My seduction began with the click of a mouse. For the price of my email address, I entered a sweepstakes during the long winter of 2022 to win a fully rigged Mercedes-Benz Sprinter camper van. This was an impulsive decision, when my fantasies of open-highway escape were as strong as they’d ever been: After two years as coronavirus captives, my wife and I needed a road trip. And we needed a way to take both dogs along for the ride because, well, Coloradans.

Once I hit the “enter” button, Facebook’s algorithm worked its magic. My news feed began inundating me with one glamorous #vanlife fantasy after another. Other camper giveaways. Van conversion companies. Custom vans for rent or sale. Nonstop blog posts.

The most persistent dream peddler was, where camper van owners offer you the chance to rent their custom rides. Dozens were available in the Denver area. Determined to entice, each owner posts alluring photos of their van’s boundless possibilities. Look—that one has an outdoor shower! This one has a surfboard rack! Are those impossibly attractive young people sharing a candlelit meal in the dining nook of their camper van? Of course they are! And see what happens when they slide open the side door? They’re enjoying a panoramic sunset view of the Grand Canyon! Or the ocean! Or a pristine lake surrounded by forested mountains!

Now, look, I’m a grown man. At 65, I know more than most about the persistent gap between fantasy and reality. And yet….

Our camper van sat like a beached whale in the Denver parking lot of VanCraft, the company from which we rented it. A spotless 2021 model Sprinter with just 14,000 miles on the odometer, it was bloated not only with expensive diesel fuel but also with five gallons of potable water beneath the kitchen sink and another 20 gallons in the heatable outdoor shower tank in the back.

The bed was made with fresh linens, and the cookware in the kitchen drawers was sparkling. The refrigerator was chilled, thanks to electricity generated from a solar panel on the van’s roof, and the company had preloaded small propane tanks for the two-burner stove. Two camp chairs and an outdoor carpet in the rear storage area awaited deployment beneath a roll-out awning the moment we happened upon some Instagram-worthy vista.

Back there, too, was the mysterious “cartridge toilet” I had rented for an additional $95. My wife, whose puritanical reserve is legendary, watched the rental agent demonstrate the flushing mechanism in the parking lot with a look that somehow combined amusement and abject terror. I knew right then she would never use it.

Our queenly 10-year-old Lab, Callie, and her hyperactive two-year-old Aussie tormentor, Finn, hopped in and made themselves at home. We stocked the fridge, loaded our bags and supplies, and added two of our own folding chairs to accommodate the friends we’d certainly make around various campfires. Ahead: 10 days and 2,500 miles of adventure. We planned to hit Glenwood Canyon and other favorite Colorado spots on the way to visit our son in Las Vegas and our daughter in Los Angeles. In between, national parks, deserts, and magnificent wilderness.

Everyone was in place—me behind the wheel, my wife alongside, Callie claiming the kitchen floor, and Finn bounding up into the rear-deck double bed. I cranked the whale, and we lumbered off into the hazy Nomadland between fantasy and reality.

Turns out, the carefree, spur-of-the-moment freedom we were seeking also requires championship-level planning and forethought. Some obsessive-compulsive traits would have been helpful, as well.

In a perfect world, we would have planned our trip months or even a year in advance. We would have identified the national and state parks where we wanted to stay and monitored park websites to reserve our spots the moment they became available. We would have spent $99 for a Harvest Hosts membership and used its app to book ourselves into available campsites on private ranches, farms, wineries, even museum parking lots.

But I’ve never lived in a perfect world. Hitting the road on two weeks’ notice requires an immediate and radical downscaling of expectations. National parks? You should have reserved a site six months ago. Less expensive state parks? Full. But my capacity for self-delusion is wide and deep. I reasoned we could always engage in what’s known among RV people as boondocking—simply finding some overlooked paradise and squatting for the night.

I know what you’re thinking, because you’ve seen the same photos I have. You imagine enjoying a glass of good wine while your van is parked on a gorgeous turnout overlooking a crystalline mountain stream. In the distance, the sun is setting over the Maroon Bells. Life is good.

