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Four Bay Area Women on Why the Van Life Is the Best Life

They prefer their automobiles big, boxy, and painted with flames.

SLIDESHOW 

The red-velvet world of Sweet Cicely Daniher's Vanicorn.

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Daniher says her unicorn, painted by Oakland artist De Andre, is “heroic.”

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A winged dashboard totem.

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Skulls adorn Beth Allen’s door locks.

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Allen's van is outfitted with a bed and a fuzzy Kiss blanket for overnight trips.

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The bench seat in Mercy Cat’s van came from a brewery.

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The exterior is decorated with her artwork.

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In addition to David Bowie and flowers, she has “a kitty thing going on.”

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Amanda Morrison works part-time so she can road-trip on weekends.

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Morrison built everything in her van, including a counter and a storage couch.

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Twenty years ago, Beth Allen and her band were driving across the Texas border in her 1981 Dodge conversion van when the brakes gave out. A runaway van would be a Border Patrol magnet no matter what, but this one was also painted purple with flame details. “We just kept rolling, and they’re yelling at us, ‘Stop! Stop!’ and my bandmate who was driving is yelling, ‘I’m hitting the brakes, I’m hitting the brakes!’” Allen says. It wasn’t the van’s last mishap, nor did it mar her eternal affection for it. “That van, oh,” she says, “that was my baby.”

Allen’s Dodge, acquired in 1993, launched a love affair with van society—a multifaceted customization-obsessed community whose aesthetics run the gamut from funky 1970s nostalgia to tiny-house quaint. As a woman, Allen is a minority in the dude-heavy scene, but there are dozens of female vanners in the Bay Area and hundreds nationwide who network through online groups and swap advice on how to outfit their rigs. Allen—who gave the Dodge its fiery purple paint job—considers herself a “junkyard Martha Stewart.” Ashley Lakics, founder of the van group SF Vanabonds, amassed a tool collection to customize her 1987 Dodge Ram. “I would be calling my dad inside Home Depot being like, ‘Dad, what do I need to rip out this, or how do I do this?’” she says. Lakics, a graphic designer, decided in 2015 to live in a van to circumvent San Francisco rent. She ripped out the existing interior, installed hardwood floors, filled in the back windows with plywood for privacy, and added a bed. About once a month she meets up with the SF Vanabonds to socialize and share design tips. Of around 180 members, she estimates 30 percent are women.

Some people look askance at her vandependent lifestyle, she says, but they don’t appreciate the skills she’s acquired, such as learning to install solar. “I feel I can call myself pretty handy now after a year and a half of building out a van,” she says. Her future plans include building U-shaped bench seating with a pop-out table for entertaining—proof of the lengths to which vanners will go to personalize their rides.

Beth Allen, San Francisco
1995 Chevy G20
“There’s something about driving way up high,” Beth Allen says. “I’ll never be able to drive a tiny, regular car ever again.” She eventually sold her troublesome Dodge and bought her current ride, which she calls the Red Hot Shaggin’ Wagon, in 1999. With help from her dad, she insulated and built up the walls. She had it painted cherry red, covered the interior in carpet, and installed a bench seat and bed. “The hard part was doing the ceiling,” she says, “because I had to lay on my back and just do panels of black shag carpet.” Allen, who chronicles her obsession and interviews fellow women vanners on her website Don’t Come Knockin’, takes her van on “runs” (van gatherings) and camping trips and recently got a trailer to haul her dirt bikes. At stationary events, such as hanging out in a concert parking lot, she estimates that she’s had over a dozen people inside at once. “It’s kind of like a mullet haircut,” she says. “It’s business in the front, party in the back.”

Sweet Cicely Daniher, Richmond
1972 Chevy G10
Sweet Cicely Daniher was going through a divorce when her ex handed over the keys to a recently acquired van. “I immediately got a unicorn painted on the outside,” she says. It was a defiant move—she felt like her ex was trying to elbow her out of Oakland, where she lived at the time. Instead he could watch her drive a van emblazoned with a massive unicorn all over town. She started cruising on weekend trips, partying, meeting people. “It was my redemption-mobile,” she says. Not that owning a van is simple: “They leak, they get rust, it’s just a big box,” she says. But Daniher, a tattoo artist, is “a sucker for aesthetics” and loves ’70s design. She had the van pin-striped, sourced vintage wheels, and got “VNIC♥RN” vanity plates. Driving around or stopped at a light, it’s not unusual for her to get a thumbs-up or see a thrilled little girl. She often pulls over so they can pose for a photo. “It’s funny if I’m in a bad mood and I’m driving,” she says, laughing. “Because then I look and it’s like, ‘Oh right, the fucking unicorn.’”

Mercy Cat, Berkeley
1975 Dodge B300
For Mercy Cat, who grew up in foster care, having a van that doubled as a home in a pinch seemed like a good idea. “My life hasn’t had a lot of stability, so if anything goes down, I’ve got me, I’ve got four wheels, I’ve got a roof, and I can leave anytime I want to,” she says. When she got her van about four years ago, it was a “giant metal box.” But someone had painted a tarot card on the side, which she took as a sign: “I said, yeah, this is gonna be my new baby.” She painted it purple and gold and cultivated a space-age interior with silver lining, a disco ball, and beanbag chairs. More than an occasional crash pad, the van is her storefront from which she reads tarot cards for donations. She’ll park on a San Francisco street, open her doors, and wait for the curious. “I just sit there with a sign, and it’s hard to keep people out a lot of the time,” she says. Her tips for would-be van owners? “For comfort and cleanliness, you definitely need a squirt bottle,” she says. “Almost everything will stay clean and nice with a squirt bottle."

Amanda Morrison, East Bay
2006 Dodge Sprinter
Before she got her van in 2016, the most handiwork Amanda Morrison had done was help a cousin remodel a bathroom. Despite this, she decided to buy an empty van and turn it into a home. “I’m so stubborn,” says Morrison, who decided to live in a van because she didn’t want to pay Bay Area rent and had moved frequently. “It just made sense to have all my stuff in the same place and not be tied down to somewhere specific.” Morrison collected advice from handy folks, watched instructional YouTube videos, and made a few mistakes: She had to redo the wood paneling on her walls twice. “I pretty much got the hang of it and then always repeated in my head, ‘Measure five times and cut once,’” she says. Now her van has vinyl floors, a foot-pump sink intended for a boat, a composting toilet, a bed, and solar power. (For showering, she has a gym membership.) Morrison, a mental health therapist, spends weekends traveling around California with her dog, Jade. She once lived out of a backpack for several years and is content with her limited possessions. “I have a hot water maker and a bottle of whiskey,” she says. “I can make a hot toddy anytime I want.”

 

Originally published in the July issue of San Francisco 

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