Tag Archives: van life for real

I Needed to Change My Life (an Interview with Ellen)

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Hands arranging fluffy mateiral next to a green bar of soap.
Felting wool shower scrubbies at the first RTArt Camp at the 2018 RTR.

I met Ellen at the very first RTArt Camp in 2018. She camped nearby and attended many of the workshops held during the two weeks of the RTR. She was pleasant to talk to, and I enjoyed her easy laugh. Some of the best times I spent that week were sitting around campfires with Ellen, learning about her life and experiences.

At the 2019 RTArt Camp, I had the pleasure of spending time with Ellen again. She allowed me to interview her and told me why she decided to live on the road full time, how she choose her rig, and what she likes most about the way she lives.

Rubber Tramp Artist (RTA): I am here today with Ellen, and I’ll be asking her some questions about her life on the road.

So am I correct that you are a full-time solo traveler?

Ellen: Yes, that is correct.

RTA: How long have you been doing that?

Ellen: Since June 2017, so a year and a half.

RTA: What’s your rig?

Ellen: A Ford Transit Connect.

RTA: That’s pretty small.

Ellen: It’s teeny tiny. It’s basically like a minivan, but a little bit taller.

RTA: What would you say are your three biggest challenges of living in such a small rig?

Ellen: Biggest challenges are…not having a full kitchen, would probably be #1.

RTA: So you cook outside?

Ellen: Yeah. I cook outside. I can cook inside if I need to, but I don’t usually.

I don’t really have space for people to hang out, to have people over in any type of way.

And…I don’t know if I could think of another thing. I like having a tiny rig.

RTA: OK. Well tell me about that then. Tell me about the three best

Selective Focus Photography of Gasoline Nozzle

things about having the tiny rig.

Ellen: I get really good gas mileage. That was kind of on top of my list.

 I can park anywhere. It’s super stealthy, and I can park in any neighborhood or be in a city parallel parking. Any of that is really easy.

 It just keeps my life really simple. I don’t collect stuff. I avoid the free pile.

RTA: [Boisterous laughter]

Ellen: [joins in with her own laughter]

RTA: Would you say that you were a minimalist or you had minimalist leanings before you moved into your rig and went on the road?

Shallow Focus Photography of Assorted-color Clothes Hanged on Clothes Rack

Ellen: No. I don’t think so. I’ve always loved thrifting and collecting things and having projects. Maybe that’s something that’s hard about having a small rig is that I can’t set up a project and leave it sitting there. Everything always has to be put away in the right exact spot.

I think I’m not super attached to material things in general, but I don’t know if I would call myself a minimalist.

RTA: Is your primary way of dealing with living in the small space that everything has its place and always goes back?

Ellen: Yeah. Exactly. Everything that’s in there has a very specific place where it goes. Usually after a while things start to be a little bit out of place, so then [I] have to kind of unpack everything and repack the whole thing.

RTA: How often do you think you do that?

Ellen: It totally depends on what I’m doing and where I am. Maybe once a month, once every other month, sometimes, depending on the season and what I’m doing. I guess I do it on a mini level every day! 

RTA: Right!

Ellen: [Laughter]

RTA: When you were thinking about wanting to go on the road, did you already have this vehicle, or were you shopping around for vehicles? If you were shopping around, what made you decide on this rig and not something bigger?

Ellen: I shopped around for a long time as I was planning on moving into a vehicle. I looked online at a million different kinds of vehicles. Factors for me [were] gas mileage and stealthiness…the same things I said I love about it and affordability for me and reliability. My balance that I was really trying to find was something that was in my budget that I could afford that was going to be reliable. [Reliability] felt like a safety thing for me, especially starting out as a solo female…if I could, avoiding situations where I was going to be broken down or need help.

RTA: What were some of the other vehicles that you considered seriously?

Ellen: I was looking at bigger vans. I’m definitely drawn more aesthetically to like the cool, older [vans]. That was really where my heart wanted to go.

 RTA: So what year is your current rig?

Ellen: 2011…parts are super easy to get for it anywhere if I need something. It’s very reliable, but it’s kind of boring. [Laughter] It’s just a white box. It doesn’t necessarily fit my personality…

RTA: But in 20 years, it will be the hippie van of its day!

Ellen: [more laughter] That’s true. Alright. Let’s look at it that way.

RTA: What was your impetus for getting on the road? Is it something you wanted to do for a long, long time?

Ellen: It’s not really that farfetched for me. I’ve driven around the country

Brown Wooden Destination Arrow Guide

many times and traveled around the world many times. I guess as I grew older and got into my 30s, my life started getting really routine and kind of boring. I had a career and was doing all the stuff, adulting stuff. Then I was diagnosed with cancer when I was 32, and after going through that…it was just very clear to me that I needed to change my life and get rid of stress from my life–probably the #1 thing–and just to be happy. It’s really underrated! [Laughter] I just knew that this was a way that I could do it, that I could afford to not have a 9 to 5 and that I could also spend a lot of quality time with people I care about. That also felt really important to me after coming through cancer treatment. It was really clear how I needed to give more importance, more time in my life for the people I care about.

