We returned last night from a long weekend in Joshua Tree National Park. While there, we were admiring the many different homes-on-wheels that people had crafted for themselves, spanning the spectrum from shiny new Airstreams being pulled by luxury brand SUVs to rusted out jalopies with the passenger seat removed to make room for its occupant’s sleeping pad and bag. There were Sprinters housing climbing guides and college kids packed into their parents’ minivans and retirees in 40-foot RVs. There were full-timers and weekend warriors and every build out you can imagine. It was inspiring to say the least.
It also started a conversation about the parts of road life that almost never make it to social media or blog posts. I actually don’t think it’s because everyone is attempting to cultivate a “highlights reel” of perfection. I think it can feel really wrong to “complain” about the hard parts of road life when so many of the people doing it won’t hesitate to tell you that they feel like it is a huge privilege to be able to choose to live like this. And that’s the catch, right? This life is a choice and it is often a lifestyle for which sacrifices were made in order to make happen. So complaining about some of the “hardships” (which for the most part are more often actually just inconveniences) can feel a little whiny and gross.
But we should share them.
Not to complain and certainly not to solicit any kind of pity, but rather to clarify that this lifestyle is neither unattainable nor as glamorous as people often think (there is a bizarre and ongoing misconception that everyone who lives in a van or a camper is independently wealthy…I have literally never met a single person on the road for whom that was true- not one). I just think it’s helpful for everyone when we all share our struggles, even the ones that we’ve brought upon ourselves and wouldn’t trade if it meant giving up this life.
So here are a few of our realities...**
We are not “carefree.” This is a two-pronged issue for me. First, we were never looking to be free from care- we like caring. Caring is good. Caring about our work, our relationships, our community, our environment. One of the hardest parts of the road is how distant we can feel from our family and friends- we miss birthdays and weddings and milestones as well as the simple connection of daily interaction. And we can struggle with questions of environmental impact when we look at our gas consumption on the move, where and how we buy and store our food, how efficiently we are using our resources. We want to care about these things- “carefree” holds no attraction for us.
We are also not without responsibilities of the “we have bills to pay” variety. We weren’t sitting on a nest egg or a trust fund when we decided to go this direction with our lives. We chose to figure out how to make it work “now” instead of “someday” and that meant some less than ideal financial realities. We financed our camper and our truck, so we have payments on both each month as well as insurance. Justin is a full time traveling ICU nurse, and usually signs thirteen week employment contracts. That means steady and reliable income, but it also means twelve-hour-plus workdays (sometimes several in a row) that require him to be showered, well rested, and in clean scrubs. For us that means finding an RV park with bathroom and shower facilities (and if we’re really lucky, laundry). The places we’ve stayed have ranged from $500-800/month and most have required monthly tenants to pay some utilities (at least electric), so there is “rent” even if we call it something different. We generally don’t have his next assignment until a couple of weeks before we need to be there, which can be problematic when it comes to finding an RV park with an opening (we called more than 20 parks here in Tucson before finding a place).
This not knowing where we’ll be can also be an issue with my work. We hit the road before I’d transitioned out of full time wedding photography entirely. The rather abrupt change meant a huge hit last year for my income as I began making the move towards more freelance writing, editorial and stock photography, and breathing life into some big projects that had been waiting in the wings during busy wedding seasons. I spend an inordinate amount of time and energy hunting down fast, free internet (thank goodness for public libraries and Starbucks). We live on Justin’s income, but I have massive student debt (nearly $200,000) leftover from my law degree and as it turns out Sallie Mae doesn’t care about lifestyle when payments are due. Add to that the fact that we spend significantly more on gas (it was almost a quarter of our income last year) and groceries (no storage space means buying smaller quantities more often) and health insurance and our expenditures look a whole lot like they did when we were homeowners back in Maine.
We live in 83 square feet. Our bed makes up about a third of our living space. It’s small, y’all. We love it in so many ways, but it would be a lie to say it wasn’t without difficulty sometimes. Two adults and a dog with an uncanny knack for laying in precisely the wrong place can feel a bit claustrophobic when I’m trying to put away laundry and Justin’s packing his work lunch and Tessie is splayed out across the center of the minuscule floor. There is also simply the matter of consideration and logistics. Gone are the days when I could slide out of bed before dawn, tiptoe downstairs to make coffee, and then slip into my office to read or write while Justin slept in a bit on his days off. Now, that would entail me climbing over his sleeping form, walking three feet to the kitchen and clattering around with the coffee making stuff, and then basically turning on a light in the bedroom to see by. Again, not a tragedy, but the loss of small rituals like that can contribute to a general sense of being ungrounded, disconnected.
Also, I tend to spread out while I work, but that isn’t always possible in the camper, and whether I’m finished or not, there isn’t room for me to leave my work out to be picked up the next day. Each night it is all packed up and each morning I unpack it and spend a little time reacquainting myself with the train of thought I left off with.
