The Grind

The circle of van life

June 2, 2022, 8:03 p.m.

“If I were to ever get a tattoo, it would be jugaad.” 

The Hindi word jugaad roughly translates to a “hack” — a flexible approach to problem-solving founded on frugality and creativity. Think: a plastic water bottle poked with holes to mimic a shower head. Although Kayla Huemer M.S. ’22 first learned the term jugaad during the summer of 2016 while working in a biomechanics lab at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, India, she’d been dedicated to it her whole life.

As children, Huemer and her sister Kiara — two years her junior — regularly transformed their suburban Wisconsin backyard into the sleepy woodland of Disney’s “Pocahontas,” scampering through mud and assigning secondary roles to their friends. In the sisters’ teen years, Kiara underwent an emergency surgery that precluded her from swimming during a trip to their grandparents’ lake house, so Huemer suggested they instead spend the weekend painting their Toyota Echo. Weeks later, the acrylic colors they’d used smudged in the rain, so Huemer turned the remnants into a tie-dye pattern. 

“She can see things like that,” Kiara says. “She’s like an inventor — she always has been.” 

For Huemer, engineering is about working with what you have. That’s why jugaad became the focus of her accepted Stanford entrance essay, the title of her YouTube channel and the license plate of her camper van — which she drove from St. Louis to Stanford before beginning the second year of her master’s program in the summer of 2021.

***

When she boarded the AmTrak train from Chicago to Stanford in the fall of 2020, Huemer had imagined Stanford as a cinematic, West Coast dreamscape. Instead, she found a ghost town. At the time, only graduate students were permitted to live on campus. The COVID-19 pandemic had turned the once-bustling Tresidder Memorial Union into a vast, vacant space. Meyer Green went untouched.

Huemer flirted with the idea of buying, gutting and renovating a camper van for the entire first year of her master’s. But, that spring, when she secured a remote internship for the summer of 2021, Huemer’s search became serious. She spent hours each day doom-scrolling through Craigslist.

She passed on heaps of 12K skoolies and fully furnished Airstreams before she stumbled upon Deb Mutchler’s 2013 Ford Transit Connect. The ad was text-only, so Huemer messaged Mutchler for photos. Even with the pixelation, she could see a few dents, some rusting on the fender. But it was baby blue, inconspicuous, and 3k under book — promising enough for the first solo odyssey she’d attempt that summer.

She advanced $300 into Mutchler’s son’s bank account in late spring, then flew to St. Louis in June. To close the deal, Mutchler shoveled out maintenance records and Huemer put up the rest of the cash. Then Huemer drove off — but not before Mutchler snapped a farewell picture.

Huemer stands in front of the van next to Mutchler with her dog
Courtesy of Kayla Huemer

“It just got really sentimental,” Huemer said. “I think the reality of it hit her.”

Mutchler was indeed weathering the grief of losing a friend she’d spent 22 years and 120,000 miles with, but she felt at peace entrusting Huemer with the van.

“She has spunk. Spark. And determination to grow herself in a very independent and driven way,” Mutchler said. “Robotics are not for sissies.”

For the rest of that summer, Huemer lived with her grandmother in Green Bay, working her remote job as an Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning Consultant with Medtronic Labs by day and renovating the van — which she named “Murphy,”  from “Murphy’s Law”  — by night.

In the 2014 film “Interstellar,” the protagonist’s daughter is named Murph, also after Murphy’s Law. At one point, Murph frustratedly asks her father, “Why did you and Mom name me after something that’s bad?”

“Well, we didn’t,” he replies. “Murphy’s Law doesn’t mean something bad is gonna happen. What it means is that whatever can happen, will happen.”

When Huemer told her parents she was going to build out a camper van and drive it, alone, from Green Bay, up and down the east coast and back to Stanford, she consoled them by framing Murphy’s Law this way.

“If anything that can happen will happen,” she told them, “then, in a way, anything that can go right, will go right.”

And late that August, one month before she’d begin the second and last year of her master’s, Huemer set out from Green Bay praying she was right.

House-hopping from one old friend to another, Huemer balanced peaceful time alone in the van with the amenities of stationary dwellings. She could pray as loudly and as long as she liked alone with Murphy, then refuel with a warm shower and a crisp Kombucha cocktail before doing it all over again.

This wasn’t a mere tour, though — it was a pilgrimage. Huemer had created an itinerary that dropped her in Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes by Sept. 8, when GUTTED, a five-day vehicle renovation competition turned reality TV show, began.

