60-year-old Barbara Snyder remembers where she was when a massive wildfire ripped through her Santa Rosa neighborhood, destroying 4,600 homes. The Tubbs Fire ranks as the most destructive in California’s history.
“I was out of town at a wedding and my 26-year-old son was home. He was woken up with a 1 a.m. phone call from his dad, telling him homes were on fire,” said Barbara. “His dad’s home burned down right before mine. Soon after that, I found my home had been destroyed.”
Stunned and in a state of shock, Barbara moved in with a friend and tried to figure out what to do with her life.
“I lived in that house for 10 years; it was a beautiful stucco French chateau,” said Barbara. “I lost all my memories, my computer, my photos, my artwork. Things I’d been saving since my kids were babies. Everything is gone. Now I’m starting all over. It’s like you have amnesia; every day you’re creating new memories.”
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How a van entered Barbara’s life
Barbara said she’s lucky she had a good insurance policy on her house, which was paid off at the time of the fire. After the devastating wildfires, her insurance company offered her $7,000 per month for two years. But Barbara didn’t want to stay in Santa Rosa, where the bones of burned down homes were a symbol of heartbreak and loss.
“I’d seen a certain van in a magazine a month or so prior to the fires, a Winnebago Sprinter van. So, I started calling dealers around the country,” Barbara said. “I could put my mountain bike in there, go hiking. I asked my insurance company if instead of paying me per month, they’d give me a lump sum to buy a van.”
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Eventually, she convinced them to give her $120,000, and she bought her new van. A van Barbara would soon call home.
“I went from 3,800-square feet to 90-square feet,” said Barbara, who’s an artist. “My art studio itself was 400-square feet. I loved that little space, and now I’m in a really little space.”
Barbara had been planning on downsizing for awhile. She wanted to sell her house, get rid of stuff, maybe move into a condo. Fire thrust her into early retirement, as she lost her art studio in the blaze.
“I turned 60 one month before the fire, and I knew something big was going to happen in my life,” said Barbara. “So, this is it. This is what I’m doing.”
Getting used to van life
Barbara started her life of newfound freedom by driving through the Southwest, visiting national parks along the way. Sometimes, a family member or friend would hop in her Winnebago for the ride. Eventually, Barbara drove back to California, to Santa Rosa, where stark reminders of devastation were everywhere.
“I just sat in my old driveway and cried,” she said. “I lost my cat in the fire, and I had a lawn chair and I put his blanket on it, and I’d just call him every day. It was too sad. I can’t live there.”
So, she drove away again, heading to Montana, Idaho and Colorado.
“You have to join a traveling nomad group or else you don’t really make any long-term friends,” she said. “I joined a group of mostly RVers called the Xscapers and we all meet up once per month in a different state. It’s our community of nomads.”
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Getting used to a smaller space and less stuff was also an adjustment for Barbara, but a welcome one.
“It was a really big change,” said Barbara, “But I’ve liked not having as much stuff anymore. I have three pairs of shorts and two pairs of jeans. I wash them in the kitchen sink, then hang them on a clothesline. Sometimes, I wear a T-shirt five days in a row. It’s an entirely new form of living for me.”
She said now, in the van, everything she owns has to be functional and serve more than one purpose. For example, she has a bowl that also doubles as a salad strainer.
Barbara’s plans for the future in her Winnebago
Barbara plans on living in her Sprinter Winnebago as long as she feels like it. Come October 2018, it will be one year since the fires. She often thinks about others who lost their homes, people who chose to stay in Santa Rosa, and others who moved away, trying to rebuild.
“They have to sit in an apartment or a rental for two years or however long it takes to rebuild,” she said. “Every day they drive past the burn site, looking at their property. It’s very sad for people who are stuck there.”
She said living in a van is a constant adjustment, a sea of change.
“The hardest part is that you don’t know where you’re going to sleep every night. You have to drive and find a place to park, so you have to be really flexible,” Barbara said. “Another hard part is that I don’t have a house for my kids to come home to.”
Barbara has two boys in their twenties, and both plan on traveling with her at some point. One might even get a van of his own.
One thing she knows is this: when she does settle back down in a house, it’s going to be tiny.