How a Simple Van Life Test Run Turns Into Its Own Epic 3,000-Mile Road Trip
Moving out, but not slowing down.
With my van chosen, it was time for a test run. The plan: make for the East, where the landscape is more filled with friendly faces and parts stores and gas stations, see a few close friends (mostly people I’d never met in person before, but I would trust with my life) and judge whether I was even cut out to spend months on the road.
It bears repeating that I've never done something like this. The longest vacation I’ve ever taken was a week off; part of living the way I have, always rushing to the next goal, has been that leaving work long enough to actually enjoy the journey seemed impossible. Everything in my life has been about the destination, with various transit stages compressed into nothingness. I needed to see if I was capable of undertaking such ambitious travel, and maybe even having fun at the same time.
[Editor's note: Writer Victoria Scott is taking off to travel the country this summer and explore car culture in a JDM 1995 Toyota Hiace, and we'll be chronicling her adventures through a series on The Drive called The Vanscontinental Express. It's natural to yearn for the open road at a moment when it feels like the world is waking up from a yearlong daze. But as a trans woman looking for her place in the world, Victoria's journey is anything but your average road trip. We are honored to publish her story. This is part three; you can read parts one and two here.]
The itinerary began with a simple goal: Drive the Hiace to Greensboro, North Carolina, to see one of my closest friends. She and I had never met in person, but we’d talked daily for ages, and I’m no stranger to internet friends; Twitter is how I met my now-ex that I still enjoyed four lovely years with. I purposely kept all other details vague, because secretly I was terrified to commit to a plan. Any plan.
Something else worried me more deeply. What if I couldn’t socialize anymore after 14 months of self-imposed quarantine? My old programming job shut down March 16, 2020, and I had not stepped foot into an office since then; even worse, I had not left my house in any meaningful way except to evacuate twice for natural disasters (Hurricane Laura, which ultimately missed my home, and the Texas Freeze of 2021). The only person I interacted with daily had just broken up with me, because I was no longer right for her. Perhaps my initial assessment—we had grown apart—was to make myself feel better. Maybe I'd just become unbearable after so long stuck inside.
And the start of the journey was already rough. I set a planned departure date of April 14, two weeks to the day after my second vaccine dose had been administered, but van preparations—namely, trying to get the AC compressor to work—had already set me back. Additionally, I had to buy a laptop, figure out what clothes to take, plan out my first stop, finish my taxes, and hit a few looming story deadlines. I was already behind my own self-imposed eight ball. And I was scared and dragging my feet.
By the 17th, I was ready to go. The first stop, which I’d hurriedly arranged at the last moment, was in my friend’s driveway dead in the middle of Alabama. That gave me over 650 miles to cover in a single day. I finally began to navigate the immense, hectic highways that line my home of Houston around noon—if I was lucky, I could arrive at midnight. I would have left sooner, but physically departing on this test run was the hardest mental wall to crack thus far in this whole grand experiment.
The tension stayed with me as I dodged Nissan Altimas ripping across four lanes of traffic with no signal on and endless on-ramps lined with faded strip malls feeding more and more cars into the system. Houston is an interesting paradox. It is by far the most car-focused city I have ever been in, and it is also the least fun place to drive in America. There is no public transit to speak of, making car ownership almost compulsory. The city is encircled by three concentric loops of highways; the most distant is 180 miles long and has been in various states of planning and construction since before man landed on the Moon. Interstate 10 just west of downtown is the world’s widest stretch of freeway, at twenty-six lanes. TX2K is held here in no small part because the entire city becomes a drag strip at night.
If it sounds enjoyable, it’s not. The entire city is built on paved swampland, so the highest hills and wildest curves I have experienced in the city are the enormous interchange bridges tying the labyrinth of freeways together. Traveling anytime near rush hour guarantees getting stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic. The road quality is awful from overuse, underfunding, and continual flooding. Getting to my favorite Cars & Coffee is an hour-and-a-half round trip ordeal over roads the Mars rover would find excessively rough.
This all makes sense for the city. Houston famously has no zoning laws, meaning construction is constant and sprawl is nearly infinite. New houses are built in floodplains without so much as a “buyer beware”. The entire region is permanently on the brink of ecological disaster, with filthy air continually made worse by endless industrial accidents from the refineries and chemical plants dotted throughout the landscape. If there is an entire city that exists built entirely around the concept of laissez-faire capitalism, it is Houston.
At last, the tan and beige plazas and rows upon rows of identical suburbia finally gave way to open fields and bluer skies. I unclenched for the first time this year, loosened my grip on the wheel. The surrounding traffic calmed. I passed into Louisiana, finally escaping the state where I’d felt stuck in so many ways for years. I looked at a lake, I thought it was pretty, and that brought me more joy than should be possible from something so stupidly simple.
I drove through Lake Charles, and seeing ruined, vacant homes from its highway bridges snapped me back to reality. Many were missing their roofs, still open to the sky, wrecked by the very same hurricane I had fled months earlier. The lone skyscraper downtown still was covered in boards where wind had destroyed its panes of glass. It made the last year spent inside, reading ever-more-dire headlines, feel less like a nightmare and more like reality. There were periods indoors where I would dissociate enough that news felt like a bad trip; just more reasons to never get to leave home again. Seeing the wake of destruction had a way of sparking clarity in me that nothing I’d read in the past year had ever accomplished.
