Written by Rachel Severein & Ola Kalejaye
We both felt it immediately. A sensation like a punch to the gut that made the breath stop in our throats. It was a feeling of acute sadness. Of memories not to be repeated. Adventures never again to be had.
We would never have guessed how sharply these emotions hit us as we watched our first van, our 25-year-old baby, our Bertie, being driven away by a stranger – an exceedingly kind one, but a stranger nonetheless.
And that was only the test drive.
This feeling that we had not at all prepared for was a familiar one nonetheless. It was the bittersweet feeling of letting go of an imperfectly beautiful past in order to embrace a promise-lined future. Of relinquishing familiarity for the chance at greater fulfillment.
As it turns out, the sheer excitement we had for our new shuttle bus — our soon-to-be new home on wheels — was preventing us from ever engaging with the thoughts associated with selling a vehicle that felt at so many times like a true home.
But first, let’s set the scene.
How Bertie the Van Entered Our Lives
Shortly before Rachel’s graduation in 2019, we decided to pull the trigger on a dream we’d been obsessing over for the better part of two years – we bought a van.
Bertie is how we affectionately referred to our ‘95 Dodge converted camper van. We got him in April 2019 in sunny Los Angeles, California. We probably had five or six months between deciding to switch up our original plans of moving back to LA to “settle” and find “normal” jobs in our respective fields of study, and changing course to instead search Craigslist for a camper van.
Bertie wasn’t the sexy vintage VW that Ola had pictured since he was ten years old. Nor was it one of the tall, luxurious, IG-primed and Pinterest-ready commercial vans that we had come to fully associate with #vanlife. But it was a good deal on an already built out camper that had everything we needed to get on the road immediately.
Which is exactly what we did.
Hitting the Road: First Impressions
That summer, we set out on a cross-country road trip for the fourth time together. It was our first foray into living on the road and it was somewhat of a fairytale summer – seeing friends across the country; meeting new ones at music festivals; Ola’s first film festival appearance.
We got to experience a small taste of the road travel community at our very first van gathering, where we were welcomed in with warmth and kindness as if we’d already been friends with some of these people for ages. We felt immediately at home with these fellow travelers and were mesmerized by this space that celebrated unconventional lifestyles, personal growth, exploration, and that oh-so-commonly cited “wanderlust”.
Those eight weeks on the road sealed the deal for us: we loved this lifestyle. We loved the freedom of being on the road, this antidote to our constantly itchy feet, the variety of people and new friends we met, and the joy of constantly re-discovering that less truly is more — a lesson that would probably seem to many to be pretty necessary to learn early on in vanlife – especially in our relatively small Dodge van that we couldn’t even sit fully upright in.
That two-month trial, however, didn’t feel like long enough.
Adjusting back to stationary life was definitely strange for both of us, and before long, we were plotting our next big trip. 2020, we said, would be our year: our first time being long term nomads.
Eight-plus months. The entirety of the Pacific coast, all the way up to Alaska. An absolute dream, quadrupled in appeal due to our ability to turn it into a documentary project, to make connections along the way, to make a living being digital nomads and start to pave our way into the world of remote work. 2020, we all said……
Slapped By Reality: 2020
It will come as a surprise to no one that our plans were changed dramatically. We spent a lot less time at gatherings, filming with people, hiking mountains with friends, hitting up local bars and exploring national monuments, and a lot more time cooped up inside of Bertie, trying to salvage what work we could from the wreckage of opportunities derailed by COVID.
The exacerbated need to save money meant cooking nearly all of our very humble meals inside Bertie while sitting on a beer cooler small enough to actually allow us to sit upright. It also meant saving gas money by staying put in places for much longer than we were accustomed to. And lest we forget, a majority of our time on the road this year was spent under varying degrees of lockdown, which meant trying to stay safe and self-isolated as much as possible.
In a time of unfathomable uncertainty, Bertie the Van truly became our little safe haven.
…but, he certainly didn’t feel like our favorite place everyday. Admittedly, on some of our lower, colder, more uncomfortable days where being outside wasn’t easy or pleasant, we’d be overcome by the urge to smash his beautiful wood-paneled ceiling or kick the rattley kitchen cabinets off their hinges. He was still a very tiny home, and sometimes, we felt sick of him.
Even back before the ‘Rona set our regular vanlife flow on fire, it wasn’t always rainbows and sunshine. The vancidents, the bad backs, the crawling over each other, the bed- to the floor- floor to the front seat -shuffle of stuff — the more we grew into loving van life, the more it seemed we outgrew Bertie.
Through all of these struggles, vancidents, long and frustrating stays at mechanics’ shops and not knowing the build well enough, we were learning what we really did need from a future home-on-wheels. We needed more space. We needed things to be designed around what we wanted, and how we wanted to live. We needed to be able to f**king stand.
And that’s when we knew – we needed to sell Bertie.
Fast forward to just last month: November 2020.
When the buyer came back with his traveling mechanic, the deal was done. Bertie would soon be someone else’s home. We had our long moment to say goodbye – fixing up some nick nacks, cleaning the last of our things out, spending our final night in our definitely undersized, yet very comfortable bed.
Yet with so many other things occupying our minds and attention, it was all sort of a blur, and in a way didn’t — and still doesn’t — feel quite real. We’re still getting used to stepping outside and not seeing him parked out front.
We have our new rig now. We couldn’t be more excited to get started on building it and making it truly ours. The mere idea of waking up in it, newly completed and ready to go, is thrilling. But we would never have got here without our Bertie.
Those 19 months that we had Bertie felt like a few years — perhaps because 11 of those months were in 2020, which should count for 1.5 each at least, but more because of the amazing experiences and places he led us to and carried us through.
Three countries; roughly 20 states (some were, admittedly, brief drive-throughs); more than 8 major North American cities including Toronto, NYC, Detroit, LA, San Diego, Cabo San Lucas, San Francisco, and Denver; six full-on vanlife gatherings; two overnight stays at mechanics; too many Walmart parking lots to count.
Letting Go: A Love Letter to Bertie
Bertie. You were a trusty steed indeed. You’ll forever have a place in our hearts. You helped mold us into the people we are now. You brought us directly to where we are in our lives now. You never failed us.
We put you through it this last year and a half! From getting pulled out of sand in the SoCal desert, to carrying us through treacherous thunderstorms in Montana, to withstanding intense hail in Kansas and Oregon, to driving over countless rocky and washboard roads in Baja, to plummeting down the steep mountain highways of the Tetons and the Colorado Rockies.
But we hope you felt the love, too — from constant oil and transmission fluid checks to a few pricey repairs and new tires, from being adorned with stickers to being driven almost every day with extra care and low speeds on the highway, we tried to nurture and love on you as much as we could.
It was definitely a roller coaster of a year for all of us.
But you, dearest Bertie, were a constant for us both. You carried us through the rough times, literally and emotionally. We shared countless laughs inside of you, but also tears. There were hard times and harder feelings, of sadness, anger, and frustration.
But you made us smile – most of the time anyway. You made us proud. You helped us learn more about ourselves and each other. You made our relationship stronger and catapulted us into falling in love with the nomadic lifestyle. You allowed us to live a life of daring adventure. A life of freedom on the road. Of less stuff. And through you, we were inspired to continue this lifestyle, to make it more sustainable and to make it truly ours.
We’re eternally grateful to have had you as our first real, shared investment: our first van. You’re forever a beaut and a legend in our hearts.
Thank you, Bertie, for the countless memories. If we could do it all again, we wouldn’t change a thing.
We thank you, we love you. You’re forever a beaut and a legend in our hearts, our big blue Bertie.