Perhaps someday you’ll find such a place. We did not.

More likely, you’ll end up in the vast soulless parking lot of a Walmart, Cracker Barrel, Cabela’s, or other mass retailer that allows free overnight parking. Or you’ll engage in moochdocking—overnighting in front of the homes of indulgent friends willing to offer a shower or access to their toilets in the middle of the night.

Or you’ll end up booking yourself into a commercial RV “resort.” We did that during our first night in Moab, Utah. We arrived after dark. Even so, I could tell our road beast was a dwarf among the Jurassic, back-to-nature transport machinery among which we found ourselves. Greyhound-bus-size behemoths bristling with satellite dishes and worth more than the average starter home sat side by side on concrete slabs. Electrical wires and septic hoses snaked to outlets and dump stations. Most sites also were crammed with off-road vehicles, trailers, and dirt bikes, which the motor homes had dragged along to explore Moab’s stunning red rock topography.

I felt like we’d driven straight into the heart of what cynics call “Peak America.” We drove straight out the next morning.

By contrast, in Kanab, Utah, we overnighted at an RV campground etched into a patch of dark-sky desert. It was extraordinarily pleasant. We enjoyed seeing countless stars before bed and awoke to a stunning red mesa landscape the next morning. We didn’t need showers but took them anyway, because the bathrooms there were nicer than ours at home.

Van life got way more complicated once we hit the cities. We spent two nights in the parking lot of our son’s Vegas apartment building, hoping no one would notice the family of squatters hiding behind the van’s tinted and shaded windows. We relocated twice, like fugitives, to avoid arousing suspicion. Rather than haul out our $95 toilet in the middle of the night, I found a reason to visit a nearby dog park at 2 a.m., taking the dogs along as cover.

We spent another two nights dodging our daughter’s nosy landlord in crowded Redondo Beach. Her lease forbids pets. One night, we checked into a budget motel near LAX, just for a break. No worries that the dogs might stink up the room; it already reeked of weed. We spent our final night in Southern California moochdocking with friends, enjoying the expansive luxuries of a hot shower and a fenced backyard where the dogs could wrestle.

Fantasies have enormous value. They provide comfort and hope. They keep us sane in stressful times. They fuel our ambitions. Without them, human progress might stall.
But let’s recognize that we’re all pretty vulnerable these days. COVID-19 is a big part of it. There’s also a savage war in Ukraine, near-daily mass shootings, and a political discourse that continues to have all the civility of a back-alley cockfight. Don’t even get me started about the Twitterverse as a primary source of “news.” Honestly, there are more reasons than ever to run away.

I don’t fault the van life industry and its dream weavers for catering to that demand. What they’re selling has persistent appeal, like comfort food. The freedom of the open road! Accessible natural beauty! Mobile coziness! Just know that, for us, what they’re selling was seldom as lovely as the Instagram photos, and it’s hardly cheap. To spend 10 days cruising through the Southwest in a claustrophobic, diesel-spewing camper, we paid about as much as if we’d stayed every night in a pet-friendly, $350-a-night hotel—and tipped well.

Still, we might try van life again. The dogs got to swim in the Pacific, explore Moab’s Grandstaff Canyon, and hike Red Rock Canyon outside of Vegas. They slept better than usual as part of our tight-quarters little pack, and the short one’s persistent digestive issues suddenly improved. Plus, having successfully pressure-tested our 40-year marriage, we now know we can survive that much togetherness.

The last leg of our trip took us home to Grand County in a storm, along the boggy Trough Road from State Bridge to Kremmling. The whale’s sides and back were caked with mud. What we returned to the rental company looked like a Mad Max battlewagon, and I found some satisfaction in that. I apologized and assured the check-in guy that the fearsome toilet was as clean as it had been the day we left.

This article was originally published in 5280 July 2022.
Martin J. Smith
Martin J. Smith
Martin lives in Granby. He’s the author of five novels and five nonfiction books, including "Going to Trinidad: A Doctor, a Colorado Town, and Stories from an Unlikely Gender Crossroads," which this year was a finalist for a Colorado Book Award.