The key turned, the engine came to life, a smile, some goose bumps, hand on the shifter, ahead of us lay a new life to be lived on our terms. At the time of this writing it has been 1,119 days, and we have traveled more than 50,000 miles, seen every coast in the country and ventured south to Mexico, traversed deserts, mountains, plains, forests, cities and many places in between.
We were driving through southern Utah and seeing all the red rocks, mesas and red desert for the first time. We had no idea that these Wile E. Coyote landscapes were in Utah. For whatever reason, we’d always thought they were in Arizona. It’s around 6pm, the sun is setting, the land around us is on fire with the red and pink and orange glow of the setting sun and we see a sign for the Four Corners National Monument. We’d heard of Four Corners before but weren’t entirely sure what it was. I had just figured it was a patch of dirt with one of those plaques you see marking a historical place or battle or pioneer route. The site was 18 miles away from where we currently were and we’re not in a hurry to get anywhere so we turn down the road to go to it. Thirty minutes or so later we arrive at the Four Corners. It’s not a plaque or some patch of dirt you can just saunter to apparently. It’s fenced off, has an entrance gate, a road going to it, it’s on Navajo land and so on. You can’t even see the monument from the entrance or at least you can’t see it when it’s dark out, and much to our dismay, it’s closed. This being our first experience in the West and with these sorts of National Monument areas we had no idea that they close at 5pm. Anyhow, we’re standing out there, it’s dark, some other RVs pull up and the occupants are equally disappointed that the place is closed. Jess walks around a bit, I take some photos and chit chat with some other folks that arrive. Then Jess calls me over and she’s on the other side of the fence. Navajo territory! She points at a large hole in the barbed wire and says we can squeeze through and ride our bikes to the monument.
No. I’m like….no way. It’s dark, it’s the desert, there are coyotes, wolves, Navajo natives, the gubment…no.
(Of course I know now that there aren’t wolves and the the desert at night is quite beautiful and peaceful…and the Navajo aren’t riding around looking for people to arrest for trespassing on their land).
Jess has a twinkle in her eye. She smiles deviously, and then she comes to the other side of the fence and starts unhooking the bikes from the car. I’m still firmly against this scheme of hers but my complaints and concerns fall on deaf ears. Over the fence go the bikes. We squeeze through the hole she discovered and set off down a pitch black road towards the monument. I think the ride was maybe a quarter mile. The whole time I’m pretty scared and Jess is having a blast and constantly admonishing me to keep the iPhone flashlight pointed at the road. We hear the flags that surround the monument clinging and clanging against the flagpoles and we arrive. We jump off our bikes and run to the center where the four states meet and Jess is whooping and hollering and making all kinds of ruckus. I’m quiet, still certain we’re gonna get caught or mauled or killed. She grabs me and hugs and kisses me, she takes a spectacularly shitty photo of the meeting corners and then yanks me by the hand. We run back to our bikes and pedal off into the dark back towards our Subaru. That night I got to see a side of Jess I had never experienced before, her wild, free, uninhibited spirit yanking me towards the unknown, towards adventure, towards discovery and freedom, pointing me down a dark black road. It wouldn’t be the last time she’d get that look in her eye and pull me into one of her grand schemes.
It Started in Austin
In late 2012 we moved to Austin, Tx from Atlanta, Ga to pursue some agency jobs I had been interested in working. Also, for the last 7 years or so I had been trying to convince Jessica to move to Austin because I loved it there. Plain and simple. She didn’t want to move to Texas but after visiting Austin on our long 5000 mile road trip she finally came to see the light. We packed our bags and pointed our wagons West. In Austin we continued to work for all of our previous clients but on a more remote basis. The agency jobs I had hoped I could land hadn’t yet materialized and we’d been there for about 8 months. One afternoon, I was sitting at my desk working on a logo or website or something, my headphones were on and I was totally just zoning on my work. I felt a gentle tap on my shoulder and I see a Jessica to my right needing to get my attention. Annoyed, I removed one side of my headphones off of my ear and inquired what could be so important that it couldn’t wait until I got to a stopping point. Her eyes twinkled.
“What do you think about moving in to a van when our lease is up in December?” she asked.
I forgot about work, I removed the headphones from my head and paused my jams.
“Go on.” I replied.
She proceeded to sound awfully convincing. We’d been in Austin for 8 months. We were back on our feet and making good money, we had the house of our dreams, a comfortable Tempur-Pedic bed, custom-made desks, two Subarus in the garage (one that was paid for and the other would paid for soon), but we were still working for clients in Atlanta and New York City.
