In Van-Dwelling Parts 1 and 2 we showed you what life inside the van is like. But the inside of the van is only a small part of the story. We live in a 100 square foot mobile home so we can travel the country. Being constantly on the move brings its own challenges and surprises, which we share with you in this post.
The main component of my diet is fresh vegetables and fruits, and the only way to get them truly fresh and delicious is to find locally grown vegetables, which have been harvested within about a day of purchase. If you recall, John even had a bumper sticker custom made for the van that states “We brake for fresh produce”, because I love to stop at farm stands and farmers’ markets. As far as farm markets go on this trip, it has been feast or famine.
We spent a month in the middle of summer in Florida getting the van all ready to go. The heat of summer in Florida is not the best time of year to find fresh produce; it is too hot to grow much, though I did find a coop where small farmers, even home gardeners, distribute food through an ordering system. We tasted some strange hot-weather produce from that coop: chickpea greens, cucuzzi (an Italian edible gourd) and chaya (another unfamiliar green). We set out on the trip on August 12, and by late August we were in northern Georgia where the abundance of fresh produce began. Georgia, Virginia, New York and New England were bursting with fresh produce and easy to find farmers’ markets. Then we hit the midwest in late fall. Even though it was the height of fall veggie harvest season in New York, local vegetables could not be found in Illinois. Mostly because the state is covered in fields of inedible corn. With a lucky exception for Thanksgiving, at this point we started eating California-grown produce, organic when possible (in cities and more upscale towns it is possible to find a good selection of organic produce, but in many towns it is not). We have stumbled on a couple of farmers’ markets in the southwest, in Austin, TX and Sedona, AZ.
In the midwest I spent a lot of time searching for “natural” food stores, which in most towns turned out to mean a vitamin shop that also carries some organic brands of canned and box foods at absurdly high prices. I find it ironic that “natural food stores” sell primarily vitamins, which are the antithesis deriving nutrients by eating fresh, whole foods of a variety that did not have the nutrients bred out of it in a focus on appearance and long-storage.
On the other hand, the rare Amish store we come upon is full of great foods, especially bulk dry stuff, including dehydrated vegetable soup which is pretty hard to find (and great for backpacking food). By the time we hit Texas I gave up on searching for natural food stores and now just look for the best big grocery in town. There have been some good ones: H-E-B in Texas and Sprouts in Arizona. Sprouts is like Whole Foods at a fraction of the price. The regional differences in grocery stores is interesting to observe. The bakery at the HEBs creates a lot of pastries but not fresh bread; however each store does have a tortillaria with fresh tortillas, both corn and flour in packages ranging in quantity from 25-250, as well as fresh tortilla chips. Such good tortilla chips! It’s a good thing I don’t normally have such easy access to those delicious tortilla chips…it’s hard to convince myself that chips and guacamole is not dinner. Another interesting Mexican influence on the grocers near the border is even stores that have no other bulk dry goods do have a giant vat of bulk pinto beans in the produce isle.
We expected, and others we’ve talked to expect, that we should be in great shape after not having jobs for many months. The truth is, we were in better shape when exercise was part of our daily routine. My daily commute was a 20 mile round trip bike ride, I practiced yoga 2-3 times per week and went hiking or kayaking several weekend days per month. I am out of the habit of regularly practicing yoga because the conditions of warm enough weather to be outside barefoot, flat ground and appropriate location (e.g. not Walmart parking lot) are rare; subsequently my back, core and arms are weakening. We do a fair amount of hiking, but less cardio without frequent biking so we are both gaining weight. This has really taught us the importance of routine in one’s life.
Being on the move all the time makes being part of a community difficult. We have each other, and we are together nearly 24 hours a day, but there is still a level of loneliness that comes from not having a larger network of friends. We get along remarkably well for two people that have lived together in a 100 square foot van for nearly seven months, but the constant just-the-two-of-us leads to some frictions. And what can you talk about when you share all your experiences together? The lack of regular interaction with friends other than John has led to an unhealthy amount of reading Facebook for me, as a way to see what other people are thinking and talking about.
