“I think I need to bow out. Of this trip, and of this relationship.”
This is how my 26-year-old boyfriend informed me that the dream we had just started of renovating a recently purchased 1995 Firan Telstar RV, moving into it, and traveling wherever we wanted for as long as we wanted was over.
I can’t say I hadn’t seen it coming.
Throughout the researching, shopping, and planning stages of the project, I’d encouraged him to speak up if he didn’t like a direction I was going in, to do his own research so he didn’t feel like he was just riding shotgun on my dreams, and to reassure me that this was what he wanted to do. The affirmative responses he gave were so quick and easy that, looking back on it, they might have been indication that he wasn’t ready to make a decision like this.
I wanted to believe him, so I took him at his word. He was mostly a really good boyfriend and had even put his savings into buying the RV himself, so I—a 37-year-old woman—often forgot about the differences that came with our age gap and disparate expectations.
Like he eventually told me, he just wasn’t ready to be the person he needed to be for me.
Surprisingly, losing this version of my Road Warrior dream didn’t kill it altogether.
As we sorted through the “conscious uncoupling” (or whatever we’re calling a break-up where you vow to be good to each other through it these days) of two people in the very early stages of creating a life together, I found myself less concerned with what I was losing—that part came later—and more concerned with how to restructure this dream without him.
After all, traveling and living out of a van has been a dream of mine for as long as I can remember. The first version of my “life beyond four walls” fantasies came from reading The Boxcar Children as a very young kid. The idea of living in the woods like that, the freedom of it, was so appealing to me. When the kids eventually went to live with their grandfather and turned the boxcar into a playhouse, I felt duped and put the series down forever.
It helped that I have a couple of outdoor enthusiasts for parents: my father is a former hippie who worked for the Forest Service at the Grand Teton National Forest (now Park) in his twenties, and my mother attended Utah State University for college and quickly took to the region’s outdoor mountain lifestyle. Together, they made sure that getting outside as often as possible was a family value in our household.
Family hikes, bike rides, fishing trips, ski weekends in the Sierras, and camping on the coast or in the Redwoods were among the year-round activities that made up my childhood in Northern California. Summer vacations were for explorations further afield: Zion, Bryce Canyon, the Badlands, Joshua Tree are some of the backdrops I remember most. My parents made sure my brother and I knew that the magic of this country exists first and foremost in the land itself.
During these travels, including an infamous 30-day family cross-country road trip in the summer of 1996, I had the opportunity to check out all kinds of different rigs that served as recreational vehicles. For that trip, my dad had built out a platform and storage for the back of our Isuzu Trooper, which got the job done. As we drove around and car camped, I was already dreaming of some day owning a Class B campervan or small RV.
The first van I ever fell in love with was my Uncle Lamar’s. It had captain’s chairs that swivel 360 degrees, brown formica tables, and a fully-carpeted interior.
He was my favorite uncle in that way that all cool uncles are totally wacky and ever so slightly embarrassing. He exclusively called me Vic-Vic, reminded me of Tigger from Winnie the Pooh, was the official family photographer even though it took him ages to snap a single shot. To this day, we still have a family saying of “take the picture, Lamar!” if someone is taking too long behind the lens. He also had the best music collection—thinking of him and his van always makes me hear Earth, Wind, & Fire.
When he was 64 years old, my Uncle Lamar was shot and killed in his own driveway in Richmond, California, on my 16th birthday in January of 2000. I often wish I could recall memories of my uncle and his van without also remembering this traumatic piece of history, but ultimately it informs the woman I am, my connection to those memories, and the way I move through the world so, acknowledging it here feels like the right thing to do.
In my early 20s, when I started hearing about people tricking out conversion, Sprinter, and cargo vans to live in, I was sold. To not have to live in a city, to have a reason to get rid of most of my stuff, to be able to drive around, pick a new spot, set up shop for a little while, enjoy some nature, and then move on—it sounded like heaven.
Like many of the amazing outdoor adventures I dreamt of undertaking as an adult, though, it also sounded like something you needed a partner for. Something that before the age of 35, I had never managed to secure long term.
Refusing to allow my perpetually single state to force me to miss out entirely, I tagged along on day-trips and excursions with groups and couples. I also rode chair lifts alone, erected my solo tent in the rain, told folks not to worry about me, and learned to love hiking at my own pace. It wasn’t long before I got over my anxiety about asking strangers to belay me at the climbing gym.
