In parkour, all you need are the clothes on your back and a pair of sneakers. Even then, the sneakers are optional, and that inspired me to live more simplistically. When you crave to be in the dirt or on some nice walls, fancy things lose some of their glow.
Today I would say that my needs are pretty straightforward. I like to have the following: shoes, backpack, nearby spots, basic gym set up, wifi, and my lovely partner and friend. There are other things I like that are bonuses, but there is a lot that I now see as clutter that gets in the way of what actually matters. I am not a minimalist, but I try to keep it light.
However, there was a time when I was a bit of a hoarder. As a kid, the concept of throwing something out filled me with dread. When my parents told me to clean my room, I clutched my unused toys next to the throw away pile, questioning if I needed them or not. Ultimately, I put every item back into its designated pile of clutter. I clung to most anything actually, not just toys. I kept scraps of paper, dry playdough, beads that would never be strung—even the fallen whiskers of my cat. A couple of moves with only two suitcases peeled me away from the worst of my obsession. But the shadow of those fears stuck around in my mind.
Over time it just happened—I accumulated stuff, but then I started doing the jumpy, runny, vaulty things. In my newfound appreciation, much of my clothing started to feel depressingly restrictive. The piles of clothing and accessories in the back of my closet became even less appealing. I began traveling to do the hoppy, climby, dashy things, and the need to pack light was surprisingly freeing. There was nothing to distract from doing, seeing, and exploring—I loved it. It was me, my backpack, my sneakers, and some sweatpants.
It was around this time that the videos started popping up, #Vanlife. And, once the YouTube algorithm had caught on to my interest in the topic, I was inundated. I clicked through countless tours, road trip montages, and cut scenes of people making coffee around a neat little gas stove in front of some picturesque landscape. It just made sense. It was like the ultimate backpack trip. Sure, you could carry a little more, but there was enough room there for me to meld my two lives. The one where I do parkour and the one where I don’t. I could work from there or go to my job from there. Especially traveling solo as a gal, having a safe place to sleep no matter what sounded like the ticket to travel freedom. All I wanted was that little nest on wheels. Yeah, a van seemed like the move.
Forgive me for skipping forward several months, but this is the part where we enter 2020, and we all know that that is a shitshow. I had been living out of suitcases for a year, shedding the vast majority of my stuff. The pandemic was in full swing, but I had secured the funds I needed, and I had bet my future on a sturdy, dark blue 2006 Ford E-150—aka my Baby Girl. And she and I, we were doing to do. In fact, it was all we were doing.
Even though van life would be different than it would have been before the Rona, nothing sounded sweeter. This revised dream consisted of driving away from the disease-riddled city into a barren and peaceful landscape, free of crowds and sickness. So I threw myself into the task of building her out. With no job, social life, or emotional stability, all that was left was my dream of better days out there with Baby Girl.
But, of course, no adventure would be complete without a bumpy road. I had never built anything in my life, and Baby Girl wasn’t quite perfect for the future I had in mind—at least not in her original state. At her tallest interior point, she was five feet and five inches. I am five foot six, and my partner is six foot one, so she had a little growing to do if I wanted to stand upright in my home, which I knew I wanted. I noted that when I made the purchase and, due to a variety of reasons, it was then that I decided we would build her a new roof.
Had I done this before? No. Did I think it would be easy? No. But, I also didn’t want this to be easy. I wanted to build out my nest and know that I had put my all into doing it. My Baby Girl and I were going to have a connection cemented through hours of discovery, mistakes, sweat, and tears. That was part of my van dream from the beginning, and the added journey of building a roof became just another piece of that dream.
I’ll spare you the details of the next five months, but by September, we hadn’t finished the roof, but my landlord and roommates wanted me out. My partner and I had labored away, day after day. We screwed down wood over a custom metal frame, blow-torched rubber roofing over the top, and sealed every seam we could find. But the process of putting on the new cap was only half of it. Before that, we rode the rollercoaster of cutting off her reliable factory-made top. Heart in throat, I sawed through the thick fiberglass with a 30 dollar jigsaw. I cried when the flimsy tarp that we strung over the jagged hole filled with monsoon rain, and I gritted my teeth when the paint thinner-filled process of weatherproofing the wood stretched on for months. Adapt and overcome, no? That phrase passed through my mind often during those months.
Although the roof wasn’t completely polished, she was weatherproofed and road-ready, and we took her out on her first journey. And so we began the cross-continental road trip that would bring us from Mexico City to Pittsburgh. We had shipped essential electrical equipment there, and it was where we would take on the next leg of this construction adventure. One of the many perks was that it was also far away from our generous but irritated landlord’s lot.
The trip was long and beautiful, and we drove until we couldn’t. The miles, playlists, and conversations ticked by in a fluid rhythm—the road holds some magic that way. In the wee hours of the morning, I would crawl into the back, curl up in a blanket on the floor, and sleep soundly under the roof I had built. It was peace to know that I was where I wanted to be and that I had made my home. One day, I woke up next to a dewy field— basking in a bright beginning. On another, a foggy rest stop, which somehow felt like a cup of coffee and a Dunkin Donuts croissant, even though there was no cup in sight. It was always different.
When we got to Pittsburgh, it was a new chapter. Without the fear of water exploding into the van, the rest of the build looked like a breeze. I took a few days off to train and recuperate, and after that, I hopped behind the wheel to grab wood for the interior walls. I had found a deal on some mixed wooden planks on Facebook marketplace. Imperfect and textured, I thought they would make a great start to filling out the room part of Baby Girl since after taking out all the interior, she was still all metal screws.
So on we went until it all went wrong. I adjust the mirrors, set up the map, took the turns, and merged onto the highway. The cars in front of me were slowing down and switching lanes, so I set up to do the same. Slow down, check the blind spot, and look back. Then time slowed down. In front of me was a car with no lights on which I hadn’t noticed earlier. A part of me had assumed it was just chugging along far too slow in this mid-morning traffic, and that’s why everyone was moving lanes. But now, with nothing in between us, I could see that the car was off. And, Baby Girl and I were headed right for it. I slammed the brakes, knowing that it would be insanity to swerve and braced for my nightmare. In the lengthy seconds that followed, I watched in horror as my dream, my Baby Girl, my hours of sweat, tears, and planning, collided into the car in front, and crumpled. We hit slow enough to know that I was safe, as was the other person involved, but not slow enough to save her. Having come from Mexico less than a week ago, we hadn’t upgraded our insurance yet. And in that tiny slip of the mind, everything fell.
The minutes that followed felt like hours. When the guy came to tow the car, he pronounced her dead on impact. My first home, van, and hand-built creation—all gone in my first crash. I knew from the get-go that I was doomed to heartbreak. For the next two days, I cried off and on. Car rides were difficult as my nervous system sank into overload, and flashes of Baby Girl’s end jumped and skid before my eyes. Adapt and overcome, no?
It was trauma, plain and simple—trauma and fear of life’s cruel twists. But I wanted to stay true to things I had learned through life and parkour, so I reminded myself that I would adapt and overcome. Simplicity didn’t have to look like a not-so-simple home on wheels. In its most beautiful form, it was in my body, which was still whole. So, I got behind a wheel. I let the tears come when they did and let them be when they did not. I let the guilt, the anger, and the longing go. Even though Baby Girl is gone, I broke the jump to make her happen, and that is an achievement that will never crumple. What matters is that I still have my backpack, my sneakers, and some worn-out sweatpants.
Story by Sofi Ward
Photography by Sofi Ward, and Andrew Obenreder
Illustration by Andrew Obenreder