5 Things I Learned From Living Out Of My Car

5 Things I Learned From Living Out Of My Car

1.) You Can Get Through More Than you think

There were so many moments on my trip I wanted to quit or spend the night in a hotel. My trip was far from perfect. A lot of nights, I felt exhausted, anxious, scared, or some combination of the three. 

During my road trip, I lived out of my Honda Accord, so it wasn’t big enough to sleep in consistently. Instead of sleeping in my car, I slept in a tent, which meant I had to find dispersed camping spots in national forests to sleep every night. Sleeping in a tent was really fun, most of the time. Most days, I made sure to get to my camping spot well before dark, but there were a handful of nights that I wouldn’t finish my daily activities until well past eight or nine. At home, in my cozy suburb, I love nothing more than late night drives, but the nights I drove around pitch-black forests to find a place to sleep were terrifying and anxiety-inducing. Not only were some of the camping spots hard to find, but I also had no idea what my surroundings looked like or contained. The light from my small headlamp barely made a dent in dark forests, and I couldn’t ignore the nagging whisper that something sinister lurked just out of my view. On those nights, I longed to just have a nice warm bed to fall into without worry, but even when I managed to find a spot to sleep, it was only the beginning of a long process–setting up my tent, eating dinner, brushing my teeth, and cleaning up, all without running water. 

One of the worst nights of my trip was the very first night I spent on the road in Mark Twain National Forest. It was the middle of summer in the Midwest, so even at night, the air was humid and hot. After a long day of driving for eight hours, I laid in my tent for three more hours, sweating and sleepless. Then, at nearly two in the morning, it started thundering and raining. Since it was my first night, I was already nervous, and the rain took advantage of that. The constant patter of rainfall made me worry about the small unkempt dirt road I had driven through to get to my camping spot. I worried that if it rained too much the road would get muddy and I wouldn’t be able to drive through it the next morning, so, at two in the morning, while it was raining, I packed up my tent and put it back in my car. Exhausted, I drove to one of the forest’s main roads and knocked out on the side of the road.

Cooking brought its own set of challenges. When I was in Utah, I was cooking chicken using my butane camping stove, and a swarm of bees attacked my skillet, claiming the half-cooked chicken as their own. It took me nearly thirty minutes to cover every inch of my body with clothes and try to dispose of the chicken without getting stung. Another time, while I was cooking dinner in Grand Junction, Colorado, the wind picked up and caked all of my food and cooking supplies in dust. Cleaning everything up was a pain, and all the while, my tent–my home–flailed around in the wind like one of the inflatable tube guys outside car washes. 

On the trip, I also went through one of the most physically excruciating experiences I ever had. In Rocky Mountain National Park, I hiked 10 miles up to the top of Mt. Ida–a 12,500 ft. tall mountain with a trailhead at 10,000 ft. above sea level. For perspective, I live near Dayton, Ohio, with an elevation of 700 ft. above sea level. My lungs were not at all acclimated or ready for the hike. Four miles up, I got a calf cramp in my leg. I fell to the ground and gritted my teeth until the pain became manageable, and then, I got up to walk again. Five minutes later, I got the same cramp in my other leg. Never in my life had I gotten calf cramps in both legs, and I hadn’t even reached the top yet. In pure agony, I dragged myself the half mile left to the top of the mountain–constantly telling myself “There was a time before the pain and there will be a time after.” 

There were many times on my trip I would have done anything to be in the comfort and familiarity of my home, but when you experience hardships and get through them, it teaches you a lot about yourself and the experience of suffering. That first night in Missouri was 100% the worst night of my trip. Part of me didn’t think I could handle it. I felt like exploding because I was so sleep-deprived and frustrated that the night had turned out so horrible. The thought of just canceling the trip certainly crossed my mind, but even if I had cancelled my trip, I was still stuck in the forest for the night. I had no choice but to get through it, but that next morning, something changed in me when I woke up. My eyes opened in the back seat of my car and saw the branches of trees hanging lazily above my feet. The sky looked blindingly white, and when I opened my car door, the chirping of birds filled my ear. I had gotten through the night and came out the other end okay. Every single thing that went wrong afterwards, I kept telling myself that I would get through it and come out the other end okay–there was a beginning to the pain and there would be an end, and every time I got stressed because something went wrong and came out the other end okay, it made the next time more bearable. Camping forced me into situations where I had no choice but to get through the frustration, and when I did, it made me more assured that I could get through the next obstacle.

2.) The Entire Thing Is The Adventure

It’s really easy to boil trips down to their highlights. I could tell you about the four national parks I went to, the time I woke up at 3:30 am to hike up Mt. Tuamlo to see the sunrise, my favorite city I visited (Bend, Oregon), the great tacos or sushi I had in LA, but that wouldn’t be representative of my actual trip. There were many Instagram worthy highlights during my trip, but the vast majority of my trip was much quieter. I spent so much time driving. Days where I would have to drive under 2 hours were a blessing because I spent a dozen days driving 6-10 hours. During my trip, I made it a priority to continue writing and going to the gym, so I spent more time at libraries and Planet Fitnesses than in awe-inspiring scenery. Ice melts way faster than I would like it to (both on a planetary scale and personal scale), so I took almost daily trips to Walmart for ice and groceries. 

