Why van life? Here’s the article I wrote for a now defunct online journal about it back in 2007. Looking back, I don’t like my tone in the article. It comes across a bit self righteous… but the rationale is sound. So here it is:

The Not So Simple Life

by Jason Burton

My wife and I sleep in our minivan. We built a sleeping platform in the back after removing all the back seats. We store all our belongings under it or in a cargo box on the roof. We moved from Kentucky to a National Park in Utah about 4 months ago. I had a great job at a University. Now I live in a soccer moms car. Life is so much better. But it is not simple.

If you really think about it, the whole idea of living simply is really quite complicated. It requires change, which is never as easy as we hope. But mostly it’s hard because we just seem to be a lazy people, and i think this has much to do with the number of conveniences we’ve created for ourselves and our innate ability to justify most anything we want.

Think of it this way: Most of us get up in the morning, shower with hot water (lingering a little at the end), dress in front of a mirror in the expected uniform of our vocation, microwave our breakfast, and go to work by driving or riding in a large vehicle over a long distance at a great speed. On the way, we drive through a big name coffee shop for a mostly candied coffee drink made at the touch of a button or two. When finished, we toss the cup in the nearest trash. We arrive at work, do what is ever on our list of things to do for the day, then drive back home to maybe toss a frozen pizza into the oven for dinner before settling in to watch the news and some hour long TV shows that give us something to discuss the next day with our friends and co-workers.

How much easier can it get really? Still, we feel unhappy in our own skin, and we talk about wanting to live a simpler life, and i guess by that we mean one less programmed for us, nicer to the environment, and with less reliance on all these conveniences and all our accumulated stuff. But this kind of simple life is far from easy and to live it takes dedication and will power. We are still learning how.

Our life recently has looked more like this: I wake up, crawl out of bed and into a pair of shoes sitting outside our minivan door. I dress there, go find a place to pee, and then am back at the van. I wake Jenn enough for her to move down so I can lift the platform lid to access our “kitchen”, a propane tank and two burner camp stove. I pull these out, assemble them on the ground, and rummage through our food box for breakfast. I have multiple choices, but all of them are oatmeal. Cinnamon spice today. Sweet! I heat water, get out my coarse ground coffee, add it to my coffee press, and wait. I go back and put on a fleece jacket as it is almost chilly this morning.

Once the water has boiled I add it to the coffee press and the oats. I sit and watch the first light of the sun hit the towers around me. I marvel at the way the pre-dawn blues impossibly erupt into fire as yellow sun reflects off orange rock. I feel warmer at the mere sight of it. Soon I push down the plunger on my press, watching a few gritty coffee grounds swirl up into the mix. Almost perfect.

I walk over to the water spigot, fill our solar shower bag and hang it where it will be in the sun most of the day. If it is not sunny, then we will go without a shower or we will warm some water on the stove for a sponge bath.

I’m back at the van soon, rummaging through assorted climbing gadgets that I’ll need for the day. I’ll be guiding a group of clients through a slot canyon. I don’t have a clue who they are, what shape they’re in, or what kind of attitudes they might have. I just know I have to get them safely through. I pack a lunch, peanut butter and jelly on a pita. I fill my water bottles.

I need to get to work. Jenn is up now, putting on her uniform in the van, getting ready for a day of protecting one of our nations most precious natural gems. She looks good in her park ranger pickle suit, but waits to put on the hat until she is officially on the clock. After she finishes breakfast, she’ll put away the kitchen piece by piece. If the cooler needs ice, it’s a stop at the gas station on her way to work. We put everything in waterproof containers in the cooler, but water still sometimes finds a way to make our cheese soggy. I give her a kiss goodbye and part with words of hope for a good day.

Fleece jacket off, I’m on my bike, riding the three and a half miles to work into a strong headwind that comes up the canyon each morning. It is not easy riding and I’m already sweating, but the exercise will have me fully awake for my clients for the day. After work, we’ll shower in the 110 degree water from our solar shower bag. It’ll take us merely 3 gallons of water to both get totally clean. There is not enough for letting the hot water soothe sore shoulders, but that’s okay. We talk about our days. We talk with our friends and neighbors about their days as well. Someone is going to the farmers market tomorrow and wants to know if others would like to carpool. Another is working on a small garden and learning to play the mandolin. We share songs and stories with these people. We argue and disagree often. We learn to love one another and respect differences.

If it rains, making dinner is not much fun, and unfortunately sometimes ends with a less than ideal meal. A ham and soggy cheese sandwich with some red bell pepper and hummus may suffice as it can be put together in the van without the need to get out the stove and propane tank. A little reading compliments the last light of day. We enjoy the coolness settling in after another scorching day in the desert. 104 today. We read by headlamp as the light fades, swatting at bugs and moths that are drawn to our lights. Jenn works a crossword while I finish my Buechner book.

Our life is different than most. We have to work a little harder to get clean, to get dressed laying down, to go find a bathroom, to get to work, to make meals, to keep food cold, to endure the extreme heat, to make coffee, to have conversations and relationships. We don’t make much money, we aren’t always comfortable, and we have not seen a TV show in months.

