Lessons of the Desert

I recently had a wonderful conversation with a dear family member who is on the precipice of a new chapter in life, filled with all the perfect elements of a true adventure: beginnings, endings, challenges, and celebrations. After hanging up the phone, I sat for a while, looking out over the Arizona desert. My thoughts swirled in their usual way, images of the past seven months, memories of life before the road, and my own expectations for the future. 


Since we set out on this trip, we’re often asked about the hardest aspect of living in the van. I imagine the person posing the question expects to hear something tangible, like surrendering my hairdryer, going a week between showers, or learning to live with Avery’s ever-growing mountain man beard. And yes, there are certainly myriad adjustments you have to make to your daily comforts when you leave behind a comfortable city apartment. We take turns getting ready in the morning; when Madge broke down after Christmas, we had to spend a week living out of a rental car and our tent; overnight desert temperatures drop well below freezing and my water bottle often doesn’t thaw out till mid-afternoon; I’m recovering from a large burn I got by pouring boiling water down my leg, an easy mistake to make when your kitchen is also your dressing room; and our daily schedule revolves around access to bathrooms and water fountains. But those are the little things we mostly anticipated when we hit the road.


No, the biggest challenge for me was very personal—when I left my full-time job with only a few freelance projects lined up, I had to reevaluate the way I have always viewed myself and my life path. Ever since I received my first “straight face” grade in kindergarten (on the cut-throat smiley face grading curve), I have focused on achievement and goals: I worked hard in high school to get to college, worked hard in college to land my first job, worked hard at that job so more opportunities would follow. And as a result, I allowed myself to view my own identity through a similar lens—a manifestation of my latest success as a young, urban professional. When I gave that up, it felt like I was staring into a void. I had never before considered myself in isolation, stripped of titles and degrees and zip codes.


As the miles have slipped by, this is a subject I return to time and again. But as I hung up the phone that day, let my eyes wander over a sea of cacti, and mulled the way life can divert so suddenly from your subscribed path, it occurred to me for the first time that maybe I’m still falling into the same fallacy. I thought back to the incredible people we’ve met on the road, chasing dreams, jobs, or just the wind. And I remembered the devastation we’ve seen up close, most recently the burning homes of Ventura and Santa Barbara, CA. Perhaps the task at hand isn’t to find new ways to define myself, but rather to let go of definitions all together. Life can change on a dime—either by our own doing or forces outside of our control—any stability we cling to is just an illusion, and our happily-ever-after’s can be whenever we want and as often as we want them.   


Recently, a friend asked if I felt like I’ve changed since we began this journey. My answer was no—Avery and I never intended for this trip to be a pilgrimage of any kind, and I didn’t anticipate great revelations. But as I pulled together my thoughts for this blog post, I realized, with some excitement, that I am changing and growing. I’m learning to let go of expectations. I’m learning to not let the potholes keep me from driving down a dirt road. I’m learning that definitions are best left to Webster and Britannica. And, most importantly, I am learning to appreciate the open road as a destination unto itself.






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