Crystal Vanner: Living out of a van, and it’s "very liberating".
Text: LaMont Jones Jr.
Don’t give Crystal Vanner the side eye because she lives out of a van.
Not that she would care, anyway. Her life-altering decision in 2015 – to get off the make-ends-meet treadmill that millions of Americans find themselves seemingly trapped on – has changed her life for the better.
“It just opened my eyes to a lot of things I didn’t realize I wanted or needed in my life,” she said. “It’s very liberating.”
The journey for Vanner – a surname she adopted in her transition to van-dwelling – began with an edit mindset and a desire to “live smaller.” The emerging tiny house trend caught her attention in 2014, she said, and it fit with her affinity for minimalist yet nesty home environs.
But she wanted to live even smaller than that. Her son had grown up and moved out, and she felt the northern Virginia apartment she was sharing with her second husband as empty-nesters was still too big and too costly. At the same time, the marriage was struggling, she was working full-time and part-time jobs and she was trying to cut expenses.
Then one day she came across a YouTube video that changed everything.
“It sold me on van living,” she said. “A light bulb went off in my head: ‘This is something you can afford to do today.’”
Her husband wasn’t feeling the tiny houses, she thought to herself, so there was probably no way he would consider van life.
He didn’t. They separated, and Vanner began her new lifestyle Aug. 27, 2015 in her converted 2000 GMC Jimmy.
“This is about me,” she told herself at the time. “This is about being happy. This is about my mental health.”
She had been diagnosed as bipolar and experienced occasional anxiety and panic attacks, she said. When she quit her job to begin van life on the road, the loss of health insurance led her to a decision to wean herself off medication and stop seeing a psychiatrist.
And she feels better. Choosing to spend her time in warm climates – primarily Arizona, where people can stay free on public lands with some restrictions – has nearly eliminated the seasonal depression she routinely experienced.
“One of the things I said to myself was, ‘no more winters,’” said Vanner, a pescatarian who chronicles her natural-hair journey on her YouTube van-life channel.
“My biggest fear was that I didn’t want to be older or on my deathbed and wonder, ‘What if I had done it?’ I figured if it doesn’t work out, I could go back. Van life might not be a viable option at 80. At least I know I tried it.”
Vanner, 47, is on her third vehicle since becoming a van-dweller. In April 2016, she replaced her SUV with a minivan she bought on Craig’s List for $800. She rolled out of northern Virginia in September 2017 and last summer paid $1,100 for her current vehicle. She gave the minivan to her son and went to work with methodical precision on her 1998 Ford E150 conversion van.
She removed everything behind the two front seats. Her bed is on one side opposite rows of plastic storage bins, which weigh less than wooden ones and are better on fuel efficiency and the vehicle’s suspension. She also has a two-burner cook-top, fridge, toilet, sink, hanging closet and “a nice aisle in the middle” from front to back, she said.
Although van-dwelling has greatly reduced Vanner’s expenses, sometimes she struggles financially. But between her 17,000 YouTube channel subscribers, selling T-shirts and occasionally getting paid for other skills – she was a licensed cosmetologist for 22 years and taught reading to special education students – she’s enjoying a healthier work-life balance.
“I have more peace,” she said. “I regret not knowing about this in high school. I would have done it immediately after high school. I would have been living this lifestyle way longer. I think I would have had all of this peace back then.”
Living in warm climates has eased her joint pain. She’s more social than ever and has met friendly people who she thought she may not like based on their appearance. She doesn’t discuss politics and religion – “all that does is further separate us” – preferring topics that are mutually affirming. She occasionally goes to the cinema, watching only movies that positively portray black people. And she gets back to Virginia to see family and friends every now and then.
“She sounds like she’s really onto something,” said Dr. Huberta Jackson-Lowman, president of the Association of Black Psychologists. “She has found a way to reduce the levels of stress she was experiencing.”
“A lot of that has to do with the stress that we have to live through in this country,” she added, referencing the annual World Happiness Report published by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network. The 2018 quality of life assessment ranked the United States 19th, five positions lower than in 2017.
“A lot has to do with the kind of culture we live in, which expects people to function like we are individuals,” said Jackson-Lowman. “We’re supposed to be able to handle pretty much everything ourselves, and we don’t have jobs that support it. For some jobs, it becomes a real challenge because you can’t take time to go to the doctor. Or to court. Or children with needs to address. These things contribute to levels of stress. Many African-Americans live in communities with high levels of violence, another stressor, and other pressures like gentrification. Stress comes from multiple directions.”
Vanner has simple advice for people even remotely interested in van-dwelling who think they can live in a small space.
“Just do it,” she urged, “because in all honesty, you can go back if you don’t like it.”
And don’t be deterred by skeptical friends and family, she added.
“I’ve found that most people fear what other people will think,” she said. “Most people are afraid of what their adult children would think, that friends would think they have ‘lost it.’ I ask them, ‘Are those people helping pay your bills?’ If not, then they have no say-so with what you do with your money, your time, your life. And once they start seeing your travels and enjoyment and how happy you are, they’ll be jealous.’”