Category: thoughts on vandwelling

Vandwelling and school

Hello! Been a long time; I’ll do my best to give a concise little update.

Well, Monday night around 7pm I temporarily lost my mind. It was time to pin up the term’s biggest project, “the pavilion”; I wasn’t ready, and even though I only had a little bit left to do, at that moment it felt completely hopeless and I became non-functional. After stumbling around in circles for a while I went out to the the van, curled up in bed, and had a little fantasy about taking my winter student loan money, driving south to the desert (Arcosanti!!), and never coming back. When I realized that wouldn’t work I called a friend, and she talked me down. I went back to the studio and did whatever, and of course it all turned out okay. I guess that was the climax of the term. Two other memorable events: the time I stayed up for 40 hours working on an assignment that I got a C on, and the group project that went horribly wrong and traumatized all of us.

The good news is, those intense experiences are only moments, and they’re vastly outnumbered by the moments of pure joy. I’ve become really fond of all my classmates, and I have lots of ideas about how to be more organized with my time next term. And when it comes down to it, all we do here is draw and make models; I still feel incredibly lucky to be doing this. I’m not one of the super-stars, and that’s fine; I can see how far I’ve come in just a few months, and that makes me think that one day I really will make it through.

Vandwelling and architecture school go surprisingly well together. One of the major problems of vandwelling is having a place to go, and architecture school takes care of that handily: each of us gets our own studio space that we have access to 24 hours a day, and our workload is so big it’s entirely normal for folks to be there all day and well into the wee hours, even on Friday and Saturday nights. School is also where I store all my food since I’m there all the time, and my diet has actually expanded now that I have regular use of a fridge and microwave. Being a student means I get to use the pool for free, and I hang my towel and swimsuit at studio, since with the fall weather here they wouldn’t ever dry in the van. And architecture students seem to find the idea of living in a van kinda cool… in fact they’re really sweet; on the first few nights that the temperature dropped below zero there were a few people that approached me and offered a place to stay if I needed it. Also you may remember Halifax has a winter ban on overnight street parking; that comes into effect Dec 12, and one of my kind studio-mates has offered his yard as a place to avoid the ticket-weasels. Overall I have to say, everything seems to be working out.

Tuesday I fly home for the holidays… I’m going to see all my Vancouver peeps and get nice and fat on my mom’s cooking, so my vandwelling adventures will be on hold til I get back in early January. Talk to you then… happy holidays, y’all!


Remember that Spirit of the West song? I can’t get it out of my head, partly because I’ve spent much of the last three days using the North Memorial Library, which is on Gottingen… yes, the same one in the song. I’m here for the internet access, but also for the blessed aircon; the cooling system at the downtown branch (which is right across the street from the school of architecture) went kaput. This is very much a community library, located in Halifax’s poorest district, which of course you’ll know from the song, if you’re old enough. I like it here.

But I think the song is staying in my head because I’m also feeling more keenly homeless than I ever have before. Forced by the heat to sleep outside, I did find a perfect spot last night (really lovely in fact), but then I ran afoul of the street cleaners. Certain streets get cleaned on various nights of the week, with signs posted that I didn’t read clearly enough, obviously. Parking’s tight and very complex in this town, making my home feel more precarious than it used to: I’ve never before had so much trouble finding a place to put my home. So now I have a $25 ticket for putting it in the wrong spot, on a night I didn’t even sleep in it!

Most of all though, the song is in my head because of the roadblocks I keep running into with funding for school. Last time I used student loans for university, they calculated what you needed for the year and gave it to you, simple. Foolish me, that’s what I expected again! I won’t get into the details, but I guess I’m being reminded, in a very personal way, of how our system needs… ah, I mean wants poor people to stay right where they are. Not that I truly fit that category; I’m privileged in many, many ways. But right now I’m very money poor and the experience is making me alternately angry and depressed. Again I should rephrase: it’s not the experience of being poor that’s a problem, in fact I’m quite pleased with my improved budgeting skills. It’s the ‘are you crazy’ look people give me when I act like higher education is my right, and everyone’s.

Anyway, I got this far, and I swear I’m going all the way. I’ll show the bastards!

Spryfield. The weather here has been baking hot, so I had to find a place where I could either just sleep outside, or feel comfortable leaving the van wide open while I slept. In the city I was getting really discouraged, so I headed west where it looked like there were lakes and parks. By about 11pm I found a little suburb on a high hill, with a gentle breeze and a little overgrown field. After I’d been there a short while two deer trotted out of the field, looked at me cautiously, then clopped into this yard to eat fallen apples. Getting a photo wasn’t worth scaring them away with the flash.

My encounter with the deer gave me new hope, but I do have to say, I vastly underestimated how hard this was going to be. I know Vancouver intimately; whatever my vandwelling needs may be at any given time, there I know exactly where I can go that suites them. Here just finding a place that isn’t going to violate the parking restrictions is a challenge. I’m worried about the effort that it takes to find a spot each night: will I be able to afford that kind of time once classes start?

Halifax has half a dozen or so universities and colleges that are starting classes this month, and the whole town is full of moving trucks, piles of stuff out in the streets, people either coming or going. On the one hand of course I’m reminded how lucky I am to be travelling light. On the other, for the first time since I started this adventure last November I’m remembering how it feels to not have to work at having a place to go each night.

I passed the math test, which means I really do get to go to Halifax!

That’s especially great, because I left yesterday. I’ve never skipped town like this before; never left all of my friends and family and gone off to start a new life in a new town. Which is pretty funny, for a self-described ‘nomad’. Anyway, it’s hard. As a vandweller I didn’t really have to deal with the practicalities that other people do: selling/storing/shipping all their stuff, dealing with their old housing, finding housing in their new town before they’ve even arrived. On the practical side all I really had to do was fix the van, buy some groceries, and drive away. But on the emotional side, I was zoodled, zombocom, deer in the headlights. I said my goodbyes to the people I love hardly believing that it was really happening, and when people asked me if I was excited or how I was feeling, I was totally stumped at how to answer them. I’m still not sure how I feel, as I write this sitting in a cafe in Revelstoke after a hot sticky day of driving up the Fraser Canyon. Beautiful country, and I had a glorious swim in Shuswap Lake. But I’m still not “excited”. I think I’m still in the process of unwinding.

One thing I do know… I’m overwhelmed by all the love and kindness I received in those last days in Van. I kind of felt like a rock star. So… THANK YOU VANCOUVER!!! I LOVE YOU!!! GOODNIGHT!!

I know, I know, it’s sunny and hot, everyone’s happy, blah blah blah. I like it too, but vandwelling in summer is actually turning out to be a pain in the ass. I’m much more restricted than usual in the food that I can keep, I always have to find shade parking, even at night I have to think about where the sun is going to come up in the morning, or else the the second it hits the van the heat will wake me up. Tuesday night was horrible… my light-tight super-private window panels don’t allow enough air in for nights like that, and I was suffocating. Around midnight I gave up trying to sleep, took a bottle of wine and a headlamp to mosaic park, and struggled with calculus problems until it cooled off.

The next night, Wednesday, I was dreading going to bed, and for the first time I really missed my old apartment… in summer I would leave the patio door open all the time, and on really hot nights I just slept out on the balcony… then it hit me, of course! Sleep outside.

At first I thought the beach would be perfect, but I didn’t want to drive all the way across town, or deal with sand, or wake up with the tide licking my feet. So I went over to Trout Lake, took a blanket and a pillow, and found a perfect little alcove made by three conifers. Slept on the grass under the stars, cool and comfortable, and I loved it so much I went back to the same spot last night too. Sure, it re-opens that whole is-it-camping-or-is-it-homelessness question… all I can say is, both nights I went to bed happy, and both mornings I woke up extremely pleased with myself. My new home in the park!


When people ask me about safety in the van I say that I’ve never had a problem and don’t expect to. Even sociopaths don’t go looking in parked vans for people to harm; the only likely mishap is that someone might try to rob the van, and that’s really simple to avoid. Stealing things from a car is risky: a thief will only break into a car if he or she can see something of value (or something that could have valuables in it like a purse), *and* if it looks quick and easy to grab it and run. So I don’t leave anything worth stealing in view, and I keep the doors locked. Easy. I also suspect that most thieves tend to avoid vans that look like someone might be sleeping inside, but of course some thieves aren’t bright enough to think about that, and others may desperate enough to take larger-than-usual risks.

So imagine my surprise last night when I woke up to someone reaching in the front seat of the van. I’ve always wondered how I would respond in that situation; in my fantasies I would wake up to the sound of someone trying to pick the lock, and I would let out a huge RRRAAAWWWWWRRRR!!!! and the would-be thief would run away terrified. But you don’t get time to think these things through when they’re really happening. What I said was “excuse me!” with the kind of mild indignation you might have after someone butts in front of you to get on the bus. Silly as it must have sounded, the thief did indeed run away… with my bag in his hand. For a brief second I considered jumping out and chasing him down the street (buck naked: I’m sure that would have really terrified him) but he jumped into a beat-up little white pickup and drove off.

Strangely, the bag he got was a courier bag full of all my bike gear. I’d just brought it back from my mom’s house that day, thinking that when I move to Halifax I’ll want to bike to school. Nice stuff, expensive to replace I suppose, but nothing I was desperately attached to. Still stunned, I was thinking about this when I realized that my other bag, which contained my credit card, cash for the next two weeks, computer, and most importantly my math homework, was still in the front where I’d left it in plain view, with the door unlocked.

