Imagine a 5’2” twenty something peeking over the steering wheel of a white cargo van, winding through Navajo Nation with distinct red hues gleaming off pillar shaped rock formations in the distance, 80’s pop blaring through the speakers, and a miniature sheep peeking out the passenger window.
In life, or at least my assessment after 27 years of it-you get a handful of perfect moments. Usually, mine have included other people; sometimes friends, sometimes family, and sometimes a boyfriend.
But today I sat alone, with my feet dangled off a 1000-foot cliff and I let myself melt into the Island of the Sky as I overlooked the Needles Rock formations in Canyonlands National Park.
This is about the moment I realized- being alone is underrated.
I don’t just mean being single, I mean physically being alone. It’s spectacular.
This revelation comes four nights into my solo vanlife journey. The last 96 hours have made me feel so alive, so infinitely happy, so at peace, so calm and collected, and so sure. Like a genuine compilation of perfect moments, and I had them all to myself. I somehow achieved the harmonious and much sought after duet of being alone but not lonely.
There have been a constant stream of rainbow-colored rocks, arches, and canyons, open roads with sheep jams, hikes that make everything below look microscopic, singing at the top of my lungs with the windows rolled down and the wind dancing with my hair, and smiling so hard my cheeks hurt at nothing and no one in particular.
I know Eat, Pray, Love and Wild have caused the “women’s empowerment/ drop everything and travel the world” story to become, well a bit played out. But I feel confident that that is a good thing. We live in a time where women can and should travel solo (at least once).
Of course, I should mention I am accompanied by Cagney, the aforementioned small white rabbit-like-sheep-looking dog that I borrowed from my mom.
While we’re getting introductions out of the way, I should also explain that sometime in mid-June, my mom and I decided to buy a van together with the intention of converting it into a mobile home and taking turns using it.
So the hunt began for a suitable automobile. One that was safe, cheery, efficient, stealthy, used, low-mileage, affordable, and manageable. Which is how we ended up with a 2016 Ford, Transit flex-fuel, low-top, cargo van. Which we promptly named Casper, in hopes that it would live up to our friendly, and stealthy (ghost-like) van visions.
Converting Casper was a mission. The first few days of wood-shopping were fun and exciting. But tedious unskilled carpentry tasks, that never quite seemed to turn out as planned, quickly started to take a toll.
After a few months of working on the van part-time with the very generous help of friends and family, Casper was in commission and resembling a homey abode.
Which brings me back to the present.
A few nights ago, Cagney, Casper, and I pulled into our campsite for the evening, indulged in some penne with pesto (Cagney had dogfood), and plotted out our hikes and sightseeing in Zion National Park for the following day. After a short while, Cagney started barking to alert me that a man was approaching us.
The man quickly stammered, “I noticed you’re traveling alone, and I just wanted to come say hi…I’m from Arkansas.”
Arkansas began to ask questions about how I came to be traveling alone in a van across The United States. I regurgitated a narrative I’ve almost mastered, about quitting a 9-5 in NYC, because I was fed up with the circumstances, and have been traveling ever since.
As I spoke, it occurred to me that this trip (or some version of it), was inevitable long before that. Some of my friends might even say it was destined.
It’s true that my job was not ideal, and my health was suffering as a result, and Manhattan is not a city to be living in between jobs.
But if we’re being honest, I had been in a three-year relationship with myself. This included 2 years of “putting myself out there” by dating like I was in a sitcom. I had no shortage of How I Met Your Mother worthy tinder dates that had gone awry.
In the end, each date had a deal-breaker.
There were men who smoked cigarettes, lived with their parents, worked in finance, had ex-drama, were going through an existential crisis, perverts, racists, misogynist, men who didn’t vote, men who were too short, and men who considered themselves world travelers because they did spring break in Mexico.
Manhattan had a shortage of my type of man. And since there was nothing tying me down, despite how much I loved the life I had built for myself in the city, traveling seemed like the familiar option.
So when I made the decision to become a vagabond in a van, everything seemed to fall into place.
As odd and unfamiliar as vanlife is, I’m living out my truest self- as my friend Erin puts it. In that way, it’s as if this lifestyle is the most natural thing in the world for me. As my other friend Shauna reminded me, if I didn’t do it now, it would have simply reappeared down my road.
I should note here that I have a tendency to make travel bucket list items materialize. Whether that means utilizing my vacation-time efficiently, finding short jobs and backpacking in between, or moving to other countries to work- I make it happen.
Being in transit is my homeostasis, and I’ve never known a greater form of stability.
Sure, I’d love to “settle down” with a guy with the help of reliable movers near me, but by settle down, I mean- live a nomadic lifestyle where we both pursue all of our wildest dreams. So you can imagine, that it can be complicated to find such a person.
That being said, my travels have granted me some exotic romances. Not all storybook epics, but certainly noteworthy none-the-less.
There was the British mountain man in the Thai jungle who I learned to scuba dive with. The sexy German in Bangkok who scootered me around temples and hot springs. The Aussie lifeguard who helped me fall in love with Sydney and the beach. The coworker, I fell for over humid nights in a village in Tanzania. Finally, the American who added some sugar and spice to Israel.
All in all, travel relationships suit me just fine.
A standard “real-life” date lasts an hour or two, but on vacation, a “date” often means 24/7 exposure to a new person in a new environment. Your guard is down, and you’re more open to sharing because you’ll probably never have to endure the consequences of a stranger knowing your deepest secrets.
Traveling tends to bring out the best and worst of people-so if you can get along through that- you’re golden.
You can allow yourself to be vulnerable, and feel confident enough to let your sun-kissed skin be unbothered by makeup. You can dance like no one is watching, even though people might be, and you tend to kiss like it’s your last night on earth.
But most importantly, travel relationships never end. You may physically say goodbye, and go back to your prospective countries and cities, but the romance does not play itself out into a dramatic break-up. In essence, they come with a dot dot dot.
I guess what traveling has taught me, is that it’s not that there are a lack of compatible people out there. It’s largely about timing and geography. If I met a guy at “home” who lived up to my impossibly high expectations, before I had lived out all my what-if travel scenarios, then I’d probably manage to find a deal-breaker anyway.
So while I may have been “putting myself out there,” I was setting myself up for failure. I don’t want a guy who will anchor me to one place. I want one who will help me conjure up our next great adventure.
One day, maybe I’ll meet a man who enjoys hiking to campsites near glacial lakes, and summits mountains for fun, shares my passion for debating controversial issues, appreciates the theatre, talks to animals in that high-pitch voice, gets a high off a fresh passport stamp, actively seeks out new adventures and self-improvement, is passionate about his hobbies, can hold his own in a room full of strangers, makes a point to give-back to the community, is accustomed to traveling on a budget but will splurge on things like scuba diving, and recognizes how lucky we are to be born free to indulge in all of the above.
But until then, being alone is quite satisfying. It means I can live off-grid in a solar-powered van, wake up to a fresh view everyday, constantly meet new people that expand my mind, and I never have to wonder “what if.”