Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Notes on campers

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A few days ago, in the course of one of my periodic daydreams about leaving it all behind, I stumbled across a site called Truck Camper Magazine, and I haven’t looked at much of anything else since. It’s more or less what you’d expect, with reviews of pickup campers alternating with testimonials from satisfied owners who gave up the rat race to become nomads, and it offers a wealth of material for my persistent fantasies of a life on the road. I’ve looked at slideshows, studied floor plans, and watched video tours of such campers as the Northern Lite 9-6 Special Edition—which is the one I’ve found myself coveting the most—and the controversial Cirrus 820. As usual, I suddenly have strong opinions on the relative desirability of the dry and wet bath designs, and I’m weirdly convinced that I’d only be happy with a hard side, non-slide, wet bath camper, when I couldn’t have told you what any of that meant just a week ago. So far as such reveries go, it’s harmless, and I doubt that I’d ever really go through with it: if nothing else, I don’t think I’d be willing to leave my books behind. But it taps into a persistent longing to pare down my life, embrace simplicity, and gain a commensurate degree of freedom. As Dave, one of the campers profiled by the magazine, recalls:

I spent many a night imagining our probable future; long hours of work, no company pension for years of labor, and just a house full of stuff in a declining neighborhood. This is not how I wanted to remember my life when I grew old…We were willing to sacrifice money, everyday luxuries, square footage, going out all the time, and buying things we didn’t need on a whim if it meant we could have our lives back. I think my exact words were, “I’ll eat beans and rice into my sixties if it means I can do what I want with my life!”

Purely by coincidence, I became entranced by the mystique of truck camping shortly before the publication of an article by Rachel Monroe of The New Yorker on the vanlife movement, which channels the same impulses into a very different direction. It profiles a pair of ridiculously photogenic thirtysomethings, Emily King and Corey Smith, who roam the country in a VW van and chronicle their travels on Instagram. (Their project is titled “Where’s My Office Now?”, and it feels like a real missed opportunity that they didn’t call it “Emily Van Camp.”) They’ve attracted a substantial following, and as Monroe points out, they’re selling a seductive image:

There is an undeniable aesthetic and demographic conformity in the vanlife world. Nearly all of the most popular accounts belong to young, attractive, white, heterosexual couples. “There’s the pretty van girl and the woodsy van guy,” Smith said. “That’s what people want to see.” At times, the vanlife community seems full of millennials living out a leftover baby-boomer fantasy: the Volkswagens, the neo-hippie fashions, the retro gender dynamics.

But the piece is mostly sympathetic, even as it shows the couple spending half an hour staging the perfect “casual” shot of Emily for a sponsored post, painstakingly adjusting the image in Photoshop, and posting it to such comments as: “Such a beautiful lifestyle.” “This looks like heaven.” As one acquaintance says: “It looks like they’re having fun. But they’re working a lot.”

And what intrigues me the most about vanlife—which my spellchecker insists on correcting to “vanilla”—and the community of truck campers is the contrast between their preferred solutions, which are responses to a shared sense of disaffiliation. Fairly or not, it’s easy to come away with the impression that the couple in the van and the family in the camper prefer different beers and political candidates. Both emerge from a backdrop of economic insecurity, as seen from distinct life stages. Monroe notes that vanlife seems rooted in “the recent recession” and its impact on millennials:

“We heard all these promises about what will happen after you go to college and get a degree,” Smith said. “We graduated at a time when all that turned out to be a bunch of bullshit.” The generation that’s fueling the trend has significantly more student debt and lower rates of homeownership than previous cohorts. The rise of contract and temporary labor has further eroded young people’s financial stability…Like staycations and minimalism, vanlife is an attempt to aestheticize and romanticize the precariousness of contemporary life.

Dave in Truck Camper Magazine uses much the same language: “We had been sold a lifestyle that’s no longer a reality for most people.” The primary difference is that Emily King worked on the road, until recently, as a web developer, while Dave, after being laid off from his job of fourteen years, could only find “shift work at a variety of manufacturing plants,” hauling boxes of salsa. Whether you’re drawn to a van or a camper seems based both on your socioeconomic profile and on when you began to question your assumptions. And the gap doesn’t need to be wide: Dave and Emily are less than a decade apart in age.

I fall roughly in the middle, so I find myself torn between both fantasies. If I’m ultimately more attracted to the truck camper aesthetic, it’s because I’ve always been more interested in the nuts and bolts of nomadism than in looking at wildlife calendars. (It’s no accident that one of my ten favorite books is The Complete Walker by Colin Fletcher, whom Scientific American once aptly described as “a new Thoreau faced with the evaluative responsibilities of Consumers Union.”) The cognitive divide between fixing up an old Volkswagen Vanagon and spending eighty thousand dollars on a Northern Lite rig and Dodge Ram pickup is very real, and I suspect that each side suffers from mutual incomprehension. When I first saw the inside of a truck camper, it seemed like a snug distillation of life to its essentials, but after a brief exposure to vanlife, it now strikes me as a little, well, campy in its determination to recreate what amounts to an efficiency apartment on wheels. To a truck camper, in turn, life in a van might seem ludicrously twee and unsustainable. But they have more in common than you might think. At one point in the profile, Emily says, fretting: “We really need to create content.” This doesn’t sound much like Thoreau—except, of course, that Thoreau was selling an image of his own. And while the shaky handheld video tours of truck camper interiors seem far removed from the luminous vanlife images on Instagram, they’re both constructed around the same archetypal photograph, obviously staged, of a tiny, self-contained vehicle parked in a beautiful landscape. Either way, most people who look at these pictures, like me, are unlikely to put it into practice, although it might inspire them to cultivate simplicity along other lines. In their own distinct ways, Emily and Dave are both living a movie. The rest of us just watch the trailers.

Written by nevalalee

April 19, 2017 at 10:02 am

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