From March of 2018 through Christmas of 2019, I lived out of a backpack. Thruhiking is weird and wonderful – big fan.
Came 2020 and thruhiking wasn’t really on the table. For three months I lived out of my car. I had nothing to do but hike mountain trails and drive mountain roads… and avoid heat waves, wildfires, blankets of smoke, and the existential despair which comes from homeless unemploy. Oh, and COVID. Can’t forget that.
Sometimes it was tedious. Sometimes it was terrifying. But it had its moments. And I sure learned a thing or two about being a dirtbag.
In the summer of 2021 I took a job in the outdoors-world. I ran a group of backcountry Ridgerunners on the Appalachian Trail, and often was out running ridge myself. I spent the bulk of that time living out of my car. It was frequently awful, sometimes insane, and occasionally it was absolutely lovely.
Now it is 2022. I have been working as an attorney at a large law firm for the better part of a year. It is remote work. I can be anywhere in the United States – so long as I have a quiet place with wifi where I can sit from 9 to 5. It is often quite tedious. So I am trying to make it more interesting by doing it from – you guessed it – On The Road. I’ve spent most of the last month living out of a tent in the Maine mountains, lawyering from one library or another and hiking everything there is to hike.
There’s surely some overlap between these variations on the hobocore theme. But not perhaps as much as you’d think.
The biggest difference is: lockdown. When you live out in the world, the difference between an open world and a closed world is all the difference in the world. Now I can go into libraries to escape the heat of the day. Now it is much easier to get a motel-room if I want to get out of rain or smoke for a night. Now I can go into an ever-lovin’ restaurant if I so desire. And: say it softly: public showers.
But almost as big a difference is the matter of employment. An unemployed person spends a lot of their time trying to become employed, or bemoaning their lack of employment, or both. Whereas your average employed person just wants to be Not At Work. I find the former to be far more of a drain on time and psyche. Being employed lifts that burden right off.
But my particular remote-work has some particular demands. I can’t just work on my laptop for a weeks and then send in what I’ve done. I need consistent wifi all day. I often need privacy to talk to clients. And I need it to not be 35C or the temperature will exceed my IQ. (0C is not ideal – but definitely preferable!).
A cafe supplies wifi and comfiness, but not privacy. Some public spaces have wifi, some are empty enough to equal privacy, and some even have AC – but rarely all three. A motel-room is great but you need two consecutive nights for one full day of work – four nights of reservation, Monday through Thursday, will still require you to spend most of Monday and half of Friday working somewhere else
Whereas public libraries usually offer all three.
It’s not always ideal. Many libraries are to small and cramped to offer privacy. Many have chairs that would buise a Shaker’s coccyx. Some, especially in small towns, are not open consistent hours. Many still don’t have high-speed wifi. And some get hot as blazes.
But a good library is almost as good as working from a nice private home, and is better than working from a lot of offices.
Many libraries have 24/7 wifi that reaches out to picnic-tables or parking-lots. This lets me work, or play, even when the library is not open. I can sit in the car if I need to hide from the rain. I can even run the car if I really need to, and pay about a three dollar an hour tax for localized AC, though I am loathe to do so. Most libraries have an outdoor outlet that I can use for the 1-3 laptops that I juggle. And I also have a 1kwh battery that I take with me, for when outlets aren’t available… or if I want to pretend that my tent has wall sockets.
There are ways around these limitations, if I felt so bold.
I could buy a bigger vehicle – a mobile home, a van, even an SUV would work pretty well – and WFH on a home with four wheels. I could even work a full day from a library parking-lot without ever having to step inside. Price: between twenty and two hundred grand.
The big problem with the SUV is that it wouldn’t offer me much more capability than I have now. And a proper #vanlife rig wouldn’t offer much more. A significant amount of my yearly salary, up to multiples of my yearly salary, can be pretty well matched by my $100 tent from Wal-Mart.
OR, I could spend the few hundred bucks a month on a dedicated satellite hotspot, and work from my tent. I could even get a bigger tent – with a “screened-in porch” for hot days – which would only cost about $300. I could supplement my $400 battery with about $400 worth of solar panels, and my needs to recharge from outlets would be diminished – and with a second battery and a bit more solar, I’d be able to live pretty much off-grid. Give me a cheap campground, or even better some BLM land, and I could be in one spot for a week or two before moving on to the next. That would let me get in a hell of a lot of hiking.
The big problem here is that I would pay four grand a year, plus some upfront costs, all to avoid the very modest inconvenience of having to Google “library near me.” I would also lose access to the bulk of the modest human interactions afforded by a nomadic life. But finally, this wouldn’t work in hot weather. As soon as the thermometer started showing 25C I’d be thinking about the library, and by 30C I’d be waiting in the parking-lot for it to open.
I also wonder if there’s a place in this world for a widely distributed network of co-working spaces aimed at the vanlife crowd. Would I pay five dollars a day for membership at a network of ten thousand co-working spaces? Maybe – but I can’t imagine that five dollars would buy me anything that the local library didn’t offer. Just as I can’t imagine it would be as low as five dollars, nosiree.
At the end of the day, I think I just like strategizing. I like daydreaming about how better to adapt to given situations. I like dreaming about gear – I like comparison-shopping. But really… I like having a Honda Civic and a tent just fine, with a remote-work job, and a world with libraries. And a world to explore. And mountains, mountains to climb.
Plus it leaves me ever so much more money that I can save for retirement… or spend on Klondike Bars. Which is where the real quality-of-life lies.
There is one last point I’d make. In 2020 I did not have a job. Nor did I have a large ventilated tent, or a large insulated vehicle, or access to air-conditioned spaces. This meant that, when I was hiking, I had something to do; but when I wasn’t hiking it was very very difficult for me to find the commodious comfort needed to do something else. And you can’t hike every day – especially when you keep driving to trailheads only to find that they are on fire.
It was my off-days that caused me the most trouble. It was those long boring sweltering days that drove me to such distraction.
I don’t have many off-days now because I’m employed. But even if I wasn’t, I wouldn’t have nearly so much trouble with them. And that’s very important for me to realize.