It would be really easy to write those more mundane moments off as just the time between fun adventures, but I realized that every part of the trip was a part of the adventure. The small moments that were “boring” were just as real and important as the breath-taking hikes I went on. When I started thinking about everything as an adventure, it made everything way more enjoyable. Going to different public libraries throughout the country became an adventure in and of itself. I was able to compare all these different public libraries mentally (the public library in Hillsboro, Oregon was my favorite). Every Planet Fitness and Walmart that I went to became more exciting because I could notice the small distinctions that made each Planet Fitness different (Grand Junction’s PF is the only PF I went to that had reusable rags instead of paper towels to wipe down equipment). Long drives became slightly more bearable as I appreciated the time I had to listen to audiobooks and podcasts that I never had the time to get to before (I listened to both of Hank Green’s books on Audible). I also made time for just driving in silence–appreciating my surroundings as much as I could. The drastic change of scenery from the flat fields of Kansas, through Granby Lake in Colorado, through the mountains near Uinta National Forest, and up above the clouds in Los Padres National Forest. Even brushing my teeth became a moment I cherished. I remember standing outside of my car in the mornings, staring out at beautiful forests or mountains. Every morning I reminded myself, “This is my life right now. I’m actually living out of my car.” Then, there were the hours I’d spend in libraries or Starbucks planning the next couple days of my trip–figuring out where I’d sleep, what I’d do, and where I needed to be. I had no set plans for my road trip other than to meet a handful of people. Everything else was left open. I would search for the best hikes in my area and pick whatever looked the most exciting, and all I had to do was make sure I could find a camping spot relatively close to it. Planning my trip felt like putting the pieces of a puzzle together. It allowed me to plan out cool hikes, while also giving me the freedom to stumble into adventure. By pure chance, I found myself at Drake Park in Bend, Oregon on the night of a free concert. People, music, and vendors filled the beautiful park. There were plenty of nights I spent an hour or two stargazing because I could (the stars in Wyoming and Sequoia National Forest were astounding). Sitting in Starbucks and clicking through all of the different possible adventures filled me with excitement. Nothing had to be done, so I could do anything. Every moment of my trip was a beautiful experience–it was up to me to decide whether or not I’d be receptive to it. 

3.) You Can Go Out And Have Adventures

The space between coming up with an idea for a trip and the moment of leaving sometimes seems impossible to cross. There have been countless times where I have proposed a trip idea and been met with enthusiastic approval, but those trips almost always die before the plan even solidifies. Part of me had just grown to accept that, but also, another part of me believed that one day I would wake up to find that my life had become a heart-pounding adventure, all on its own. I made a bucket list in eighth grade, and at the very top of my bucket list was to go skydiving when I turned eighteen. When my eighteenth birthday approached, it hit me that I could just go online and book a skydiving session. It was something that had been on my bucket list since I’d known what a bucket list was. Making the plans to cross something off my bucket list always felt so surreal to me because it served as a reminder that I could make the life I wanted, instead of just waiting for it to come. Earlier in the year, I met a gap year student who had been living out of his car, and I thought to myself, “I can do that.” So I did. 

3.5.) I wanted to include a section about how safe and viable it is to live out of your car because I know that looking at it from the outside can be absolutely terrifying. Living out of my car is an idea that I had had before, but I had always gotten so lost in the endless amount of things I needed to do. Did I need to install solar panels? Did I need to buy my own van? How and where would I sleep? There was so much I didn’t know that I often gave up before I even started, but it is so much simpler than I would have thought. There are countless free wild camping spots out West in National Forests or BLM land (there’s way, way, way fewer in the Midwest), and there are apps that can help you find them (iOverlander and Google Maps are the biggest lifesavers). If your car isn’t big enough to sleep in, pitching a tent wherever you spend the night takes less than ten minutes a day. Money was one of my biggest concerns, but in the thirty-six days that I was gone, I spent about $1500 on gas and groceries. That may sound like a lot, but the reason it ran that high was because of how much distance I covered in such a short amount of time. I drove out to California (stopping at Colorado, Kansas, Utah, and Nevada), up all of California to Oregon, and then back to Ohio. Since I had a time limit, I was travelling or driving every other day, and to be honest, that was way too much travelling. Ideally, I would have taken twice the amount of time to travel the same distance, and if I had done that, the gas price would barely be higher because I would cover near the same amount of absolute distance. Not having to buy hotels or rent Airbnb’s will save an insane amount of money, and waking up in nature has quickly become one of my favorite experiences. In terms of needing solar panels, you don’t. Charging your phone whenever you drive or visiting a library or Starbucks to recharge everything is super easy. Showering and going to the gym are also really accessible. A nation-wide Planet Fitness membership is $25 a month, and there are a countless amount of Planet Finesses throughout the country. It’s 100% worth the $25. The worst thing for some people might be the food. I didn’t love cooking out of my camping stove because of how much time it took (and it wasn’t allowed in some states without a fire permit), so I ended up eating a lot of canned chicken breast, sardines, and tuna, on top of an insane amount of fruits and vegetables. Honestly, I ate healthier on the road trip than I ever would at home. Buying healthy and cheap groceries that are easy to eat is really affordable, but it definitely does not taste the best. I have a pretty low bar for the minimum taste requirement of food, so it was not much of a problem for me. The last thing to mention, which is usually the biggest concern, is how safe the whole thing is. I would be lying to say that I never got scared. There were many nights I was terrified, mainly when I was alone in the forest, but there’s a difference between feeling scared and realizing that you’re in a dangerous situation. In the forests, I may have felt scared, but that was mainly a byproduct of the dark rather than any actual harm. Over the thirty-six days I was on the road, I felt safe every night, except one. On my second to last day, I pulled into a camping spot on the side of the highway in North Platte, Nebraska, and at eleven at night, a random white car pulled into the camping spot twenty feet away from me. At first, I just continued about my business, eating my canned chicken in peace, but I looked over at the white car and saw a man flailing around in his car like a suffocating fish. It terrified me. Needless to say, I spent the night somewhere else, but other than that small occurrence, I felt completely safe on the trip. Van life is not nearly as overwhelming or scary as it looks from the outside.

