Brianna Madia remembers the only thing her parents ever fought about: money.
“That really stuck with me,” she said. “And it was kind of something that I sort of wanted to set out and see: Is this really that important to focus my life around?”
She wanted a simpler life, off the beaten path, but didn’t know how to get there until she found Bertha, a bright orange van as old as her.
Bertha wasn’t the kind of tricked out van glorified on travel blogs and magazines. She broke down regularly. But she taught Madia a lot about life, which the author wrote about her in her new book, “Nowhere for Very Long,” from HarperCollins and which she shared with USA TODAY.
Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
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Question: You have this line in your book that you didn’t so much live in the van but live out of the van. Can you tell me a little bit more about that and why that’s important for people to know when they’re thinking about this life?
Answer: I don’t say this to rag on (Mercedes) Sprinter vans, but I think especially online, the van life movement and this trend and the blogs and the how-tos, a lot of it it seems like it would be very attainable, and it’s not. A lot of these really comfortable vans where you can stand up and you’ve got a stove … sometimes it’s as expensive when you first get started as an apartment. I couldn’t afford that. I mean, my van cost $7,800, and then that was it. I was broke.
The thing that mattered to me most about my vehicle was that it could get me where I wanted to go. So I sacrificed all the creature comforts and spent much more money on the big tires, making sure off-road that I had high clearance, that I could get as far away from the rest of the world as possible.
I think a lot of people build out their vans and then they travel all over the place. But really, I spent almost all of my time in Utah in the desert. I just loved it. So to me, that felt more like home.
Bertha was still like a car, like she was still like mainly a form of transportation. So when I say that I lived out of her, it was like she would get me where I needed to go.
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Q: If someone is thinking about (whether luxe life or just real life) living in a van, what are some things you think they should know, going into it?
TO: It’s one of these things that can be done on such a broad spectrum. You really can live quite simply out of the vehicle, especially now.
I remember, gosh, when I first moved into the van, it must have been 2017, and so many people would say, “How are you working?” And I would say, “Well, I work remote,” and prior to COVID, this was sort of a very novel concept … but I think a lot of companies have become aware that you can still have very loyal and efficient employees who work from wherever.
And so I think that a nice, sort of comfort that I think people didn’t really have before is that it’s not all that crazy to think that you could still be working and saving money if you want to buy a house, you want to buy an apartment (down the line while living in a van).
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I think it can be done really affordably. But I also think an important lesson that I learned is that even if you want to forgo the traditional homeownership or renting an apartment or dealing with (the) kind of the nuances of having a place of your own, I will never forget: I called my mom one day from the side of the road, which was a common occurrence, and I was like, “Oh my God, Mom, the fuel pump went out again, and we’re waiting for a tow truck,” and I just like blah blah blah, “I just don’t know how long I can keep playing Whack a Mole with these problems.”
And she goes, “I hate to tell you, Brianna, but if you get a house, it’s kind of going to be the same thing. The dishwasher breaks. A tree branch falls on the garage. You’ve got a cockroach infestation all of a sudden or whatever. It’s kind of like you are going to consistently in some way be maintaining the place that you live. … If you love where you live, you are going to kind of be fighting for it no matter what. “
Q: What were some other life lessons you learned from Bertha?
TO: I learned a lot about myself in the sense that I really like being different. It’s something that I used to feel kind of ashamed about because I feel like when you’re a little kid, everyone’s, “Cool. You should be different.” And then all of a sudden, they’re like, “Whoa, not like that. Like be different but in a way that’s still societally acceptable. It makes us comfortable.”
And so I kind of felt like Bertha was this really fun way – and I think I say this like in the very first chapter – was a really fun way for me to just give like a big middle finger to the only way of life I’d ever seen. I think that I really sort of felt like I came into my own.
I also learned that there’s a community for every type of hobby, and that’s what’s one of the great things about the internet and the van life movement.
It was lonely at first, but then when I found this community of friends and these travelers and stuff, it really drove home the fact that, you know, it’s always worth it to really, actually be who you are, because you’re not going to be as alone as you thought.
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Q: You make it clear from the very beginning of the book that things don’t always go the way you expect. What are some things you didn’t expect, and how did you overcome them?
TO: I wasn’t expecting for it to be as difficult as it was at first in the city. … Even though I’m not currently living in the van because she’s being all fixed up, souped up, chopped into pieces and put back together, I’m so aware of all of the signs in parking lots that are like, ” You can’t park here. No overnight parking.”
It made me really understand how challenging our laws are for… homeless communities and people who are not like me, who have not chosen to do this. Just the amount of places where it’s like, “No, you can’t stay here. No, you have to leave. You can’t be here. You can’t loiter here. You can’t.” It’s almost like there’s this aspect of just being a human in the wrong place at the wrong time is not acceptable, or you’re going to get in trouble for it.
I also was surprised at how many people, and this is specifically online, how many people were so convinced … that I had a trust fund, that I was extremely wealthy, that anyone who lived this kind of life was very wealthy, and you just must be some rich kid from Connecticut … (or) that I must be using unemployment or abusing the government, the system.
I remember feeling really sad about that and having to adjust my attitude to just feel sorry for people who are convinced that if someone does something different than the way you’re doing it, they must be cheating or if someone thought to take a different path than you, then it’s somehow a threat to the path you chose.
I know that I’m finding little loopholes, and it’s not cheating. It’s just thinking about things a different way and thinking outside the box. I view it now as a gift that I get to experience things not just with this one-track mind.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism