Almost 316 million people across the United States have been told to shelter in place by their governors, mayors and President Trump because of the COVID-19 global outbreak. “#Stayhome” has become a ubiquitous hashtag on Instagram, the mantra of 2020 and a cross-country rallying cry. But how do you stay home when your home is the road?
Rising in popularity over the past three years alongside Instagram influencer culture, #vanlifing—living out of a converted van or school bus—has become a popular lifestyle choice for mobile millennials, who even before the pandemic had shifted to alternative lifestyles that support working remotely. But many vanlifers rely on public lands like National Forests, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) areas, or National Parks to park their homes.
“We’ve always been able to rely on free campsites,” full-time vanlifer and wedding photographer Megan Kantor told VICE over the phone. “Over the past week, I’ve realized that this lifestyle that we’ve chosen feels a lot more fragile than I thought.”
Although the typical roadlifer’s existence is pretty isolated, they depend on the infrastructure of rural towns for water, gas, food and other necessities. But in response to the pandemic, these usually welcoming communities are closing their doors to outsiders. These areas have limited resources, fewer hospital beds, and even fewer ventilators. An outbreak could quickly and dramatically overwhelm the local health system.
In hopes of avoiding that catastrophe, Moab, Utah shut down access to its BLM land to anyone who doesn’t have a permanent address in the county, and its hotels have canceled all reservations. The closures of most National Parks, including Yosemite and Zion, have left many vanlifers struggling for a place to settle in for the long haul.
“I think on the road you accept there is a little extra uncertainty in your everyday life,” vanlifer Dan Mini said. “You’re not totally sure what’s coming next, but then with this virus, the uncertainty and the risk rose exponentially.”
“It’s scary to think we could be displaced or scrambling around for fresh water,” Mini’s partner Alyssa Bean agreed.
As the mandates have continued, being on the road has felt more and more unsettling for Kantor. The stress of not knowing if she and her husband could find a safe place to sleep was building on top of the coronavirus anxiety. She knew the rest of the roadlife community must be feeling the same way, and a Google spreadsheet was born.
The document allows anyone who has extra space for vehicles to list driveways, campsites, or land they are willing to provide to roadlifers. By sharing their location, amenities available, and email address, hosts provide nomads with a safe and welcoming place to hunker down for the foreseeable future. As of this writing, the document lists at least 140 hosts in 34 states as well as Australia and Canada.
“For vanlifers, it doesn’t need to be fancy and it doesn’t need to be official,” part-time vanlifer Aileen Cotton said “They need a spigot to get their water from on occasion, they need a place to dump their waste on occasion, an occasional shower and an extension cord. I think any house in the United States can offer that.”
Cotton lives half the year in her van and the other half in a house on an acre of land near Bend, Oregon. She opened up her home to vanlifers, and already has a few families on her property: a couple living in a school bus and another in a sprinter van. Amie Mills, another host in southern Oregon, has space for three RVs, and is expecting most of those to be filled by guests in the next couple weeks.
“It was the biggest relief [to find a host,]” Bean, who is now staying on Cotton’s land, said. “Feeling like we had a safe place to anchor, where we could shelter safely and not have to worry about the resources we need or having to travel to get those resources was such a big sigh of relief.”
Opening up your home to strangers may seem counterintuitive to the social distancing practices needed to curb the pandemic, but hosts believe keeping a six-foot distance between them and their new driveway squatters is more than achievable.
Many vanlifers have everything they need in their vehicle to be off the grid and completely self-sufficient— a term they call boondocking—for multiple days, with their vehicles often including toilets, kitchens, water, gas, solar power, and sometimes even showers. Cotton decided she only needed to open up her actual house once a week for guests to dump waste and do laundry.
“That’s a manageable risk for us,” she said. “ And the fact that they have somewhere to hunker down and will therefore have less exposure to people is part of the solution.”
While being cooped up could be a difficult transition for these hyper-mobile travelers, many are looking at the situation as a rare moment to relax.
“We are grateful for this space and honestly it’s a luxury that we don’t have to travel, “ Bean said. “We don’t have to drive around to find fresh water or make sure we are getting enough sun [for our solar panels].”
Many of the businesses and activities we once took for granted are in danger of disappearing due to coronavirus. There are restaurants that might not survive, small stores and service providers that will struggle, and jobs that will never return, but the hope for the nomadic community is their chosen lifestyle won’t disappear.
“I think what is so important is that we find a way to support an alternative way of life and at a time when maybe that’s a little more difficult,” Mills said. “ It’s so valuable to have [people with] different perspectives and a different way of life that I am willing to step in and create a bridge for maybe a time when that’s more difficult.”