#VanLife: A counter-cultural shift

The following is something of a sub-thesis from a book that I am currently writing about the modern Dirtbag lifestyle, the working title of which is “Beside the Dying Fire: The Modern Dirtbag and the death of the American Dream”. It will examine the rise of Dirtbagdom and its roots in counter-culturalism.

In what is likely an example of the Frequency Illusion (also known as the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon), I’ve noticed a recent surge in van related content across various social media outlets. Shortly after my girlfriend and I began planning an overland climbing road-trip though South America, my Facebook and Instagram feeds seemed awash with articles, photos and videos outlining the virtues of so-called “Van Life”.

Everyone from Alex Honnold to your average, garden-variety Dirtbag, even young professionals still involved in largely typical employment scenarios, are embracing the idea and practice of life on the road. The result has been an influx of #VanLife content, another entry into the non-porn porn category (see also: food porn, word porn, space porn et al.)

For some, the reasons behind membership of this growing sub-culture may be strictly fiscal. But I suspect that for the majority, there is a great deal of romance and idealism attached to the nomadic lifestyle. In a society that is becoming increasingly regulated and sanitised, a life lived by one’s own terms becomes more attractive by the day.

Western society does not cater particularly well for a nomadic existence. After entering your name, the first personal detail that any official form or product order requires is an address. Many cities and towns have litigated against the practice of overnight stays, much less provide facilities for its ease. Homelessness, voluntary or otherwise, is often frowned upon or merely ignored.

Despite these challenges, people are abandoning the traditional bricks-and-mortar residential scenario in droves. But why, exactly?

There are many reasons which may appear to explain the shift on a superficial level, the ability to climb, ski, hike or travel more being the chief among them. My feeling, however, is that the rise of Van Life speaks to deeper concerns and to a wholesale manifestation of cultural malaise.

If recent political maelstroms such as the US presidential candidacy, the Brexit referendum and the razor-thin margins of the recent Australian election have shown us anything, it’s that tensions are high and opinions are polarised. There seems to be little consensus among these various populations as to the correct way to deal with our troubled times. Moreover, there has been a huge movement toward non-participation.

What we’re seeing is a swell of disenfranchisement with the status quo, a lack of confidence (especially on the part of young people) in the prevailing system. There’s a sense that what is happening is out of control, and there’s no clear-cut method by which we can agree to fix it. Western culture has not seen such a tumultuous socio-political climate since the closure of the Vietnam War.

Additionally, we have other large, looming spectres on the horizon. Issues such as climate change, housing affordability, civil equality and many other contentious issues have taken precedence in the zeitgeist. Recent episodes such as the Global Financial Crisis have likewise contributed hugely, casting shadows across the perceived prosperity we once took for granted.

Let me be clear that I have no intention of arguing for or against the side of any of these issues. I merely seek to highlight the fact that they are important to our society, and that they have caused division and subsequently a disenchantment among many with the traditional societal construct.

Essentially, we have begun to observe that many folks (youth in particular) are abandoning a culture in which they feel they have no voice, no stake and no hope. There are echoes of Kerouac’s Beat Generation in this movement, a large-scale and loosely organised community trending away from consumerism and security.

Van life is nothing new. People have been living rough for years. Just take a look at Fred Beckey, still rocking out in his station wagon at the ripe old age of 93. What has changed is the way we express ideas, and the way we form cultures and sub-cultures.

Van life has become #VanLife. We can start Facebook groups. We can share our van layout on Instagram. We can provide tips on the best spot to get wifi and a shower anywhere from Anchorage to Ankor Wat. It’s this ease of formation of community, and this passage of information that has turned Van Life into a boomtown.

What will become of our intrepid wanderers in a world where the proverbial gates are being locked? There is a very real possibility that their departure from the “real” world will leave them without agency in an increasingly litigious and risk-averse society. It is concerning that those who already feel voiceless have chosen to further intensify their isolation, but I fear that this may prove a reality.

Then again, the aforementioned ease of community formation that has been shaped by the advent of the internet could prove to be a powerful tool. Crowdfunding initiatives and grassroots campaigns have achieved wild, unprecedented success stories in recent times. Harnessed appropriately, a digital revolution which advocates for a nomadic existence should by no means exist as mere fantasy.

Time will tell. All that is certain is that #VanLife is here, and will be with us for the foreseeable future.

If you’re interested in contributing your thoughts, arguments, support or dissent for my current book project, I’d welcome your ideas. Please contact me at ryansiacci@hotmail.com.

Ryan Siacci, Esq.
August 2016

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