As the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has evolved and rapidly changed our way of life, people grasped onto some semblance of sanity in a variety of ways. At the first whisper of ‘shelter-in-place’ orders, many began to look for new places more appealing than their home bases. The idea being: escape. If everyone else stays put, the thinking went, then perhaps it would be possible to find a more open and remote setting to ride out a self-quarantine closer to nature, and not to others.
At least, that was the hope for vanlifers, who seemingly hit the self-isolation jackpot: the home-on-wheels as a perfect, portable pandemic escape pod, ready to migrate at a moment’s notice to the next safest location. That boundless vision, living unencumbered in the wild, guiltlessly distant from infection, is exactly that: a vision. In practice, living free in a vehicle has plenty of prerequisites. And chief among them is the right to roam. As city and state municipalities enact more restrictions to control the proliferation of the virus, life on the road has become as disrupted as life bound to a home.
The problems start with access, as states at the forefront of response (like California, Washington and New York) have put strict social distancing precautions in place and shut down state parks, visitor centers, trails and beaches. Many other states and national parks are following closely behind, and some states such as Florida are looking at suspending free movement across state borders.
Across the nation, nonessential businesses have almost entirely been required to shut down. Among those businesses are gyms, coffee shops, libraries and campgrounds: all establishments that supply resources often utilized by those who have chosen a life on the road. Those commodities include showers, toilets, internet, power, and waste management, which—depending on the rig—are either available in limited amounts, or not at all. Suffice it to say, living out of your car means you are heavily reliant on an infrastructure of nonessential businesses.
Inconvenience is one thing (especially to most vanlifers, who have already accepted a huge degree of daily logistical headaches in exchange for the freedoms offered by the lifestyle). But what happens when it’s not just the internet, showers and toilets that are taken away? What happens when it’s the one essential that is the right to roam? What happens when an act of exercising freedom outdoors becomes selfish, by posing a risk when an untethered van-based tour needs a community to park in, and health and community resources to rely upon? If BLM land, national parks, and small outdoor-gateway communities (now faced with strained healthcare systems) are taken out of the equation, what threads are left of the nomadic fabric?
What is left is a variation of survivalism. An attraction to face each new day as a problem-solving game of Clue: locate a bathroom, locate a space to park, figure out how to minimize trips to the laundromat and grocery store (even though your home doesn’t have the capacity to store many clothes nor groceries). Find a way to get out of the 5-by-3-foot space a few times a day responsibly.
Some nomads have sought shelter elsewhere, some have come up with creative solutions to help other roadlifers, and some are simply riding it out. Here are five first-hand accounts from the road during this unprecedented time in history: