Jeff Spicoli. You know, stoned, doofy, and happy go lucky. That’s the dominant surfer stereotype. I grew up surfing in South Carolina and wasn’t really part of the surf culture there. In 2003, I moved to Orange County, CA for law school, but mainly to get good waves. The surf is good, and the crowds mean you’re in proximity with the surf culture whether you identify or not. By 2007, I was working heavily in coastal advocacy with non-profit groups like the Surfrider Foundation. By then, I was up to my ears in surf culture.
The more apt stereotype is jock, plain and simple. The dominant reality in surfing is strong, competitive, aggressive, and often toxically male. Still, the traditional hippie surfer stereotype persists in popular culture. And even many surfers have always talked about surfing as their religion.
The idea of surfing as religion always sounded cute and lightly vapid. And surfing at the expense of the advancement of my career made me lightly identify with the concept. But a few days ago, around easter, I had an epiphany of sorts when the parallels between some religious groups and the surfers I hear on social media came into clear focus.
Orthodox Jews and Fundamentalist Christians around the country were defying stay at home orders to attend religious services, endangering themselves and others with possible COVID-19 exposure. At the same time, many vocal surfers engaged in similar anti-social behavior and rhetoric, growling bombastically about sweeping beach closures, in some cases skirting closures by defying orders or relocating their surf sessions to places without the resources to implement closures.
I grew up in the Bible Belt, persistently judged by bigots for my long hair and interest in other cultures, science, and pluralism. For a brief while in my twenties, I was pleasantly amused to characterize my obsession with surfing as some sort of spiritual clique where we existed on a higher plane. In reality, I was just a young, fit adrenaline junky.
But clearly for many, Surfing is very much a religion: It blurs some folks’ rational thinking, allowing them to act myopically selfish and lash out at logical social constructs as if the folks advocating for those constructs don’t understand surfers’ clearly superior interests.
As you may know, many cities have ordinances which prohibit folks from living in vehicles. I do not think that #vanlife is a systemic solution to inadequate housing stocks, or pretty much anything else. But I am enjoying it, and my van-dwelling presents a burden to no individual or community. In May 2019, the San Diego City Council passed a revamped vehicular habitation prohibition which they hope will pass constitutional muster, unlike the previous one which was determined to be unconstitutionally vague. Here's my response:
My name is Marty Benson. I’m an environmental attorney and Traffic and Public Safety Commissioner for the city of Encinitas. In 2010, for ethical reasons, I gave up my car and lived electively car-free for 8 years in Los Angeles and Encinitas. Last summer, in a new elective experiment in minimalism, I moved into a camper van full-time with my girlfriend and 50 pound dog. My terrestrial and carbon footprints are smaller than basically everyone you know. And when I moved out of my apartment last year, I single-handedly increased Encinitas’s “affordable” housing stock by one 1 bedroom.
“They’re dangerous. They’re unclean. They don’t have accountability. They don’t have work ethic. They’re sexual deviants. They’re just freeloading.”
When people talk about why we should prohibit vehicular habitation, I keep hearing examples of fictive prospective problems which have neither correlative nor causal relationships with vehicular habitation. I have neither heard, nor can I conceive of, a rational argument as to why we should prohibit otherwise perfectly legal behavior because it is happening in a perfectly legally parked automobile.
Your problem is not one of vehicular habitation. You have two distinct problems: you have a tremendous excess of free private off-street parking and public on-street parking which caused a fantastic inadequacy of affordable housing. For many decades the city of San Diego has subsidized and required thousands of acres of its most precious resource to free housing for cars and a tremendous lack of affordable housing for human beings. The free market responded and adapted, and people started using that storage space in a higher utility function: making meals, eating, reading, working, and sleeping in this space.
If you wish to minimize or end vehicular habitation, the only equitable and humane way to do it is to make vehicular habitation impractical. My recommendation as to the best way to go about this has three prongs: 1. Eliminate off-street minimum parking requirements for residential and commercial usage. 2. Begin charging performance pricing for on street public parking and invest the revenue in public services in that neighborhood. 3. Immediately begin to incentivize and swiftly permit affordable transit oriented infill density redevelopment.
I pick up 1.5-2x as much poop as my dog generates. It is highly improbable that a significant amount of that extra poop comes from the dogs of vehicle inhabitants. Should we evict all of the housed people because some of them aren’t picking up after their dogs? Absolutely not. But that’s exactly the logic driving this ordinance.
This morning, after making over easy egg, bitchin’ sauce, and cheese sandwiches on Darshan focaccia bread our friends Heather and Anthony gave us, I was washing dishes in the public restroom down at the beach park.