In New York I was a part of several communities, such as a community garden, a boathouse that runs free kayaking programs, a food coop, a network of friends, and of course colleagues at work. When I talk to my friends back in New York, they suggest that settling down and returning to normal, working life will be difficult after this travel experience. As grateful as I am for this opportunity, I also look forward to being a part of a community again when we settle in our new home. There are downsides to this nomadic lifestyle, and I expect that the trade-offs will make the transition easier than you might imagine.
On environmental impact
In my normal life, I make an effort to minimize my environmental impact in what I consume, how much waste I create and how many resources I use. Intellectually I understand that my efforts are small, even minuscule compared to the effects of industry, and that the impact I have as an American is still huge compared to most of the world’s population. These small acts, such as avoiding disposable containers, composting, recycling and bicycling for transportation are choices I make because I feel they are a moral obligation. You might think that living in a small space would have small impact due to reduced consumption, but actually we end up creating a lot more waste. I am lucky to find a recycling bin anywhere we go for all the disposable containers we use, and forget about composting. A majority of what I throw in the trash is vegetable scraps that should be recycled back into soil, but I can’t compost in the van and our wasteful garbage system does not separate resources from the waste stream but piles it all together in a big toxic landfill. Also, we drive a lot. Even with about 20 mi/gallon fuel efficiency, we burn through about 80 gallons of diesel a month. Overall, my environmental impact is greater on this trip than in my apartment-dwelling life, even as the trip allows me to visit nature and have time to appreciate it.
After all that negativity, I want to end on a positive note, to explain why we are still living this life more than six months in. The trade-off of all those complications that living a nomadic life in a small space is that we can go places we might never have seen otherwise. Backcountry camping in Big Bend, sleeping on the street side in Chicago, unimaginable caverns, state parks in Arkansas and Louisiana, and camping on Blue Ridge Parkway just to name a few. This trip has caused me to fall in love with our country. I make an effort to stay informed of current events in politics, science and the environment, and the fact is that a vast majority of news is bad news. Everything I read leads me to believe that the future of the world is a few rich people controlling the dwindling resources as out-of-control human population growth decimates the planet until it can no longer support life besides a handful of hardy species (most prominently cockroaches). It seems like everyday I read about another species on the verge of disappearing: bats colonies declining from white nose syndrome, bees dying from colony collapse disorder, starfish wasting disease, monarch butterflies from the effects of Monsanto’s Roundup, pine trees being wiped out by pine bark beetle, ash trees from the emerald ash borer, hemlocks from the hemlock wooly adelgid. When I read all these accounts from the concrete jungle of New York I begin to believe that there is no nature left. But traveling the country I have had the opportunity to see so many beautiful places, and learn about the animals and plants that still inhabit them. America is large, covering many diverse ecosystems, and there is so much left to protect. And this is why I write the blog – I want to record and to share what we see and what we experience, in particular the many amazing places in this country that I didn’t know about or couldn’t imagine before embarking on this adventure, because chances are, you don’t know about them either. Every park, but in particular the National Parks, offer so much beauty and education that I am inspired to keep making my small gestures, getting involved with activist groups, and in general, working to be a positive impact on the world.
John’s thoughts on this very special trip.
Our adventure has been amazing so far and I’ve learned a lot about myself, Heidi, and others.
Heidi and I had a vision of what life would be like on the road in our adventure planning stage and how it would change who we are, both in mind and body. We saw healthier, and more fit versions of ourselves due to all the exercise we’d get. Biking at all the wonderful locations we’d visit and hiking many, many miles in the states we’d pass through. I saw myself tackling the ever growing list of books on my kindle, and spending many days just relaxing, something that I desperately needed. I imagined myself more relaxed and less stressed out, leading to better and deeper sleep at night. I got excited at the thought of stealth camping in big cities and exploring like I was a local, after all, our home is on wheels and we can spend as much time as we’d like, just about anywhere we want!
