Van-life mantra: Tune out, drive off

No, it’s not a van–but Fortune magazine doesn’t know that, and there’s the rub.

These days, the LSD-driven urge of another age to “turn on, tune in, drop out” is being replaced, to a significant degree, by the sound of transmissions shifting into gear and the refrain “tune out, turn on, drive off.” Many of today’s RVers are the new hippies.

Fortune magazine this past week ran a somewhat whiny article under the headline, “Van life is just ‘glorified homelessness,’ says a 33-year-old woman who tried the nomadic lifestyle and ended up broke.” The photo that topped this angst-filled account is reproduced above, and as anyone who knows anything about RVing will tell you, that ain’t no van; it’s a small class C motorhome.

A trivial point? Perhaps, but it illustrates the bigger problem of mainstream publications writing about subjects they don’t really understand. It’s not just that the reporter and her editors don’t know the difference between one kind of RV and another–a difference, for example, that might confuse a reader about the story subject’s complaints about being unable to cook or wash-up while on the road–but that their ignorance perpetuates certain stereotypes. See all those RVs rolling down the road? Just glorified homelessness, they’re saying. Bums on wheels. Vagabonds.

To be fair, that’s not entirely incorrect–but it is enormously skewed. Fortune‘s story reminds me of the ‘Sixties and mainstream media’s coverage of the counterculture, which emphasized sex, drugs and rock-and-roll and largely skated by the deeper philosophical, political and cultural rift that was opening up in American society. Sometimes it seemed like an entire generation was being dismissed as either a dopey long-haired bunch of hedonistic parasites or as an addle-brained cadre of brainwashed Marxists fantasizing about overthrowing the system. Both were readily found, but there was so much more going on, with so much more meaningful commentary about U.S. society that wasn’t nearly as sensational.

These days, the LSD-driven urge to “turn on, tune in, drop out” is being replaced, to significant degree, by the sound of engaging ignition keys and the refrain “tune out, turn on, drive off.” Untold hundreds of thousands of Americans have piled into everything from rattle-trap conversion vans to skoolies to homemade teardrop trailers–as well as $200,000 class B “vans” and 40-foot motorcoaches–in search of, well, something: new vistas, new adventures, the freedom of the open road, movement itself. Or sometimes they’re just fleeing from rather than running to, be it cold winters or an accumulated burden of too much stuff or just a sense of staleness.

In that sense, the new nomads are not too dissimilar from the psychedelic voyagers of 60 years ago. Viewed from a different perspective, however, today’s voyagers are reacting to–are resisting–a greatly more circumscribed world. The ‘Sixties were a time of social wealth and endless possibilities; the ‘Twenties are an age of growing impoverishment and diminishing horizons. Hitting the road means fleeing the crime and economic privation so many people fear will claim them as their next victims, of getting out from under the oppressive reach of the government (“the man,” again) with its mask mandates and high taxes. The cultural rift threatens to be even wider than it was those many decades ago, leaving us all with no one to rely on other than ourselves. What better way to do that than in the seemingly self-contained little world of an RV?

It’s all self-delusional, of course. Taking a trip, be it to the land inside of your mind or to a boondocking site on BLM land, can last only so long before reality intrudes. Acid trips wear off. Road trips require state-maintained byways and highways, not to mention gas stations and replacement tires. And just as some acid-trippers crashed and burned, so too some modern-day nomads will discover they’re not really equipped for this new adventure on which they’ve embarked. They’ll have a bad trip. Bummer.

The mistake Fortune made, with its simplistic glomming onto a counter-narrative to demonstrate its supposed ability to look beneath the surface of a growing cultural phenomenon, was to stop there. It’s as though it were reporting on the excesses of Haight-Ashbury as a way of dismissing a huge cultural paradigm shift without saying Whoa! What’s actually going on here? What are these people saying about cultural expectations, the disintegration of authority, the relationship between individuals and their society?

The growing tide of today’s nomads represents a new critique of today’s society that might become just as disruptive as were those other voyagers of 60 years ago. Picking at the fringes of this phenomenon without digging past the gotcha headlines not only demonstrates a lack of insight and understanding–as evidenced by that non sequitur of a picture–but creates a false impression that we are now better informed.


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Author: Andy Zipser

A former newspaper reporter who worked at a variety of newspapers, from small community weeklies to The Wall Street Journal, I finished my "normal" work life as the editor of The Guild Reporter, official publication of the union representing newspaper workers. On retiring, I and my wife bought a campground in the Shenandoah Valley and--with the help of our two daughters and their husbands--operated it for eight years, first as a KOA franchisee and then as an independent family-owned RV park. We sold the campground in May, 2021, and live in Staunton, Virginia, a short walk from our grandsons' home.

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