Here it is…the end of the year. We spent most of the year on the road, living in our 80 square foot travel trailer hitched up to our trusty and dusty old Tundra with three cats in tow. It was INCREDIBLE. It was everything I ever dreamed and so much more. The more part was the part I didn’t expect, how difficult all of that would become and how changed I am for it. We lived in mountains, deserts, near rivers and lakes…we saw deer, elk, grizzly and mountain goat, we met friend after friend and not a single foe. We grew and loved and never felt more like a family of our own out there on the road.
For me, this season is the end and the beginning of big chapters in my life. I feel rushed as usual to put together some sort of nostalgic recap of everything I’ve done or seen this year and that just couldn’t be possible. My journal pages are filled with the bitter and sweet details but I’ll spare readers the time. We left Ohio on December 28 for a full year of travel. We ended up driving back and forth 6 times. We spent time in North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Louisiana, Texas, Arizona, Utah, Northern Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, North Dakota, South Dakota….too many amazing places and experiences to even try to calculate. So, this is it, the haphazard, out of order, thrown together photo recap of one of the most amazing and simultaneously difficult years of my life. Much like life itself which I find to be haphazard, out of order most of the time and thrown together on the daily.
2019 brought us loss and heart ache, it brought tears of joy and endless adventure. It brought me to my knees more times that I’d like to recount but it also took me to more mountain tops and cliff edges than any other year prior. I’m sad to see it go but also glad it’s over. The turn of the decade seems like it should be a big deal but I just feel ready for the beginning of this new chapter. The last few months have been a whirlwood of long-in-the-works changes. We are settled into a new home base, not living full time on the road or in a camper anymore and it feels refreshing. Our travel plans are few and far between but they’re still plans and that’s all that matters right now. We found a way to live the life we want in the way that we want. We did it. The road life chapter came to an unintentionally abrupt end at the end of our wedding season and it’s probably for the best. We didn’t simmer in the sauce. We just let things go and moved on. Of course, it’s bittersweet but we’re doing what’s best for us. In the end, we did the thing we set out to do. We did it (the hard way) for almost 4 years and we gave it ALL. WE. HAD. But, if I’m being honest, we could have kept going and continued giving it more than all we had and we’d have come out the other end beaten and battered and incredibly bitter because of it. I’m glad we didn’t choose that…this time.
In thinking about the new year, I wanted to give 2020 a word, a mantra. It’s a toss up between ‘nourish’, ‘cultivate’, and ‘breathe’. I think all are timely notions as to what this changing decade signifies for many of us road travelers and millennials alike. This is our time. This is the season to focus on our hearts and our own needs, our goals and what brings us joy…and damn it, we’re doing it!
We had Christmas morning like we used to on the floor of the living room with a pile of cats, catnip and wrapping paper. This is my favorite time during the holidays. Our kittie-babes seem to always feel the magic of the season and they are in the most playful spirits. We laughed and took these silly photos and ate cinnamon rolls in our jammies. It was warm, it was special, it was a very happy cat-mas!
In nearly a year of living in different places every week, I finally said it:
“It’s too much.”
“I just want to be home.”
Back in April, we drove over 4,000 miles in three weeks due to some unfortunate circumstances. In total this year alone we drove almost 20k miles with the camper in tow, sometimes staying a night or two in a new place before moving on to the next. That requires a lot of logistics work and a lot of decisions to be made. At times the planning of those details is literally exhausting… imagine planning for a vacation every day. Where will you stay, what grocery store will you go to, which place has better reviews, which place is safer, more fun, more economical, what will the weather be like? And once all that’s figured out, you have to drive there safely while towing your whole life and your cats. That’s what RV life really is. And for most people they get a reprieve from that lifestyle when they pull back into their driveway at the end of a trip.
But, this little cardboard box on wheels IS our home. We don’t have a sanctuary other than this. I think in that moment, when I said it was all too much, I was desperate to disconnect, to go on auto-pilot and stop paying attention to everything in front of me like one can so easily do at home. Sleep in, stay in jammies, don’t go outside, watch Netflix ALL day. Slowness is what I needed, some real down time.
