We’ve been on the road for 61 days and it looks nothing like the #vanliving photos we’ve seen on Instagram.
It’s not about the fact that we’re traveling as a family with a toddler, which limits the backroad freedoms we once had to go 4x4ing with reckless abandon. It’s because the rig we drive makes it look like we are poor, and we are now being treated very differently by the people we encounter.
While the point of the trendy move into tiny homes is to learn to be happier with less, could we learn to be happy as less?
My husband, 18-month-old daughter, and I moved into a 1990 Toyota Winnebago Warrior camper van because we wanted to go on a grand adventure and spend more time together as a family. In a three-day long garage sale, we sold all the possessions we had on Kauai to start living in a rig only 12 years younger than I am.
We named our rig “Summer,” a nod to “The Endless Summer” movie and to the idea that we could discover our own road to happy. What we’ve actually discovered is the raw truth about how to be a good human being and, more importantly, how to truly be a good example for our daughter.
The maroon upholstery on the inside of our rig is a few shades darker than the Winnebago logo sticker falling off the side of our car, which now reads “INEBAO” as though it’s a brand you’ve never heard of.
Summer’s weathered beige exterior is accentuated by the missing battery compartment from the time I hit a pile of rocks coming out of Mission Lion Campground near Ojai in California. I covered the gaping hole with rows of black duct tape a few days later.
We’re nothing fancy compared to the other RVs we’ve seen on the road this summer, those sleek, shiny modern rigs with big-screen satellite TVs. Yet, it’s precisely because of what we drive that we’ve had the opportunities to see who we really are and to see how many judgments we carry around with us.
Summer, in all her aging glory, invites a different socioeconomic class of people to connect with us than we’re accustomed to. We’ve gone from being on an island that charges $6 for a bottle of kombucha, and where Mark Zuckerberg paid $66 million for a plantation near our previous home, to leaving unfinished meals on the hood of our truck longer than we intended to because our active toddler required us to pay attention to her immediate needs.
Occasionally, we’ve even had to live on the streets.
There’s a phenomenon in vanliving called “boondocking,” in which you clandestinely find a place to park overnight for any number of reasons: the campgrounds are full, you’re looking to save money, you’re tired and just need a place to crash.
One night, we spontaneously decided to leave a campground outside Atascadero, California, because the temperatures were so high, none of us were able to sleep through the night. It was late as we headed northbound. Shortly into the drive, our daughter woke up in her car seat, inconsolable.
We realized we had to stop. But, where?
My husband pulled off the freeway on a random road in a nondescript town. He drove for a short while until he found an auto mechanic shop. When he parked, I looked out the side window, wincing at the blaring industrial lights cut only by neon signs. Most of the words on storefronts were in Spanish.
“There are a few other cars parked here,” he whispered. I followed the direction he was pointing and saw a number of broken down cars. “I don’t think we’ll get in trouble if we stay here overnight. Besides, there’s another old RV over there and, well, Summer blends right in.”
As I made my way to the back of our rig to set up our daughter’s bed, I saw a young man holding what looked like a beer can approaching our passenger side window.
Oh no, I thought, making quick judgments about him and what he wanted with us.
“You guys gonna park here overnight?” he peered in.
My husband quickly got out of the RV to speak with him. Our daughter had just fallen asleep and we didn’t want anything to wake her up.
A few minutes later, my husband returned.
“What did he want?” I asked, worried.
“He wanted to let us know that the shop opens at 8 a.m., so as long as we leave before then, we’ll be fine,” my husband said. “He told me he’s parked a couple of cars away, and that he has a daughter sleeping in his car, too.”
I felt sheepish. Judgy. Ugly inside.
“He was out there looking for a cat that won’t stop meowing,” my husband continued. “He was afraid it would wake his daughter.”
“Oh,” was all I could say. This stranger and I wanted the same things. He was looking out for his daughter, just like I was doing with mine.
That night in the parking lot the three of us slept more peacefully than we had at many of the campgrounds we’d stayed in.
When we arrived in Ashland, Oregon, my husband drove our daughter around for her afternoon nap. When she woke, he could see her face was flushed. He parked Summer beneath a tree-lined street in a lovely neighborhood, then went into the back of the rig to unbuckle her so she could get some air. She was sweaty in his arms.
A few minutes later, a woman came out of her home. “Are you planning on staying here?” she called out. “Because that’s illegal and I’ll call the police.”
“We’re just stopping for a few minutes,” my husband said, calmly. As a Waldorf teacher, he’s accustomed to diffusing potential conflict with ease.
Moments later, another woman came out of a nearby home. “Are you staying here overnight?” she demanded. “Because you’re not allowed to do that!”
“No,” my husband responded, more adamantly. “My daughter is hot and I’m just trying to cool her down. We’re about to go to the park!”
They looked into the window of our rig and saw our daughter, her big brown eyes and caramel hair. “Oh,” they replied, obviously softening their temperaments. “It’s okay for you to stay for a little while then.”
They nodded to one another in approval, then went back into their homes.
We’ve now arrived at a run-down motel and trailer park in Sandpoint, Idaho, once named one of the most beautiful small towns in America. We’re helping my husband’s friend manage his motel that’s fallen into disrepair.
Given our surroundings, Summer fits right in. Do we? Actually, yes.
Because now we’re working on replenishing our savings after spending a large chunk while on the road. We shop at the thrift stores. We bring our daughter out into nature, because it’s a free activity. By any appearance, we are the same as the people staying in the motel.
One of the RV renters comes in to our manager’s office regularly. He has a bulbous nose, and it is apparent he has not showered in a while. Whenever he shows up, he offers something he has: tips on when the library bookmobile will be in town, a candle for our daughter, popsicles from his own freezer.
“I can take you guys to the local food bank and show you around there,” he told us when we first moved in. He is friendly and considerate, and wants nothing from us in return.
When our daughter sees him, she shouts, “Unko, Unko!” It’s her toddler way of saying, “Uncle, Uncle!” She has no judgment about him or anyone else we’ve encountered, and she is teaching us how to do the same.
The currency that matters most to our daughter is love and the ability to be together as a family. For every mile we travel, we get closer to realizing that if we truly want to pursue a real adventure, we need to go beyond the places we thought we would see and become different people than we thought we would be. Otherwise, we’re missing the most beautiful sight of all: a genuine connection to humanity.