Pilgrimages have been around since the dawn of time. Every religion has its own. From the pilgrims of Compostela, the pilgrims of Canterbury (which we might remember from our high school English lit, shout out Chaucer), to the pilgrimages to Mecca, or the pilgrimages to the Western Wall of Temple Mount. Journeying as a means for self-discovery, or spiritual clarity, or purpose, it has been apart of being human for a long time. There’s something about movement, about returning to our nomad days, about seeing something new every day that just appeals to us at a very basic level. In most recent years this has resurfaced as #vanlife, often one word and with a hashtag in front of it. It resembles this sort of pilgrimage, a detachment from possessions, living in movement, oneness with nature, a sort of tune out, drop out revival.
Search #vanlife and you will find: young, thin, beautiful white folks in glamour shots, doing yoga poses on top of their vans. What you won’t find? People of color, working class folks, vans being towed, breaking down in the highways, rainy days, leaks…
I’m not going to lie, the glamour pics of #vanlife pushed me over the edge to do this. Faced with high rents in NYC, faced with the dissatisfaction of living in a city with such limited access to nature, living at a pace where my inner voice was drowned out by the sound of fire engine sirens at every corner, and taxicabs horns, and running an organization that serves people going through homelessness, people that live in vans not by choice, and with the uncertainty that serving 200 meals a week in one location can really contribute to improving the world, I did the logical thing. I donated most of my belonging, stored those I could not part with in a storage facility, and packed my dog and my kid into a van half my age. I was able to save enough to purchase the van, and was able to write grants to cover the expenses of solar panels and installing the kitchenette. I was able to count on volunteers to help me install the solar panels and prepare it for the road. I am able to receive donations to keep the project going, because it is a project of a tax-exempt organization. I’m lucky.
I have the privilege of being rich in community. And this is a lesson for people. Show up for others on a consistent basis, and others will show up for you. Because I spend my life working for free, supporting those around me, I have built the community that propels me forward. And so, off to #vanlife I went, in the only way I know how: in the service of others. Building chapters of Chilis on Wheels, bringing people together to organize free vegan meal shares, doing solo outreach to 15-30 people, speaking of veganism and a compassionate, and just world for all species.
And it’s been hard, incredibly hard… I had roof leaks, cloudy days that would not charge my fridge, repairs that I wasn’t expecting, being towed from a highway, booted in the city. We have been sick and throwing up, weeks have passed since we had a shower, people eye us suspiciously at times because we are clearly not the typical young, beautiful white folks, and instead we look more like the people we avoid looking at in the streets, that is, the people that we serve, the people that I have given my life for.
And yet, we have survived because we have community around us to sustain us. How many people don’t? Well, I’ll tell you. 60,000 people in NYC alone don’t. 564,708 in the US don’t and they sleep in their cars, shelters, streets. What if “they” had people rallying around them in the same way people rally around me, in the same way I rally around the people next to me?
This is what this #TheVTeamTour is all about, building these types of human connections so that people don’t have to face their hardships alone. A vegan meal is the introduction to a connection, as we put our personhood first and foremost, (of ourselves and of the animals that usually make it into food, and for which we are building community around as well).
#Vanlife, like everything else, does not need to be about ourselves alone. The world does not revolve around our Instagram pics. These are only tools. Useful, amazing, great, fun tools but tools just the same. Tools to bring us together. Tools to help us rise above the confines of capitalism, and ego, and individualism. Tools to help us build community. Tools to help us live and build the world that we know is possible, a gentle and just one.