After all that driving and decision making back in April, this feeling of exhaustion crept in on both of us. We weren’t enjoying anything and everything seemed like too much work. We were desperate for something easy. We needed somewhere to feel like home. Comfortable, safe, long term…factors that don’t always come naturally while living on the road. It took us a while to realize why we were being so negative and unenthused with things that would normally be awesome!
When we travel too fast, experiencing new things all the time, we get overstimulated very quickly by the constant visual and spatial pleasures. It’s a pendulum between being overjoyed and irritable because the balance is off. There’s no down time in between to unpack each big experience. What happens then is that we take really amazing things for granted. It’s a feeling we learned to acknowledge and deal with promptly, checking ourselves as best we can.
Our solution is balance. Days far away from it all are necessary, days doing nothing at home are necessary. Days spent running errands and meeting up with friends for beer and pizza are also necessary for a healthy life balance. Knowing our pace and finding that balance is one of the hardest parts of living this way.
We’ve learned that to be living the most of this life, we need access to get away from it all AND be among others within an easy drive. We need nature AND social interaction. We need creative, personal space AND big, scary adventures to keep it all balanced. All this to say that after nearly a year on the road full time, we are slowly learning our style of travel. We are tuning in more to what our bodies are telling us. We are learning what feeds us and what drains us.
For anyone else traveling, living in a camper and doing any kind of adventure/exploring…it’s so important to be mindful so you don’t burn out because this truly is the most extraordinary experience and we’re lucky as hell to be here…where ever here is.
In 2014 when I started investigating the idea of living on the road, I didn’t realize that actually doing it would be so monumentally misinterpreted. I didn’t know that making a choice to take the life I was given and do something out of the ordinary with it would alienate and isolate me from virtually EVERYONE I knew. But, it did.
At least that’s how it seems.
A year into the project of renovating our first camper, we still hadn’t moved in yet, we hadn’t taken it on the road once. I could feel the judgement and hear the disbelief as I heart-fully explained that it was a really hard time for us. I’d been written off. Friends stopped calling, family didn’t know what to say. It was almost as if we’d gone off the deep end and everyone was rolling their eyes at us. The few people who did communicate their versions of support said they were “jealous” and “vicariously living through our life” or “proud that we were really going for it” which also felt kind of like their obligatory and nervous response to our impending failure.
Now that we’re on the road, living full time in a trailer with less than 200 square feet of living space, I’m pretty sure that it’s harder than ever for most people to understand us. Our intentions are still widely misunderstood by the general population beyond their perception that we want freedom from responsibility, just like any other millennial (hard eye roll).
The truth is, choosing to go about life this way is harder than the alternative. There are still responsibilities, albeit very different than in ‘regular’ life. Waking up every day with the freedom to choose what to do, where to go and when to get work done is harder than waking up with a much shorter list of possibilities. Normal life, the normal American life to which I am referring, is routine, predetermined to an extent. Boundaries are in place and we exercise freewill within them, going about our days feeling fulfilled by those choices. Until some of us are not anymore.
As humans, the idea that we want options is something I believe is placed on us by socialization and marketing. We don’t want options, we want to be told what is good. We want personalized selection of all of our wants and needs delivered right to our door. Options are harder. Possibility is harder. It’s easier to stay in our lane, to make the comfortable choice. Our time is our own once all the schedules are me, the boxes are checked and we feel accomplished, then we can unwind and do it all again tomorrow.
Seriously? F that.
I find it difficult to articulate my thoughts on this but let me try because I feel like it’s an important distinction. I get the feeling that most people must assume that this lifestyle is an easier choice than doing what’s socially expected of us. I can understand why, we’re just out here dithering around in beautiful places, averting responsibility and cheating the system. Essentially avoiding any of that real life stuff that everyone else has to deal with…and while I get it, not everyone can make a choice or a change how they live their life…it’s still rather demeaning and invalidating for me personally. Based on the few topics of conversations that come our way nowadays; “Where are you now?”, “How’s the weather?”, “You guys must be having so much fun!” it’s clear that our life is comprehensively misunderstood and so, inadvertently degraded. It seems as though the simple act of choosing to live differently removed our option of ever feeling sad or unhappy or needing support or a good talk and invalidated all of our problems.
