A year ago, I purchased this van in Colorado Springs. It was Scoob’s first birthday. It was the beckoning of spring. It was the end of snowboard season. After spending months selling off belongings, preparing for the unknown and saving up for down payment, this van was becoming mine.
I remember packing up and clearing out the apartment in Glenwood Springs. It felt like a task that was never going to have an end. So grateful for my friends Ben and Krista, who came over to help me pack up the remnants of my life into this rig. Together, we cleared the apartment and tetris’d the last of it into the van. I had a lot more help, Ali Jo, Maria and her family, Amy and so many others. Some new friends, some strangers, and new friends that would be lifelong friends all pitching in to help me dissolve one life, and move into another.
Thinking back to last year, the only thing I knew was what I saw in other social media posts, vlogs, blogs and articles about people who set off to be free and on the road. I envisioned a life ahead full of gorgeous pictures of me eating cereal and drinking coffee in bed looking out the back doors at gorgeous vistas and also being really skinny.
Instead, I had something really different. Something more visceral and authentic. This solo #vanlife year has been transformative in ways I couldn’t have anticipated. I embarked on this journey with so much loss. I was a single mom without a kid, a teacher without a classroom and a an ex girlfriend with a shattered heart. I was destroyed, a life I created blown up in my wake. there was so much crap I would unload along the way, both emotional and literally too much stuff I didn’t need.
The early days were very emotional. It was like I had shed so many skins, that I was vulnerable and raw. Life became lonely, which is very different than being alone.
Bringing my son his last remaining belongings from my to his dad’s house in Minneapolis was my first mission. The stop was rushed, and I couldn’t stay because my ex husband is too big of an ass to let me in to see my son’s room, or visit with him for more than a quick visit outside. My son held the cat and cried, “mom, you’re homeless.”
I giggled, “no, I’m living in a vansion living the vantasy.” I’ve been laughing about this ever since.
The transference of handing over the last of my son’s things was also the last chink in the chain that tied me to a life I would never see again. This completed letting go of him as a baby and knowing he will probably never live with me again. For sixteen and a half years, that was my identity, Z’s mom. I was responsible for this little life that grew and grew until the little gorilla outgrew needing a mommy. If I am going to maintain and grow a relationship with my son now, I need to be a new kind of mom. That part of his life being a little boy and mine as that kind of mommy is over. It ended that day.
It was hard to shake the labels; mother, teacher, girlfriend, snowboarder, meditator and so many other labels I clung to to make me Me. The first days and weeks, I cried a lot. Letting go of an entire identity and life was scary, and what was next was uncertain. It was good I had a plan for the first month, and that I was going to spend it in a place that makes me happy. The staging area was Ocean Grove on the Jersey Shore.
It was a long and dreary drive across country to the east coast. It rained every day. Nothing like the gorgeous instagram pictures. This rig was packed up with boxes and I had things strapped up and in need of organizing. Those first days were strange, yet familiar. Like the first days you live in any new house, it’s just new and different. On my way to my son’s, I slept in the front seat. After delivering his things, I had a bit more room and half the bed was cleared. I slept in Wisconsin in my bed for the first time by a lake. It was peaceful. It was my true beginning. The weather was awful, but I still walked around the lake with my dog, realizing it was my first day of true freedom in the new life unknown.
A year later. I’m sitting on Ediz Hook, where I just watched the sun set gloriously into the horizon. Earlier, rainbows had sprouted up over Port Angles, I ate Thai food, and got some work done. When I look around the van, it may not be perfect, but it’s my cozy home. I’ve dialed in on things that make my life very comfortable. My dog just turned two. My animals are at ease, and they know this is their home. We have a routine in our non-routine life. All around, I have mementos from my journey, like magnets, art objects, notes and cards, prayer flags and bits of shells, rocks and glass.
