The feeling of dread that permeates your whole body, a primal understanding that you fucked up beyond recovery
As I drove through the streets of Auckland, my mind drifted inevitably back to Kerouac. He started this all. This dream of being a writer, this pseudo-On The Road adventure of living in a car, of escaping the rat race, of being the man I wanted to be. I was thinking about him a lot while making these decisions. And while I frantically jerked the car away from the wrong side of the road, horns blaring in my ear, I thought of him again.
It’s easy to forget to read between the lines. It’s easy to forget that On The Road isn’t necessarily some celebration of wanderlustful freedom, and that Kerouac was a horribly depressed alcoholic who wrote the book while in his thirties, closer to his death than his birth. There are stories of young kids, obsessed with the idea of Beat, gathering at his house to catch a glimpse of their hero, only to leave disappointed by the yellowing skin and crows’ feet they found there. But as the steering wheel gave a rusty crank and the pedestrians got out of the way of my squealing brakes, Kerouac’s end of days were all I could think about. I was $2000 in the hole. I had no idea how long this piece of shit junker would even last. I had no clue what I was even thinking.
There’s a cycle of emotions that everybody living in their car goes through at least once. A psychic river undammed by a living situation so far removed from the norm. An intense wave of Horror is the first water to flood out of the gates.
Kerouac inspires hundreds, maybe thousands, of people every year to move into their vans, to go on the road. They’re all chasing a dragon. And there’s a reason more people don’t make it a permanent lifestyle. Many don’t swim past this first emotional stage, where all you can think about is the hard road ahead. Omar Rodriguez-Lopez of the band At The Drive-In, for example, set off hitchhiking in his youth after reading the novel and wound up fairly quickly with an opiate addiction. Like Kerouac. As if the elements of the road demand such sacrifice of the soul.
But the card was charged, the papers signed. By then, I was too far down the rabbit hole. I’d only been driving for two minutes and my knuckles were already white, the steering wheel growing slippery in my hands.
This was the worst decision of my life.
An exquisite overcorrection, a delirious zest for where your fuck up will take you
Luckily, the horror stage doesn’t last forever. When you lean back too far in your chair, the panic seizes you, but at the end of the day, you’re either going to tip backwards or you won’t. It’s a buyer’s remorse, a pit in your stomach formed of diminished purchasing power and the same feeling of entrapment born of any good relationship. Like the darkness in the closet, it’s beaten back by logic.
Because moving into your car isn’t some descent into the abyss. The time of Kerouac’s revolutionary rebellion, or even Chris Farley’s parody, is long gone. It’s rapidly becoming one of the most popular ways to live, to the point where even millionaire athletes are taking part. The city of Los Angeles recently struck down a 30 year old law making it illegal to live in your car, and in the US alone, up to 59% of those listed as homeless live in cars, while at least 44% of those are gainfully employed and are not victims of circumstance.
And if the mainstream world is accepting it, then the traveler’s world, that subset population of the vagrant, has already perfected it. It’s one of the most popular ways to see New Zealand, and an hour’s worth of experience on the island highways will reveal the vast network of drivers off the tourist track, the hitchhikers and the greaseheads parked unceremoniously on the thousands of official campsites and rest areas dotting the landscape. The largest official group, the New Zealand Motor Caravan Association, lists a fleet of 18,000 vehicles alone. And these networks, these statistics, completely discount the number of backpackers trading shitty little beaters back and forth, sleeping in the backseat, a crumpled winter jacket for a pillow.
Backpackers like me. Off the grid.
I’d been planning for months. Sleeping, cooking, living out of a van while exploring the backcountry national parks of New Zealand, like thousands of others were doing as well. The Land of the Great White Cloud has extremely lax freedom camping laws, which generally means that you can set up shop anywhere that doesn’t specifically forbid it – the blue shores of Lake Taupo, the valleys of the Southern Alps, forbidden places where you don’t think you’ll get caught. There are turnoffs and recreation areas every few kilometers in the less civilized areas of the country. My car would become my chariot.
Her name would be Cherry Bomb. A 1996 Mitsubishi RVR with no airbags, three doors, and a suspension system that could give out at any moment. Her name was equal parts a tribute to her deep red color, the strange mirror sprouting from her hood like a stem, and the Runaways song that was blasting through the radio when she became mine. She was beautiful.
The horror stage didn’t last long for me. It can’t in New Zealand. There was just so much to see, so much to do. New Zealand’s three largest cities (Auckland, Christchurch, and Wellington) house 41% of the population but cover only 4.2% of the land in the country. The National Park system, the 14 biggest reasons I’ve moved into a car in the first place, cover a full 11% of the country, and that’s not even counting the various reserves and camping spots worth a visit in their own right. There’s just no way to see it all taking the bus, staying in hostels.
