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Seamonster Essay 1, part 3

This is the third and final part in a multi-part series about how we got started as full-time Airstream travelers. The first part can be found here.

Some people cannot see their way to lowering their expectations of certain creature comforts or perks of our satiated society. They want to retain all the familiar benefits of home (the gardening club, yards of indoor personal space, unlimited hot showers) while traveling. Such people are doomed to spending their vacations in hotels, and paying top dollar for their travel. I pity them.

We often forget that everyone in America is royalty, relative to much of the developing world. As one potential immigrant said, “I want to live in a country where the poor people are fat.” We forget that even “starving” college students enjoy a lifestyle far above much of the world’s population. We have technology to enable nearly constant communications, safety nets galore, and the path is well paved by those who have gone before. We are blessed with enough abundance that most of us have the option to travel, whether we choose to exercise it or not. Rarely can I buy the arguments that “we can’t afford it,” or “it’s too hard” when people are speaking of heading out to travel full-time. It is more a matter of adjusting expectations. Changing yourself is more of a challenge than coming up with money.

For example, we had to adjust to life in 200 square feet. Three people in a trailer full-time requires a higher level of cooperation and togetherness than in a house. The compensation of course is that the world is your living room. Sitting in a trailer in one spot can be deadly boring, but if you travel the scenery always changes and interior space becomes less of an issue. I think people are buying larger houses these days because they spend more time inside sheltering themselves from other people and potentially distracting experiences. For some of us, going larger is an unsustainable strategy. At our house we had 2,900 square feet and I was driven nearly mad with cabin fever each winter. The next winter I was happy to share 200 square feet with my family in the Airstream. I had discovered what really mattered to me, and it wasn’t square footage.

Interior space still matters, but the lack of it can actually be a benefit. I was asked about this by the marketing head at Airstream, who wanted to know how a family of three could survive in such close quarters for months. “It has made us more polite. We say “˜excuse me’ a lot,” was my answer ““ which was true, because when every cubic inch has to serve a purpose, inevitably someone else is occupying the space you need. But a better answer was given by a couple in California: “We bump into each other a lot. We like bumping into each other.”

The rewards for all the minor adjustments are intangible but satisfying. I said that the genesis of our travel was necessity, but there is a deeper motivation that stems from our desire to be free. The winter before we put our house up for sale, we spent three months in rented Florida condo. At that point the magazine was a struggling start-up, and we were living solely off savings. But every day seemed worthwhile and full of beauty, and finally one day I realized that freedom was more important to me than things. I was enjoying life more despite living with less.

Our house was stuffed with objects that didn’t really add value to our lives ““ to the contrary, when we got back from Florida Eleanor and I were dismayed to re-discover all the stuff we owned that served no practical purpose on our lives. While we were gone, we missed none of those things, and in fact had forgotten they existed. These things were psychological anchors, but not only in the sense of giving us a home base. They were also obligations that held us fast, keeping us from exploring by their sheer weight.

We talked about this sensation, and realized that the stability we had built for ourselves had a dark side. We had the security of home and the insecurity of worrying about mortgage payments. We had the memorabilia of generations past, and the obligation to keep it dusted. We had enjoyed the income that comes with success, and felt the unyielding demands of careers. In short, the security we had felt was an illusion. Was there an alternative? Could we give up the trappings of a traditional life to find something else?

Based on this experience, I resolved to trade money and things for freedom and experiences, and that was later the foundation of our decision to sell the house and plunge headlong into the magazine. That led to the second decision to live the traveling life, and ultimately our satisfaction proved the thesis: freedom is more important than things, at least for us. Our net worth on paper is less than it was two years ago, but our satisfaction with life (a more heartfelt measure of net worth for most people) is dramatically higher.

Besides, there have been practical benefits. Full-time traveling turned out to be cheaper than staying home. The tallying of our expenses has become an almost guilty pleasure because money deposited in the checking account tends to stay there, rather than being vacuumed out by household bills. Not only did our decision to travel give us more capital to invest in the business, it seems unfair to everyone else that we get to see America, Canada, and Mexico at our own pace, while spending far less each month than for a week at Disney. Considering how broadening the experience has been (and continues to be), it has been the bargain of the century. This is how full-time travelers get addicted. They recognize that re-settling in a fixed location and having to buy furniture again is the real compromise, and so they put it off, sometimes for years.

That is precisely what happened to us. Four months into our “six-month” voyage, somewhere between the redwood forests of northern California and the sea lions of southern California, we suddenly felt the slippage of time and realized we weren’t ready to stop. In four months we hadn’t seen much relative to the vastness of North America and, having tasted the freedom to explore at our own pace, the idea of settling down to build a house and leaving the rest of the world to explore some other day was horrifying.

This was not a lightly-made decision. The home-building season in Vermont required us to start construction in May in order to be finished by winter. Staying on the road for “a few more months” effectively meant we’d lose the building season until the next year. Thus, our choice to become official “full-timers” meant we’d be living in the Airstream for a total of 18 months at a minimum, and even longer if we lived in it during house construction.

Still it was a clear choice. Our daughter Emma was young enough (age five) that homeschooling was easy. We had no obligations requiring us to be near home base. In a few years, school, family obligations, medical issues, and even the magazine might require us to stop traveling. It seemed best to grab the opportunity while it was still available. We were undeniably no longer just voyeurs to the full-time lifestyle, but committed in a fundamental way. We had tip-toed our way in, from buying the first Airstream, then deciding to commit to a business that would enable travel, through the advancing phases of selling our home, delaying a replacement, and finally admitting the truth: we were happier with only the things we could fit in a 30-foot trailer and endlessly varying scenery. I called Airstream, wrote a check from our house fund, and a few weeks later the trailer was officially ours.