We’d spent about 3 months of that year in Austin on the road and on those road trips we continued to work. To maintain our income all we required were some computers and an internet connection.
“Why not just work on the road and not have rent and see all the places we want to see?” she concluded.
I hadn’t gotten that agency job, I was restless, she was restless and the mountains were calling. I stared down a dark black road. I could feel her wild, free, uninhibited spirit yanking me towards the unknown.
“When do we start.” I said.
Two weeks later we had a van.
My Name is Jessica
If you had asked me 10 years ago what my life would be like now, I probably would not say anything close to being a freelance illustrator and art director living and traveling full time in a VW van. However, in many ways it’s not a surprise at all. Jorge and I have never had a terribly typical life and this gypsy lifestyle suites us perfectly.
My days started in a military hospital at Ft. Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina. From there we moved around about every two years until I was in middle school. The youngest of three girls, my oldest sister was heading off to college and my middle sister was halfway through high school when we finally settled down. I would like to say middle school was a great time to stop changing schools and settle down, buuuuuut middle school kids are assholes. Transitioning from going to school on military bases where everyone knows the game—you’ve got two years tops together so may as well get on with it and become friends—to then go to public school in semi-rural south Atlanta where everyone has grown up together and doesn’t understand why the new little brown girl is so chatty was, let us say…a bit rocky. Even so, I eventually settled in with some great friends, built a solid community, played sports, met Jorge, got married, the whole nine. I am immensely grateful that I got to experience the best of both worlds.
Those early years of being exposed to an ever changing landscape made a lasting impression on me. Adapt, accept changing circumstances, learn, synthesize, and then do it all over again. Being in a third world country at a young age definitely shaped me and my impressions of the world. Bullet holes from Operation Just Cause still riddled many of the buildings on and off base, we had to lock our cars doors to keep the children begging on the street from opening them every time we stopped at a light, men armed with rifles stood guard on street corners and in front of businesses, and we often had to boil our water that first year when we lived off base when there was some sort of hiccup in the infrastructure keeping the complex organism that was Panama City running.
In spite of all this, I was still young enough to see that world as a wonderland filled to the brim with new and exciting things to learn and experience. The jungle, an everpresent force that seemed like it was always trying to makes its way in was a place of unending fascination for me. Small troops of monkeys would make their way past our backyard, foraging as they went. Leaf cutter ants would lead me on expeditions, following their trail as they brought their fresh cut flora back home from neighboring yards. Large iguanas laid out in the sun blocking the sidewalks as we rode by on our bikes and the occasional sloth-caused-traffic-jam were the highlights of my trips to school or the grocery store.
Much of what I experienced there didn’t fully sink in until many years later, both the good and the bad. But that small glimpse into something different, something wild, stayed with me. It’s part of what shaped me and gave me perspective in high school. It’s part of what drove me to seek out travel whenever I could in my twenties. And, I think, part of what drove this decision to try something new with our life and hit the road.
That makes this all sound like it was some nicely laid out path before me, but none of that came without many years of struggle, of trying to navigate a winding and convoluted path to figure out our place in this world and with each other. Jorge and I married very young. We experienced the separation of war, the struggle of reconnection, starting and running a business together, losing everything and filing bankruptcy, reinventing ourselves and putting ourselves through trade school to study design and illustration…all before we turned 30. The years following saw our world get bigger and bigger. We started going on longer road trips, our careers and our world views were expanding while we tried to figure out what was next. We’d spent our lives up until this point taking risks, sometimes failing spectacularly, yet always growing. At the time, it seemed like this lifestyle and hitting the road were the natural evolution of the path we were on. I don’t know how long we will continue living on the road or where this path will lead, but I do know I am grateful and forever changed because of it.
My Name is Jorge
Whenever I introspect about where I am in life right now I can’t help but think that somewhere along the way I stumbled upon a secret that seems to have been right in front of my face the whole time.
I grew up with parents and extended family teaching and preaching the virtues of a good education, humility before God, of maintaining a strong grasp of Spanish so as to make getting a good paying career as a bilingual speaker more likely, of finding a job, raising a family, going on a two week vacation to Puerto Rico and then getting back to the grind. That life is very intentional with waypoints you can mark off as you pass them. High School, college, work, marriage, kids, the house, the car, the neighbors, the church, the layoff, work again, graduation, the empty nest, retirement, death. That was the set of goods I was sold most of my life.