I was driving out of the city, watching my speed climb steadily as the traffic thinned and the tree line stalked ever closer to the distant vanishing point. My backseat had become a haphazard storage shed of everything I could want. A bag of chips my copilot. He wasn’t much for talking, but he’d come around in time.
And on that road, I was flying. Faster than anybody’s ever gone before on a road like that. I was the wind, I was the primal force of momentum, a jet plane armed to the teeth leaving turbulence a mile long in my wake.
This was the best decision of my life.
A slow burn return to sanity after a major life decision, and possibly the least pleasant of the five
Give a pendulum enough time, and it’ll settle in the middle. Many people that move into their cars – many people that go on extended trips in general – do so to simplify their lives, to escape stress, but studies have shown that stress is often correlated less with situation than with mental state. That is, you can’t run from it; you can only find new things to worry about. So when the initial feelings of horror and excitement pass, all that’s left is the standard train of thought.
In my case: was I really saving money, doing this? Would I be able to sell this car later? Is all of this worth it?
As the sun began to dip below the hills of the North Island, somewhere between Hobbiton and Mount Doom, my momentum began to fade. Faced with the gray scale landscape around me rapidly fading into silhouettes, those original fears begin to seep in again, not as a jump scare and scream, but as a rising tension, a bomb that could go off but hasn’t.
But I kept driving. The fear is tempered now, ballasted by logic until they remain a mere nervous pit in my stomach. Statistics show that up to 1 in 3 backpacker-owned cars in New Zealand have at least mild issues, and the chance that this hulking beast would last the duration of my stay, at least without any major repairs that would shoot above the cost of just staying in a hostel, wasn’t great. But I was here. I was living the way I said I wanted to live.
All there was left to do was drive on.
The numbing of your mind to the assault of new experience, like fingertips in a cold lake
People underestimate how much stimulation they receive on any given day. The advertisements, the passers by, the sound and the fury in the background. When you move into your car, all of this goes out the window. Life is simpler when your home is 40 square feet. On a camping trip, this fact can go unnoticed, as the silence is novel, not the norm. You’ll return to it like it never left. But when you spend months on gravel roads, you begin to notice what’s not there.
It was nine o’clock and I was squatting in the trunk, watching the water begin to boil on my shitty little camping stove nestled into the mud below me. It was raining hard, a steady buhduhbuhduh on the roof, and the blue glow of the fire under the pot reached like a halo towards the borders of the rain shadow formed of my open boot door.
I had a sudden realization that I hadn’t used my voice in over eight hours.
“Sure will be nice to eat these noodles,” I told the darkness.
Buhduhbuhduhbuhduh, it said, with what I suspected to be feigned interest.
“You can have some if you’d like.”
Oh God. I had lost my mind. I was going to become the crazy person who wandered into the wilderness and was never seen again.
Clouds blocked the moon and stars. The utter darkness was pressing in far more than it ever had before. The mind needs to go places to keep itself entertained.
Is this where the idea of monsters came from?
This isn’t camping, a weekend trip, a fixed end. The air of impermanence gives those times spent in a car an ease of burden. There’s an escape. With this new lifestyle, it’s a constant relationship with the world around you. And the world around you doesn’t watch the same TV shows.
I threw my noodles into the boiling water, bubbles popping to meet the water splashing the ground nearby like anti-rain. I was studying the ingredients on the bag in earnest when my headlamp went out.
Two minute noodles. 120 seconds. After living in a car for four months, it’s incredible how long that time can feel.
The amalgamation of everything you’ve felt thus far, the adaptation of a new life
I woke up to the sound of silence. My feet were shoved between the front seats and hooked under the parking brake, and my hair was damp from where the rainwater leaked through the back. I had drifted off before closing the trunk. The rain had stopped at some point in the night, and the morning light was a golden yellow, filtered through the last vestiges of the storm.
My cell maps didn’t work, that far from any towers. I hadn’t bought paper ones. I knew I was somewhere just north of Wellington, parked on a cliffside. As I waited for water to boil for some coffee, I watched a train spew steam as it wound along the river below. You don’t wake up to views like this in a hostel, listening to a legion of hungover backpackers moaning in bed like an Irish zombie apocalypse.
Emotions aren’t permanent. Given enough time, they’ll fade into the back of your mind until you can’t even remember what inspired them in the first place. As I woke up, sprawled in the backseat of my car, I struggled to remember what I’d felt the day before. They were all just shapes on the inside of my eyelids.
At the end of the day, there’s a reason people move into their cars. They want to feel something they don’t in their current lives. An autonomy. A sense of self. Whether Kerouac was able to find it is debatable, and whether any of us will find it even more so. But there’s something about having a home on wheels. There’s something about waking up to an open road that brings a bubble of emotion to the throat. It isn’t horror, or excitement, or nerves, or boredom.
Because as I settled back into the driver’s seat, I know what I felt: freedom. there was nothing in my rearview mirror, and ahead of me lay nothing but the pure possibility of open asphalt.