That vision is clearly different from the reality now. In many ways life on the road for the last eight months has been much better than what I expected, but it is totally different from what our vision was, and I’m OK with that. I’ll tackle the different aspects, in no particular order, of what I envisioned before we left on our trip and how they’ve played out so far. Some of this may overlap with what Heidi has gone over.
Most of the exercise I did living in NYC was bike related so I’m going to focus on it. It turns out biking can’t just be a spur of the moment decision when you’re always moving on to the next place. Living a stationary life means knowing where all the bike lanes are, and where to go when you just want to relax. Living in New York makes exercise part of the everyday routine. As most of you probably know I didn’t have a car living in New York City. To go to work I biked. To meet up with friends, or just to relax somewhere meant jumping on one of my trusted folding bikes and riding there, without thinking about it. It was simple, fun, and convent to ride my bike, or walk, just about anywhere.
When traveling in a van, and more importantly in a location we’re unfamiliar with, cycling requires planning, research, and driving to a location where it’s safe to ride. It turns out most of the US doesn’t have sidewalks, let alone bike lanes. In fact it’s scary as hell to bike on most roads just about everywhere we’ve gone. In many of the state parks it’s fairly safe, but riding every park road, and every campground loop, is equivalent to maybe the first quarter of our old commutes into work. Biking now means asking locals where to go, googling and generally expecting not to feel safe while riding. For me, part of the joy of cycling is being spontaneous and cycling in most places takes that away. Living in New York spoiled us and I’m excited about cycling more, with less planning, when we settle down.
It’s worth noting I drive 99% of the time, clocking in at about 12,000 miles so far. Heidi is a great driver, I just prefer to be at the wheel, and she likes it that way. The idea of driving before our trip and driving now is about the same. I enjoy driving and it’s been fun driving again after an eight year hiatus. I don’t enjoy it as much as cycling, or motorcycle riding, where you truly feel and smell the environment you’re moving through, but I do feel it’s a much better experience than flying. It gets tiring at times when we have many big days in a row (200+ miles), but seeing the transitions in landscape, and enjoying the views has been great. We’re about to drive most of scenic route 1 in CA, and I’m genuinely looking forward to it.
We both thought we’d be staying in places longer than we have been, and moving constantly gets tiring. Despite being on the road about eight months now it seems we never have enough time and are always uprooting as soon as we feel relaxed. There’s so much to see and do in this beautiful country of ours, I think we’ll need to take another trip for a year or so to see the rest.
Setting up camp and breaking it back down takes a lot of time when we’re always on the move. As you’ve seen the Van-Dwelling Parts 1 and 2 blog posts there’s a lot of moving parts. Tasks as simple as making the bed become much more complex and time consuming. I love experiencing our parks, forests, and spending time at the beach; but I don’t like the 52 step process to make the bed every night.
The idea of stealth camping is exciting, but in practice it’s usually stressful. Sometimes we’re passing though, or visiting friends in cities, and need to stay a night or two. Typically we’re offered a place to sleep, but accepting the offer involves “moving in” which is more work than just sleeping in the van most of the time. Sleeping on the street has some negatives as you might imagine. First of all, the van is never level. This means we’re rolling into each other half of the night, and don’t sleep well. Second, it’s noisy. Traffic is flying by, and the wind rocks the van. Car horns go off, and people yell, etc. Lastly, it’s just plain stressful thinking about about getting woken up in the night. Many cities, most actually, have laws preventing people from living/sleeping in their vehicles. This is a good thing, and if these laws weren’t in place many cities would be overrun with vehicles just sitting in the same place for weeks on end. For us, getting the dreaded “knock in the night” is always on or minds, even thought it’s never happened so far.
How we spend our free time!