Most of the time, it was fine. I’ve always been good at going it alone, but sometimes, I wished the person on the other end of the rope was my person.
On a friend’s annual birthday snowboarding trip in Stratton, Vermont, when I caught my toe edge and fell head first 20 feet down the mountain, I landed on a lump of ice, which resulted in a bruised trachea and a concussion. I wished that I had my own somebody to look after me rather than my increasingly drunk (and wonderful) friends who had a concussion-check alarm set and came to check on me throughout the night.
When I met my ex, I finally had that person. We camped, hiked, biked, and dreamt of all the adventures we’d go on together. In direct contrast to my upbringing, he hadn’t had a very outdoorsy childhood. I couldn’t wait to show him my version of this beautiful country.
He was the best cheerleader—always encouraging and complimentary, and at ten years my junior, he inspired me to go faster and further, but never pushed too hard. In him, I finally had the perfect co-pilot (or so I thought) for the nomadic adventure I’d been dreaming of for almost a decade.
On one camping trip at McCormick’s Creek State Park in Spencer, Indiana, about an hour south of Indianapolis, where we both lived at the time, we hiked among trees covered in vibrant red, orange, and yellow fall leaves that led down into a dramatic limestone canyon through which the park’s namesake creek runs. I shared the tidbits about trees, plants, rocks, and water that I’d picked up from my dad, the Girl Scouts, and my own adventures. I told him about other places, like the natural slides and seats in the rocks that New Hampshire’s Swift River carves out as it winds its way through the White Mountains, the smell of a coastal Redwood forest as the fog creeps in with the dusk, the vastness of the desert sky at night and its innumerable stars that almost make you believe you’re on another planet. To be able to gift these indelible moments to someone I loved seemed like the best way to thank my parents for instilling a reverence for them in me in the first place.
We made the decision to hit the road together with the same casual ease that we made most decisions in our relationship. We had been watching something on TV that got me talking about vanlife and I mentioned some friends of mine who had already done it. I’m pretty sure I said something like, “You wanna?” and he said, “sure!”
With the perspective that time often gives, I can see that there was probably always quite a short shelf-life to our relationship; getting ready for the trip just accelerated the process.
When things did end, something changed in me that transformed going on the road from something I was certain I could only do with a partner into something that I know I can do on my own, but know it I do. After selling the RV, I bought myself a 1998 Evergreen Pearl 2WD Extended Cab Tacoma, and am getting ready to hit the road.
There are still things about going it alone that I’m not looking forward to.
As a Black woman, I am very pragmatic about the realities of this world, and I know that traveling in remote places with a white man would’ve afforded me some degree of safety that I will not have by myself. Getting pulled over on my own will be a very different experience than getting pulled over with my ex.
For a few months in 2020, I was experiencing intense anxiety and panic attacks while driving around town, as a result of the constant news cycle of police violence against Black people. I’ve since recovered and rediscovered my love of driving, but I also know that trauma isn’t something you can never fully heal from.
I’ve also spent enough time engaging in outdoor pursuits to know that being out there on your own as a woman (and especially as a Black woman) is a lot different than being out there with a guy. When attached to a man, there’s a lot less unsolicited advice or people making sure you know what you’re getting into “for your own good.” Instead, people mind their own business when you have a companion, assuming that the man you’re with knows what they’re doing. That won’t always be the case when I hit the road, trail, or wall as a solo woman.
When I think about some of the bike rides, hikes, climbs, and other adventures I hope to tackle, I don’t relish the idea of having to do them alone. I’m no stranger to a solo physical challenge—“attempting feats of strength and agility beyond my abilities” has been the only constant interest on my online dating profiles for years now—but I had grown quite fond of having my own personal cheering section to keep me going.
I refuse to let the why nots dictate my life, though. There are always a million reasons not to do a thing, but as soon as I decided that not having a partner to go with me wasn’t an important enough obstacle to stop me, the other things just didn’t seem like that big of a deal.
What is a big deal is that I’m still doing it—because, despite the reassurance I sought from my then-boyfriend, the truth is, going on the road was always my dream. As welcome as his presence would’ve been, I didn’t and don’t need him to make it a reality.
If you see me out there after I set out in August, don’t be scared to ask if you can share my fire, give me a belay, or just cruise in tandem for a bit. It’s not that I need the company, but I certainly wouldn’t mind it.