I’m willing to bet that when most of our teenaged selves looked into the future we imagined ourselves sitting on a cushy leather couch in a big house, in front of a wall-sized television, with a couple luxury cars in the driveway. After all, that’s the picture of happiness, right? He who dies with the most toys wins?
But what if we were wrong?
What if the fifty-hour workweek, two thousand dollar mortgage, two car payments and mounting credit card bills don’t make us happy? Even worse, what if they make us feel anxious and chronically unfulfilled?
Six years ago, these were the kinds of thoughts racing through my head in the middle of the night, as I stared down the barrel of unemployment.
By spring of 2008, during the height of the financial crisis, my sales manager was actively managing me out. Whereas I would normally choose to resign rather than suffer the indignity of being routinely ostracized for having ‘falling revenue numbers,’ the job market was going the same direction as my sales, so I pressed on, despite my soaring anxiety levels. By fall of that year I took Xanax to get through the day and Ambien to fall asleep at night. Astonishingly, almost half my sales team and 40 million other Americans were on the same treatment plan.
And, then, mercifully, the axe dropped. Without fanfare, I was let-go at the end of October. Turn in your keys and your computer; don’t let the door hit you on the way out. Despite having seen it coming, I cried the whole way home.
How did this happen? Only seven months prior, I had been on a sunny beach in Cabo San Lucas being praised at Gold Club, the annual recognition trip for top-sellers, but now I was unemployed with student loans, health insurance payments, and a Venice beachfront apartment I could no longer afford.
To say I was stressed and depressed is to put it mildly. Yet despite my growing weariness—What does it all mean? I’d ask the dog, as I moped around in my pajamas—I immediately began working with a recruiter and interviewing for another sales job, one that paid twice as much but would be doubly demanding.
Then my boyfriend, who is now my husband, lobbied for a total one-eighty: “Instead of getting back on the same crazy horse, why don’t we move into my Sprinter van? It has a bed, a small fridge and a two-burner stove. What more do we need?”
A bathroom? Hot water? An address!? I thought but didn’t say aloud for fear of sounding too urbane. “So let me get this straight. You want to live like the people who smell like patchouli and sleep in the rusted RVs that take up all the street parking? You can’t be serious.”
As the owner of a small online retail business that was feeling the sudden cash crunch affecting millions of Americans, he couldn’t have been more serious. So, to soften the blow of becoming newly minted homeless people, we decided to go on a little road trip down the coast.
We sold or gave away most of our belongings, packed the dog in the van, and headed south. To pay for food and gas, my boyfriend would work his online business remotely, and I would try to drum up writing gigs. “It’ll be like camping! Just, you know, more intense,” we assured each other as we crossed the border into Tijuana.
In four years, we’ve driven 30,000 miles through seventeen Latin American countries, including El Salvador where we got married and Peru where we had a baby. What began as a road trip to weather both an economic and a personal crisis of depression turned into an American unicorn: the pursuit of happiness. This slow-travel thing that we found ourselves doing made us feel free, fulfilled and connected in a way that we’d never felt before.
But, sadly, all roads come to an end, even Pan-American Highways. We recently sold our Sprinter van and returned home(less) to the United States.
Family and friends, especially those whose extra bedrooms we’re occupying, are quite naturally wondering what our plan is. Quite frankly, we are, too. Are we going to buy a home? What about cell phones and cars? The (mostly) unspoken sentiment seems to be that while yes our trip was awesome, it’s now time to get back on track. After all, our daughter needs consistency, familiarity and toys to be happy, right? Well, maybe not.
As we consider our options, we can’t help but remember that the structure, routine and possessions we left behind four years ago didn’t make us happy.
Maybe happiness exists outside the cycle of debt and consumption? Maybe it lives off the beaten track, out on the open road, nestled in tiny villages, camping in the wild, climbing rock walls and running rivers. And maybe sometimes (all the time) it appears in a glass of Argentine wine.
For us, happiness evolved into our lives, as our perspective changed with these 3 important lessons learned living in our van:
- You need a whole lot less than you think. Limited by having only 108 square feet of actual living space, we learned to ask ourselves two important questions before we bought anything new: Is it highly useful on a daily (okay, weekly) basis and not just a hip trend or frivolous convenience? What am I willing to give up in order to fit this wonderful new thing in the van? (Note: We had to break this rule after we had a baby; she came with a lot of accessories).
- Compassion and Gratitude are the bedrock of happiness. “Man is by nature a social animal,” explained Aristotle, meaning we long to feel connected to others. So when we left our friends behind, they worried that we’d feel lonely so far away. But, ironically, the further we drove from home, the further our web of affinity stretched to include ‘otherness.’ And with this more inclusive perspective we found a commonality among and a compassion for people who would have seemed different and foreign on our own soil. Put simply, traveling for four years in a van made our community bigger, not smaller. It also didn’t take long before things like a hot shower and not getting food/water poisoning topped our daily gratitude list. We quickly learned to appreciate the little things in life and are much happier for it.
- Intimacy is everything. By traveling slowly in a vehicle through small pueblos across the Americas, we were able to get to know the people, land, and even the animals more intimately than if we’d flown into a tourist destination and stayed at a resort. Consequently, we often fell in love with new friends and hidden paradises. We also got to (some people might say ‘were forced to’) spend nearly every day together in close proximity, sharing a common dream and bringing our best selves to meet the daily challenges of realizing it— miraculously, falling more in love (read: not killing each other) along the way.
So even though the economy is on the rebound and our small business is again stable, we’re still choosing to be homeless (at least in the non-mobile sense) and consume less. With low overhead, both literally and figuratively, we can afford the simple lifestyle that brings joy and purpose to our lives.
Besides, with the whole world before us, I just don’t think we could buy a house big enough for us to call home.
Read more about Stevie and Tree, their company, lifestyle, and the world they’re working to create for their family, in “What Kind of Company Tells SeaWorld ‘Thanks For the Order, But We Don’t Want Your Money?‘”
Photo courtesy of the author