The number of times Justin and I have had this conversation in the last year has to be proof that it’s not just me being sensitive. We can’t be the only full time travelers to feel this sense of division and downright disassociation. And while I know that it is our own, very privileged choice that is causing us to feel this way. I also know how trivial it is in comparison to the exclusion, inequality and divisiveness in the world, I still can’t help but take notice and connect how even this, a simple (and likely) unintentional form of withdrawal and alienation came so naturally to people.
It’s May. It’s Mental Health Awareness month. I can’t stress enough how important it is to have conversations around this subject. To have open dialogs with friends and family about the things we all deal with but more importantly, the things we know others are dealing with. Avoidance and ignorance only magnify the shame and discomfort around Mental Health.
There’s a trend right now that is throwing a pretty blanket over mental health in an attempt to make it less taboo and while I’m all for self-love, there is more to mental health than cupcakes and bubble baths shared on Instagram. I’m more mental health aware on the daily because, like many people, I’ve had my share of experiences with loved ones and friends who suffer from a life-altering mental illness. The knowledge into those illnesses, the awareness of their interworking has helped me to check-in with myself (and Justin) regularly.
We both suffer from a few mental health issues that this lifestyle has a tendency to intensify on occasion. We’ve worked really hard over the last three years to learn our triggers on the road to avoid problems but to also find solutions as individuals and in our marriage. It requires a frequent check in and to dig deep and unpack when things start to feel difficult for either one of us.
It’s important to note that Mental Health problems don’t have to be extreme to be real. Learning that is part of the awareness that is necessary in today’s society to more towards proper balance and management of our wellbeing.
Here are 5 ways we keep things in check while still enjoying life on the road:
Pay Attention We check in with each other often everyday just to see how the other is feeling; are their expectations being met, are they comfortable, is there a problem underlying anywhere? We probably check in like this 5-10 times a day. It goes something like this: I’m outside reading, Justin is inside doing course prep for his classes, “Are you good in there?” I say, “Yep, you?” “All good out here, want to go for a walk in a little bit?” “Yep, I just need 5 more minutes.” “Cool.” If there was an issue happening, we’d unpack it right then and there. Paying attention to each other comes pretty naturally in our marriage but the harder task is paying attention to our own bodies. Sometimes we crave adventure, sometimes we crave lazy days and bing watching, some days we crave socialization and something new but we need to go beyond what we’re craving and listen to what our mind and bodies are telling us they need. Boil it down, let it simmer.
I’m often the one who, after spending a few days out in the wild away from everything, feels a real urge to go into town for socialization. Justin rarely ever has that desire for several reasons, one of which is mentioned below. It’s a point of contention and anxiety for us regularly. We work through it by seeking a balance before there are desperate feelings. We compromise and we try to give the other what they need as often as we can. It’s a work in progress.
Time in Nature We both know that this is a huge contributor to our collective wellbeing. This is the main reason we chose a life of adventure on the road, to have access to the best landscapes and hiking trails and the time to enjoy it because we know how positively it affects our mood and wellbeing. It’s a human need to be within nature. We prefer it to be as immersive as possible. It’s never a bad thing.
Nutrition This one is tricky. Lately we’ve been really good about having a well balanced diet and making the effort to eat healthy/fresh. We rarely spend money going out to eat, so when we do it’s a special treat. Sometimes though, our access to fresh vegetables is scarce when Dollar General and Dollar Tree are our only grocery options so our nutrition suffers. While our carb intake (mac and cheese) never hurts morale, it isn’t the best practice for positive mental health. Moderation and balance is important here.
Exercise A good workout is often hard to come by on the road. Hiking and biking are not our preferred forms of exercise because we know we need more than that, physically and mentally. Justin is a runner and usually jogs about 10-20 miles a week while I do yoga and lift with a kettle bell. It’s 20-30 minutes of our day that we can easily manage to squeeze in now that our days are mostly free from constraints. The difference between a workout day and a non-workout day (or a few non-workout days in a row) is like night and day as far as mental clarity and stress level.