RTA: How did your family react when you told them you were going to hit the road full time?

Ellen: Oh, my family’s used to it. [Laughter]  It’s not that farfetched.

A lot of people were like “WHAT?” I think people didn’t really quite realize maybe how serious I was about it. I think people thought I was going on vacation. I think mostly people felt like I sort of deserved a break. I’d been through a lot. I’d been very sick, very sick and sort of stuck in one place for a while. I think people were happy, my family, my community and friends…It made sense to everybody.

RTA: Do they now see that at least for the moment this is the choice you’ve made long-term?

Ellen: Yeah, now I think they get it.

RTA: They see you’re serious about this; it’s not just vacation.

Ellen: Yes. Exactly.

RTA: Let’s talk about challenges and joys again. What do you think are your three biggest challenges to being a young woman solo on the road?

Ellen: I don’t know that it’s necessarily just on the road, but safety in general. It’s not really a challenge, but it’s certainly a factor. Having to think about where I am and what kind of situation I’m putting myself in and never knowing from day to day where I’m going, if I’m going places I’ve never been, I don’t know what it’s going to be like or how I’m going to feel there. So there’s a little bit of constant factoring all this stuff in.

RTA: But not anything that would be necessarily unusual if you were living in an apartment in the city? I mean, you’re in a new place…

Ellen: You mean with safety. You still have to think about that no matter where you are?

RTA: Do you agree or disagree with that?

Ellen: I do agree with that. It’s just maybe a little more noticeable, a little more prevalent

I should probably follow that up, I think…I’ve NEVER had any issues with anybody. Maybe that’s part of it too…deprogramming myself to not feel like that. Probably something I should look at.

Challenges of being a young woman on the road? I don’t know. I can’t think of anything.

RTA: What about your three biggest joys of being a young woman on the road?

Ellen: Life is really awesome! [Laughter]

White Blooming Flower Under the Tree during Daytime

I think just being outside, connecting with the land and putting myself in a position where I am really outside all the time has been really wonderful for me.

The community, the community that I’ve found here is really wonderful. I’m a person who has never really felt at home anywhere, and this community of people for me feels like home.

RTA: Do you mean the RTR community or the Art Camp community or just the nomadic community?

Ellen: It just keeps expanding for me. I think it started with coming to the RTR and getting involved with Art Camp. I’m also part of Mindfulness Camp. I have different groups around…I guess it would be the RTR crowd. It’s expanded through my whole year. My whole life [has] really sort of formed around the communities that I’ve made here.

RTA: You said being outdoors, the communities. Is there something else you want to mention?

Ellen: Also, just to expand on that a little bit—the community—I’ve always been a really shy, introverted person. Not maybe introverted, but shy, and I have just made so many connections out here. That has really enriched my life greatly. I know some people talk about people coming out on the road and isolating, but I have just had the opposite experience. I’ve made more friends in the past couple years than I have in the rest of my entire adult life. Maybe that’s because I’m amongst people I connect with, and maybe it’s just me growing. Maybe it’s this lifestyle.

Another thing that I really love…of course, just traveling, seeing new things, and getting to know this land. I try and get involved in as much as I can, so that’s really afforded me the time to go to retreats and go to different workshops and go to places I’ve always wanted to go. So I think that’s a really healing thing for me to be able to have the time, to give that time to myself to really do some deep healing work.

RTA: What is your favorite new place that you saw in 2018?

Ellen: I traveled all through British Columbia which was really wonderful, going almost all the way up to Alaska. They call it Northern BC, but it’s actually central BC, there’s just nothing actually north of it. [much laughter] They just call the central part ‘north.’ Seeing that area was really special—absolutely beautiful and the rivers there are something to see.

The first photo in this post was taken by me. Other images courtesy of https://www.pexels.com/photo/selective-focus-photography-of-gasoline-nozzle-1537172/, https://www.pexels.com/photo/shallow-focus-photography-of-assorted-color-clothes-hanged-on-clothes-rack-1078958/, https://www.pexels.com/photo/sign-arrow-direction-travel-52526/, and https://www.pexels.com/photo/wood-light-vacation-picnic-60006/.

Locked Restroom Doors

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I’d spent the last two nights in Babylon. The first night was so hot, I barely slept. I’d be surprised if I’d gotten more than a total of an hour’s sleep that whole night. It was so bad, I’d left the van to walk over to the 24-hour Ice Cream on Bowl Beside Spoonsupermarket and bought three miniature cartons of ice cream, which helped about in proportion to their size.

