One of the things that really helped Gav through his midlife ‘transition’ (not crisis, you’ll note!) was Joseph Campbell’s book about the Hero’s Journey.
The Hero’s Journey describes certain stages we must go through during transition periods in life. It serves as a road map as we leave the comfort of the ‘known world’, venture into unfamiliar territory, before returning home, much like on the road trips and journeys we all take in our vans.
The recent and on-going COVID-19 situation would certainly qualify as unfamiliar territory for us all!
This article will look at Campbell’s ‘Hero’s Journey’ and how it applies to vanlife.
It draws upon ancient wisdom that can be applied to us today, not just to help us through coronavirus but in everyday vanlife too.
Perhaps such wisdom is needed more than ever?
Let’s find out…
- The hero’s journey starts with the call to adventure
- The need for adventure and meaning
- Gatekeepers at the threshold
- Helpers, guides and mentors
- The unknown world – the first few miles on the Hero’s Journey
- The road of trials
- The dark night of the soul
- The refusal to return
- Bringing back the boon
- Sharing the wisdom
The hero’s journey starts with the call to adventure
Like in all the best books and films, the hero usually starts off living a normal – even humdrum – life. Think Luke Skywalker or Bilbo Baggins. There’s nothing much going on to begin with but then they’re required to do something. Life comes-a-knocking on the door and the adventure begins.
And so it is with every journey we take in our vans, especially the bigger road trips which can be seen as calls to adventure.
It’s as if life itself is urging us to jump in the van, turn the key and get moving. It wants us to learn something, or to experience life in a richer, more meaningful way.
We are required to down tools, jump ship, escape the rat race – or whatever – and do something different. It’s as if there is a yearning coming from deep down inside, compelling us to start the Hero’s Journey even though we don’t know exactly where we’re headed to or where we’ll end up.
For us motorhome hobos, getting in the van is really about freedom. Turning the key and hitting the open road still gives us the same buzz it did from day one. “On the road again,” we’ll often sing when we get moving, Canned Heat’s famous blues song becoming an ear-worm for a couple of miles or so.
The need for adventure and meaning
‘Adventure before dementia’ is now a well-faded sticker you’ll see on the back of vans – though not ours, because we don’t want to pre-empt anything!
Seriously though, maybe this was another reason that spurred us on; life is to be lived before it’s too late!
The thing is that at some stage in life we all reach a point where we know, deep in our hearts, that we have to do something different. The point where life feels meaningless if it’s lived in the same vein.
So, getting out in the van – to us hobos – is about answering the call to adventure. It’s about finally coming out of the humdrum and starting a new life, richer in meaning.
But answering the call is only the beginning of the Hero’s Journey…
Gatekeepers at the threshold
Not everyone will want you to leave the world you know. Gav’s dad said we’d be better off getting a trailer tent. He couldn’t quite believe we’d throw £6000 at an old van that needed work doing to it.
Then there are your own inner demons, the doubts that come out to play like ghosts in the night time, waking you up at 3 am…
Why the hell are we doing this? Are we choosing the right van? Will we even be able to drive such a beast? Can we really afford it? Will we be safe?
What if, what if…?
Investing in a different way of life – even if it’s just a part-time thing – brings all the skeletons tumbling out of the closet. Big questions fall into your lap, questions that have, until now, been stuffed right to the back like moth-eaten apparel.
But the thing is, if you are brave enough to ‘work with’ the questions, you push onwards, like little Lucy who made her way through the wardrobe and into the magic of Narnia. We all know the story.
But the real big questions are…
Where is the meaning in working 9 to 5 for 50+ years of life, mostly lining someone else’s pockets?
What feeds my soul?
What makes me feel truly alive in the world?
Helpers, guides and mentors
The thing is that no matter how awkward and soul-searching these questions appear to be, they are the very things that can guide you onto the Hero’s Journey.
Once out in the open, we can look at these ‘demon’ questions right in the eye and confront life itself. This was best put by Nietzsche, when he asked…
What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it…
[Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, aphorism 341, ‘The Greatest Weight’. For the full quote see here]
Hopefully, there’ll be good folks like Nietzsche in your life who will support you…
Some of the online motorhome forums are excellent places to find information and help you start answering those questions. And there’s our free ebook, don’t forget, highlighting the mistakes we made and how you can avoid them!
In this sense, I suppose we are helpers, guides, or mentors, encouraging people just like you onto your own ‘Hero’s Journey’ – if you’ve not already started, that is.
Ultimately the choice comes down to you. Stay in the known world or conjure up enough courage to step over the threshold into vanlife…
The unknown world – the first few miles on the Hero’s Journey
So, maybe you’re still contemplating getting a van? Maybe you’re quite new and are still getting to grips with everything? It certainly took us a while to figure out how everything worked.
Perhaps you’re a seasoned pro who started this Hero’s Journey some time ago?
