This article first appeared in the February 2014 issue of Climb Magazine.
The crisp morning air fills the opening of my sleeping bag, near my neck, and I pull it tighter, burying myself deeper inside. A blurry eye opens just a fraction. I can see the soft golden light outside the back windows, casting warm rays on the undulating Spanish hillside, olive trees twisting into the distance.
It will be another hour before the sun’s rays heat up the inside of the van to a pleasant temperature, but the promise of another bright day warms me. The cool draft fills my lungs and awakens my tired body. I can hear birds calling out, and a tractor breaks into life in the distance. The slow pace of another day in rural northern Spain has begun.
The white panel ceiling glistens. It is heavy with condensation because we forgot to crack a window again last night, and the drips will soon begin to fall. They seem to be laser-guided, searching out the weaknesses in our thick insulation. Exposed skin is their favourite, and they hang, trembling, waiting to plummet. An icy drip to the face receives a low groan and earns another 15 minutes in bed.
Eventually, the alarm on my watch sounds, and we slowly escape our metal cave like the neanderthals we seem to resemble. The sunshine has grown in strength and intensity and I am content to simply sit on the ground, basking in the warmth. I sit cross-legged and face the sun. Back straight, arms relaxed, eyes closed. Feel the sun on my face, the heat on my body, and just relax. Slowly and deeply, the air is drawn into my lungs. It almost feels like life is being breathed back into my body.
The rituals of the day begin. After breakfast, we drive the two kilometers into the village to buy a baguette for lunch. The diesel van hates these cold starts, particularly since only two of the four glow plugs are working. The engine cannot warm itself properly, so will cough and splutter for at least ten long, agonising seconds, before bursting into action with a roar and clouds of thick, stinking black smoke. The other occupants in the car park cheer and laugh as we coax the van onto the road, to descend down the alpine switchbacks and greet the familiar boulangerie lady.
One of the beauties of van life is the ‘snail principle.’ Home goes with you wherever you go, and you needn’t worry about hotels, restaurants and kitchens - they all have their place in the back of the van, sliding around as you career along the roads. Home is where you park it, with views, peace and seclusion at your discretion. I have woken up to some of the most glorious sunrises and watched the sun dip into the horizon with only my climbing partner for company - it was as if we were the only people on earth.
However, van life is not always rosy and safe. Sleeping in car parks leaves you at the mercy of the locals. When we stayed in the Ardeche, a campsite full of over-imbibed German teenagers overspilled into our oasis of calm. They began a game, running up and banging on the van as loud as they could. There was no provocation, we had never seen these people before. The first one woke me, eyes suddenly wide and ears pounding. At the second, Rachel awoke with a start and shouted. I quickly ran outside and after some shouting they seemed to have cleared off. Another loud bang a short while later signaled their desire to continue, and at 1am we confronted them before driving to the other end of the village. ‘Bloody scallies!’ said Rachel. The rest of the night passed by in fitful, paranoid sleep and for a week afterwards, if anyone walked past at night, I would lie there waiting for the inevitable trouble. Thankfully, it never came.
The van should also be treated with love: although it’s the trump card, it’s the only card you have. The glow plugs required fixing, since we were only on the cusp of winter, and the garage bill still makes me wince. We keep our fingers crossed for no more problems.
Rain is the enemy of van life. The gentle pitter patter of raindrops on the roof at night bring another collective sigh. It will soon become a torrential downpour, the thin metal roof intensifying the sound as it drums into our spirits. I think of the routes at the crag, turning black with seepage and streaked with water, of projects that will have to be sacrificed to the rain gods. Wet clothes cannot be dried easily, entertainment options run into the single figures and the cold begins to creep when we are trapped, like prey, inside our little metal box, staring out of the misted windows at the clouds. Cooking in the van is also challenge, since the bed prohibits access to the kitchen, the larder or the equipment boxes.
Thus, another beauty of the van is the large interior capacity, but ultimately you need space outside in order to enjoy it. Sunshine and calm skies increase the van’s space almost infinitely, and allow us to do the very thing we drove 2000 miles for: go climbing.
Van heirachy is also another fascinating exhibit that should not be missed. When lined up in a car park, it makes quite a spectacle as people explore each others’ vehicles, either surreptitiously or openly. The expensive and luxurious modern homes-on-wheels sit proudly at the top, professional interiors and alloys rims gleaming. The small, postman sized vans sit firmly at the bottom, often requiring an operation of military organisation in order to perform basic functions like cooking or sleeping.
The ‘road-tripping’ climbers’ van will usually lie somewhere in between, sporting a few dents, some chipped paintwork and an old but well-loved engine. The van may be full of clutter but represents an oasis of security, solid and reliable. It is more than just a vehicle, a space to live. It is home.