The second night was better. The temperature had dropped maybe five degrees from the night before and a slight breeze blew through the darkness. I got maybe five hours of sleep that night and felt functional when I woke up.

I walked over to Taco Bell to get some breakfast. I love their fiesta potato grilled breakfast burritos. A buck gets me potato, egg, cheese, and pico de gallo wrapped in a grilled flour tortilla. Two of these yummies fill me up for hours.

Before I ate, I wanted to utilize the toilet and wash my hands. I’d been in this Taco Bell before and knew right where the restrooms were. I went left immediately upon walking through the entrance door.

The restrooms here were the kind with one (flush) toilet behind a lockable door. Last year when I’d frequented this restaurant, one door had been marked for men and the other had been marked for women. Now they were both marked “unisex,” which was fine with me. I’ve already proven on several occasions that I can use any toilet behind any locked door.

During previous early morning visits to this Taco Bell when the dining room was practically deserted, I’d just turned the handle on the restroom door and it had opened. This time I tuned the handle, knocked , turned the handle again, but nothing happened. The door didn’t open. No one called out, One moment from inside the restroom. Nothing. I went through the drill with the other restroom door. I decided I’d have to go up to the counter and ask a worker for the key.

I stepped up to the counter to find a woman probably in her late 20s standing there. She wore a Taco Bell uniform and looked sleepy.

Hi! I said, trying to sound personable so she would deem me worthy of using a Taco Bell restroom. I’m going to order food, but I’d like to wash my hands first. Can you unlock the restroom for me?

The worker produced a large keyring from somewhere behind the counter or on her person. She found the key she needed from the many others on Photography of Keys on Orange Surfacethe ring. All the while, she was apologizing to me. One apology would have been fine, but she kept going on and on with saying she was sorry, even though I wasn’t complaining.

As we walked together to the restroom, she continued apologizing and explained, We had to start locking them because the homeless were taking showers in there. She spoke as if she and I were in this together, as if “the homeless” were a group to which she and I did not belong.

She probably did live in some sort of conventional home, but I certainly did not. I thought it was obvious that I’d been living somewhere other than a conventional home. Today was the second day wearing the clothes I had on. I’d dribbled some of my middle-of-the-night ice cream on the front of my hot pink tank top which was so old it was developing holes just above the hem. My bare arms were dirty, and my hair was unbrushed and unwashed. My skirt was a little too tight across my middle, and it was a little too short to completely cover my hairy legs.

Was this woman really looking at me and seeing “normal”? I didn’t think I looked like a normal member of polite society. How could she not think “homeless” when she looked at me?

Maybe it was my lack of a shopping cart or multiple grocery store bags filled with belongings. Maybe it was my coherent speech. Maybe it was my declaration that I planned to buy something. For whatever reason, this young woman did not see a homeless person when she looked at me. When she looked at me, she saw someone she needed to apologize to for locked restrooms. When she looked at me, she saw someone who was more like her than different from her.

It’s hard to not have a place to clean up, I said to her mildly. I wasn’t looking to get into a big discussion or educate her on issues of homelessness.  I really just wanted to wash my hands, then chow down on some breakfast, but I felt like I had to say something in defense of my brothers and sisters in homelessness.

I know! the worker said quickly and defensively. But I have to follow procedures.

She’s the one who brought up “the homeless.” I hadn’t asked for any explanation for the locked doors. I hadn’t even complained about the locked doors. All I’d done is very politely asked her to unlock a door for me.  She’s the one who’d offered excessive apologies and explanations. I don’t know why she was getting defensive now.

Well, then y’all have to clean the mess left in the restroom, I said apologetically to let her know I was also down with my fellow workers in the fast food business. I know I wouldn’t want to mop up a restroom that had been used as a shower stall.

In the event my beliefs are unclear, let me summarize.

#1 I believe all people have the right to private toilets.

#2 I believe all people have the right to wash up.

#3 I believe fast food workers should not have to clean up other people’s irresponsible restroom messes.

#4 I believe fast food workers shouldn’t be deciding who is and isn’t homeless and who should and should not be allowed to use the restaurant’s restrooms.

Finally, the worker had the door to the restroom unlocked, and I was able to go into the restroom and lock the door behind me.  I didn’t try to wash anything other than my hands, but that hot water sure would have done a good job cleaning various other body parts.

When I left the restroom, I closed the door gently so it didn’t latch. The next person who needed to use the restroom might not pass the Taco Bell employee’s scrutiny as suitable to use the restroom, so I used my privilege to possibly help some other homeless person.

Images courtesy of https://www.pexels.com/photo/ice-cream-on-bowl-beside-spoon-1343504/ and https://www.pexels.com/photo/photography-of-keys-on-orange-surface-1055336/.