Davy Rothbart is the editor of Found magazine, a frequent contributor to public radio’s This American Life, and author of the story collection The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas. His documentary film, How We Survive, about the punk rock band Rise Against was released by Geffen Records in 2006.
When my first book came out, in 2004, I was 29 years old and living in my parents’ basement. The publisher, Simon & Schuster, suggested a six-city book tour: They’d fly me around, feed me good food, and put me up in fancy hotels. But knowing how that story would end—two weeks later, back in my parents’ basement—I proposed an eight-month, 50-state, 136-city tour instead. They told me, “You’re on your own. Good luck!”
I bought a Dodge Ram van for two grand on eBay and hit the road in April with my little brother, Peter, who’s a musician. Each night, at a bar, bookstore, or café, I’d read from my book, Peter would play a few songs, and then we’d cruise around the sad edges of towns like Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, looking for a dark street where we could park the van and crash out. Sometimes, after our little show, we’d just hit the highway, burning for the next city, one of us driving while the other slept in back.
Living out of a van wasn’t as bad as you’d think. In a lot of ways, it was better than living in Michigan in my parents’ dank basement—no earwigs; no chores. And it offered certain amenities you don’t often find in a house, like a ten-disc changer, and cruise control. The back seat of the van folded down into a surprisingly comfortable bed, and the front passenger seat reclined all the way. We’d stuff cardboard displays with the cover of my
book into the van windows to keep out the morning light, and we used the little cubbyholes under each seat
as dressers; toothbrushes went in the glove box. In lieu of actual showers, we took “tour showers”—some Old Spice Fresh Stick deodorant under the arms and a few spritzes of body mist. At the end of the night, it felt cozy and adventurous to curl up in my sleeping bag in the back seat and drift off while we clattered down the interstate, Peter drumming his hands on the steering wheel, rocking out to the local ’80s soul stations, which played, with eerie frequency, Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam’s lone smash, “Head to Toe.”
But inside six weeks, van life began to lose its luster. For starters, there was the question of where to pee when you woke up at 7 a.m. in a cold suburban cul-de-sac. My brother and I became adept at ducking into people’s side yards undetected to water their shrubs. All dignity was lost, though, the morning I was finally caught. There was no yelling, no shotgun waving, no threats, just the sad, haunted stares of two eight-year-old kids. “I’m on a book tour!” I offered in miserable defense. The kids watched silently until I’d finished, before finally slinking off, world-weary, and ashamed for me.
Some nights were cold. Every night was lonely. Parked behind an auto parts store in Portland, Maine, we watched a man and his girlfriend, drunk or high or perhaps in withdrawal, shout at each other for 45 minutes at the other end of the lot. In Sioux Falls, South Dakota, a guy tried to break into the van in the middle of the night, only to dash off cursing when he realized it was our home,
and that we were sleeping inside. But the low point really came in New Haven, Connecticut, where we’d unknowingly camped out in an illegal parking spot and woke up hurtling down the street at 45 miles an hour hooked to a tow truck. That had never happened when I lived in my parents’ basement.
We decided to try a new tack. After our shows, we’d appeal to the audience, asking if anyone was willing to put us up for the night. The problem with this plan, we soon realized, was that the people most likely to take in a couple of scruffy guys who’d been living in a van were usually the kind of folks who lived in apartments that made our van look like the Four Seasons. In St. Louis, we followed a friendly young couple back to their home—an abandoned house where they’d been squatting for six months, sleeping on gym mats, meekly heated by Coleman lanterns. Giant spiders leered from the rafters, daring us to close our eyes. In Vancouver, a man showed us into his place, apologizing for the stench of urine. “Our kitty, Esmerelda, is so old,” he explained, “she can’t always find the litter box.” Who was I to say anything? I’d been whizzing in hedges for the past couple of months. I went to sleep on a sagging, stinking couch with poor Esmerelda curled up at my feet, and in the morning, when I woke up and started petting her, I real-ized she’d died at some point during the night.