And my yoga practice can be hysterical- arms bent to accommodate the six-foot ceiling and stepping over Tessie when she decides my mat is an extension of her bed. It’s that or do it outside, which is amazing when we are out in the wilderness, but less so when our RV park neighbor is only a few feet away and every retired RVer wants to stop and ask what I'm doing, ignoring social cues and continuing to stand and chit chat until I finally relinquish down dog and engage in the conversation they are determined to have.
Cooking. You guys, I would commit a crime for an oven. I had no idea how many of my go-to meals included roasting veggies or baking something. I knew I’d miss baking bread, but man, the veggies and enchiladas took me by surprise. We cook 99.9% of our meals on a single electric ceramic burner on a table outside. This means that weather has to factor into our meal planning. I lost a huge mound of parsley I’d just finished chopping to a rogue gust of wind the other day- swoosh and it was suddenly in the air and then floating down the dry wash adjacent to our site. A small travail, but on the occasions that it’s pouring rain and too windy for the awning to be out and Justin took the car to work and I don’t have the right groceries for a non-cooking dinner, dinner can get interesting. I can cook inside if I must, but there is no venting and little counter space and it can just be tricky to manage both the condensation and the heat in our small space.
Public bathrooms and showers. It’s gettin’ real now, y'all. So technically our 3x3 foot bathroom is a “wet shower” if we are willing to sit on the toilet under the spray and risk water escaping (in a home constructed primarily of fiberboard, water is no joke), but we’re not, so in reality we don’t have a shower. And while we ripped out the factory toilet and replaced it with the world’s most awesome composting toilet, we generally use it solely for “liquids” when we are at an RV park. For the most part, our bathroom is a storage closet that holds everything from our dirty laundry bag and cleaning supplies, to all of our toiletries and the bags we load our stuff into when we walk down to the showers. This means using the public facilities at the RV park (and the occasional Planet Fitness locker room). Generally, this isn’t that big a deal, but it does mean risking a few things regularly.
First, that there won’t be an open bathroom/ shower when you need one. This has occasionally resulted in one of us showing up to something unshowered when it wasn’t appropriate (embarrassing), and let’s just say that there was once an incident involving a doggie poop bag due to no bathrooms…unpleasant business all around. It’s one thing to pee in the woods, a whole other thing to pee in a crowded RV park.
Another risk is that no matter how hard the park or gym works to keep things clean, there are always those people. Let me just say that if I ever figure out who at this park thinks it’s a good idea to stick enormous clumps of hair to the shower wall (seriously…they’re huge…how does this person have any hair left on their head?) or the guy who hasn’t figured out how to rinse the sink after shaving off what looks to be a full hipster beard, they will get an earful from me. I have lost hours of my life to fantasies revolving around showers I don’t have to wear flip flops in.
Life can feel a bit untethered. In all seriousness, this was probably my biggest challenge last year. I spent a lot of time flogging myself over feeling like I was too rigid, that if I were a “better person” I would be more adaptable or more flexible. And learning to be flexible is really important in this life- a lot of things don’t go quite as planned (we had a hiccup just this spring that meant we had to replace our whole damn truck…we didn’t see that coming and it felt like a real blow) and learning to give yourself more time and more space around expectations can make a huge difference. But what it also took me awhile to figure out was that some of that feeling of being ungrounded came from not being honest about who I really am, how I really function, and honoring that. I simply need some small routines and rituals in my daily life to feel connected. I can be pretty flexible about not needing all of them every day, but I need some of them every day. I also can have a really hard time accessing my creativity without enough space or quiet. I am an introvert by nature ( a social one, for sure, but I thrive on alone time) and without chunks of time to work quietly in a comfortable environment, I can have a hard time processing my experiences into words and can feel increasingly exhausted and disconnected. It can feel wasteful to spend an hour over coffee and my journal or doing some yoga or meditation when we are on the move and I’m already not going to get as much time in a location as I’d like, but I’m increasingly convinced that this time is really important if I want to actually experience the location in a way that sticks with me. This is ongoing work for me, but it’s definitely been easier for me to just take what I need to feel connected now and it is making a huge difference.
Okay. So this was a monster post and it’s a lot of sort of crappy stuff and I still feel like I skimmed over so much (like Walmart parking lots and how often we end up in them). But it bears repeating that all of this is in a larger context of deep gratitude for all this life offers us and all the amazing experiences it provides (ummm, we were in JOSHUA TREE this weekend…). It just feels important to clarify that as much as I love our lifestyle, it is no more perfect than any other lifestyle, no less emotional and full of challenges than any other, and, of course, no less attainable either. If it appeals to you, awesome- make it happen in whatever way works for you. If not- no worries, we each have paths that call to us at different times for different reasons and I think that fact is just grand.
For us, for now, we sure are glad to be be here, shower shoes and all.
**Just for the record, my words here reflect our experience- there are as many ways to do this life as there are people doing it, so I certainly do not pretend to speak for everyone adventuring on the road!