Brianna Madia remembers the one thing her parents ever fought over: money.
“It really stuck with me,” she said. “And it was kind of something that I kind of wanted to lay out and see: is it really that important to focus my life?”
She wanted a simpler life, off the beaten path, but didn’t know how to get there until she found Bertha, a bright orange van as old as her.
Bertha was not the kind of deluded van glorified on travel blogs and magazines. It broke down regularly. But she taught Madia a lot about life, which the author discussed in her new book, “Nowhere for Very Long” by HarperCollins, and which she shared with USA TODAY.
Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
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Question: You have this line in your book that you haven’t experienced so much in the van but live outside of the van. Can you tell me a bit more about that and why it’s important for people to know when they think about this life?
To respond: I’m not saying this to annoy (Mercedes) Sprinter vans, but I think mostly online, the van life movement and this trend and blogs and tutorials, it seems like it would be very doable, and it’s not the case. Lots of these really comfortable vans where you can stand up and you have a stove…sometimes it’s as expensive when you start as an apartment. I couldn’t afford it. I mean, my van cost $7,800, and that was it. I was broken.
What mattered most to me about my vehicle was that it could get me where I wanted to go. So I sacrificed all creature comforts and spent way more money on big tires, making sure off-road that I had high clearance, that I could get as far away from the rest of the world as possible.
I think a lot of people build their vans and then they go everywhere. But really, I spent most of my time in Utah in the desert. I simply loved it. So for me it was more like home.
Bertha was still like a car; it was still primarily a form of transportation. So when I say I was living off of her, it was like she was taking me where I needed to go.
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Q: If anyone is thinking about living in a van (whether it’s a luxury life or just real life), what do you think they should know?
A: It’s one of those things that can be done on such a broad spectrum. You really can just live out of the vehicle, especially now.
I remember, my God, when I first moved into the van, it must have been 2017, and so many people were like, “How do you work?” And I would say, “Well, I work remotely”, and pre-COVID that was sort of a very new concept…but I think a lot of companies have realized that you can still have employees very loyal and efficient who work from anywhere.
And so I think kind of a nice comfort that I think people didn’t really have before is that it’s not so crazy to think that you could still work and save money if you want to buy a house, you want to buy an apartment (down the line while living in a van).
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I think it can be done at a very affordable price. But I also think an important lesson I’ve learned is that even if you want to forgo traditional ownership or renting an apartment or dealing with (the) kind of nuances of having a home, I’ll never forget: I called my mom one day on the side of the road, which wasn’t uncommon, and I was like, “Oh my God, Mom, the gas pump went off again. off, and we’re waiting for a tow truck” and… “I just don’t know how long I can keep playing Whac-A-Mole with these issues.”
And she said, “I hate to tell you, Brianna, but if you have a house, it’ll be kind of the same.” The dishwasher breaks down. A tree branch falls on the garage. It’s kind of like you’re constantly going to somehow maintain the place you live in… If you love the place you live in, you’re going to kind of fight for it whatever happens. “
Q: What other life lessons have you learned from Bertha?
A: I learned a lot about myself in the sense that I really like being different. It’s something that I was a little ashamed of because I feel like when you’re little everyone is like, “Cool. You should be different.” And then all of a sudden they’re like, “Whoa, not like that. Be different but in a way that’s still socially acceptable. It makes us feel comfortable.”
And so I felt like Bertha was in that really fun way – and I think I’m saying that like in the very first chapter – was a really fun way for me to give like a big middle finger to the only way of life I had ever seen. I think I really felt like I became myself.
I also learned that there is a community for every type of hobby, and that’s one of the great things about the internet and the van life movement.
It was lonely at first, but then when I found this community of friends and these travelers and all that, it really made me realize that, you know, it’s always worth being really, really who you are, because you’re not going to be as alone as you thought.
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Q: You make it clear early in the book that things don’t always go as planned. What were the things you didn’t expect and how did you overcome them?
A: I did not expect it to be as difficult as at the beginning in the city. …Even though I’m not currently living in the van because it’s being repaired, pumped up, chopped up and put back together, I’m so aware of all the signs in the parking lots that are like ‘You can’t park here No overnight parking.
It really made me realize how difficult our laws are for… homeless communities and people who aren’t like me, who didn’t choose to. Just the number of places where it’s like, “No, you can’t stay here. No, you have to leave. You can’t be here. You can’t hang out here. You can’t”, it is almost like there’s this aspect of just being a human in the wrong place at the wrong time isn’t okay, or you’re going to get in trouble for it.
I was also surprised at how many people, and it’s specifically online, how many people were so convinced… that I had a trust fund, that I was extremely wealthy, that anyone who was going through this kind of life was very rich, and you just have to be a rich kid from Connecticut… (or) that I have to use unemployment or abuse the government, the system.
I remember being really sad about it and having to adjust my attitude to feel sorry for people who are convinced that if someone does something different from the way you do, they should cheating, or if someone was thinking of taking a different path than you, then it’s kind of a threat to the path you’ve chosen.
I know I find small flaws, and it’s not cheating. It’s just thinking about things in a different way and thinking outside the box. I now consider it a gift that I can experience things not only with this one-way mind.