From this point on, Eleanor would explain to the incredulous and skeptical people who often visited us, staring up and down the 26 feet of interior length, “It’s not a house, but it is our home.” Few people understood, but it didn’t matter. We didn’t need validation from others. It was about what we knew worked for us.

Of course our plan didn’t work out nearly as we expected it to. Plans rarely do. We started out devoted to making memories, and in that we were successful. But we found that life in an Airstream included the moments that were lonely and frustrating, just like in stationary life. There were moments of insecurity where we feared having to go back to “the real world” and there were moments when we saw sadness in the other’s eyes and knew that perhaps we were reaching the end. One night in Florida we sat up until 2 a.m. talking while a heavy fog blanketed the trailer and the surf pounded the shore outside our window, whispering to each other about fears and finances, health and home, and the sum of it all. These are elements of life, and they must be embraced along with the high points. We experienced these things and grew with each challenge, because we had to in order to keep the adventure going, and we loved the adventure.

Eventually the trip mutated from an adventure into a lifestyle, and then something beyond lifestyle. It became one of the most remarkable events of our lives, and the formative part of Emma’s childhood. “Trips” come and go and they are often the source of wonderful memories, but adopting an entirely new lifestyle is much different. The change gets into your heart, and affects your values, your perception of the world, your understanding of society. You can’t go back to being who you were before. It is no exaggeration to say that in many ways, we were re-invented by travel.

Reading this, you may be skeptical that an extended trip in an RV can be so influential. My purpose in writing what is to follow is to show you how the change gradually came upon us, drawing on the notes I took and the daily weblog I wrote during more than two years of life in a house with wheels. You can travel with us, to dozens of national park sites in 42 states, from two hundred feet below sea level to 12,000 feet above, and meet hundreds of people of every description. If I can convey the feeling of each experience rather than just the sights and sounds, I may succeed at explaining the changes that occurred inside us.

Perhaps rather than asking “How did you get started?” the question should be, “Why did you stop?” At this writing, we haven’t yet stopped but we have always recognized that the possibility existed at any time. Events in life never stand still, and inevitably, we will need to change our lifestyle again in response to some outside influence. In our case, it will probably be that Emma exceeds our ability as educators and can benefit from a formal education. Anticipating this, near our second anniversary of travel we bought a house. It’s a small low-maintenance shelter designed specifically to give us a stable base if we need it, and designed to avoid bankrupting us if we don’t live in it.

To date, we have not moved into the house and have no immediate plans to do so. We have a choice now, between living in a traditional base with all the amenities of modern American life, or continuing on with the metaphorical traveling circus. Having the security of knowing the house is there, we choose the circus for as long as we can. There is more growing to be done, and the unexplored world still calls.

8 Responses to “Seamonster Essay 1, part 3”

  1. Lois Grebowski Says:

    More…I want to read more…

    Had hubby Hank read this. We’re considering one for ourselves.

  2. Ringo Says:

    I’m getting worried.
    I’m starting to feel like a groupie.
    This was your best post yet and I should know. I have all of your albums.

  3. Bill Doyle Says:

    You’re off to a great start, Rich. Thanks for encouraging us to enjoy the freedom to explore and not worry about seeking validation from others.

    Perhaps Eleanor and Emma could also whisper to us along the way… share thoughts, feelings, discoveries, and recipes!

  4. Terry Baughman Says:

    You have a great start. I have been following you weblog for the past two years on near daily basis. Always, I can hardly wait for the next post.

    My wife and I are experiencing what you have put into word. This is our first extended trip. We are into the third month and find our self having some of the same feelings. We are not ready to take the full leap but you are surely helping to make sure everything is considered and it is up to us to see which way the scales tilt for us.

    Keep up the good work. I really like the way you explain feelings.

  5. Denese Lee Says:

    Very enjoyable to read.I look forward to more! Although we are not fulltimers we can identify with some of the free spirit feeling when we travel in our Airstream. It really is a feeling of freedom and the joy of exploring this beautiful country and meeting so many interesting people!

  6. Dean Says:

    For those of us that have read and been entertained by your log, this essay provides an additional perspective. The decisions you’ve made would be difficult for 2 adults. Adding your daughter and a fledgling business…I can’t imagine living with those anxieties. Living is what you are doing though, at a higher risk and reward than most which is clear. That’s what makes your log, your magazine, and now your essay so tantalizing and enjoyable. Nicely done.

  7. sadira Says:

    Wonderfully put…I’ll tell you, after hanging out a lot recently with one of our mutual friends in his Airstream, I started coming home and feeling like I was rattling around in the house. I look around and feel like there’s too much space, there are rooms that I don’t even go into on a weekly basis…yet, there they are, storing my stuff. I moved into a “bigger” house a few years ago (1157 sq ft.) and realized soon after, while I still love my home, the 700 sq ft fit better, and it was easier to live in. I started realizing after my divorce, when I looked around…that there is a lot of stuff in the house, and I would constantly tease myself about what could I get rid of? And, I realized that really? Most of it could go…and I just have it because I can.

    What a freeing thought. Hmmm…maybe I’d better get crackin’ on that!

  8. Barry Smiley Says:

    Wow!!! Rich, this 3 part was a wonderful explanation of what many of us feel, but are unable to put in words. This itch, to be untethered, to explore our vast country, is in all of us, but most can’t let go like you all have.

    Very enjoyable reading! That book should flow like water over a dam when you’re ready.

    Thank you! Thank you! I’ll be looking for parts 4 through 800!!