Unpack Brene Brown has a really interesting talk on Netflix right now about Bravery + Vulnerability that I found so refreshing to watch the other day. I was so happy to hear her words because so much of what she was saying, about giving in to vulnerability and feeling feelings and being brave enough to explore them and actually talk about them, is exactly what we have been working on to aid our level of anxiety and stress.
The most common issue we deal with as a couple and as individuals is anxiety. It’s a regular struggle triggered by a long list of elements this life brings us that we didn’t find to be a problem in our ‘normal’ life. Here’s the short list of things we have to assess and deal with on a regular basis: our own security + safety on the road and in the places we ‘camp’, pet security + safety, proximity to cities and unfamiliar places, proximity to different varieties of people, weather conditions, road travel conditions, finances, where to go, when to go, prioritizing a proper work/life balance, isolation from family and friends, feeling forgotten/unimportant…and many more. There have been times that our anxiety is so severe it’s temporarily debilitating. Our first experience with the high desert winds of New Mexico earlier this year called for 70MPH gusts and 40MPH steadily for 12 hours straight. While sitting in a virtually weightless home I was literally hiding under the covers for an entire day, periodically googling things like ‘can a camper flip over from high winds’. Then I spent the entire next day recovering from the level 5 anxiety attack I didn’t realize I was having at the time. It was awful and exhausting but enlightening. Another time just recently while boondocking, we wanted to go into town but the temps were rising and Justin wasn’t comfortable leaving the cats unattended. THE biggest struggle we deal with is how to find a balance between living our life and keeping our kids (cats) safe and happy. The anxiety Justin harbors around the issue is deeply rooted and stems from an experience with the loss of a pet during a vacation years ago. This last long conversation brought to light some of those old feelings and helped him understand how he can continue to unpack those (mostly) irrational thoughts and fears and move past the anxiety surrounding it. Because we now know the signs and symptoms of our individual anxieties, we are much more prepared to combat them before they’re fully gripped on or full blown panic attacks. By doing the work, we regain control of our choices, our lives and can more rationally make decisions even if it’s as simple as going to town or staying home. Anxiety is a special kind of friend. Its complexities and how even a simple task or concept can cause some of the weirdest feelings and sensations is so hard to comprehend, even for the person having the feelings. Even though it might seem silly or trivial to others, something sends a siren alarm within us that can’t always turned off with a cookie and a glass of wine, but sometimes that helps too! 😉
The other more obvious activities we do to stay inspired and happy on the road are taking long drives down the dirt back roads in the most beautiful parts of the country, creating art, listening to our favorite music, journaling, asking each other probing questions about life, sitting in silence, watching the sunset, listening to the birds, taking risks and trying new things, calling home, telling people we love them, cuddling cats. These are the best parts of this life.
I’m always seeking to improve and analyze what we’re doing so that time is not wasted and life can be lived to the fullest, so these daily practices we are working on have opened us up to being more in tune with our emotional state in every sort of circumstance. We have learned so much about each other, about ourselves and about our patterns as a couple by prioritizing our mental health and wellbeing needs. The more work we do, the more freedom we feel. And to a nomad like me, that is everything.
Currently, I’m huddled next to our trailer in the Arizona desert, next to Saddle Mountain, trying to find shade and a breeze. In a few weeks we will wake up somewhere on the road on our one year anniversary of moving into our motorhome…you remember, the one we spent a year gutting and renovating and then couldn’t bring out west. Yea… that one.
I’m sad we won’t get to wake up someplace epic in the bunk of our old, big girl on the anniversary. I’m also sad she didn’t get to come on this adventure with us. But if we’re all friends here, I can say that we haven’t missed that much as we’ve been traveling. The trailer, it’s ease and simplicity, it’s newness has made this trip easier than we had ever imagined it could be. Nonetheless, she’s a part of our family, that big girl…and we miss her.
Since I don’t have any new photos of her to share on the anniversary of our move-in, I thought a look back at her renovation days would suffice as tribute to our 365 days spent together.
Looking back, the year went surprisingly quick and was devoid of issue as far as living in a small space goes. We are both surprised at how effortlessly we adjusted to the new tasks and routines of living in a camper, even if stationary. We managed to transition the business, the cats and ourselves mostly seamlessly. Our savings is finally starting to reflect the lifestyle changes we’ve made and truthfully, that’s not even the best part.