So… big thank you to whatever god or faerie or random swirl of chaos was looking out for me last night. From now on I promise I’ll be less cocky, and more careful!

a civilized bed

Last fall various internet sites picked up a story about a fellow doing a masters degree at Duke University who chose to finance his education by living frugally in a van instead of going into crushing debt (you can read his essay about it here). While I feel kinship with this guy in many ways, I was a little dismayed that he helped promote the stereotype of van life as squalid. He describes unwashed dishes, weird smells, ants invading… I want you all to know, van life doesn’t have to be like that!!!!

Since renovating the interior, I’ve come to really enjoy the time I spend converting the space from its daytime configuration into the nighttime one, and back again. It’s not a quick process; it can take between 20 and 40 minutes, and at first I thought I’d resent that loss of time. But it’s actually become an important ritual that doesn’t just transform the space, it also changes my state of consciousness, getting me ready for the outside world, or ready for sleep. The other benefit is that it means I’m constantly maintaining my space, keeping it organized and clean.

For me one of the key markers of being civilized in the van has always been my sleeping arrangements. It was never enough for me to use a sleeping bag, which would have been more convenient; instead I needed fitted sheets, blankets, pillows… a nest that didn’t just do the job, but would look warm and inviting to anyone.

So now we come to the real reason for my post. Now that summer is sort of almost really almost going to be here soon, flannel sheets and piles of wool blankets just aren’t necessary, and I felt that the bed needed a new character. Yesterday I bought some new sheets and they’re AWESOME!!!! 500 thread count per inch, cool blue and slippery (they also come in a burgundy that perfectly matches the window panels but I didn’t want to overdo the sex-mobile effect, ha ha), not allowed-for in my budget at all but totally, totally worth the cheating. Also swapped the pile of wool blankets for this lovely light soft stripey furry thing and I now have the perfect summer bed, in a van or anywhere. In fact last night it felt so good just to keep moving my legs around that it took me a while to get to sleep!

I can’t wait for bed-time tonight.

home #99

Robson & Richards, Thursday night. Two reasons this was a significant vandwelling evening: it marked my first night parking/sleeping right in the heart of downtown, and it was also the night of the very first post-renovation van party! After the super-testosterone charged Glitch Mob show, four friends and I piled into the van and had wine and late night appies, laughing our asses off and making fun of the downtown crowd passing by the window… then along came a group of very attractive steampunkish kids we recognized from the show. We asked them how their night went and their answer was to offer us some freestyle rhymes and beatboxing in through the window, all mushroom-warped dub style… it was these guys! Bottomless thanks to Trevor, Jay, Miranda, Niki, The Funginears, and the GM for a night of ridonculous fun. And an especially big thank you to Trevor for his quick draw on the iphone, capturing the moment forever… Here’s the clip:

redesign part 2

I have the foam!!! This is exciting for many reasons. I’d made the old bed out of a 3rd- or 4th-hand foam mattress, seriously butchering it trying to cut it down to 4 inches thick from 6. Then of course there was the mold event, which left it looking even worse. And to top it all off there was the problem with the crack between pieces. So finally I have my very own clean brand new foam, sized to create my new living room arrangement (I called it limo mode in Redesign part 1), and best of all cut at an angle so there’s no cracks to fall in even though it comes in five different pieces. Here’s a photo of the pieces in bed mode so you can see the angle cuts, and a couple photos of how it looks with the new daytime living room arrangement. Way more comfy to do math in, ha ha. Come on over, you’re all invited!

A friend told me that once upon a time she’d thought of becoming an architect too, but she’d been discouraged by the math involved. Is this common knowledge, that being an architect means doing math? No one told me! And somehow in the process of applying to architecture school I missed the fact that fairly high-level math is a pre-requisite to get into the program.

Dalhousie decided to give me a chance to make up that pre-requisite instead of just rejecting my application, and for that I am extremely grateful. Knowing that I’m a somewhat bright fellow I didn’t worry myself too much about it, I just signed up for a distance ed calculus course and waited for the material to arrive. Well the last time I did math was in high school twenty years ago; needless to say when the stuff arrived, it was totally senseless to me. I have a lot of catching up to do before I can even start the course.

There really is a vandwelling reason I bring this up, it’s not just that I want y’all to feel sorry for me. I’m getting to it… So here I am, doing math. All day every day, math math math. Except I don’t have a lot of stamina; my eyes go furry and my brain seizes up after an hour, sometimes less. So I take lots of little breaks, and I just try to be pretty rigorous about getting back to work. As it turns out, van life actually helps me break things up. It involves changing the scenery: when I’m sick of the library, I go work in the van for a while. And when I’m done with that I go to a café for a while, or maybe for my swim. Then back to the van, and when I’m really feeling squirmy then it’s time to drive somewhere… off to a park, or the beach… it’s still just me and my math in the van, but I’ve had a little driving break, and I can be anywhere I want. Now I’m in a new peaceful environment, all re-charged and ready to uh… do more math. Crazy.