A tick-by-tock play-by-play of our van life day-to-day.
To give you an idea of what two digitally nomadic van dwellers actually do with their time, we’ve drawn out one of our days back when we were in Arizona.
Here’s how to van life…Li et Co style.
Location: Apache Junction, outside of Phoenix, Arizona.
6:45 AM: Wake up. No alarm needed. The sun is poking up over the mountains to the East. Lisa is still asleep beside me and she stirs as I sit up in the bed. I peek out the windows to see if our boondocking neighbours are still there. A couple vehicles remain in the dirt lot, which we’ve been camping at for free for the last few night. I stand up in the one part of the van that I can stand in, where the tent top is tallest, and stretch my arms up over my head. Then I use our pressure shower and the basin we keep on the floor to wash my face. Okay, rinse my face. When I step outside to pee behind a bush, one of the cars drives off and I wave with a free hand.
7:30 AM: Lisa is awake now. Propped up on the pillows against the inside of the back door, covered in our white duvet, checking emails and social media (part business, part pleasure) on her phone, which is plugged into a small portable charger we have. I’m making eggs in the cast iron on the one burner that works in the Westfalia, one for Lisa, two for me. After they’re done, I’ll toast some corn tortillas using the open flame and the fridge rack as a grill. A handful of arugula, some avocado, and we’ve got ourselves a complete breakfast.
7:50 AM: It’s three hours ahead in Toronto, and our editors at one of the publications we write for regularly have just finished their morning meeting. “We’ve got a couple stories from Erica and one from Sara ,” says Lisa, now clothed, one hand on her phone and one in the dishes. The basin and the pressure shower now make up the dish pit, and Lisa hands me the cast iron after she’s scrubbed it clean. I put it in the sun to dry on the cooler outside the sliding door. Then I brush my teeth, spitting the toothpaste beside a cactus and pouring some water on the white patch I’ve created, though I’m not sure why. After, I begin to prepare the van to move, turning home to vehicle, accommodation to transportation. Propane off, top lowered, curtains opened, bedding folded and the bed made back into a seat, etc.
8:30 AM: The engine turns over on the second try and our van lets out its grumbly morning protest. Loud and rough, but running. That’s the important part. With everything packed up and Lisa made (mostly) clean and presentable, we pull out of the dirt lot and onto the road into town. Apache Junction is a small city outside of Phoenix that triples in population this time of year. Canadian snowbirds, mostly. We are the youngest among them. We turn the radio on low, Top 40 something. As we drive toward town, we chat about the work we have to get done that day. Three stories need writing for one client and those are due in just a few hours. There’s also another longer feature we’re working on for a magazine, a bunch of blog and social media work for our other business partners in Canada, and a handful of long-lead digital pieces due in a few days. Plus our own stuff, like this.
9:00 AM: Rush hour in Starbucks. Mostly seniors. Many laptops. A few hipsters like us, whom we assume to be freelance somethings. Lisa grabs a table with access to an outlet–we’ll head outside to the patio once we’re all charged up–while I order our drinks. Decaf almond milk cappuccino for her, decaf americano with a splash of almond milk and one honey for me. The Starbucks employee, a young woman with sleeve tattoos, recognizes us and says hi. We’ve been in the area for a couple weeks and have been relying on this Starbucks’ wifi pretty regularly. I stare at the cake pops, but don’t buy one. I am not worthy.
9:45 AM: Our computers, phones, and portable chargers are all plugged in. We look a little like we’ve moved in, but Starbucks doesn’t care. They’re used to it. Our daily deadlines are coming along nicely. This is our routine, and creativity comes pretty regularly at this point in the morning. The words are spilling out of our fingers. Good thing, because we’ve got a lot of them to make. I’ve got a good start on one story, and Lisa is working on another. When we’re mostly done, we’ll switch, passing the reins over on Google Docs and allowing the other person to edit and fill in the holes, before one of us files the story to our editors back in Toronto. There are also images to be downloaded, cropped, and filed as well.
Doing auto journalism from a Starbucks. #writerslife
— Li et Co (@lietcoinc) January 22, 2017
12:30 PM: Two of three of our daily stories have been filed and Lisa is finishing the third. I’ve moved on to the magazine feature and have been transcribing an interview that I’ll pull quotes from. Our coffees are empty and our devices are full, so we’ve moved out to the patio to get some sun on our arms. It’s harder to see the screens of our laptops, but worth it. I also use this time to download some TV for us to watch that evening when we’re back at our free campsite.