In a year we have saved nearly $20,000 in home ownership expenses alone. That’s not including the savings of living more consciously, sharing a car and just generally buying less. We had some unexpected expenses this year that surely offset our projected savings a bit, but we’re able to recoup more quickly after unexpected issues now than we were before. The savings and the growing financial freedom are things we are proud of, but they’re not the only reason for our choices.
The best part of living in the camper is that by choosing to do so, we have begun to place value on different things than we used to. Because we don’t need as much money to live, we can work less and spend more time at home/traveling/doing creative things; things that we never had time for when we had full time jobs, a house and an ever-growing list of social activities.
Now, with a new mindset and this altered lifestyle, our energy goes into things that bring us joy instead of being bound to the responsibilities that used to fill our free time. The mindfulness we now have opens a physical and a mental space where we find intention and meaning in our thoughts, our activities and our goals. We’ve really grown, as individuals and in our marriage. Often in a spat, I’ll complain that we aren’t on the same page but really, we’ve never been more together as individuals chasing our own dreams!
To some people we know, this first year may have seemed like the trial-run that didn’t go as planned. It may have seemed like a lot of mistakes or bad decisions that led to nowhere but we don’t think of it that way at all. This lifestyle may seem…ok, it probably seems “crazy” or weird to most everyone. To some, it may seem like we’re avoiding something or that we’re wasting our precious time, squandering our chances at a ‘good’ life, one that looks good to everyone, with the fancy cars and the big house and the expensive clothes and jewelry, etc, etc, etc. Some might even think less of us; think we’re poor or struggling. And that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
One thing I know for sure after this year of living in 150 square feet; without a mortgage payment; without a laundry list of bills to pay; without a pile of debt and numbered days off to enjoy my life…is that this lifestyle isn’t for everyone. It doesn’t have to be. It’s a way of life we chose and we plan to keep living this way, in some capacity, for the rest of our lives. And truly believe me when I say, we aren’t squandering a thing.
I challenge anyone reading this right now, anyone who is interested in this lifestyle or in changing theirs. Make one small change in your life right now. And a year from now, tell me how you feel about it.
As we left New Mexico, it was still pretty cold in Sedona. The weather was calling for temps in the low twenties and that sounded too much like Ohio, so we decided to head south towards the border. For some dumb reason, we decided that we didn’t need our passports this trip…if we had, we might have spent the week in Baja, Mexico. Instead, we stayed for a few lovely nights in an oddly quaint little RV park outside of Bisbee. We decided not to take our friend’s recommendation and stay on BLM down there, we were a little nervous being that close to the border, leaving the cats unattended without hookups…so the Double Adobe RV park was the perfect place to call home for a few days. It was actually one of our favorite places we stayed in. The owners were so sweet, they had a pretty epic DVD collection and an Arizona room where I did yoga one morning. It was nice to just feel at home finally after so many days of driving. We were nestled in against a fence and a tall field of grass and each evening there were javalinas and deer in the park! Wiley especially loved watching the birds out the back window of Ginny.
The four nights gave us plenty of time to thoroughly explore this little desert gem of a town and also to drive the hour to Tombstone because…we love Tombstone. Bisbee is such a charming little mountain town with so much character to be photographed and enjoyed while wandering it’s twisty little streets.
We first stopped in Old Town Bisbee, which is basically just one street of untouched charm. See photos below for proof! We opted to skip the mine tour and all that, it’s just not really our thing. But we wandered around Bisbee proper for a few hours, dipping into shops and eateries for gelato and cold drinks! It was quite fun.
Tombstone was a whole different experience. We went on a weekday, a rather cold one for Arizona. It actually snowed during the O.K. Coral shootout. We normally steer far away from tourist traps but this one is a little gem that we just couldn’t pass up. Justin loves the old west and Tombstone has been one of our all time favorite films forever. After our trip, Justin ordered two books (the first I’ve ever seen him read in 14 years) about Wyatt Erp and Doc Holiday, the real ones, not the movie ones! We loved it and recommend it to anyone who’s into that sort of thing!
