a sense of purpose, he doesn’t look in distress and, most importantly, he can “pass”: despite being part native-American on his father’s side, Least Heat-Moon’s book was made possible by his ability to keep people he encounters at ease. He wasn’t “othered” and framed negatively right away, and benefited from it.

Things you can buy at a local grocery store in Jon Day, west Oregon (taken on July 10, 2015)

Other travelers (take, for instance, those from the Great Migration) needed to rely on secondary roads and a concealed network of trusted sources to travel safely. Their experience was much different, and I wonder how one of such travelers would read Blue Highways. Certainly not like me. The shadow of Jim Crow and Sundown Towns lies large, and memory of previous eras was fresh in the late seventies. Visibly recognizable native Americans wouldn’t have enjoyed the same perception by the people who Least Heat-Moon easily befriends. He wouldn’t have collected the same stories.

Traveling along (as a reader) with a good travel writer

Instead of a book that capitalizes on nostalgia and all things Americana by depicting an ideal past that never existed, Least Heat-Moon channels the honest beauty of what he sees, capturing ways of living, food flavors, and accents. And, by listening to others and putting them at ease, he also captions complex anecdotes and stories half-forgotten, like the rustic cabins concealed behind modern encasings that he visits.

Reading the book is traveling with the author and embracing his doubts as he approaches intersections that are opportunities to get on an interstate highway and return home in a few hours —if only to bury the Quixotic romanticism and face the prospects of a new beginning when midlife demons have just hit. But he perseveres once and again. As he keeps going, the assertive narrative of the book is already brewing on his notes, photographs, and cassette tapes.

Wes Modes aboard his shantyboat, 2016

When reaching the bluffs outside Frankfort, Kentucky’s capital, Least Heat-Moon manages to condensate experience in a few masterful paragraphs: as one approaches from the west, the highway goes around a bluff and down into a valley, concealing the city for a moment, then reappearing again. We also “see” the town’s mutation over time: from nineteenth-century storefronts to their defacement in the name of modernization: new imitation materials, aluminum, stucco and precast concrete had turned previous landmarks into “meretricious, tawdry fronts.” More importantly, a new commercial area was driving people out of the city:

“Old Frankfort did nothing to prepare me for the new Frankfort that spread over the eastern bluffs, where the highway ran the length of one of those carnival midway strips of plastic-roof franchises.”


“And there’s nothing wrong with that except the franchise system has almost obliterated the local cafes and grills and catfish parlors serving distinctly regional food, much of it made from truly secret recipes. In another time, to eat in Frankfort was to know you were eating in Kentucky. You couldn’t find the same thing in Lompoc or Weehawken.”

Blue Highways, William Least Heat-Moon, 1982

The author stuck to secondary highways to avoid the new pervasiveness of convenience stores, which seemed to come when people’s accents and local customs gave way to more “normativized” ways of talking, eating, wearing clothes, or looking into the world. This process of commercial and cultural convergence in modernity contrasts with the author’s conversations along the road, as he moves eastwards and then goes on a loop, never leaving the blue highways.

Gifted to us by Dan Price

Not long past Lexington, he meets Bill Hammond, a retiree fascinated by a vanished culture in north Indiana: the mussel-hunting families on shanty boats who pooled their precarious floating homes “up and down the Wabash and lived and gave birth and died, too, on the water, while they dug mussels to sell to button makers”:

“Although landless and among the poorest in northern Indiana, they owned their houseboats and took them wherever they went. Hammond never forgot that community of free and mobile people.”

Blue Highways, William Least Heat-Moon, 1982

A culture from the Mississippi basin that left little trace

Reading about these “free and mobile people” poling their boats in northern Indiana, I recalled our visit years ago to Dan Price’s abode outside Joseph, a small town in the mountains of the northeastern corner of Oregon named after Chief Joseph, a Nez Perce leader photographed by Edward S. Curtis in 1903.

Dan lived seasonally in an underground dwelling he had built on a friend’s property in exchange for taking care of it and $100 a year. He managed to live the existence he wanted for a few thousand dollars a year, which gave him the freedom to leave several months on his van while catching waves as an itinerant surfer along the Pacific coast during the winter months (when Joseph is too cold and skiers take over town). He funded his lifestyle with the illustrated journal Moonlight Chronicles, which he printed in his underground shop near the hobbit dwelling.

Harlan and Anna Hubbard lived on a shantyboat that brought them far around the Mississippi basin

Dan Price uses the pseudonym “hoboartist,” and it’s not a pose. He explained that he’s hopped trains and lived itinerant periods at times, though his underground place was now “home”:

“I’ve hopped trains. I really have done kind of a hobo’s life. Sort of like a neo-hobo, a classy hobo, maybe. I’m just totally normal, but I live this simple way. More like a surf bum, how about a surf bum.”

Before leaving, he gave us several issues of his Moonlight Chronicles and a book he cherished: an account of the adventures of artist and writer Harlan Hubbard, a Kentuckian who advocated for a simple lifestyle and traveled with his wife Anna along the Ohio and Mississippi on his shantyboat, just like the mussel hunters of yesteryear that somebody had mentioned to Least Heat-Moon a few days after leaving Missouri. The book on Harlan Hubbard that Dan Price gave us, written by Don Wallis, had photographs and illustrations that made it interesting to our kids as we traveled west toward the placelessness of big roads leading to Seattle.

On foot, on a mule, on a shantyboat, on a campervan

That was the summer of 2015. Just one year later, a trip along the Mississippi basin led us to some of the roads and towns from the region mentioned in Blue Highways. At a Tennessee River pier just outside Knoxville, we met with Wes Modes, a resident of Santa Cruz (California) familiar with the itinerant life along the river and its many tributaries, “Huck-Finn style.” Or Harlan Hubbard’s. Modes had been working on a project that he called A Secret History of American River People; he explained it as a recollection of personal stories of people who lived or worked on the river, traveling on their shantyboats.