Alas, I was a woman on a mission, and I didn’t pause to contemplate for long. I raced through mile markers, trying to arrive in Alabama with as few stops as possible. I pulled into my friend’s driveway around midnight—the van gave me no problems, a steadfast companion through hundreds of miles of the South. My first and strongest fear I confronted immediately, and I vanquished it. I could still be social. We talked until almost four in the morning, and went out the next morning for some pictures and coffee and chatting.
I rekindled my love of photography within the hour. The repetitive landscape of Houston had become stale for me as a photographer. Having a fresh environment to shoot reminded me why I picked up a camera to begin with over a decade ago, and why shooting is my favorite hobby.
And from that morning onward, I was unleashed. I ratcheted up the pace, doing whatever it was I felt like doing. Which, it turns out, was a lot for an ostensible test run.
An evening in Charlotte with a friend along the way, then Greensboro to see my friend, the original final destination for this trip. But I couldn't stop. First, a hangout with fellow journalist and gearhead Bozi Tatarevic who was in the area. Back to Charlotte to visit the NASCAR museum and take a tour of the city's finest automotive dealerships with one of my favorite writers, Ethan Gaines. Then out to see another friend I hadn’t seen since I bought my old Prelude from him years ago, where I finally got to do a shoot I’d long wanted to: a fursuited car enthusiast with their machine.
Things just kept happening, almost as if I wasn't in control. I made for another small North Carolina town to meet up with legendary auto writer Jason Torchinsky and whip the infamous Changli. From there, my friend and I journeyed to my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, where I drove some of Myron Vernis’ legendary car collection and reconnected with old friends whom I hadn't seen in years. Onto Dayton via friends in Columbus, to visit the finest collection of warbirds America has to offer at the Air Force Museum. Then down to Nashville, for yet more internet friends and a chance behind the wheel at a modern GTO. How could I pass up a chance to visit the Lane Motor Museum while there? Onwards to Asheville, for a relaxing evening in the mountains and a meetup with Allison Scott, a trans rights advocate who has personally inspired me.
Every moment was filled with enjoyment; it was a smorgasbord of lovely conversations with wonderful people and joyful days of travel. By the time we’d ventured back to Greensboro a few weeks later, my friend and I had covered nearly 3,000 miles and my trusty Nikon had snapped close to 2,000 photos.
My initial fears had evaporated—the van had handled everything like a champion. It wasn’t all perfect, of course. What road trip is? My turn signals quit on me at one point due to a loose hazard signal button, but it was repairable with a pocketknife in a Walmart parking lot, and it’s hard to be mad at a 25 year old vehicle for that regardless. More critically, my passenger side rear window was shattered in rural Tennessee by a rock thrown off by a passing semi truck, and required a stop at a rural Ace Hardware—the kind where I’m pretty sure that my friend and I were the only two trans women who had ever stepped foot inside—but we fixed it. My friend, a theatre tech, fashioned a new wooden panel insert for the window that still sits in the van right now and will likely carry me through the rest of my travels. Overnighting from Japan is still solely possible in The Fast and The Furious, and it’ll likely take me months to find a new window. But nothing happened that shook my now rock-steady faith in my turbodiesel home.
The part of being on the road that did that became a recurring—and intense—anxiety was using the restroom. I dress and present feminine, but I still don’t quite “pass” in some situations; that is, people can sometimes tell I’m transgender. When needing to relieve myself, I constantly battled with internal debate: Do I preemptively out myself as a trans woman and use a men’s room, potentially opening me up to harassment, or do I use a women’s room and try to pass, only to be subject to potential legal action and harassment?
I’d research relevant trans bathroom laws and past legal cases by state as I’d arrive in them to gauge risk, do my vocal training exercises to prevent my lower-pitched voice from putting me in danger, ensure I had shaved and plucked and concealed every errant facial hair the laser hadn’t vaporized yet, and pick out relative lulls in activity so I could race through the bathroom while it was totally vacant.
Despite this, the trip—still a pre-trip, technically!—will surely be one of the most memorable experiences of my lifetime. I had done well the entire time on the road; no panic attacks, never at a loss for words, able to drive hundreds of miles in a single stint. I had done so much I could write ten thousand words about every single day I had in those incredible three weeks.
But we finally got back to my friend’s apartment in Greensboro, the whirlwind paused, and I fell apart. I was in the same place I had been four thousand miles ago. I still had to move out of my home. I still was no closer to clarity on who I was becoming or where I was going. I was coping with ceaseless, dawn to dusk activity; the moment it stopped, I crumbled under the weight of the realization I still couldn’t take my foot off the gas. I purposely packed my itinerary with incredible destinations and had fun doing it, but I still struggled to enjoy the journey and let myself relax.
And yet, it had been three weeks. I needed to pack and move. I drove home via the same route I initially took to Greensboro, caught up on all that I had neglected in the busiest three weeks of my life, and got back to moving all my possessions to storage. Home no longer feels like home, and I am already itching for the road. I’ve put nearly 7,000 miles on my Hiace since I bought it, and I have complete faith in my choice of vehicle. I think I can handle what the open road will throw at me as I look West. I just hope I can still learn to slow down a little.