Our stop at White Sands was along the route from Austin to Sedona, but it also marked the third sand dunes we’ve been to in a year, Great Sand Dunes National Park, Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes and now White Sands. Cool, right? Before that neither of us had seen a sand dune bigger than at the at the Atlantic ocean.
White Sands was magical. We got there as soon as the gates opened, just after sunrise. The colors of the morning bounced off every single white angle we could see for miles and miles. We spent a few hours wandering around. We were pretty much the only people there. After the short nature trail loop we headed back to our campsite for some coffee.
Next up we headed to City of Rocks State Park, my favorite so far. This place was incredibly serene and beautiful. I’m a huge fan of long mountain ranges set behind meadows or fields where the view is 360 degrees. The sunsets in this park were INCREDIBLE. The first night we decided to take the short walk up to the Table Mountain, not realizing it was a bit more of a climb than the short walk we were expecting we ended up having to jog back to avoid being on the mountain at dark, without headlamps. While we were running we heard coyotes in the distance…making the experience just a little more exciting! The views on Table Mountain we so cool, giant boulders overlooking these big open fields of tall, golden grass and at sunset everything is pink!
Our campsite was nestled into some giant boulders and even though it was a weekend, we were basically the only people in this part of the park! We spent two wonderfully quiet, scenic days enjoying this park’s wide open views. We will definitely return, possibly on our way home!
We left Sedona just three weeks ago and it already feels like it’s been too long since those red rock sunsets melted our hearts. We really found our magic in Sedona. It may have been the epic spot we found out on BLM land, or the beautiful weather, or the views, or the people we met, or the hikes, or, or, or. We really felt like we found a place we could stay for a while…and so we did.
This was our first BLM, and if you’re not familiar with what that is, let me explain; BLM land is land owned by the Bureau of Land Management, it’s public land. There is a ton of BLM and Forest Service land out here in the West, unlike the East where there is basically none. In designated areas on public land one can camp for free for 14 days. The dispersed camping, also referred to as Boondocking, is remote, usually only accessible via long, washboard dirt roads some of which require a high-clearance vehicle or a 4×4. A lot of them are suitable for RVs, big rigs and little pods like ours but you have to do your research first so you don’t eat stuck. There are no hookups (no electric/water), most don’t have bathrooms but some have pit toilets, there is no office or camp host to check in with. You simple drive up, pick out your desired view and park. The solitude and beauty we have experienced while boondocking cannot be matched in any RV Park or Campground, bottom line. It’s as wild as “camping” gets with a trailer. And since we are technically just living in or camper, not camping for a weekend, we prefer spots that can feel a little more private and peaceful rather than like a vacation. But more on this later.
We use various apps to find the best spots, our favorite app is Campendium. That’s where we found this secluded, beautiful spot near Sedona.
We overnighted first in the next town, Cottonwood to fill our water tank, dump our waste and shower in a big shower. Cottonwood is a cute town, one worth visiting even if it weren’t in-between Sedona and Jerome! We had dinner, a coffee shop workday and explored a bookstore and some little shops!
Then we headed the 20 or so miles out to our spot in the red dirt! We got there and immediately felt comfortable, safe and inspired. We spent 12 days straight enjoying the sights, hiking, exploring the unmarked trails on the public land and even went to a petroglyph site which was super informative and cool.
The best part about the location is Sedona was its proximity to hiking. In Sedona proper we did quite a few hikes; Bear Mountain, Doe Mountain, Devils Bridge and the many trails and roads on the BLM. Being that this spot was 6 miles outside of Sedona, out an extremely well-maintained red dirt road we were also close to restaurants, grocery stores, yoga and laundry! Super win! I signed up for a few sessions at Sedona Hot Yoga and had too many stops at Whole Foods after.
Our on-board utilities and solar allowed us to stay off-grid for the 12 days and we were so proud to have made it that long our first time! 35 gallons of water + drinking water for 12 days! We definitely started conserving and paying attention to our water usage after those two weeks.
Our review of Sedona is pretty simple…if you like hiking in red rocks, you’ll love it. If you love solitude and peace away from tourists, you’ll love the BLM. If you love shops and touristy things, you’ll love it. There is so much more nature to explore and we can’t wait to go back for longer next time! I still have one yoga session left, so we’ll definitely be going back! 😆