#Vanlife, Real Life and Roads {Taken and Not}

Spring in the Black Forest

Oh I kept the first for another day!

But knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

Robert Frost, from “Road Not Taken”

A few weeks ago I taught Robert Frost’s “Road Not Taken” to my class of juniors. It went predictably, a conversation that I’ve had every year for a while.

Me: What do you think this poem is about?

Students: About doing the risky thing! Doing something that no one else does! Taking the “road less travelled.”

Me: No. Wrong. We need to read it again.

I directed them to a few salient lines, pointing out that one road was “just as fair” as the other and “both that morning equally lay in leaves no step had trodden black.” This poem is about someone who examines two equally worn paths and chooses one, then later in life tells everyone he took the less travelled one, bragging about the difference it made. He’s only half right; the roads were equally untravelled, but it did make all the difference. It had to.

“And what’s the poem called?” I asked my class.

“The Road Less Travelled,” someone said confidently.

“Check the title,” I recommend.

“Road Not Taken!” another student read. “Ohhh!”

It’s a poem about what we didn’t do. The lives we don’t lead, those other lives. I never really hear regret; the speaker is matter-of-fact, not mournful. But still, he’s aware that the crossroads meant something. Choosing one road, he left another behind. A road not taken.

Out for a walk in the forest!

Today, it’s snowing when I look up from the New Yorker article I’ve been reading. If I hadn’t gone outside today, I might assume that the air is swirling with flower petals or those fuzzy pollens that look like something out of a Zyrtec commercial, but we walked to the store earlier in a similar flurry, so I know that those are straight-up snowflakes. In April. Spring break snow.

“Reading an article” these days is stretching the phrase a bit. The article–in this case a long piece called “#Vanlife, The Bohemian Social Media Movement”–sits open on my laptop on the counter and I return to it to nibble off paragraphs in quiet moments. Sometimes I read an article in a sitting, but mostly I consume them like guilty cookies, a crumb at a time. An article like this, one that possesses the magic combination of being super interesting but not important at all, takes even longer, sentences stolen a few at a time.

Still, when I get around to it I learn about the eponymous “van life movement,” which is essentially what it sounds like: people who live in vans. The article focuses on the experience of a young couple, who’ve spent the last four years traveling the highways of North America in a Volkswagen camper van, working off a cell phone signal and chasing scenery, whimsy and an elusive sense of freedom that comes with owning little. I open a new tab to peruse their Instagram, and through its square panes I glimpse sunshine, dusty roads, oceans, forests, and steaming cups of campfire coffee. Their life, it seems, is an endless summer road trip.

Beware the seduction of Instagram! I’ve preached this to many a teenager, but still I find myself scrolling over this window a bit longingly. I imagine the lightness of traveling, just the three of us, in a van of our own, possessions kept to a minimum, without the any of the grimy details like taxes and toilets. (Because Van Life includes none of those things, at least in Instagram form.) That ocean looks so blue, those skies so perfectly stormy, the road temptingly untravelled.

This spring break, usually a time for trains and planes to take us to fresh horizons, has been a quiet one. It has been full of peace and beauty and the daily excitement of watching a person discover the world, but a time of stillness, not movement. It’s afforded me opportunities to reflect, to remember, and to realize that somehow, sometime, the nomadic life that brought me here–a backpack and violin and a teaching certificate–has turned into something far more rooted. I know these hills, these paths, the path that the sun takes across the sky and the likely behavior of the clouds on the horizon. I’ve seen these seasons six times now, and have favorite trees, hilltops and valleys to visit in each one. And I love this place dearly, even more so now that I can show it to my daughter.

The article brings me back to earth. The writer travelled with the couple for a week, and spends ample time on the less romantic aspects of Van Life: the lack of space and the conflicts it causes, endless mechanical difficulties and–biggest bubble-burster of all–the pressure of social media itself, through which they fund their endeavors through sponsored photos of products. It’s easy to post only beautiful pictures, to write only wise, measured words; the real life behind #vanlife is less shiny.

And real life, much maligned by the van lifers, is pretty excellent in itself. My untaken roads melt into the background, lost in the goodness of this one, a family in a green valley in Germany. Looking up from the article, I see Luci crawl up onto the couch, reach for a book from the bookshelf and snuggle herself into a pile of blankets. She opens the book, a vintage German copy of Maurice Sendak’s Little Bear, and turns the pages slowly. With each page, she says “Bear! …Bear!” softly, and points. The fresh horizons are Luci’s today, with a sunny-snowy April day, and a book full of bears.