Van-life in Vancouver: interview with Nicole Risk
By Alexis Zygan, Staff Writer
“Freedom is respecting the cards I got dealt. I am the way I am, and I am allowed to want the things that I want. Freedom is going after that, regardless if it’s a little unconventional”
Some people thrive in a structured environment aspiring to one day secure a down payment on a condo. However, for many, homeownership has become unrealistic—especially millennials who have lived through two economic crises thus far. As a result, many opt to trade in social status to collect stamps in their passport, finding value in experiences over monetary assets. For these vagabonds, happiness presents itself as either a plane ticket or a full tank of gas and the open road.
Nicole Risk, a 24-year-old millennial, saw a video of a couple travelling in a school bus that would forever alter the trajectory of her life by exposing her to a subculture of nomads who sell their possessions to travel the world in vans. Although Risk does not consider herself a minimalist, all her worldly goods fit in a 28-square foot van, dubbed Freedom Wagon. She states: “the fewer things cluttering up my life, the fewer things cluttering up my mind.” Risk’s aspirations include travelling, experiencing different cultures, and learning languages. “For me, self-ownership and freedom are the tickets to happiness,” she said.
Risk shares that “I have wanted this for six years.” As a child fascinated by nature, she grew up into a hippie. When she initially shared the dream of van-life to her family, they feared their daughter’s safety, which is understandable. Looking forward to one day leaving Alberta, she saved up to turn her dream into a reality. Risk arrived at her parents with a Ford Transit Connect, which she purchased secondhand for $15,000. She spent another $2000 renovating the van and installing insulation to survive the colder months. Her family eventually came around, realizing they could not hold her back. Risk marveled, “I was blown away by the support I eventually received by my family and absolute strangers. I could not have built this van alone,” she said. The outpouring of generosity provoked a revaluation of her perspective on humans as not innately horrible.
At this point, she had recently graduated from university with a Bachelors of English and was simultaneously paying off student loan debt. Risk remarks, “[how] it was painful spending almost 20 grand on a project when I am in debt. But I know in the long run, it works out way better than throwing away money at rent.” If everything goes as planned, Risk will have her debt paid off in five years versus a decade.
Avoiding rental expenses by living in a van in Vancouver allows Risk to direct her energy to the simpler moments in life, like watching a beautiful sunset at Kitsilano beach. Risk describes her lifestyle as extreme-van-living. The small cargo van lacks amenities or solar-power and fits nothing more than a single-size mattress and a bin with snacks. She has a gym membership and a phone bill with 20 gigs of data. Gas only costs her $45 for a full tank. “My living costs are nothing,” she said. Without a proper stove, she eats out for the majority of her meals. “I eat to live more so than I live to eat,” she said. She thankfully has friends in Vancouver to use their kitchen or laundry when necessary.
Making a habitat out of your vehicle comes with challenges. Risk shares how “number one I wanted [the Freedom Wagon] to be stealthy.” Hiding in plain view to remain discrete and avoid parking tickets. Risk emphasizes that “when you are van living, you are deeply indebted to public services,”—dependent on city-funded facilities such as public washrooms, parks, and beaches. Members of the subculture follow a moral etiquette: leave space and do not obstruct other parked vehicles. She comments, “that [our community] should be very grateful for all the members of society because van life would not be possible without a regular society.”
Living full-time in the van for two months so far, she has only experienced one uncomfortable encounter staying in a remote area near a marina. She felt safe enough to crack the door open for fresh air. Until a person invasively swung the door wide open, peeking his head inside, and sneered “very sexy, do you have a boyfriend?” in a thick accent. Startled, she responded, “yes,” asking for him to leave. In retrospect, Risk laughs about the situation sharing how “he held the door open and made licking motions at me,” she said. The interaction will forever be embedded in her mind; however, she intuitively knew he meant no harm by the exchange, just a lack of social skills. There have been nights where she heard arguments and fights happening outside while sleeping. However, she has, thankfully, never been harmed or involved in a precarious predicament.
In retrospect, Risk laughs about the situation sharing how “he held the door open and made licking motions at me,”
Although Risk has no interest in blogging about her experience, many lifestyle bloggers share their experiences online monetizing the lifestyle to pay for upkeep, gas, and other expenses. Risk considers herself “pretty private and solitary by nature. Having my little bubble, the world cannot access means a lot to me,” she said. However, you can follow #vanlife on Instagram to connect with other nomads. These stories de-stigmatize the idea society has that people who live in their cars are out of options. Unfortunately, foreclosures and financial downfalls may force people to move into their vehicles full-time. In a way, van life glamorizes poverty. At the same time, it spotlights a group of people who chose this sustainable lifestyle to evade uneconomical rental markets. Van-living is not for everyone. There are certain compromises someone has to be willing to make before deciding to live in their vehicle full-time. For Risk, van life provides her with financial freedom, self-ownership, and the ability to do what she has wanted to do since eighteen. “Freedom is respecting the cards I got dealt. I am the way I am, and I am allowed to want the things that I want. Freedom is going after that, regardless if it’s a little unconventional,” she said.