“Where do you live?” Simple question, right? Living on the road, we hear that question all the time but it’s complicated.
In the beginning of our Big Adventure, we didn’t really know how to answer. We’d say: “We used to own a home just outside of LA.” Or: “We live in an RV as we travel around the US working on organic farms.” Now, if I thought people could understand, I’d just say, “Here.” Home, after all, is where you make it.
The first home JC and I shared was a light-filled mid-century modern house in the foothills above the Rose Bowl, just outside of LA. We had terrific lives – great food, family, friends, parties – but we knew it wasn’t sustainable – not economically, environmentally nor emotionally.
And then we realized that we’d never be able to retire. So, we decided to start fresh and founded the Good Foot Project. We bought a solid 1990 Ford Jamboree motorhome so that we could travel the country and volunteer on organic farms and sustainable communities. Our goal was to gain first-hand experience in permaculture, planet-friendly building techniques, community governance and water and waste management in order to build and run a self-sufficient retreat center.
We moved into our new digs at the very end of April 2013 and our very first minutes on the road unraveled into a minor, hilarious disaster. Clearly, we had no idea how to live in an RV. Experienced RVers will tell you that on every RV trip you learn something new. Our learning curve was so steep it was straight.
We had planned to do a test camping trip in the Schwartz, as our RV was affectionately named, but the last minute decision to sell our house halved our schedule and our camping trial went bye-bye. We spent exactly one night in the Schwartz (in our driveway) before we tossed ourselves over the cliff and into a brand new life.
Of course we learned a bazillion practical things: use plastic not glass; close the roof vents before you roll; in fact, batten down absolutely everything before you roll; the refrigerator must be snapped shut not just closed; when you climb out of the loft bed in the morning, take the ladder steps one at a time. (Luckily when I fell, I only bruised an elbow. And a thigh. And maybe traumatized our dog, Mattie. But just a little.)
Slowly, another transformation was making itself felt. Just as we had remodeled her interior, the Schwartz was remaking us, molding our lives and our understanding of what ‘home’ means. She forced us to face ourselves and each other in fresh, sometimes ruthless ways. Living on the road in the Schwartz stripped us of the crutches and escapes we had taken for granted in our old life. All of a sudden, we were exposed, forced to focus on the Essentials.
On the highways, JC was keeping our speed to a modest 60 mph but massive 18-wheelers were blowing past us making the Schwartz shiver and sway all over the road. One bad move and the RV could tumble, spilling out onto the blacktop. To be sure, the Schwartz was in good shape, but she was old. The captain’s chairs upfront had only lap belts, no shoulder straps. Any idiot in a pick-up truck could put us out of commission. Or in the ground. For weeks, every time we parked, I would breathe a sigh of relief.
Back in Altadena, our house had provided security and more. It was not only a structure that sheltered us from the elements and dangerous people, it was a whole life, a place for our friends to gather, a comprehensible framework to mitigate Life’s chaos. Perhaps more importantly, it buttressed our fragile egos, slapping us on the back like a blue ribbon that proclaimed: “#1 American Dream Achiever!” No matter what else happened in the day, we were homeowners.
On the road, in our old, sun-bleached, ass-dragging Schwartz, there was no blue ribbon. In fact, it was the opposite. We did not have a schnazzy new RV with earth-toned swooshes and pop-out sides. Nor did we have a stylish vintage Airstream nor a hipster-tickling Westie with its angled roof and trim fashionista backside. The Schwartz did not say: “Retired and loving it!” Nor “Follow me to the best craft beer gastropub in the state!” It was more like: “Go around! I drive 55 mph because I can’t afford to go any faster.”
Back in LA, we cycled through the days in a series of easy bubbles. We would get into our mini-bubbles and drive to meet friends in another bubble. Shop in another bubble. Go to hear music in another bubble. Sure, LA is a melting pot of cultures, our bubble was not monochromatic by any means, but we had mastered the navigation of our world – places, people, situations. On the road, everything we needed – gas, food, post office, propane, vet, dog food – had to be tracked down. Thank God for Google Maps! And every time we were unsure of what we’d be getting. We were masters of nothing.
Worst of all, our new nakedness revealed chinks in our idealism. There we were trying to create a new life built around a consciousness of climate change and a commitment to sustainability and we were sucking up gas like a five year old at a chocolate fountain. I knew that during the year ahead we’d actually use less gas than we did back home driving two cars, but I still felt like a hypocrite.