The kids really liked this landmark

Though we were at the pier because Wes Modes was far from settling with a mere compilation of forgotten memories, and was recreating the experience: he had built his own 8 by 10 foot shanty houseboat, complete with lofted bed, compost toilet and full kitchen, using a propane camp stove and plumbed sink. Nothing better, he thought, to collect stories of river people by becoming one, at least temporarily: when we met him and his partner Lauren Benz, they were on their way to travel the 652-mile Tennessee River from Knoxville to Paducah:

“I think that’s kind of like this idea of postmodern history in which you’re examining the little tales of people, the tales of you and I, the relationships in our lives, and the adventures we’d had and the hardships we’ve endured. Those are a form of history that is just as valid and just as legitimate as history with a capital H: history that makes the dominant narrative of the people who generally are the victors and the people who win and the people who write the history books.“

Sure, travel on foot, on a horse or mule, on freight trains, or even aboard shanty houseboats—when rivers were the actual roads in some places—, has contributed to a legendary way of traveling, which is deeply rooted in the cultural and historical landscape of the United States and, thanks to cinema and literature, it’s entered pop culture around the world. But the institution of the road trip can’t be understood without the automobile and its promise of freedom and individualism.

Genealogy of roadside leisure accommodations

Unlike now, when cars—especially for those enduring long commutes—can feel more like a trap than a way to (re)gain freedom, automobiles opened the American landscape in the early twentieth century. The US Highway System dates from 1926, which led to the proliferation of many of the storefronts that Least Heat-Moon saw vanish —or visited when it was already too late for most of them.

Between the long decade of the Great Depression and the late ’50s, when most interstate highways had opened, small towns around smaller highways prospered as car travel became more common and businesses like diners, motels, and gas stations allowed long-distance travel. Economic prosperity and leisure time did the rest.

Recently, in the context of a long email conversation, Ryan Rhodes from the Austin-based design studio LAND shared a work that a small accommodation company had commissioned with me. They were working to try to recreate the aspect and experience of the early “tourist cabins.” The site defines such cabins as a way for people to enjoy nature, which is getting renewed interest. They link to an interesting document by History Associates Incorporated.

“The first auto-tourers were motorists who carried their supplies and camped from cars parked in various undesignated areas along the road. As the numbers of auto-tourists—and the litter they left behind—grew, cities and private landowners began to establish free municipal autocamps to regulate and profit from the tourist population. Cities opened campgrounds with bathrooms, camp stores, and recreation activities such as swimming and picnicking to cater to travelers’ needs. Growing consumer industries and word-of-mouth advertising increased the number of Americans on the road and created a demand for better accommodations. Camp owners recognized the desire for more semi-permanent lodging that offered a secure, private place to store tourists’ belongings and provided amenities resembling the comforts of home.

“By the mid-1920s, hundreds of small, locally owned tourist cabin camps sprawled across the country, operated predominantly by families and local entrepreneurs. Farmers and rural businessmen built individual cabins ranging from disheveled, refurbished chicken coops to elaborate cottages complete with amenities such as buckets of hot water and beds with mattresses for travelers. Although many of the early tourist cabins were considered primitive by today’s standards, lacking running water or electricity, they provided a taste of home “on the go.”

Tourist Cabins: Accommodations for Early Automobile Travelers, History Associates Incorporated

Traveling by choice vs. being forced into it

The Great Depression transformed the incipient leisure economy amid nature, but such cabins survived. Instead of traveling from motel to motel or from tourist cabin to tourist cabin, many people followed the steps of Jonh Steinbeck in Travels with Charley in Search of America: Why look for a small private abode on the side of the road every night reproducing the basic comforts of “home” when you can travel with it?

“With all this in mind I wrote to the head office of a great corporation which manufactures trucks. I specified my purpose and my needs. I wanted a three-quarter-ton pick-up truck, capable of going anywhere under possibly rigorous conditions, and on this truck I wanted a little house built like the cabin of a small boat. A trailer is difficult to maneuver on mountain roads, is impossible and often illegal to park, and is subject to many restrictions. In due time, specifications came through, for a tough, fast, comfortable vehicle, mounting a camper top—a little house with double bed, a four-burner stove, a heater, refrigerator and lights operating on butane, a chemical toilet, closet space, storage space, windows screened against insects—exactly what I wanted. It was delivered in the summer to my little fishing place at Sag Harbor near the end of Long Island. Although I didn’t want to start before Labor Day, when the nation settles back to normal living, I did want to get used to my turtle shell, to equip it and learn it. It arrived in August, a beautiful thing, powerful and yet lithe. It was almost as easy to handle as a passenger car. And because my planned trip had aroused some satiric remarks among my friends, I named it Rocinante, which you will remember was the name of Don Quixote’s horse.”

Travels with Charley: In Search of America, John Steinbeck, 1962

Steinbeck was 58 at the time. Rocinante was a brand-new GMC pickup truck, and the self-contained abode sitting on its bed, a custom camper-shell tailored to his demands, is not that different from the camper tops and campervans that populated America right after —and have kept doing so ever since.

That said, when William Least Heat-Moon left his apartment in Columbia, Missouri, on March 20, 1978, he did so by choice. John Steinbeck also left by choice on his truck-home when he left Sag Harbor, New York, in September 1960. Many Americans living itinerant lives nowadays aren’t as lucky. If only they could at least have the choice to explain their story.