1:30 PM: We’re both a little restless and hungry so we pack up our gear, coiling computer cords like cowboys with lassos, and stuffing it all back into our backpacks. We drop our gear in the van and walk across the street to the Walmart where we grab a few things for lunch and dinner and snacking. A metal water bottle that I had our tattooed barista fill with cold water will keep the pork chops we buy cold in the cooler until we’re ready to cook them tonight. There are eggs in there, too, and arugula and peanut butter, but with the temperatures still chilly enough at night, we don’t worry about keeping ice. Nor do we run the fridge in the van. It’s been glorified dry storage for a while now. We haven’t got sick yet, knock on wood.
2:00 PM: Lisa has found us a little park in the city where we drive to and set up for lunch. The doors are kicked open in the parking lot and I’m chopping avocado on the cutting board on my lap in the back seat while Lisa opens a can of tuna over the basin. Arugula salad with tuna and avocado. Neither of us seem to tire of avo or arugula, which is good because they keep well in the van. We eat out on the grass near the van, not bothering to close the doors, and I shoot some video for Instagram Stories. Because it didn’t happen if you don’t capture it for social, right? There’s a public bathroom here and after lunch I do the dishes and fill our water bottles and the pump shower in the sink.
2:50 PM: Our afternoon shift happens at the public library, which will also be of seniors. But before we go there, we stop at a thrift store and poke around, eventually buying a hat that says Applebees (it’ll be cooler in Canada where we don’t have them, really) and a couple pairs of cufflinks. There’s the most awesome kids’ play section in the Apache Junction library, and at 3:15 after school is let out, it gets busy. There’s this cave-like structure with places to climb and hide and read books. I’m not allowed in there. Too big. Too old. Instead, we find a table near the window and an outlet. Best to keep the computers topped up, just in case. There is a second battery in our van that will fully charge a laptop, but because we haven’t been driving a ton, it doesn’t get charged completely, so we’re trying not to rely on it. Emails, more writing, research. Work, work, work.
5:10 PM: The library kicks us out at five o’clock, which is just as well; our eyes are starting to gloss over from all the screen time and my mind has been drifting away from the work and over to Trump news. So. Entertaining! There are a couple more things that need doing, but we’ve loaded them up in such a way that we can do them tonight without wifi. The sun is in our rearview once more as we head east out to our spot. That song by Sia we both like comes on the radio and I turn it up loud and we sing along as we drive, windows down.
5:45 PM: There was one other truck and trailer at the lot when we arrived, and I can see the owners in their chairs in front of it drinking beer. We’re up in the hills behind the lot on a run, the van keys jingling in my pocket. The footing is loose and dangerous, so we pick our way up and down the rolling hills slowly, dodging rocks and cactus and horse shit. Sweat is starting to gather on my chest, which means I’ll have to find a way to hide myself while I wash off with the pressure shower later, or settle for a wet wipe bath (it’s a thing) until I can get to an actual shower tomorrow. I don’t last as long as Lisa without showering. My body is decidedly more potent. There’s a state park nearby that we may pay for a night at tomorrow. That way we can have power and a shower for an evening. We’ll live like kings.
6:46 PM: With no obvious spot to set up the towel wall and strip down for a shower, I opt for the wet wipe bath, which is pretty much as it sounds. Not glamourous. Our sweaty running gear is draped over the side mirrors and our shoes left outside. We’ve popped the top, turned on the gas and drawn a few of the curtains again. The transformation back to accommodation complete. Lisa has the pork chops sizzling away in the cast iron, along with some onions and garlic. I make some 20-minute brown rice on the stove after they’re done and then we eat side-by-side on the rear bench. Outside, the coyotes are starting to sing.
8:00 PM: Once we’ve cleaned up the dinner dishes, we change the bench back to a bed and pull the sheets over. Lisa climbs in and pulls out her book, using the battery-powered Coleman lantern to read by. I finish up the paragraph I’d been working on and decide it’s snack time. Jiffy Pop. Fuck yes! Once it’s done, I turn off the stove and climb in beside Lisa, bringing the popcorn and my laptop. I turn on a TV show we’d fallen asleep to the night before and just veg.
9:00 PM: Lisa always falls asleep before me. I gently shake her awake and hand her her toothbrush, already pasted. We step outside and look up at the stars as we brush our teeth in silence, the light spilling out through the open sliding door behind us. We spit near the cactus and slam the door (it’s the only way it closes, sorry neighbours) on our way back in. She falls back asleep almost immediately, but I watch a few more minutes of bad TV before I close my laptop and doze off. No need to set an alarm. Not out here.