We have fun, plain and simple! This usually involves doing free or inexpensive things. Hiking, walking, skateboarding, Frisbee, exploring local towns and cities. Despite my “always being in a hurry” theme above we do have much more free time than most when we’re checking out a location or site. We spent a couple weeks at the Grand Canyon and really were able to see how must people experience it. The average time a visitor spends is 3.5 hours according to a ranger who has worked on the rim the last 20+ years. This means driving quickly to a few overlooks, snapping pictures of the view, including many “selfies”, and an occasional “duck face” thrown in for good measure, then heading back home. I can attest to this type of experience, because I’ve done the same thing (minus the duck faces) at this same place, many years ago.
On a shuttle bus ride along the rim of the Grand Canyon the driver announced the next stop, along with the rules while riding the bus: no food, no drinks, no radios playing, etc. One of his rules stood out, and I think it’s a great rule to try to follow in life. “No running towards the bus to catch it when you’re on vacation.” The shuttle busses run every 15 minutes and “missing” one shouldn’t be a big deal. You’re there to relax and not rush! You’d be surprised how hurried everyone was. I certainly feel we’re a very special case with the time we have, but I feel spending more time relaxing at one or two view points is a better approach than rushing to each one in a race to see them all. For me, being in a rush defeats the purpose of a vacation.
On our last night at Grand Canyon’s South Rim we took the free shuttle bus to a viewpoint to see the sunset. I’d guess there were over 100 people there waiting for the sun to set with cameras in hand to try to capture the beauty. Now, I’m not sure if you’re familiar with sunsets, but we sure are. Typically the best views come AFTER the sun sets. The colors become more vibrant and change with just about every minute. The giant ball of gas disappearing behind the horizon is just the start of the beauty, however, as soon as it disappeared 90% of the visitors RAN to the bus stop, even though the next bus wasn’t scheduled for another 10 minutes. Our experience at the Canyon really made me realize how fortunate we are to have the time, and to really know how to enjoy a spot. It comes natural for us to visit a location like we live there… probably because we do. When our trip wraps up this basic idea will be something that sticks forever. Enjoy a location, take the time to relax, read the plaques, go on a walk, learn something about the area, don’t fee obligated to see it all (Heidi has a hard time with this one! 🙂 )… and DON’T run to catch the bus when you’re on vacation! In a way we’ve disconnected from society and it’s easier to notice how I used to live. I’m going to make an effort to continue to be more deliberate with my life choices, slow down, and don’t get too caught up with how everyone else operates. We’ll see how that all pans out when I return to the real world.
Heidi and I are a great match, and we both would have not embarked on the trip if we believed anything different. Both of us take risks, enjoy adventure, and have our heads on straight… for the most part anyway. I’ve been told I have the patience of Job and it certainly helps when we have disagreements. Heidi and I have very strong sprits and we both stand very firm when making decisions, arguing to prove the other wrong. I’ve learned more than ever to not sweat the small stuff, and just about everything is “small stuff.”
We share just about every moment together, and spend a lot of time in 100 sq feet of space. This leads to petty disagreements about stupid stuff (hey we’ve got nothing big to argue about, might as well argue if the rack in the toaster oven should be on top or in the middle to broil smores, right? Right! 😛 ). I’ve gotten better at recognizing when we need a break and make an effort to do my own thing for a while, or ask Heidi if she’d like to take the walk without me this time. Not only does this give us both much needed alone time, but also gives us something new to talk about. Over all we’re doing great, and anyone that has heard us “arguing” would laugh at how silly it is. As my mom said after hearing us “argue” at the Grand Canyon; “You’re both weird, that’s not arguing”.
This trip has been amazing so far and I’ll remember it the rest of my life. We’ve seen things and experienced places like most will never do. I’m forever grateful to have the opportunity, Heidi as my girlfriend and adventure partner, and the decisiveness to listen to my gut and make this trip happen.
Although we’re both feeling the effects of eight months on the road, and talking about how awesome it will be to put our hands above our heads and stretch in the morning when we get out of bed, we already have a list going of places to see on our next trip. That last sentence really does say it all!