I started down that path through the guidance and goading of family at home and administrators at school. Initially the goal was to be a philosophy professor. I read on epistemology, metaphysics, language and philosophy of religion voraciously. It was the perfect career for me as someone who likes nothing more than to be right. Yeah, I’m that asshole. Or was?
Then came my time in the military. I joined to be a part of something greater than myself, to live out the fantasies too many young men have about the glories of war, and also to escape the unending abstractions and almost utter impracticality of philosophical ruminating. The military offered a career, security, adventure, advancement, retirement. It gave me the details to the road map and it also was a way to convince Jessica’s dad that even though we were too young to be so serious I was willing to do whatever it took to prove to him that I could provide and give her the life a husband is “supposed” to give a father’s youngest daughter. The military worked for a while until I exacerbated an injury while on tour in Iraq. I left that theatre branded as a coward by my fellow soldiers, and the military decided that even though it was stop-lossing everyone else, my minor condition didn’t warrant keeping me around. Fuck ‘em.
Fast forward 10 years, I’ve run a few businesses and have now gone back to square one of this life map four times, the current iteration of me is full-time-creative. Designing websites, apps and logos with my headphones on shuts out memories of growing up too fast. They quiet the roar of the HUMVEE tires on Middle East sand and tarmac, the cocking of my rifle, the murmuring Iraqi crowd in the market, the recurring dreams of red skies with fighters jets and attack helicopters passing overhead, the hurry up and wait, the aiming of a rifle at the faces of children. The noise canceling headphones shuts out the failing of my business because of greedy bankers and enabling bureaucrats, instead of thinking about losing my houses, my cars, my friends, music fills my ears while I sit clicking a mouse in front of a computer screen creating graphics that help brands tell stories.
At that point I had turned from academic in training, to soldier, to businessman, to creative. My life was to design and snap photos with an occasional long road trip thrown in to satisfy something I had inside me, when Jess taps my shoulder with an idea so preposterous it might just be worth trying.“What do you think about moving in to a van when our lease is up in December?” she says. The next thing I know we’re off the grid. That map I had been studying my whole life is out the window. Now I hold a real map of paper and ink, suffused with that smell that any of us with an atlas know all too well. I clutch a steering wheel more often than I clutch a mouse. I now smell the places that once before I only saw in a few thousand square pixel photos. I meet someone new almost every week where before I would go literally years without connecting with someone I didn’t already know.
I look at all of this and I can’t help but think that I’m living in an accident, that this isn’t what’s supposed to happen. Maybe I am living in an accident. Sometimes we search and find who it was we were always meant to be. Other times, we just stumble right into it and we don’t quite know how we got there but we don’t ever want to leave.
Photo by Ira Wolf
Petunya And Linus
We don’t have kids. We decided very early on that having kids was not something we wanted to pursue. So instead, we got dogs. Petunya the Schnauzer and Linus the Dachshund have been our companions for 14 and 13 years respectively and they have the perfect personalities for traveling full time.
Linus pretty much grew up in a vehicle. In a past life when we ran an automobile reconditioning business, we started out doing mobile detailing and Linus was there for each and every job. His mission was to merely guard our rig which he did while perched on the dashboard. All these years later, the transition for him into full time vanlife was pretty easy. He’s quite at home in the van and is always on the lookout for a coast line. We’re pretty sure Linus was a sailor in past life because he goes absolutely ape shit when we go to the ocean.
Petunya is just about the sweetest sugar there is, unless you try to approach the van while we’re not in it. In that case, she turns into an utter monster. When strangers
approach the van she loses her mind. She keeps would be lookie-loos, thieves, and
other unsavory types from getting too familiar with our van. Not really sure where she got it from, but we sure are grateful for her natural status as resident guardian of our home and belongings. That being said, if she isn’t alone in the van, I promise you may not find a sweeter dog. We love Petunya about as much as humanly possible. She is beyond loyal and has been a calm, comforting presence in our lives.
Traveling with these guys may seem like a hassle but there is nothing better than having some of your best pals along for the ride. Even though sometimes it can be difficult to go on hikes because dogs aren’t allowed in the backcountry of national parks, we’ve managed to work it out to where we only leave them alone for 6 hours max and they do just fine in the van. In national forests, however, we let them run wild. Linus roams about eating his vegetables and chasing grasshoppers while Petunya patrols a perimeter around our camp site and ensures that everything is in its proper place.