For those five days, Huemer collected electrical scraps from neighboring camps and cheered on her favorite celebrity van-lifer, Linnea Schmelzer, another solo female van-lifer.

“I loved being behind the scenes,” Huemer said. She’d missed the building phase since she’d left her grandmother’s home in Green Bay, so she indulged in supporting others through it — and tweaking Murphy along the way.

Huemer stands on a dirt road, smiling and pointing to the van beside her
Courtesy of Kayla Huemer

A couple days into the competition, Huemer spotted a duo excising connectors from a dozen yards worth of LED strips.

“Are you throwing this out?” she asked, delicately. “Can I use it?”

“I mean, go ahead, but you’re only going to be able to use it if you know how to solder,” they said.

Huemer smirked. For a biomedical engineer like herself, soldering an LED strip would be like a synchronized swimmer treading water.

When she’d restored the LED lights to their former glory, Huemer lined them below the exhibit of state park posters that dotted Murphy’s interior. Under the soft light, her adaptable bed morphed into an Airbnb nest. Across from this nook, a wooden countertop housed her foldable kitchenette and doubled as an extra bed frame. Watching Huemer expand and contract the van feels like watching a Transformer in action. Murphy, “dented on the outside but beautified on the inside,” thoroughly embodies jugaad.

Back at Stanford in the fall of 2021, Huemer anxiously awaited an opportunity to get back on the road — this time, living completely out of Murphy. Despite her infatuation with van life, for Huemer, school would always come first, so she couldn’t up and go whenever she pleased.

Then Stanford announced that the first two weeks of winter quarter would be conducted remotely. Students were still allowed to return to campus — a relief to many who’d long surpassed their tolerance for their hometowns — but classes would be held on Zoom.

“While this news may come as a disappointment to many, we hope you will find ways to embrace the ‘remote learning’ environment,” the University email read. Many students shuddered at the news, but a spirit of jugaad moved Huemer to think otherwise. This was her opening.

In early January, she departed from her Palo Alto co-op Box of Rain with her class schedule, a Verizon wireless coverage map and a rough road trip itinerary. Her heathered knit and turquoise earrings blended into Murphy’s blue-gray interior.

“[There were] so many bumps in the road,” Huemer said. “My water tank broke on my first day, and it just like seeped into the sand. And I was like, ‘Well, that’s all I got.’”

Her misfortune had felt catastrophic, but an evening drugstore trip and a cotton candy sunrise later, all was calm again.

During Huemer’s twelve days on the road, other hiccups tumbled in like the Pacific Ocean tide, but jugaad meant there was always an answer. When she ran out of 5G hotspot data, she began taking Zoom calls from Starbucks parking lots. When spots weren’t secluded enough for her to avoid passersby, she swept her blackout curtains across the windows and put Murphy in sleep-mode. When the solar wattage couldn’t fuel a burner, she ate nonperishables.

In the end, she’d spent 12 days on the road, hiked 24.6 miles, used 27.5 GB of mobile data, driven 1,712 miles and taken enough photos to relive it all in her mind, over and over again. One day, she hopes to replicate the trip for real.

***

For now, Huemer has chosen to put van life on pause. This fall, she will start her new job as a project manager with a global health arm of Medtronic Labs in Kenya. She’ll leave Murphy with a trustworthy cousin, eager to return to the U.S. and embark on new roving adventures next year.

Huemer and Zhong sit atop the van against a scenic landscape and setting sun
Courtesy of Kayla Huemer

Before she leaves, though, Huemer will help her friend and second-year physics Ph.D. candidate Janet Zhong, build out a camper van of her own.

“There will be lots of traces of Kayla in the van,” Zhong said.

For a long time, Huemer couldn’t imagine a life away from Murphy, away from the infinite California highways, away from everyone she’d grown to love in the last two years. In many ways, moving to Kenya meant demolishing the life she’d built here.

But passing the torch to Zhong has helped her see that not all will be laid to waste. Zhong anticipates others who will help her build out her van this summer will soon embark on Craigslist hunts of their own.

This isn’t the end for Huemer and Murphy, Huemer now knows. Only an interlude.

Malia Mendez ’22 is the Vol. 260 Managing Editor of Arts & Life at The Stanford Daily. She is majoring in English with a concentration in Creative Writing, Prose track. Talk to her about Modernist poetry, ecofeminism or coming-of-age films at mmendez 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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