A COVID summer: The minivan experiment

Living the dream, picking up sticks and sleeping in my parents’ minivan

Trucks get all the credit, but minivans are the real winners. You can comfortably fit five middle school honor students, seven college students carrying three racks of beer, or as I most recently discovered, one stinky busboy eager to live in the mountains.

Growing up on a diet rich in YouTube climbing videos and home-brewed wanderlust, I apparently was destined to live in a minivan. Despite high unemployment rates, I quickly put my college smarts to work finding a “seasonal labor” position at an upscale dude ranch in Tabernash, Colorado.

Initially I was drawn to the area since my uncle owned a house nearby. I hoped to weasel my way into his second home for the summer. With COVID concerns and a slate of paying guests already booked, he rejected my invitation to keep the beds warm. Local landlords were bound to guzzle up my paycheck. I asked again, and my uncle offered me his driveway. As long as I stayed away from the house when guests were there, I could camp on his land, fill my water jugs at his spigot and park in the driveway.

I was drawn at first to the idea of sleeping in a tent. I imagined a summer reading Thoreau and playing guitar by the campfire, neither of which I’ve ever done. I set about building a lean-to with beetle-kill logs. Using a borrowed chainsaw, I built two buck and rail fence posts, drawing on inspiration from the local landscape, and leaned logs against the sides to block the wind. I draped a tarp over the top and wedged my tent underneath. Even the marmots, without chainsaw power, crafted more aesthetic log homes.

I woke up the first morning pleasantly surprised that my structure hadn’t collapsed in the middle of the night. By night three, however, a vicious June storm — ominously known as a “derecho” — whipped my camp with hurricane-force winds and dumped six inches of wet snow on me. The weight tore through my tarp and broke my tent poles. My uncle’s driveway and my spacious minivan suddenly looked inviting, and dry.

I looked into building a platform in the van for my bed, but my leaning lean-to didn’t give me confidence in my carpentry skills. Instead, I slept on a Thermarest pad and piled my food, camp stove and a suitcase all around me, like a childhood fort. If I rolled over in the night, a stray apple might tumble out of the box onto my head.

I kept the trash at my feet, away from the bears and close to me. I blamed the noxious fumes on my day old tuna packets, but I knew I was the greatest emitter. If beans weren’t so cheap, my home would surely have smelled better. The fresh mountain air was no match for “fermented boy.” Coworkers regretted their rides with me, but secretly, I found comfort in the filth.

At work, I soon discovered “seasonal laborer” was code  for “everyone’s bitch.” My first assignment was to gather down timber, aka “pick-up sticks” on 30 future home lots, the cheapest priced at $650,000. A COVID loan and lack of supervision led to aimless work. In the morning, a team of 20 of us checked in with a ranch manager who was too busy to watch us. We made piles of big sticks and little sticks, straight ones and curvy ones. The idea was to help future lot owners and reduce fuel for possible fires.

The first day, our crew worked the full eight hours. We buzzed back and forth from the burn pile. Young guys showed off, hoisting the biggest logs like it was his debut on Survivor. Derek, who drove a dented red convertible, hurt his back the first week showing off. Management moved him to housekeeping.

My colleagues and a long podcast queue helped with the boredom. I talked about compound interest and index fund investing with Tony, a fit 50-something who’d lost his job coaching disabled skiers. Tony’s financial advice was spot on, yet I found it hard to trust since by most measures, it appeared we were in the same boat, surrounded by a sea of timber.

Charles was an even older work horse. He was steadier than the young guns and hated when the slackers took breaks. I had my eyes set on the middle of the pack. It seemed like the perfect gray area where no one knew what you were doing and didn’t stop to police you. Soon, however, the group realized that we could spot the foreman’s pickup coming up the hill before he arrived. Water breaks turned into lunch breaks, which turned into naps.

Corbin and Chandler were twins seemingly separated at birth. Corbin wore a bright pair of pit viper sunglasses. Chandler matched his style with his bucket hat and flame tattoos. At lunch, Corbin and Chandler launched ollies beside their cars and compared skateboard decks. Corbin and Chandler were diverse music consumers.

“RIP Little Peep.”

 “Ya, sheet, He was a real one.”

“Do you like the Beatles bro?”

“They’re classic.”

I debated whether I’d rather grow old, or remain a middle schooler forever, as they’d somehow managed to do.

As the sticks ran out and management caught on, they repositioned us to other areas of the ranch. I found my calling in one of the resort’s restaurants as a busboy where I had to take orders from a pick-up-sticker who had migrated to the kitchen just one week ahead of me, but acted like he had a graduate degree in gastronomy. Perhaps the dreadfulness of work made going home to my minivan seem all the more heavenly. I piled into my car after work, turned up the radio, and let “Blinding Lights” pump me up for another night of {insert legume} and {insert carb} dinner.

Mac and Cheese, Black Beans, and Cereal make for easy camping meals

At first I was hesitant to tell my coworkers about my living situation, but expensive mountain towns seem to make housing a top conversation topic. One of my coworkers heard about the driveway, rental property situation and compared me to the family dog, banished to the yard. One of the waiters had camped the previous summer. He gave me advice on avoiding bear encounters. We bonded talking about the gorgeous sunsets that always seemed to peak at dinner time.

Doing little things right was a cause for celebration when camping: remembering to bring the olive oil to my stove after I’d cut veggies to sauté, putting on cold jeans on a cold morning or jumping into underwear in a nick of time before a car passed me on the dirt road. I started showering at work. I traded the discomfort of having to shave next to my boss, with the bliss of hot water that lasted far longer than the tepid drip from my solar shower.

I began to understand the freedom that van fans describe when they’re on the road. Freedom for me was knowing that because I was driving my house, it was impossible to forget something anywhere I went. In the morning, I could wake up and have breakfast in bed. I’d slither around in my sleeping bag, grabbing a carrot to spread peanut butter on a bagel.

Minivan Rearview Mirror in the Mountains

With great freedom comes a lack of privacy. On weekends, I could drive anywhere, but few places seemed inviting enough to camp. The flattest ground was often in parking lots with explicit warnings against overnight camping. People stared as Pringles cans, wrinkled blue masks and tissues fluttered out my door at each parking spot. I may have been numb to it, but the world wasn’t. In public lots, I tested the tinted windows, hoping no one would make eye contact as I tried to fall asleep.

I’m glad my van “residency” lasted only a summer. Three months was long enough to witness the reality of shitting in a ditch without losing the novelty altogether. I’m happy for the memories and know that only an idiot would do it again. ­