Van life is a lifestyle trend growing in popularity across the nation. For some of Moab’s residents, living out of a vehicle is not merely a trend, but rather it’s the most logical solution to a lack of affordable housing and an economy based on seasonal tourism.
“It’s not about the van, it’s about what I do outside the van,” said Moab resident Anna Fisher. Fisher began living out of her van in Breckenridge, Colo. last year. Describing what led her to move into a van, she said, “It’s really similar to Moab in that it’s a small town and a tourist destination. There’s no space to even have more houses.”
This will be Fisher’s second season in Moab; she moved to town last summer. “I settled in Moab because I was looking for a place that has a drop zone and climbing within 20 minutes of each other,” she said. Shortly after moving to town, Fisher began working at the Moab Garage Company, a downtown ice cream and coffee shop.
Continuing to live in her van seemed like the most reasonable way to budget for herself and her dog, Chance.
“It’s choosing between a nice kitchen and luxurious shower, and being able to follow my passion,” she added.
For Fisher, living in her vehicle became a pathway to obtaining housing in Moab. She will be returning to the garage this season as a manager and will be moving into a house in town. Without being able to save money by not paying rent, however, this may not have been possible, especially because her place of employment closed for the winter months, as do many local businesses.
“They’re really concerned with giving back to the community and its locals,” Fisher said of the shop’s owners. “We don’t want to be here just for the tourists, but it’s hard to stay open all year.”
Fisher, like many others dependent on the town’s seasonal economy, claims she is happy to take a few months off per year, and that her van makes it possible. “You have to acknowledge that half of our restaurants are funded by seasonal people,” Fisher said. “There is a legal way to camp for free in Moab.”
Fisher said her lifestyle is feasible, given the laws in the city.
“There are a couple of spots where you can camp for up to 14 days. If you show up and park somewhere different every night, you can do it legally. It is kind of far away, though, and most of these spots are at least 15 minutes away, and the gas adds up.”
Fisher has spent a few nights in town — but said she hesitates to do so often.
“All of the sudden you’ve turned the sidewalk or someone’s front yard into your house. It can make people feel uncomfortable. They feel like they’ve walked into your space on the sidewalk,” she said.
There are some aspects of this lifestyle Fisher views as perks. “I really enjoy being able to be truly in the desert,” she said. “It’s pleasant to wake up and view the outdoors as my living room ... to be away from everything. It motivates you not to go to the bar every night, and to cook on a campfire.”
As far as amenities such as water are concerned, Fisher explains that there are many accessible and affordable options in town, like the Lazy Lizard Hostel and the city recreation center for showering. Living in a van also causes Fisher to consider her resources more carefully.
“I don’t end up using as much water or as much power,” Fisher said. “Yes, I’m living an alternative lifestyle, but no, I’m not a weirdo. I feel like I’m pretty standard. I’m almost basic, I just live in a van.”
For others, van life is a more sustained living situation. River guide and Moab resident Brett Brannigan has been running rivers and living out of his van for five years. Most recently he had been working for Tag-A-Long Expeditions, now out of business, and parking his van behind the company building.
“People really started living there who worked there. It was never people who didn’t work there. It wasn’t just a freeloader lot,” Brannigan said. “We didn’t really have an option. If we wanted to be there in the morning for work and we wanted to not be broke at the end of the week, it made the most sense for all of us to stay there and eat communally.”
Brannigan explained that he typically worked six to seven days a week making about $6.50 per hour.
“It’s considered a low-income tip-based wage job, as are most of the jobs here,” he said. “We used to joke around that we’re a tip-based job, but so is every job in this town, and if locals are eating around, these same tips are just being passed around town. It gets circulated.”
The hardest part is not the issue of pay, he said, it is the inconsistency.
“On the boating schedules they list four boatmen, even if only ten guests are signed up for a trip, which would take one guide,” explained Brannigan. “The other three still have to show up, because if 30 more people walk in, which happens quite often, you need to send two more boats out, and those boats need to be loaded, ready, and geared up.”
The unpredictability of each day is met by the unpredictability of the season.
“It’s about a seven- to eight-month-long season, until people start leaving and the river stops flowing,” he said.
For Brannigan, living out of his van allows him to remain flexible while making an affordable living with the job he loves. “We’re just dedicated,” he said of himself and his fellow guides. “We love the job, and we love the opportunity they gave us. The fact that we somewhat lived behind it [the Tag-A-Long building] really helped us to make sure they could continue their business.”
Brannigan also believes van living is not simply an affordable last resort. It is the means through which he follows his passion, gains access to travel, and fosters a community. To him, it is an intrinsic part of the culture of Moab.
“Some of these people that live in this town ... it’s crazy how little money they make and how much they love what they do,” Brannigan said. “It’s one of the few places I’ve found jobs you can love like that. We do it because we love it, not for the money.”
The freedom of being able to leave on short notice during the offseason allows Brannigan, and others, to make a living during the winter and return to Moab in the spring. “A lot of guides like to work ski slopes,” he explained.
Despite their seasonal residence, Brannigan feels the guides are an important part of the community.
“We’re part of the economy. Maybe not the biggest chunk, but we’re part of it,” he said. “There’s an older generation in this town that is now business owners, that is now paying rent or property taxes, but how it started was just like this. A bunch of them pulling trailers up to an empty lot and supporting one another until the opportunities came to fruition.”