When I think back on my life and recall many seemingly disparate events or interests I’ve had over the years, it is clear that while I may grow and learn and develop new skills and interests, the essence of who I am and what drives me has been with me long before I could articulate my passions. When I was a small child, I had two favorite books: Messy and The Man Who Cooked for Himself. Reading the latter of these as an adult after many, many years of forgetting the details, it was incredible to realize that what captivates me as an adult captivated me as a preschooler. In it, the main character lives alone in the woods and is lazy, very lazy (ok – that part is not captivating) and after eating an awful, terrible, no-good stew of the remnants of the contents of his cupboards, he goes for a walk and discovers his ability to forage and fish. He cooks several amazing meals made of apples, blueberries, fish, acorns, and watercress. He is inspired and begins a garden and realizes how much he can do for himself. If you know me well, you would not be surprised that this would be a book I love today, but isn’t it crazy that it was also a book I loved when I was three?
Fast forward several years later in life and I attended my very first book fair in third grade as a part of the Reading is Fundamental program. At the end of the program, the teachers arranged a table full of books (mostly) suitable for third graders and allowed each of us to choose one book to keep. It was truly heaven for a reader like me. I remember studying the books at the table for a long time, wanting to pick the perfect book. If I recall, they were almost all children’s books of the sort you’d find in the school library. And then I saw it – How to Survive in the Woods – a book for anyone (mainly geared towards an older audience) about exactly that, how to survive in the woods. To this day, I’ll never know how that book got mixed up on that table, but it continues to hold a place of prominence on my bookshelf.
But what does this all have to do with traveling around the country in a van? This, too, has been lurking beneath my ordered life, surfacing every now and then to remind me of my deeper passions. I camped a lot with my family as a child, which I absolutely loved. Some of my favorite memories are from our time spent in our pop-up camper or the tent that my brother and I bought with money we pooled from saving many, many months of allowances so that we’d have our “own” place to stay on camping trips. Whenever I hear tires crunching on gravel, I recall the sounds of campgrounds as a child. I lived with a gravel driveway for several years as an adult and I never got tired of that sound. If it were up to only me, that would be the sound that greets me every time I return home.
Getting back to the van… I’ve always had a penchant for untethered traveling, but I recall the first instant I knew I had to take a long and unstructured trip around this great land in a van. I was on a trip through the south with one of my closest friends after having just graduated from college, and we were getting gas at a station in North Carolina or Georgia (somewhere close to the border). I saw two women just about our age or a couple of years older hop out of a large brown panel van. When they opened up the back of their van to rearrange things, it was clear that they had been living and traveling in the van – by choice. In that instant, I knew that it was something I had to do. The image of that woman opening the back door of her brown van holds a place in my memory’s highlight reel, not typically a place I keep memories of perfect strangers or their (yes, I’m saying it) not-so-attractive vehicles. A year later I found myself in the Yukon Territory during a month long trip around Alaska and its environs. I met some folks up in Dawson City (a cool, cool place, albeit about eight hours from the nearest city of 25,000 people) who came up for the summers to work and live and hang out – many in small cabins without indoor plumbing. It was here where I met a guy who was living in a converted school bus. That moment too was captured forever for my file of random moments that have led me to this point.
I’ve talked about traveling around the country in a van. I’ve even planned to do it – more than once. But now these dreams and plans are turning into something tangible. As I pay attention to the clues I’ve left myself over the years, I begin to realize that my current interests are not as haphazard as I may have once thought. And when I stop to listen, I can hear the Staceys of yesteryear telling me what I need to do.