We’ve been doing this for over three years now, but we still clearly remember those first few times out in our van ‘Cree’. Entering the ‘unknown world’ of vanlife definitely felt like leaving our comfort zones.
But despite some trepidation about driving a 20-foot, diesel guzzling monster – okay, it’s nothing compared to a 50-foot Winnebago – the strongest feeling for us both was a sense of freedom and adventure.
Leaving the known world means you’re stepping into uncertainty; you’re entering a deep learning curve.
For us, sometimes it is the van who decides where we go. We put aside any plans and turn left or right and see where Cree takes us.
Of course, when it comes to our bigger adventures and pilgrimages we’ll have a rough idea which way to head. For shorter, more local trips around the the Suffolk coast we trust the van will lead us to what we need to see and know.
It’s as if Cree herself becomes the ultimate travel guide on this Hero’s Journey.
But it’s not all plain sailing…
The road of trials
You can be happily driving along when you hear a strange noise! Or there’s a weird smell coming from somewhere.
There’ll be potholes – we hit and avoided many on the Isle of Skye – uphill struggles, impatient car drivers, and things that simply go wrong.
Breakdowns, let-downs, dead-ends, no-go areas late at night.
We spent much of our honeymoon driving through the Scottish Highlands sounding like a Sherman Tank after blowing a hole in the exhaust. If only Gav had known about this quick exhaust repair stuff!
We had been lucky to even get there. Only ten days before setting off, we had a gearbox oil leak and it was touch and go whether we’d make it to Gretna.
Whatever, the ‘road of trials’ will test you but you must carry on regardless. We did.
You see, no matter how hard you try to control everything, the van will invite or even force you out of your comfort zone and into places you’d rather not go or situations you must confront.
The dark night of the soul
Running out of diesel is never a good idea but that’s what Gav did on the A12. “Now what do we do?” he wondered, as he sat slumped on the front bumper, feeling even more stupid to have been driving this thing without a working fuel gauge. Yes, a common problem on early T4s.
Okay, so it wasn’t a labyrinthine situation like where Theseus has to slay the Minotaur, but it’s an example of a problem that will test you one way or another.
We struggled uphill on Winnat’s Pass in Derbyshire, Cree’s wheels spinning on the wet road in first gear on the 20% incline. We just made it.
On another occasion in the same area, we didn’t! We had to reverse all the way back down, the old girl simply running out of puff half-way up. Not easy, reversing around a blind corner with a raging river at the bottom as well!
Your nerves will jangle, sweat will drip from your brow and into your eyes as you face your own Minotaur.
Then there are those first few nights wild camping. Is there a mad axeman about?
We’ve read of brakes failing in Swiss mountains, and knocks on the hab door in the dead of night where a stranger asked to borrow a knife! Yes, a true story cited in one of our favourite vanlife books…
What would you do in such situations?
The refusal to return
But it’s not all doom and gloom! Far from it…
In our three years on the road (so far) we’ve had our challenges but, for the most part, our journeys have been amazing. Challenges are part of vanlife. They show you who you are.
What we will remember most is the incredible drives, places and scenery we’ve encountered on our road trips and some wonderful people we’ve met along the way.
Indeed, it gets so good you simply don’t want to go home. You want the adventure to last forever. We suppose this is why some people make vanlife a full-time thing.
Like the Lotus Eaters in Homer’s Odyssey, sometimes you just want to stay where you are, blissed out in your van, high on life and the journey you’re on. You’re collecting perfect moments.
Bringing back the boon
But, we suppose, at some point – unless you’re a full-time vandweller – you’ll have to head home.
What will you take with you? We’re not talking souvenirs here!
Cherished memories for sure. Lessons learned. Natural highs that feed the soul. And the knowledge that you have dealt with some challenges – and can do so again.
It is by stepping into the unknown world and then journeying along the road of trails, willingly entering the ‘dark nights’, that we finally and fully emerge into the light.
Pinocchio became a real boy only after entering the Belly of the Whale. Yes, the Hero’s Journey is even in fairytales.
The adventures along the Hero’s Journey – both the big and the small – will teach you what you need to know for your soul to awaken. This is the ‘boon’ that Campbell goes on about.
The Hero’s Journey – both the light and the dark – will somehow change you.
And if not, you’ll likely have to hit the road and do it all over again to learn the lesson. Not such a bad thing!
Vanlife – if you let it – will enrich your life with a deeper sense of meaning. With a willingness to surrender and drive into the unknown and embrace whatever lies ahead, you eventually return, bolder and braver than you were before.
Sharing the wisdom
We’d love to hear about your own Hero’s Journeys in your motorhome, campervan or RV!
What prompted you to step out of the ‘known world’? What challenges have you had along the way?
Will you share your ‘boon’ with us and all who read this article?
Let us know in the comments section below or contact us here.
And if you’re interested in finding out more about Joseph Campbell and The Hero’s Journey, check out these great books…
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