A pandemic and the open road

Sunday, November 8, 2020 - 5:07pm

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Illustration by Eileen Kelly

The open road. Nowhere you have to be, nowhere you have to go. The sun shines through the windshield, the car becomes a small bubble of warm content flying along a seemingly endless highway. Your eyes follow the hills rolling under a cloudless sky, seas of green give way to coasts of blue, and your half-awake mind questions the desirability of the 9 to 5, 401(k) and fenced in backyard you always expected to eventually attain.

In our college years of crammed schedules and rushing around campus, a period devoid of timely obligations and structure may feel ideal to some, whether it takes form in a gap year, an online semester on the road or a two-week excursion. With a pandemic relieving many of their in-person obligations, the opportunity to hit the road has never been greater for those who have the resources to do so, though the responsibility of such actions are convoluted by the current risks of traveling. 

Throughout my conversations with students and friends, I have learned of students retreating to cabins and vacation homes up north, fleeing the onset of cooler weather to Florida for a week on the beach, traveling across the country in between virtual classes and planning semesters off in an attempt to escape weeks of Zoom fatigue. 

However, the utility of attending online classes from a van is controversial among students. Kinesiology senior Harmony Groves, who traveled the West Coast this summer, believes it is a feasible option for students who are able to study effectively on the road, if public health measures are followed.

“I do not know if I would be able to do it personally, but I would advocate for people to do it if they think they can. It is a unique opportunity to gain experiences,” Groves said.

LSA junior Avery Sandstrum also approves of taking classes online from the road after experiencing it for herself. After taking on the task of renovating a van over quarantine, she has taken a few road trips and now uses the space as a mobile classroom, though most of the time it remains a stationary escape parked next to her co-op. 

“I have taken a couple classes from the road and it has been great,” said Sandstrum, sharing that while some students find it difficult to focus or stick to a schedule, finding Wi-Fi has been her greatest challenge.

Conversely, some students find the opportunities of van life due to the pandemic incompatible with online classes, and even doubt the utility of another semester online at all.

LSA sophomore Isabel Clayter shared that she is contemplating a semester off, noting the fact that tuition has increased 1.9% since most classes went online, despite the differences in quality. Though planning on continuing with online classes next semester, Engineering senior Channing Wan noted the changes in quality but not in price as a valid reason to question the comparative value of an online education. 

Regardless of where and if students decide to continue with online classes, many have contemplated living the van life both during and after the pandemic subsides, taking advantage of the flexibility of remote work and school. Further, the jumpstarters of the initial van life trend may repeat in a pandemic-ridden economy and society

The Great Recession left millennials sighing at the job market, sick of paying rent and questioning their outlook on life. As a result, many ditched overwhelming wardrobes and countless kitchen appliances for renovated, rent-free vans, trailers and even tiny homes to embark on a lifestyle that, though romanticized by influencers and Instagram posts, boasts the values of freedom and minimalism

Even before the pandemic, one University of Michigan student explored the trend by living in a mobile tiny house on the outskirts of Ann Arbor. Now, the notion of escaping leases and traveling across the United States is especially appealing to students in a time of uncertainty. On the same note, the ideals and values of the American workhorse culture, which demands constant pursuit of work and affluence, are also being scrutinized by students as COVID-19 continues to spread throughout the nation. The debatable value of virtual classes, internships and events gives this era an unshakable ambiance of downtime that corroborates the possibility that now may be the best time for youths to explore our nation.

Groves shared that the pandemic and American culture were dueling forces in her decision to not take a gap year before heading to Northwestern University for graduate school next fall. Though the pandemic made her and other students seriously reconsider a break from school, Groves said the American culture “was probably an unconscious factor in my decision to not take a gap year … the feeling that we have to pursue whatever the next thing may be.”

LSA junior Mostyn Josty, an international student from the United Kingdom, shared that taking gap years after high school is much more popular and encouraged in Europe. He mentioned his friends who traveled by train through Europe instead of immediately starting college and felt it was one of their best decisions in life.

“Unless you take a gap year, unless you designate time, (making time to travel) is really difficult. When else are you going to go?” said Josty. Listing the obstacles to travel after graduating college, he added, “I feel that (taking time to explore the world) is something that perhaps the U.S. will be more inclined to do in the future.” 

Many college students have this idea of how we are supposed to live and the steps we are expected to take (granted we have the privilege and resources to do so). It goes something like: do well in high school, go to college for four years, go to graduate school or get a job, find someone to marry, have a few kids, work hard and buy some stock in hopes of great returns that allow you to retire a year or two early. Traveling the country for months in a van or working intermittently on farms is not seen as a feasible part of the traditional plan.

But now, with a pandemic making virtual interaction the best, safest option for public health, we have experienced dramatic changes in the ways we work, learn and enjoy life — these changes have led us to question the fundamental expectations around which we plan and live out our lives. Why waste hours commuting on congested roads when our jobs can be done remotely? Will we be in a better position to work from home while raising our children compared to our parents? Is paying $1,200 a month to share a 9’x12’ dorm room with a roommate (and the occasional cockroach, for those in Mary Markley Residence Hall) a more fulfilling experience than learning cellular biology near the Grand Canyon? 

Sandstrum, who rebuilt a 2006 2500 Dodge Sprinter over quarantine to explore these questions, shared her post-graduation plans. 

“I would like to be able to live anywhere in the country without a lease. I would like to be able to work seasonal jobs, and not be tied down to any place, at least for a couple of years,” Sandstrum said, noting her hopes of working on a farm or for nonprofits.

The overall effects of this pandemic on the “traditional” lifestyle are unknown and may turn out to be overestimated. At the least, I would hope the pandemic leads to critical conversations about what we value and how we want to live. 

Engineering senior Dean Golan, who considered taking a gap year after spending the summer traveling around the country, reflected on a possible positive effect of the past eight months. 

“If anything, the pandemic will help people realize you can have pauses in your life,” Golan said. “Especially in American culture, we are always moving to the next step, and before you know it, you are 50 or 60, when you do not have as much room to explore anymore,”

Wan, who spent the summer exploring the country in his Jeep, and Clayter, corroborated this prediction. 

“(The pandemic) has made me more conscious of what makes me happy and what I want to be doing. The pandemic has forced a lot of people to spend more time reflecting, and I think a natural result of that is people question what they are doing with their lives,” Wan said.

“I think people are becoming more interested in living their life in ways that are centered around joy and doing things that make them happy and feel fulfilled, rather than following a set path. I think van life is a manifestation of that change,” said Clayter. 

Ideally, increased flexibility and scrutiny after the pandemic is under control will grant us the freedom and courage to live our lives in ways that are more appealing and fulfilling — whether these improvements take form in three-day weekends, the ability to raise our own children by working at home or donating half our belongings to pass our 20s exploring seemingly infinite stretches of the U.S. highway in a seafoam Volkswagen van. 


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