I’ve always been an “off the beaten path” kind of guy. After my freshman year at your run-of-the-mill public high school, I chose to transfer to an arts high school where I got class credit for recording and mixing audio, filming super-low budget films, and drawing trees in calculus class. Instead of taking the traditional path of going to an American medical school, I pursued medicine in Grenada--a mere 1500 miles south of Miami (and less than 100 miles from Venezuela).
I was never forced to do these things, I did them mostly for the experience. I’ve always believed that when we are lying on our deathbeds our greatest treasure at that moment will be the memories that we created on the many adventures that we took to get us to that point. Anyone can go to public school, and anyone (who passed the MCAT, at least) can apply to an American medical school; but memories that anyone can create weren’t the ones I want to look back on fondly. So, I went with the road less traveled--when everyone zigged, I zagged.
These adventures and the others I’ve been on were carefully planned out. That’s not to say I wasn’t nervous, but I knew that I had a backup plan or at least a strong support system of family and friends I could rely on. But some adventures sort of just sneak up on you, and the planning stage that should take months of meticulous research and self-questioning (Do I really want to be doing this? Like, really really?) turns into a whirlwind of frantic Googling and cobbling the whole arrangement together. This is how my van dwelling journey began.
One of my previous adventures included a month-long trip during my sophomore year in college in which I travelled up and down the west coast with three friends filming a documentary about migrant farm workers. We started a small non-profit organization called “Blood, Sweat and Berries,” raised enough funds for professional camera equipment and an old Astro van, and set off with a basic plan at best to see what we could capture. When we finished filming and I was left with the Astro, a crazy idea popped into my head: what if I stopped paying for a dorm room and just put a cot in this van? I started to think it through, but the idea was too insane to work so I sold the van for a Jetta and the idea of van dwelling got pushed to a dusty corner in the back of my head.
Fast forward to the fall of 2016. I was doing my third year medical school rotations at a hospital in Cincinnati, and even though I practically lived in the hospital I had a nice four-bedroom condo close by that I shared with my lovely wife, my two-year-old son, and three fellow medical students. I didn’t have a lot of free time, but what little I had was spent just goofing off with my family or catching up on sleep. We didn’t have a whole lot of possessions since we got rid of most of our stuff when we moved back from Grenada, but we were happy and life was good.
The downside of attending my international med school is that we could be placed anywhere in the continental US for our third- and fourth-year rotations, and have to pick up and move anywhere for our next rotation whenever our school tells us to. Many students end up renting several apartments all across the country, paying rent at their old ones while they move to one at their new rotation site. This can get expensive, especially for poor medical students with families who are already hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt because of their medical school tuition loans.
I knew many of my school’s rotations were in New York City, and that there was no way I could afford to live there even in the smallest of apartments. With an inevitable move barreling towards me like a freight train, the insane idea I had back in college returned to the surface. If I lived in my car I could pick up and go to my next rotation at a moment’s notice. I basically lived in the hospital on-call room as it was, so why pay rent for a room where I barely spent any time? I could eat and study at the hospital, shower and exercise with my Anytime Fitness membership, and use my car as a place to sleep.
This plan started making more and more sense, and if I was living the bachelor life like I was in college this was all the planning I would require. But with a family to think about, the idea was still out of the realm of possibility—and our financial worries doubled in October, when my wife found out she was pregnant. We celebrated more than anything, though; I could take more loans out to help pay for the new baby, and my wife had a solid online job, so things would work out.
Less than a month after finding out we were pregnant, my wife got laid off and our financial problem overflowed. It was at that point that I knew my crazy idea of living in my van was now the only sensible way to continue my medical school education. Good thing I’m an “off the beaten path” kind of guy, right?
I anxiously began researching how to modify my ‘04 Toyota Highlander, poring over van dwelling forums, and scouring YouTube for any videos made by people who had taken the plunge into the “vanlife” already. My wife and I didn’t have much time to discuss this new lifestyle, as I had less than two months before I would need to move to Wisconsin for my psychiatry rotation. Any free time we had was now spent making trips to JoAnn Fabrics to get material for blackout curtains or chopping the legs off of my cot to fit it in the Highlander (spoiler alert: it did not work out great).
This was a huge lifestyle change, even bigger than packing whatever my family could into a few duffel bags and moving to an island for two years. Nervous doesn’t even begin to describe how I felt. But I found that reading up on the experiences of other people living in a van eased my tension. Seeing that others were out there choosing to live in their vehicle—and, as I saw from “vandwellers” on Instagram, often having the time of their lives—made me feel less alone. Even though I would be separated from my wife and two children for long stretches of time, I knew that somewhere out there was that support system of people living an alternative lifestyle that I needed to make this crazy plan work.
We visited my wife’s family in northern California for Christmas, and then I flew back to the midwest alone to start my newest adventure. I’ve been living the “vanlife” for almost two months now, and even though there have been a few hiccups along the way (subzero weather and crippling anxiety, for example) I would definitely say I’m starting to see the perks. It’s been fantastic getting rid of the many pointless distractions that waste so much time now that wifi is harder to come by and I don’t have a warm, comfy bed to rot away in all day.
I’m able to spend my time more efficiently so that I can treat myself with things like weekend trips. A few weekends ago, I did two things I would never have done if I wasn’t living in a van: ice fishing and shooting guns. I’d never done either (.22 caliber doesn’t count), and yet there I was one weekend drilling holes into a lake and shooting targets in the frozen Wisconsin tundra. I had a blast (pun intended) and look forward to the next adventures that van dwelling affords me.
That’s not to say that van dwelling is all fun and games. I get homesick like no other, and many nights when I am curled up in my sleeping bag listening to a blizzard outside that is rocking my car all I can think about is being next to my wife in a nice warm bed with my son in the other room. Loneliness can mess a person up real bad, and I take measures to prevent it from getting to me like meditation and frequent FaceTime calls.
But would it be an adventure without some bumps along the way? Would I really be exploring the periphery of my comfort zone if I didn’t feel anxious and uncomfortable at times? I don’t think so. It’s because of these challenges that I am able to keep making interesting memories to look back on. I still have no regrets about how my life has turned out; I’m ready to write another interesting chapter in my life’s story, and if you are considering the van life then I hope you are too.
Jacob the Nomad
Jacob the Nomad is a third-year medical student living in his SUV while he does medical school rotations around the country. His wife and two children cheer him on from northern California. To follow his journey or to learn tricks for starting your own van dwelling adventure, visit his website or follow him on social media.