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Tuesday, Feb 20, 2024

Tales of a Middlebury dropout’s life on the road coming soon in “Van’s Best Friend”

After dropping out of Middlebury, Zach Auerbach traveled the country in his van with only his pet cat Yosemite. (Courtesy of Zach Auerbach)
After dropping out of Middlebury, Zach Auerbach traveled the country in his van with only his pet cat Yosemite. (Courtesy of Zach Auerbach)

“I dropped out of college when I was nineteen. I had no real goals for my future, and I felt like I was sort of drifting through life,” Zach Auerbach says in the video on his Kickstarter page. He is looking directly into the camera, dressed in a worn-in t-shirt and a flannel, with a cluttered bookshelf in the background. 

Auerbach is in the process of self-publishing a book he has titled “Van’s Best Friend” about the two years he spent traveling around the U.S. in a van after “dropping out” — a term he wears proudly — from Middlebury College. He matriculated at Middlebury in the fall of 2018, but struggled with the academic structure of his classes and ended up leaving before the semester ended. He returned to his hometown just outside of Chicago for several months, and began scouring the internet for a van that he could convert into a home. By May of 2019, he was on the road. 

When he first got home, Auerbach’s parents were supportive, but he struggled to figure out what was next. Having grown up in a town with a high school where 95% of graduating seniors went on to college, it was challenging for him to imagine a different future. 

“College was always pushed on us and seemed like the only option after high school. There was a lot of weird stigma around being a dropout,” he explained. 

From a young age, Auerbach had a dream of traveling around the country, and this seemed like the right moment. He spent some time browsing an internet of vans that weren’t quite right, as he needed the van to be able to travel long distances and be large enough to install a kitchenette and a bed. Eventually, he came across a Dodge Sprinter in his price range, and after a green spray paint job and some major renovations, the “Lazy Express” was born. 

In designing his initial route on the road, Auerbach sought a path that would allow him to reach as many national parks as possible. He headed west from Chicago, snaking around the northern edge of several states and visiting Glacier National Park, continuing further west to the parks in Washington state. 

Not all of his journey fit under the Instagrammable #vanlife ideal. Though Auerbach  was able to sustain himself in large part in the van, he needed to save up money to continue his travels, and he spent the 2019 holiday season working at a Macy’s in southern California. He also faced the new challenge of living completely alone. 

“When I started out, it was pretty lonely. So when I got to California, I adopted a kitten and I traveled with him for a little over a year. His name is Yosemite, and we hit like 30 national parks together.” 

Throughout the more than two years he spent living in the Lazy Express, Auerbach took photos and journaled constantly. On his personal website, he has organized his nature photography by location, and he encourages readers of the book to periodically visit the website to view photos that correspond with the chapter they’re reading. He also created a map of his van route. Auerbach often ventured out for a few months at a time and then spent brief stints back at home. 

“[The map] kind of looks like a spiderweb that all leads back to Chicago,” said Auerbach.

His journey ended after two years and four months, having visited fifty of the 63 national parks and many more cities and towns in between. 

Auerbach’s book is set up in the format of journal entries, marked by date and location. While on the road, Auerbach journaled frequently, but he explained that the contents of the book are not simply extracted journal entries. 

“The journal was extremely, extremely raw,” he said. “I was often writing in it at the end of the day, and I was exhausted from whatever hiking I was doing. A lot of it doesn’t really make sense if you read the actual journal. So it took a ton of editing.”

Auerbach began the editing process in early October, and it is still ongoing. He hopes the Kickstarter page will offset the costs of self-publishing by allowing people to pre-order the book. Some costs included paying for an editor, paying for the cover design and paying for the printing of the book.

These days, Auerbach is back in Vermont, living and working at a farm in East Middlebury with his cat Yosemite. He hopes to stay in Middlebury through May before returning home to visit family. 

“It’s nice to live where you work,” Auerbach remarked, “I just get up in the morning and do my chores and it’s been a really great place to write.”

To pre-order a copy of “Van’s Best Friend”, you can visit Auerbach’s website at  

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