As John, the kids, and I embarked upon this first chapter of our journey across the US in our minivan, there were definitely butterflies. So many unknowns about how this would all play out created a level of uncertainty.
“Was this the right choice?”
“Would we have what we need?”
“Can we actually do this?”
Right before launching, I think John and I both experienced the feeling of wanting to turn back. However, there was no turning back. The wheels were in motion. The house had been sold. This was what we were supposed to be doing, butterflies and all.
I had a suspicion that doing something so out of our norm would come with growth, individually, as a couple, and as a family.
Now that we’ve driven just under 5000 miles over the course of two months, we definitely have learned a thing or two.
Growth has been a large motivator for this journey, but the butterflies were there because it is both a little bit exciting and scary to not know exactly what you’re going to be thrown to experience that growth.
I’m grateful to say that we made it safely without too much hardship to gain the insights that have come during this time. It was a good opportunity to get our feet wet before heading out of the United States for our first time living internationally.
While our time road tripping across the US wasn’t too dramatic, we’d love to share our insights from this time. They are insights that will help guide us further on in our journey, and they can be applied to both stationary living and a life of travel.
Less is more
When you’re departing into the unknown, it’s easy to want to bring every single thing that you think you might need.
Extras of everything seem like a good idea because “what if?”. When there are so many unknowns in our paths, we want to be as prepared as we can possibly be. It feels like security to be prepared for whatever circumstance presents itself.
Having two young kids with you and wanting to keep the experience safe and comfortable turns up that desire to keeps things controllable about twenty notches.
Our initial inclination was to do just that. Before seeing how much space all the “what if” things would take up, we were trying to be as ready as possible.
However, in the days leading up to packing up our van, we were hit with the reality of what our van could actually hold. Also, we began to think about the actual logistics of handling all these things. We would be staying in hotels, camping, and Airbnbs over the course of this road trip. Do we really want to lug in four large duffel bags full of all of the “just in case” personal belongings for a one night stay, even if we could fit all those things in our van?
Luckily, we decided to pare down (numerous times) before hitting the road. Juggling our items became part of our daily work, and it was already a great amount of effort and organization with the stuff we downsized to.
We did have more items than we actually needed, but I think we did a pretty decent job for this being the first road trip of this duration for us.
Clinging to things for security just weighs and slows us down in the end. It’s good to be prepared, but it’s also good to trust that we are capable of handling the unknown that may come our way.
Ups and downs
An adventure of this type can easily be idealized. It’s easy to imagine how great and freeing the experience will be.
I will say that it is great and freeing. However, you don’t get the positive benefits of such an undertaking without going through some bumpy spots.
For us, I foresaw this journey as an opportunity to improve our communication and ability to work together.
This journey required us to plan and problem-solve on a daily basis. We were in new situations on a daily basis that meant we couldn’t be lazy about working together. The intensity this planning required was new for us, and just like whenever you are strengthening any new muscle, there can be discomfort.
Our old patterns would come up, and we were forced to figure out ways to change this dynamic.
The first half of this trip involved a lot of downs mixed in with the ups. When I think back to certain stops, such as Yellowstone, Casper, Wyoming, and Custer State Park, I can’t think about them without thinking about the conflict (and then the growth) that came through in these places.
There were moments when I wanted to throw in the towel, but these downs were part of the journey to releasing the dynamics of our past that were holding us back.
Understanding that the road can be bumpy can help you to persist even when it might seem not worth it.
What seems hard at first gets easier
At the beginning of the trip, the most mundane and basic tasks felt like a ridiculous amount of work. I felt like groaning everyday around 4 pm when I knew dinner time was approaching.
When you’re living out of a van and juggling many tubs and bags, getting one thing can require a lot of rearranging. Not being set up for things like making dinner means making dinner used up a lot of my mental energy, at least at first.
I remember wondering back at Glacier National Park, our first camping stop, how I was going to survive this way of living. It just felt like so much work.
Luckily, each time got a little easier. You figure out routines and orders of operation that make it run more efficiently. You see who’s good at which tasks, and you can begin to know who is responsible for what.
Pretty soon, dinner time was still a lot of juggling tubs, going to fetch water, and prodding your kids to take their bites, but you’re just doing it. It doesn’t require the same degree of mental energy that it once did.
The more you do what seems hard, the more confidence you have that you are capable. I think part of what may expend so much mental energy when you are doing something new is the doubt and worry that you might not be able to do something.
By doing something over and over again allows for that doubt and worry to dissolve. You have evidence that you’ll get through, even if it requires many steps.
Nothing is permanent
We stayed in some great places. However, nothing was perfect all the time.
There were many hotels, camping spots, and Airbnbs where we rested over heads over the two-ish months.
It makes sense that we’d encounter less than ideal situations. None of these would be set up exactly to our liking. There are some “issues” that would be dealbreakers, but other things might be more annoyances.
It’s easy to focus on those annoyances, if you allow yourself to.
I had a realization though in Kenosha, Wisconsin that helped change my experience and the mental energy I spent worrying about annoyances.