4.) Make Time For Silence

At home, it’s near impossible to carve out time to sit in silence or exist without the constant noise of our phones. Sometimes the first thing I do when I wake up is play music, while I brush my teeth. Even when living out of my car, filling the silence was always easy. I could still listen to music or podcasts, but silence is necessary to grow, to reflect, and to experience moments, especially when we’re travelling. There’s this preconceived notion that we travel to experience exhilarating moments that stick with us for the rest of our lives, but some of the best moments are the quietest. 

One of my favorite nights of the whole trip was camping in BLM land outside Grand Junction, Colorado. The land was flat with dirt roads for miles. At night, the full moon illuminated the world in a wispy white glow. There were no animals to bring the night to life, and the wind had come to a complete stand still. I sat outside my tent that night in my $6 Walmart chair and absorbed it all. Everything felt completely still. I’d never experienced a quiet like I did that night. I tried to clear my mind of thoughts and focused on the flow of my breath in and out of my lungs. The lines between me and the world blurred. For a brief moment, I was the stillness that permeated the world. I wasn’t Alex. I wasn’t a Stanford student. I wasn’t a writer. I wasn’t anyone. I just was. That’s a beautiful feeling. It can get tiring just being a person sometimes, juggling all of your responsibilities, desires, and ambitions. Silence gives the mind a much needed break.

Travelling is also touted as something that people do in order to find themselves and to change how they view the world. There’s some truth to this, but it’s not the travelling that changes people–it’s how they travel. I’ve been on a couple different trips this year to some absolutely astounding places, and while those trips are fun and exhilarating, they didn’t necessarily change anything I’d thought about myself. The moments I grew the most or learned the most about myself were the times I let myself be silent and tried to recognize the feelings and thoughts that arose in my mind. One of the biggest moments of revelation to me came when I was sitting on top of the Los Padres mountains, looking out as the city lights blended into the starry sky. I started thinking about my life and the decisions I’d made that had led me to that point, and I realized that I had crafted an identity of going against the grain–of being different. That life philosophy led me to many great experiences, but I also asked myself why being different felt so important to me. Something about the quiet of the night and the glow from the city lights helped me see things I’d never seen before, and my life crystalized before my eyes. I wanted to be different because it made me feel special, and I wanted to feel special because I thought that was the only way to matter. That desire to be special filled me with dread for the future because as I get older I will begin following a more and more normal path–I’m going to do entry level internships, I’m going to sit through boring classes, and I’m going to work at a job that doesn’t make me feel like the protagonist of the universe. That terrified me. It was something I’d never realized before, but the silence that night allowed me to see my life in a whole new perspective.

5.) Traveling is not a panacea

There’s a common sentiment that gets pushed around in society that in order to have a fulfilling life you need to go travel or see the world. Travelling can be super fun and genuinely change the way we see the world, but I think it’s importance is overstated. It can be a really good time, but those fun experiences aren’t normally enough to transform someone’s life, especially when the travelling mainly centers around staying at resorts or partying. Those things aren’t bad by any means, but I don’t think they’re nearly as integral to living a fulfilling life as social media portrays. I’ve met people who, despite the grand adventures they’ve been on, continue to struggle with mental health or finding things that fulfill them, myself included. Like I said in the previous section, it’s not the travelling that changes your life. The most important thing is how you travel and why you’re travelling. Almost all of the emotional and mental growth that I’ve gone through this year has been outside of my travels. Quiet walks around my neighborhood have contributed more to my growth than hiking up mountains. Growing is often quiet and unassuming. It requires introspection, processing tough emotions, and time. That’s certainly not flashy, nor does it belong on your Instagram page. While I will continue to try and travel, it’s important to remind myself that life doesn’t start when I have a plane ticket in my hand. Life is whatever I’m doing at the moment, and there’s plenty of work that can be done now. Seek adventure and have great experiences, but don’t expect to go on a week long trip and come back a changed person. 

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