Eventually, living in the Schwartz would teach us a new appreciation for the management of energy, water and waste but, during those first few months I was awash in anxieties about daily living: What will the farms be like? Will we have to sleep in the Schwartz every night for the next year or more? What happens when we have to start “dry camping” with no hookups? Are we too spoiled to handle the inconveniences? I prayed that at the very least, our lone solar panel would prevent us from ever having to use the generator.
And what about the RV parks? Is it going to be like camping with REI-clad thirtysomethings or more like ‘Deliverance’?
In fact, our search for places to park the Schwartz exposed us to locales and experiences we never would have found: There was magical Lake Falling Star in Texas Hill Country where I fished for the first time ever under a raging pink sky. The nerve-wracking Wal-Mart parking lot in refinery-ridden Port Arthur, TX. In the Carrolton section of New Orleans, we had to park at a BBQ joint where we met a dapper man who hipped us to a neighborhood music festival and an airboat swamp tour. At Augusta-West Lakeside Resort in Winthrop, Maine, we finally had a chance to use our cast iron cook pot and sat in on some honest to goodness campground karaoke. “Backstage” at Music City Motorway in Nashville, we camped with fellow RV revolutionaries, Michael Cassadine and Heather Peters, founders of Voice for the People. And then, there was Utaaaaah!
We’d spent nearly a year traveling the U.S. when we decided to search Ecuador and Nicaragua for a location for our retreat center. After four weeks of speed travel, we’d not seen one place we were sure of. But we also knew that the time to divest ourselves from the Schwartz was drawing near. The new motor we’d had to buy in Week 6 of our expedition had just two years left on the warranty. If we were going to recover of any of the $5,350 we’d spent on that motor, we’d have to try and sell her sooner rather than later. So, we opted for one last hurrah in the Schwartz and set it in southern Utah.
That hurrah was a magnificent three weeks chock full of wide-eyed wonder. In Southern Utah, the sheer diversity of rock formations and epic skies create a variety show of landscapes that light fire to your imagination. From Bryce Canyon where the ancestors of Native Americans are entombed in trickle-castle like formations of sandstone to Fruita where you feel like an intensely lucky pioneer amidst impossible lushness to Goblin Valley where you are transported to an alien planet and all of the tall tale spires and vast desert spaces in between. We became children again with nothing to do except marvel at the exquisite beauty of the world. Would we have ever explored Utah if not for the Schwartz? Probably not.
Most significantly, living in the Schwartz highlighted what was actually important. Back in LA, our storage unit held the last 1500 cubic feet of stuff we had whittled down from the house – “only the most essential things”, we had assured ourselves. And yet, during all that time on the road, there were only a few items for which I had yearned. Yes, my small wardrobe had become threadbare and peppered with holes, but I had everything else I actually needed: love; family; a safe place to sleep; a full kitchen; a toilet; space to share meals; and, most importantly, a sense of self that did not require a facade of things to feel strong and good.
After Utah, it was time to say goodbye to the Schwartz. We had decided to take another big risk and try living in Spain for a year. The Schwartz could not come with. A sweet family with two young boys adopted her and a few days later, the Schwartz was gone as swiftly as she’d shown up. I was a bit sad to see her go, but the feelings were light, devoid of any major loss.
And that was something I couldn’t really understand. Early on in the trip, the Schwartz was like a giant backpack that made me feel safe and protected. We were fully equipped – we wouldn’t starve, we would never be homeless, we had a private place that was ours alone. Without our mobile house, we had entered a deeper level of exposure. We stood nearly naked in the world with no defined path. And yet, I felt fine, solid, confident even – We’ll just figure it out.
To this day, we still don’t know where we’ll end up. In the past, that lack caused me a lot of anxiety. I felt unhinged if I couldn’t look into the future and see a Plan or at least, an approximation of where we’d be going. But I’ve stopped worrying. Somehow, I’ve become comfortable in all of this exposure. Or maybe, it’s just that I know that we will always have a home in the here and now. Letting go of the Schwartz taught me that a home isn’t something we move into, we gather it around us.
I still feel wistful about our house in Altadena. We had such great times there. The thing is, it wasn’t the house that made those times happen. We made them with our friends and family. And we can do it again. Anywhere. Anytime.
(There are more pix of our travels on our IMAGES page.)