‘Doing it by choice’: St. George van dweller shares an alternate take on living roadside

ST. GEORGE — When the movie “Nomadland” won the Academy Award for best picture a few weeks ago, more attention became focused on people across the country who live in vans. As it turns out, some of them reside in the St. George area.

Roadside resident Jeff displays the interior of his home, St. George, Utah, April 30, 2021 | Photo by E. George Goold, St. George News

A van resident, who said he actually prefers the descriptor “roadside resident,” reached out to St. George News to describe the lifestyle choice that he made.

Jeff, who requested to keep his last name private for personal reasons, said he came to Utah due to a health condition that prevents him from wearing a mask, and state restrictions were more relaxed in Southern Utah near the end of the pandemic’s first year.

“I see a lot of people in the St. George area who appear to be living out of their vehicles,” Jeff said. “I would hope that the community would welcome it because I think you’re attracting a lot of van lifers who are probably the affluent people who are doing it by choice, and they’ve got discretionary income.”  

When it comes to the film “Nomadland,” Jeff said there were parts of it that did not feel authentic to his own experience. The movie, a 2020 American drama based on Jessica Bruder’s 2017 nonfiction book “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century,” portrays the life of a woman who becomes a van dweller and travels around the United States after her husband dies and the sole industry of her hometown collapses.

“The movie ‘Nomadland’ was one limited depiction of van life, a bleak and vague circumstance,” Jeff said. “To me, the movie never really answered the question, ‘Why would this character live in a van?’ I do it by choice.” 

Jeff said “van lifers” exist on a spectrum. On one side, he said some people, like himself, do it because they have the means and ability to make that lifestyle choice, while on the other side, others are forced to live out of their vehicles because of poverty, lack of employment, lack of affordable housing or other dire circumstances.

Jeff first experienced living in a vehicle from 2010-2017, when he lived in an SUV. He said he made the choice out of a sense of adventure and freedom.

“I could come and go and move around as I pleased,” he said. “Once I fell in love with it, I was hooked.”

After a three year hiatus, where he then lived in Las Vegas housing, Jeff bought the van he lives in now and has resided in it since January.

A self-described “germaphobe,” Jeff lived under antiseptic conditions long before COVID-19 arrived. He constantly wipes every surface of the van and sanitizes his hands and everything he touches.

Roadside resident Jeff shows a look inside his bedroom, St. George, Utah, April 30, 2021 | Photo by E. George Goold, St. George News

He has a gym membership so he can shower daily and he always carries around an emergency bathroom bag containing sanitary wipes, gloves and disinfectant spray.

The one thing he misses? His own toilet.

 “There’s nothing like having your own toilet in your own comfortable bathroom and your own comfortable space.” 

Jeff said that to be a van lifer you have to be will to make sacrifices. There are tradeoffs. You have to push past your own boundaries.

“You’re on other people’s rules and other people’s timelines,” he said. “I’m glad I returned to it but it is hard.”

He said he believes that the van lifestyle reflects values like freedom and adventure.

“I think that we’re humans and that we were meant to explore, so go see the world,” Jeff said.

As time goes on, he said he hopes to set up a nonprofit that can help all the people he meets who don’t choose the lifestyle.

“I’ve met people who are pretty much traumatized, going from housing to vehicles,” Jeff said. “If it’s not by choice it can be a real hard mental adjustment, and they get stuck in a poverty trap. I’d like to help them.”

Van Fest USA in Hurricane

For those interested in learning more about the nomad lifestyle, Van Fest USA will hold its first Van Fest at Washington County Legacy Park in Hurricane on Saturday from 10 a.m. till 9 p.m.

Festival director Ashton Glines said that they will hold similar events across the country. A wide variety of vans, school buses and other vehicles that have been converted into homes will be on display. Vendors will be on hand and a concert will entertain patrons throughout the event.

“Basically it’s a tiny home show,” Glines said. “Anyone interested in the nomad lifestyle can come and ask questions and get a good look at all different kinds of these tiny homes.”

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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