Relearning America on the Road

Travel Features van life
Relearning America on the Road

I am in a hotel bed, the same one I slept in for nine months. In a little town outside of D.C. My laptop is propped up on my knees, the VP of Asia Operations of Boeing’s voice crackling through its old speakers. She’s talking to a group of 40 odd expats that are stuck outside of China about chartering a plane. I was traveling in Cambodia when the pandemic started in Wuhan. I spent days on discounted ticket sites deciding between homes.

When I landed in Dulles Airport, I thought it’d be for a week, maybe two. But, I’ve been playing chicken with the Chinese government for months, waiting it out in a hotel room, refreshing Google, We Chat groups, China Daily, trying to figure out when the country I lived in for the last five years was going to take me back. I was an educational consultant for a small kindergarten in Tianjin—a city of 15 odd million that most people living outside the Mainland have never heard of. The job wasn’t necessarily high profile, but it paid well and felt somewhat fulfilling. I was able to travel almost every month. Nothing is perfect, but my life in China felt pretty damn close.

Meanwhile I was getting rejected from grocery store jobs in the US. Like many people in mid 2020, mentally, I was not doing well.

I never meant to come back here. In my head I’d explored many options after China: Tokyo was on the list, or maybe Florence, Rome or London. Of all the places I had romanticized, not a single city in the US made the roster. But it was more than that, I carried the certain type of disdain for my home country that
I recognized in many Americans who saw what was internally considered one of the best, most powerful, forward-thinking countries in the world from an outside perspective. I saw the history that I was taught unravel as I traveled across South East Asia. Watched countries that we’d consider “developing” create tech that was so widely implemented that cards (as opposed to QR codes) are no longer accepted at 7-11’s across China. To put it simply, we are not particularly…liked.

For months every conversation with my family read like a poorly scripted cultural criticism of the US. “Mom, in China this or that would never happen.” “In Italy we would never wear that to the grocery store.” And my god, the conversations with my dad about the Vietnam war. To put it simply… I was a dick.

It was at about the nine month mark when I realized I couldn’t keep waking up in a hotel room, laying my yoga mat on the floor and pretending that downward dog was in any way enough to ground me into this reality. The world was confusing, borders were opening and closing and making plans seemed so futile.

So instead of doom scrolling in the light of the early 2000s alarm clock, I started searching Facebook Marketplace for any van that would run. And somehow decided that a 28 year old Chevy (with a penchant for breaking down on desert roads at high noon, but I didn’t know that yet) was a far more reliable plan than waiting for China to reopen its borders while staring at bad hotel art.

I don’t remember quite how I decided on it. I thought about it a lot on the 900 mile drive from Frederick, Maryland to my hometown in Iowa. I wondered if it was Instagram’s algorithm as I turned on a table saw for the first time. Contemplated all those perfect Mercedes Sprinter builds as the machine grabbed the first piece of wood and shot it across the driveway into the snow. Iowa winters are an inhospitable place to build a van.

The road that first month wasn’t much more hospitable. I had traded a city of 15 million people for New Mexico and Arizona and Utah’s deserts. I was often the only person I could see or hear. That does this weird thing to your brain where you can no longer decide if the world outside of those places is real or not. But the sunsets were beautiful, and the animals made the best trails. I got drunk off US landscapes in only the way someone who had been living wrapped in concrete for the last five years could.

But it was the people that kept me from getting on a flight after the restrictions were lifted. It took me three states and three months to find them in a dirt parking lot in San Diego. We cooked dinner together every night, had campfires on the side of ocean cliffs, created open mic nights and threw competitions for who could make the best s’mores. These dirtbags became my home more than any country or structure—wheeled or not—could have.

In some ways this lifestyle felt like both the antithesis of and the complete embodiment of the new American Dream. It was noncommittal, seemed to live outside of so many of the institutions I had come to loathe from afar, and it looks so ridiculously, deliciously free. It is those things. But it’s also crying on red rock cliffs because you’re lonely and everyone you know lives 15 hours in the future and is asleep. It’s losing a relationship because in the end you chose the road over a flight back into your old life. It’s screaming your way up a 4×4 path because you have an overly inflated sense of what your V8 and all-terrain tires can do. It’s watching the mile marker tick up your experiences while your friends shrink in the rearview as you remind yourself you’ll make more in the next place, as if people are really that replaceable. As if you could copy and paste communities across state lines.

I’ve been on the road since January 2021, traveling washboard back roads, stealth camping in national parks, and meeting communities of people who feed everyone when they don’t have enough to feed themselves. I’m learning to fall back in love with a home I never meant to come back to.

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