More importantly, I am living with a version of myself that is new, stronger and more self aware than I have every been. What started out as a playful journey, became a lifestyle and a life that has been challenging and amazing. I’ve learned to be confident in new ways. I don’t need a label to feel like I am Me. I exist, in this skin as myself. I don’t need the approval of anyone, or a label to define my place. I’m still a mom, even if my son and I struggle in our relationship right now. I love, I’m here. I’m open. I continue to grow and better myself. I know that when my son is ready to have a mom in his life again, he has a strong mom who can handle his grown up challenges and help him face them. This time on the road has been a time to bolster my coping skills, and strengthen myself from the core. Being able to redefine myself without the label of “single mom” or “mommy” has given me the space to come into my own and be more Me than I’ve been in my life to date.
I’ve lost count how many times I’ve said, “no regrets” over the course of this year. When I’ve had the inkling to try something new, step out of my comfort zone, help someone I don’t know or just be a bit more courageous, I’ve gone for it. No regrets. I’ve skinny dipped, taken hikes, bought coffee for strangers, stopped to feed a homeless guy’s dog, learned new skills and taken turns just because doing something different can be an option. I’ve smiled at strangers, and ended up having new friends out of taking a chance on being kind.
In this time of quarantine, the “no regrets” mindset has shriveled up into a small sliver. The world as we know it has changed. It’s confusing, but now I need to be careful. I can’t hug a stranger, or buy a random stranger a cup of coffee. Every surface of every public space is scary, so I barely leave my rig except to get food, water, gas or a walk the dog. I don’t break rules. It’s too scary. I miss the life of freedom, and the opportunity to be brazen and explore.
When I left Colorado last month, I thought I’d be able to camp out in remote places on my own for extended periods of time. This worked for a few weeks, but as more resources closed, I had to succumb to staying in a singular safe place. I am fortunate to have friends who’ve made room for me on their beautiful property. I have shelter, water, safety and an address if I need one for now. To quell my need for adventure, I drive around this beautiful town and camp out by the water some nights. Freedom and being location independent has become my glorious new normal.
If I had to break up this year in chapters, it would be:
- Shed Skin
- Staging Area
- Trying to Make a New Normal
- The Great Adventure
- No Regrets
- Back to the Beginning
- Falling in Love with Me (and cider donuts)
- Winter in Vail
- The Great Plague
In this year, I have written, sketched, taken photos, and found my creative artist version of me I’ve missed for a long time. It has been fun learning to camp in new places. How many people can say they survived winter in the Rockies in a van? I can. And I can’t wait to do it again next winter. Taking chances, following roads unknown, turning off Google Maps and just driving and keeping up work life while trying to provide, stay connected and be with what is has all been part of this journey. At the core, I have a very solid understanding of me, and I anticipate this continuing to evolve and grow as I am getting older. I am proud of myself, because I know I’ve done something extraordinary by embarking on this journey.
This year couldn’t have happened without my strong rooted dharma practice. Being mindful, being present and having a meditation practice has helped in so many aspects of this journey. I’ve meditated in so many beautiful places; by big trees, crashing waves, hiking trails, mesas and mountain tops. The work I’ve done through my years of dharma training really paid off this year in so many different scenarios, especially the ones that should have been really scary and stressful.
Despite all the terrible stuff happening in the world, and in my personal life with my son, I’m happy. My life is good and abundant. I miss hugs, and human connection. I miss traveling and exploring and being out in nature. But I have a safe place to be right now in this northern corner of the US. My hosts are taking good care of me, and I’m surrounded by love via electronic means. My dog and cat snuggle me constantly, and the creative juices are flowing as I prepare to start a new writing project about the journey and what I’ve learned. The book I started last year feels trite, compared to the kind of substantive book I know I need to put forth out of all of this #vanlife solo gal on the road thing.
If you told me a year ago, we’d all be in quarantine, that a pandemic sickness would envelop us, and I’d be living alone at the edge of the world, I would never have believed you. But if you told me a year before that I’d be surviving the most traumatic year of my life, and moving into a van and traveling 30,000 miles around North America, I wouldn’t have believed that either. You can’t plan these adventures. You can’t save and plot and expect to have it all figured out. That’s not how life goes, and definitely not a life where you break the fetters of a routine and convention. I have no regrets for how I’ve lived the past twelve months. Any mistakes I made, lead me to this perfectly imperfect moment. And for all of it, I’m grateful.