Peter and I learned to be noncommital. We’d ask if people wanted to “hang out” and “maybe put us up,” which allowed us, if necessary, a window for hasty retreat. It became a general rule: If you have to move a half-eaten Hot Pocket off the sofa before you sleep, you’re better off in the van. Some nights a few different people offered to let us stay over, and we’d grill each of them about the quality of their accommodations as though we were signing a 12-month lease.
In Baltimore, our luck began to change. A couple named Carly and Twig brought us home to the old three-story building they’d bought in a burned-out neighborhood. They’d restored the gloomy, dilapidated former dentist’s office into a gleaming art space, with a recording studio and a storefront on the ground floor, a living space upstairs, and a finished loft on the third floor in which they hosted DJ parties and bands on the weekends. They’d even restored one room to its former glory, styling it with a reclining dentist’s chair and an overhead swing lamp, while another room was kept completely untouched—absolutely trashed—a diorama-like reminder of how much work had gone into the building.
In South Florida, we stayed with a couple of guys in the jungle west of Homestead. They’d hacked a
clearing in the brush, and built a primitive yet spacious open-air home out of wood and rope and canvas tarps, webbed with fine screen to keep the bugs out. We ate a delicious meal cooked over a camp stove, and, as night fell, we twirled in dangling chairs, sipping wine and listening to the swamp sounds, before falling asleep in hammocks. In Houston, a week later, a couple with two young children invited us to sleep at their place—a tiny old church they’d converted into a microcinema called Aurora Picture Show. The pews proved to be a bit stiff during the night, but in the morning we got to watch the latest Werner Herzog flick. In New Orleans, an old-timer invited us to stay on his houseboat. The engine hummed as we churned upriver, the gentle bayou breezes brushing our faces. At dawn, we watched pelicans swoop down for early breakfasts, and Peter turned to me and said, “That’s the best night of sleep I’ve ever had in my life.”
What I found amazing, as we pressed on through summer and into the fall, was the fact that our good luck held, and that we continued to be graced by the kindness of strangers. In odd corners of the country, city after city, we discovered people who had created dazzling, unusual homes with imagination, hard work, and often very little money. In Lexington, Kentucky, a man had refashioned an old, crumbling ice factory into a performance venue and living space. In Arcata, California, we stayed with a woman in a tiny house she’d lashed together in the branches of four adjacent trees. In San Luis Obispo, we slept in a teepee a guy had built on the beach.
My favorite place was outside of Taos, New Mexico. Across the Rio Grande gorge, on the high-desert plateau, a young woman had built a beautiful, solar-powered Earthship out of old tires and mud. Mostly underground, the house, from the outside, looked like a pile of debris, but the inside was stunning with its huge window framing the mountain panorama, a mini-greenhouse stocked with dozens of flowering plants, a kitchen and bathroom that ran on recycled rainwater, and a cavelike loft with an enormous bed and a skylight carved out of the clay above. Green stars glittered overhead by the thousands. Coyotes bayed. The moon swung across the sky. I very nearly abandoned the tour and anchored in.
By mid-December, we’d hit 47 states and were on the last leg of our trip, heading home to Michigan. After all the weird and wonderful places we’d stayed, the prospect of moving back into my parents’ basement twisted a sword in my belly. In a week, I’d be back to the old routine—sucking up floodwater with a Shop-Vac every time a winter thaw melted off a bit of snow. Maybe I could just find a pleasant place to park the van, and make that my permanent address. But by this point, the van smelled like a hockey arena, and tour showers don’t cut it when you’re not on tour.
Before our eight-month road trip, I’d never put much stock into the importance of having a home I was proud of. But again and again, I’d seen the way living in splendid digs had brought a shine to the faces of those who’d invited us in. I longed to share that sense of stability and comfort. Throughout our journey, we’d been treated with great generosity—it was time for me to balance the scales, and find a home where I could welcome in wandering strangers.
Amazingly, I got a phone call out of the blue: My friend Dorothy, who lived in a magnificent brick farmhouse built in 1873 next to the train station in downtown Ann Arbor, told me that one of her roommates was moving out, and that I could move into the little room in the attic if I wanted. She offered me a few days to think it over, but I didn’t need them.
It’s been three years. I’m very happy here. And I can pee anytime I choose.