I’m very sensitive to artificial fragrances, and the otherwise beautiful Airbnb we were staying in for four nights had a strong smell. It’s something that I couldn’t quite escape from, and it gave me a bit of a headache. Nothing debilitating, but a bit uncomfortable.
I didn’t just think about this fragrance a lot. It was more that I was fixated on it. This fragrance was overshadowing an otherwise beautiful Airbnb.
Luckily, a realization came to me on our second night. We’ve stayed in numerous places along our journey so far. None have been perfect, but who really cares. We’re no longer there. We’ve since passed on to something new. Similarly, that current fragrance-filled stay was also temporary. I could fixate my focus on that smell for the duration of the stay, or I could just accept. My worry would not remove the smell from the air, but it would cause me to not enjoy my days.
Many things that we worry about are things that we give too much energy to because those situations are most likely temporary. It’s good to pay attention to our preferences and values. If a situation is so unfavorable, it’s a good idea to take action to move out of that situation. However, if we are allowing ourselves to remain in a situation a bit longer, it’s better for our own mental well-being to not spend that remaining time in a state of worry. It is only temporary.
Lessons will come along the way
It seems like every stop along our path came with a new lesson or realization. There’s something about new environments and experiences that allow for our brains to accept information in fresh ways and make connections as we haven’t done so before.
By our fifth or sixth new place, I came to expect and almost crave these lessons. The lessons came from both exciting and more picture-worthy sights and experiences and also the more challenging or mundane experiences.
Observing that these lessons were continually coming made the challenging times a little less challenging. When I felt uneasy, distressed, or just plain old depressed that things weren’t going as I wished they were, I’d eventually come to ask the question, “What is my lesson from this experience?”.
Not long after asking the question, the lesson would be there. There was something I needed to figure out, and the experience allowed for me to do so.
Once the lesson was figured out, my feelings about the situation almost always changed. When your reaction to a situation changes, it no longer has the negative hold that it did when you were feeling the uncomfortable emotions. By figuring out the lesson, you’re much freer to move on.
Flexibility can make everything a bit easier
This trip required a tremendous amount of flexibility. We had to allow ourselves to be a little less rigid when it came to routines and eating habits.
Being aware of our food sensitivities meant that we typically were pretty rigid about not consuming those foods prior to this trip. However, access to food options and ability to always cook our meals was not always ideal depending upon where we were while driving across the country.
Because we previously had more control of what we consumed in our everyday life, we ended up eating in alignment with those preferences pretty consistently.
However, it made this trip a whole lot easier to just accept that we wouldn’t be able to eat to our preferences all the time.
On a trip like this, you pay a little more attention to where you spend your mental energy. We all spent a lot of mental energy on the food we ate before this trip. It became apparent quite quickly that spending too much mental energy worrying about what we could or couldn’t get would make this trip unenjoyable. I couldn’t change what was available.
So, I had to accept doing the best we could.
This meant my diet sometimes consisting of almond butter and jelly sandwiches and hard boiled eggs on long car days AND being okay with that.
I realized that I may not feel my best, but I feel better by not worrying than I would if I felt badly about not eating my ideal diet.
Organization is key
While to an outside eye our van may have seemed like a huge collection of stuff, there was a place for everything. This was key on every travel day when we’d go to pack up our stuff.
The numerous items were a bit of a nuisance to deal with so regularly, but the saving grace for me was that every item had space. I knew that I had a space for everything.
Additionally, like items were grouped in containers. This allowed for us to rearrange based upon what we were doing and where we were staying. We’d pack the van one way if our next stop was to camp. It would have a slightly different configuration if a hotel or Airbnb was our next destination.
With the huge variety of our day-to-day lives, having some sense of organization of our things alleviated some of the mental clutter that comes with navigating vanlife.
Strength comes from stretching
I had a conversation with someone early on in our journey, and she summed up well what she saw this trip to be about based upon what I shared with her.
“You’re trying to see what you’re made of.”
So much yes!
The past years of life for us were all about playing it safe, just trying to get by, and not believing we could actually go after the ideas that excited us.
We were staying with what we knew. We feared the unknown.
Then, my mom passed away. My perception of time, life, death, and what it is I’m supposed to be doing here with my time shifted. The fear that kept me playing small began to dissolve.
I knew that my family and I living in greater alignment with who we truly are as individuals would require a bit of a challenge. We would need to get out of our comfort zones and disrupt the dynamics that were keeping us stuck.
Through the stretching of what we believe we are capable of, individually and as a family, we will become stronger and more confident that we can take on other pursuits we envision in the future.
Looking back at who I was a few years ago, the idea that I could let go of so many of my possessions and exist with only my family and what we had in our van seemed extremely far fetched.
Now that I’ve done it, I see so clearly how little I really do need. I clung to things out of insecurity and out of a belief that those things were somehow part of my identity.
By stretching what we believe we are capable of, we become capable of more. This frees us up to evolve into more truer versions of ourselves.
Thanks so much for reading. Hopefully, you can apply some of our lessons to your life.
We’d love to hear from you if any of these spoke to you. Also, have you had any lessons you’ve taken from your own journeys? How has your own adventuring changed you as you return to your everyday life?