Van Life…

Leo Tolstoy scribed a novella in 1859 entitled Family Happiness, which is, in short, a story of a polarised married couple, polarised in that the older man likes to be still and quiet, longing for a peaceful existence in the country, and his younger wife who seeks the hustle and bustle of city living and a want to explore and discover more and more about life.

I have not yet read the book as it is still on its way here from a second hand bookshop, but it’s existence was revealed to me a few weeks back whilst rewatching my favourite film “Into The Wild”, an amazing dramatisation of the adventure segment of the life of Christopher McCandless.

I have been thinking far too much of late on the potentiality of an early retirement from the corporate treadmill, even going to the lengths of installing a countdown clock on my iPhone, which reads out how many seconds I have left in one of the worlds biggest companies.

So after dusting off several dusty tomes from the philosophy shelf on my even dustier bookcase, it was the sage advice of Alan Watts who convinced to live more in the moment, the present, the now.

After fully contemplating this for a few days, I decided to stop thinking about my end of days scenario in work and focus on the here and now. I stopped projecting my financial position in the long term future. I stopped counting down the years, weeks, months, days and hours until my release date (sounds like a prison sentence, and some days it feels like one). Almost instantly I felt better, I felt like I wasn’t wishing the next few years away so I could get to the end quicker and enjoy the last and final chapter of my life.

I have always enjoyed travelling and after reading “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert Pirsig several decades ago, I had it in mind that I’d do Route 66 upon retirement, albeit in an open-caged Jeep rather than a motorbike. Although I may still do that one day, future plans have been put in mothballs, as what happens in the present has immediate importance, significance and attention.

So it was the older man in me from the Tolstoy novella wanting a “peaceful rural existence” and the “live in the now” wiser man in me from the many Watts postulates that encouraged me to buy a van, a caravan to be more precise, and to buy one in the present moment and not in the future.

Last year I sold the boat that I lived on in London for a while, and with the proceeds I paid off a sizeable chunk of the mortgage on the family home, leaving behind a rainy day fund I would purposely drain every August going forward to pay off an extra ten percent of the mortgage each year, until at the ripe old age of fifty five, I was debt free, free from the bondage of the banking system.

So with my new found wanting to live more in the moment, I decided that paying off a multi-national financial institution early was perhaps neither the best fiscal nor most satisfying decision to make.

Instead, I would start looking around for a touring caravan, one small enough for me and the wife to travel and explore the length and breadth of the UK and Northern Europe / Scandinavia, all without the company of our three children, who are all pretty much grown up now and have their own ideas about life, the universe and vacations.

The looking lasted all of thirty six minutes. We went to a local caravan dealership near to our home and saw a fifteen year old, two berth caravan with full bathroom in mint condition. The fund I had in my account was the exact amount the dealer was asking for, so after a brief moment to think (during which time I received a posthumous and rather esoteric nudge from Messrs Tolstoy and Watts), I told the dealer that he had a deal. So thirty seven minutes into our hunt for a home on wheels, we were the proud owners of a Swift Challenger 480.

I have never towed anything in my life so the first weekend away was a little scary. Thankfully the site we went to was just a few miles up the road and I only had to navigate my way around four roundabouts which I did with relative ease (beads of sweat a plenty though), and settle down for the weekend we did.

We tested everything, everything worked a treat at the first time of asking. We invited the kids over for a barbecue which was also nice, and perhaps even nicer were the words “this ain’t for us, Dad”, confirming the right choice we made in getting a two berth and not something bigger.

It didn’t feel like a holiday though and we never expected it to be, just a planned user acceptance test for the weekends cutover and go-live, using work parlance.

This weekend saw our second trip out, this time with our bricks-and-mortar neighbours back home, a beautiful site in Wales just outside of Wrexham, and a mere stones throw from the picturesque town of Llangollen, where we spent most of Saturday.

Sadly, it turned out that our neighbours saw this opportunity to carry on their alcohol-fuelled urban living on a quiet campsite, ignoring rules and etiquette by partying until the early hours, completely missing the point of a weekend on a rural retreat.

Needless to say it made me re-evaluate the reason why I bought the van in the first place, the type of trips I wanted to do and who I wanted to share them with.

Corporate life is chaotic, energetic, loud, urban and surrounding by technology.

Van life should, and has to be for me at least, the polar opposite of that, for if it is more of the same, then one may as well just stay at home.

And it is for that exact reason that I booked a solo trip in a few weeks to a secluded rural idyll in the Welsh Clwydian hills, with only books, an Aeropress and a fly fishing rod for company.

There is a passage from Tolstoy’s Family Happiness which goes:

“I have lived through much, and now I think I have found what is needed for happiness.

A quiet secluded life in the country, with the possibility of being useful to people to whom it is easy to do good, and who are not accustomed to have it done to them; then work which one hopes may be of some use; then rest, nature, books, music, love for one’s neighbour, such is my idea of happiness.

What more can the heart of man desire?”

I have felt that these words were (and perhaps are) the prologue for the final chapter of my life, but I’m also mindful of the last written words of McCandless too:

“Happiness is only real when shared”.

If I have another twenty to thirty years left after I retire, I can’t do it in total isolation, as not sharing wisdom, experiences and laughter with my family and friends during those twilight years would be a missed opportunity…