Ashlie Atkinson outside the log cabin van (Photo: Leon Chase)
Our vacation home has four wheels. And no bathroom. It’s not all that nice to look at. There’s not a lot in the way of furniture. But we have had some of the best times of our relationship in it.
And we are just one couple of many. We call ourselves “Vanners.”
Though local events started cropping up in the decade prior, the first National Truck-In was held in 1973, bringing together members of the custom-van subculture — a crew that would hold together through schism, aging, tragedy, astronomical gas prices and countless rounds of Bucket (a devastatingly yummy alcoholic brew passed around in a wooden bucket for all to drink; that’s the short explanation, anyway). For the past six years, my fiancé and I have fought our demanding schedules in Brooklyn so we can get away from city life and hang out with these rebellious, warm-hearted, frequently intoxicated friends, soaking up as much of their attitude as possible.
Yes, we’re camping with electricity supplied by the fairground. How else am I going to ingratiate myself with the neighbors if I can’t spend four drunken hours making up blender drinks?
Vanner events are usually hosted by a club. Some are hosted by the same club every year, and others, like the National Truck-In, have rotating hosts. Most are held in fairgrounds, and the ambiance is somewhere between rock festival and glamping. Vans are parked all over the fairgrounds and double as your camp area. A good spot leaves enough room for your neighbors to have their camp chairs and picnic tables, while you all have access to the electrical outlets.
Because yes, we’re camping with electricity supplied by the fairground. How else am I going to ingratiate myself with the neighbors if I can’t spend four drunken hours making up blender drinks? How else can we listen to classic rock until the sun comes up? We can’t stumble back to our van after the late-night bonfire if we can’t identify our site by the Christmas lights. No. Electricity is a must. You might not shower for three days (I always recommend a festival braid and a maxi dress for maximum comfort), but you shouldn’t be more than an extension cord length away from power.
But really, all you need to be a Vanner is the following:
1. A Van. Or a Minivan. Or a friend with a van. It doesn’t have to be a pretty one, either. Our 1995 Ford Econoline Conversion Van just got stripped of its hideous teal side decals, but it’s still got rusty patches and Too Many Windows (it’s a cosmetic pet peeve of Vanners). Our dreams for it outpace our time and money by a country mile. But it’s got a futon in the back that sleeps us both comfortably, and plenty room for our coolers of food.
2. An Appreciation for Vans. Granted, the reason folks come back again and again probably has more to do with community and kinship, but it’s the “Show & Shine” that hooked us all to begin with. The most creatively-conceived, decked-out, lovingly maintained exteriors and interiors are on display at the aptly-named Show & Shine, an event generally held Saturday afternoon on the long weekends that Vanner events favor. Everything from perfectly-preserved VW microbuses and antique Fords to gorgeously airbrushed vans with custom interiors are on display. Want to see a van where the inside looks like a log cabin? CHECK. A van with all the characters of The Neverending Story loving rendered on its exterior? CHECK. What about The Wizard of Oz? DOUBLE CHECK. And when I say double check, I MEAN THERE ARE TWO OF THEM.
But even more exciting than the surf-shack or pirate-ship insides of these custom vans are the stories of the owners and the dedication they bring to the care and feeding of these beautiful vehicles. Which brings me to the last requirement.
3. An Open Mind. If you’re urbanites like us, you’re used to a certain way of living. You talk more than you listen. You check your phone a lot. You present yourself in a certain way that invites minimal scrutiny and maximum efficiency for city living.
You gotta let that go for a minute, friend.
The first van run I went to, I didn’t check my phone for almost three days. And I only remembered to because I saw someone else do it. It was the first phone I’d seen since arriving on Thursday evening, and this was on Sunday. Because see, here’s the thing: if you’re on your phone, you might miss the best stuff. And it’s not going to holler for your attention.
You will miss meeting Lorraine. Though her breathtakingly detailed, train-themed vain “Plum Loco” certainly grabs the eye, you have to pay attention to hear about her husband, John. John was the one (with the help of gifted artist Mike Lavallee) who transformed Plum Loco into the show beauty she is, and managed to oversee the exterior work before succumbing to cancer after battling it through 2009. After John’s death, Lorraine and the members of John’s van club, The Flying Dutchmen, joined together to continue the work John began.
There are so many stories being told, and created, at Vanner events. And so many of them are love stories: Couples in love. Parents handing vans and Vanner culture down to their kids. Van owners who fight like hell for their clubs, their vans, and their weekends away with this special group of people.
And even though our van is ugly, and we will never win an award or probably even join a club, we’re making our story too. It’s of that weird couple from Brooklyn. He works on his van on the street because they don’t have a garage. If you bring her booze or fruit, she’ll make you a kickass blender drink. They try to party all night, but never manage to stay awake.
But they come back every year.