I’m doing dishes in a public restroom, and I’m listening to Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now. It’s the chapter about happiness. Pinker’s general thesis is one of optimism: the world is getting better; progress is real, persistent, and historically very likely to continue. His methodology is scientific, data driven, and cogent. Happiness is measurable relatively and absolutely, but also is fantastically hard to track, especially over the many various countries and over the years of our vast history. Read the book, I’m not going to summarize it.
So anyway, I’m listening to this scholar make the argument that happiness is increasing globally over time, despite the grumbling you hear in the media. And I’m having a great time.
In Jones, my camper van, we don’t have many dishes. We are constantly learning how to minimize our need to wash dishes, both in the number of dishes and the creative number of uses of each dish between washes.
“That must suck,” says a guy washing his hands.
“I mean you have to push the button over and over,” he says.
The sink, in order to keep careless or ignorant people from just leaving the faucet going, has a button you have to push for water to come out of the spigot. And it only puts out about twelve ounces of water per press. I’m washing 2 cutting boards, a bowl, a few pieces of silverware, and an old bitchin’ sauce container we reuse as a Tupperware.
All morning, Pinker has been in my ear while I cook, poop & walk Spin, telling me that even as late as the mid 19th century, a person would need to labor for like 2 hours in order to have one hour of reading light in her lamp after dark.
“I’m glad I don’t have to pump it out of a well or carry it in a bucket on my head 6 miles back to my hut.”
Man, I sit in my van, and I have an electric fan for ventilation, running reverse osmosis water, a gel foam memory mattress, a refrigerator, and I can tether my MacBook to my iPhone so that I have access to basically all of Earth’s recorded knowledge. All of these trinkets are powered by the sun through a solar array mounted on top of the van.
I don’t have the new iPhone with the portrait mode camera, the screen of my MacBook is only 13 inches. I can’t afford to out at eat sushi every night. And the vehicle part of my van runs on GHG emitting gasoline. Plus, I can’t surf because it’s raining today.
I get to work with good people on environmental, equity, and transportation campaigns. We’re selling humanism, and attempting to push the dial a little toward compassion and stewardship. I’ll always ambitiously strive to promote progress, never satisfied with stagnation.
But I’ve got a growing crew of lovely people with whom to engage, a really cute dog, and unlimited access to clean drinking water, and healthcare/entertainment/informational/transportation technologies that the richest guy in the world couldn’t have 100 years ago.
And that doesn’t suck.
Hey friends! Welcome to fromthevan.com
This website, podcast, and YouTube channel is dedicated to my exploration of policy, minimalism, community, and tiny house living through the lens of my DIY conversion of a cargo van into a full time van life custom camper van.
After law school, I was admitted to the California State Bar Association and began to work as a videographer and community organizer for environmental non-profits and their campaigns. Over the course of working to stop a toll road through a local state park, my eyes were opened to the problematic ubiquity of the automobile in American culture. On my 30th birthday in the summer of 2010, I decided to divorce my car. For the next 8 years, I lived in Encinitas and Los Angeles, CA car-free, using bicycle, feet, and transit to get around. I can proudly report that this was the most edifying decision of my life thus far.
But last year, my imagination grabbed me by the throat:
1. I'd always wanted to build a home with my own hands.
2. While living in Encinitas, I yearned for the diverse cultural opportunities presented by LA.
3. And while living in LA, I was pissed off that I wasn't surfing.
4. I have hiking-oriented wanderlust and a fantastically energetic adventure dog.
These four factors drew me to start spiraling into obsessive mania about the trending fad of #vanlife - If I could build a comfortable tiny house (1.) on wheels with a shitton of solar power, a serviceable kitchen, and a modular living space, I could keep a super low carbon footprint, live in both LA (2.) and Encinitas (3.), and scoot Spin and myself out to remote places where we wouldn't need lodging or a bus line (4.).
But that's fucking crazy! What kind of privileged, educated, employed cycling & pedestrian advocate would choose to move into a vehicle? Is "homelessness" some sort of Swiss army knife for my circumstance?
Yea, it seemed nuts, even to me. So, after months and months of study and fantasy, I decided I would buy a van, but one small enough that I could afford to buy while still keeping my apartment. Then I spent 2.5 months watching YouTube tutorials, building custom van furniture, cutting myself on shit and sobbing on top of the van. At the end, there was a converted Mercedes Metris van with a tiny home, complete with a comfy convertible couch/bed, tons of AC/DC solar power, a refrigerator, and running water. And it was operable.
I still had a job, and there was a residential vehicle parked in my formerly unoccupied apartment parking space. And I'm not one to get that close to a big adventure with a huge question mark atop it without at least trying it. "I'll just turn in the keys to my apartment and try living in the van for a little bit. I'll hate it, and then I'll get another apartment."
Well, it's been 7 months, and all that crap I put in a storage unit is languishing there, not being thought about, much less being used. I'm the happiest I've ever been, so now I'm starting a website and a blog about it.
Welcome to from the van