We fight the little battles of simple versus complicated. Taking an item to recycling is way more difficult than tossing it in the trash. Remembering to take our own bags to the grocery requires more planning than simply using the stores plastic bags. The price of organic and locally grown goods challenges us and our paychecks every time. Remembering to fill our water bottles is far more time consuming than simply buying a case of 24 neat little packaged, non-tap-water-tasting water bottles.

So if you want to simplify your life, go buy a bunch of Hot Pockets and a new microwave oven. That is way more simple than cutting up veggies and cooking outdoors on a propane stove that you must assemble each time you want to use it.

But if, by simple, you mean to say a life less cluttered with stuff and nicer to the planet and to your own health, then remember that despite living simply by needing and having very little, it is hard work to live this way, and requires resilience and a sense of whimsy. We’re getting better at it, but we’re just starting, and we still find it easy to fall back on old habits when we get stressed or have an overly long day. We also don’t have much extra to give to social justice issues. Instead, we hope we are changing our patterns of greed and selfishness which we feel are responsible for a lot of the problems in the world. We fully admit that we are not blameless. We know it’s not that simple, but we think we are getting to the root of it, digging deep toward eden to find the original sin.

This life is a great adventure that we are, all of us, a part of. At the end of my work day, my clients remark that the long hike in the sun that few will make, and overcoming the fears that few will face, made the day worth it. They are saying that the need to work hard increased their joy in the end. I smile and nod before heading home to the minivan and my wife. We greet with a warm embrace and head down to the river for a swim. We simply love our complicated life.


The Overlook. Southern Utah.

Took a little trip up to 10,500 feet to climb and camp at the Overlook. In part to escape the heat and in part to acclimate to some elevation before our backpacking trip next week. The last time we climbed was in April, and our bodies complained as we shook off 4 months of rust. But we had fun, and we got up routes that should have been way out of our pay grade.

I guess I still remember how to climb, and it was nice to settle into old patterns of movement, muscle memory, and flow, though maybe without the gracefulness of the past. Combine that with some great scenery and cool temperatures and you have the making of a good day indeed.


On Construction.

Minivans aren’t square. The floor slopes from back to front and there are bumps everywhere. Our first step was to find the storage “totes” that we would use, figuring out how low we could build the platform (sitting up would be cool) but still get all our stuff underneath.

The Sienna is great, with dual sliding side doors and a back hatch. We hinged the platform in the back so we could access gear back there. We also did not put the platform all the way forward so that we could still lean seats back and store my guitar behind them. In the end, when combined with our Yakima box on top, we got everything either under the bed, behind the seats, or in the top carrier. This included all our gear for climbing and backpacking as well as clothing for all seasons and a “kitchen” which was a cooler, food box, two-burner stove and tiny refillable propane tank.

Our mattress included our camp pads underneath (storage as well as comfort) followed by two layers of cheap blue foam camp pads (you know you love these) duct taped into a double-thick-double-wide foam rectangle. Next came a nice squishy egg-crate foam topper. A standard sheet tucked in over this and we had our comfy (firm) bed. I will talk a lot about this bed. I am sorry. It’s just the best thing ever.

Lorraine, our minivan/home, parked near Canyonlands National Park. Jenn cooking up something tasty.

Not as sexy as a VW Westy, I know. But practical, cheap, and still running without much maintenance at 225,000 miles and counting. It’s kinda like me that way. Practical, Cheap, Unattractive, Old, and Reliable.  

There’s a bed in the back. There’s a roof over our heads, and we can simply pull over, crawl in the back, and sleep most anywhere. We often drift off staring out at the stars and wake to the sun creeping down canyon walls. 

My next album is going be called Home, or something that suggests the theme. It will feature songs written over the past several years. Songs about a search and longing for home, for love, and for sanctuary.

Since 2007, here is where we have spent at least 3 months living, in chronological order. This doesn’t even count big road trips all over the country.

Richmond, KY
Zion National Park, UT
Winter Park, CO
Sequoia National Park, CA
Pinedale, WY
Berea, KY
Pinedale, WY
Berea, KY
Yellowstone National Park, WY
Berea, KY
Pinedale, WY
Zion National Park, UT

This is fairly typical of the nomadic types with seasonal jobs, but along the way we bought the house in Kentucky. We almost bought a place in Pinedale, and we look at house designs a lot. We start to settle, and then get pulled off to the next adventure. In that, we’ve left a string of friends along the way, and though we diligently try to keep up, it is nearly impossible and we feel the loss of it daily.

And yet I do not feel we are indecisive, or even that we are not able to take root. We have decided on one another, and are surely rooted firmly there. This journey has been easy because of the shared vision, and often, shared wanderlust.  And so the theme of home makes sense. Always looking for it. Maybe never finding it. And being okay with that.

Maybe that’s the point. Maybe as C.S. Lewis said, 

“If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”