I’m not in Arizona today.
Reflecting on an abandoned adventure
It’s the first Saturday in January and I am cocooned in my New Hampshire bedroom under a fleece sheet, synthetic comforter, and king-sized sherpa blanket that has mountains and forests printed on it in shades of blue and teal. I can’t bear to get out of bed and leave Laney’s side. She’s curled up next to me wearing the canine Cone of Shame to keep her from chewing off the thick 3-inch row of black stitches on her right hind knee.
Up until a week ago, the plan was for us to be rolling into Quartzsite, Arizona today for the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, two weeks of free outdoor workshops on how to live a life on the road. Hosted by Bob Wells, a YouTube celebrity and proponent of nomadic living, the RTR offers training on everything from solar power and personal safety to how to poop in a bucket in your vehicle.
For years it’s been my dream to figure out how to turn my life into a full-time road trip. I got sucked into online courses and coaches who promised the secrets to making six figures in my sleep, and I dreamed of using that income to retire my husband and buy a fancy Sprinter van or bus-sized RV to live in while we roamed the public lands out West. But the get-rich-quick tactics of the online gurus felt gross and chafed against my values. I spent the past four years helping female entrepreneurs with mindset coaching and business strategy, but the amount of time and attention I paid to each client made it impossible to scale my business in the ways the gurus taught. With my current clients graduating in December, I decided to pause my coaching program so I’d have the freedom to hit the road without being tethered to high-speed internet.
The cost of that freedom would be figuring out how to travel cross-country in winter with an old car and a tent instead of the six-figure salary and fancy RV.
My beloved 2003 Chevy Astro van has been dead in the driveway for a year and a half, which left me with my 2010 Kia Soul - not the ideal van life vehicle. Last winter I managed a 5,000-mile solo road trip to Key West and back with the Kia’s trunk and backseat stuffed full of everything from fleece pants and winter coats to swimsuits and tank tops, with a cargo carrier on the roof hauling my beach bag and camping gear. To my surprise, it was too cold to camp anywhere north of Miami in January and February (I wasn’t equipped for freezing temperatures), so I spent a month hopping from one Airbnb to the next. It wasn’t a budget-friendly trip, nor was it dog-friendly, and I was determined to bring Laney and our other dog Baxter on my next big adventure.
Was there any way for me to sleep in my little Kia in the middle of winter, I wondered?
I decided to try. One night at the end of September, I pulled into my driveway at the end of a weekend camping along the Androscoggin River. Seth unloaded the dogs and the groceries while I sat in the driver’s seat. I checked the overnight forecast on my phone: 28 degrees.
“Are you coming in?” Seth asked, curious why his wife was sitting alone in the cold in the car in the dark.
I reached into the back seat for my travel pillow and pulled my 30-degree sleeping bag out of its stuff sack. “Nah, I’m sleeping here,” I told him.
He shrugged “OK,” gave me a goodnight kiss, and said he’d try not to wake me up when he left for work at 5:30am.
I reached for the lever to recline the driver’s seat, unzipped the sleeping bag and hooked the bottom over my feet, using the rest of it as a blanket, and tried to contort my body into a fetal position in the bucket seat. I drifted in and out of sleep until 5:15am, when the sound of Seth’s car door and the glow of the back porch light roused me from strange dreams. I put the key in the ignition and started the engine. The digital thermometer on the dash told me it was 25 degrees.
I had survived!
I went upstairs, crawled into bed still wearing my puffy jacket, and googled “how to live in your car.” Bob Wells and his website CheapRVLiving.com was the top result.
Bob’s videos and ebook introduced me to the basics of how to live and travel on the cheap. He was an early pioneer of van life before it was trendy. A midlife divorce two decades ago hit him so hard financially that he couldn’t afford an apartment, so he spent his last $2,000 on an old box truck that he converted into living quarters. For years he parked his truck a few blocks from his job in Anchorage, Alaska and joined a gym so he could shower.
At first Bob felt like a failure (think Chris Farley’s Saturday Night Live character “living in a van down by the river”), but over time he grew to appreciate the simplicity of his new lifestyle. He began proselytizing the financial and mental health benefits of cheap RV living on his website, and made it his mission to help others learn how to turn any vehicle into a full-time residence—whether out of financial necessity or in search of low-cost freedom and adventure. Bob’s movement grew so popular that he was featured in the book and movie Nomadland, a story about a growing community of retirees who migrate around the US to work low-paying, labor-intensive seasonal jobs at campgrounds, industrial farms, and Amazon warehouses. Every year in January—after the Amazon warehouses let go of their seasonal employees—these nomads gather for two weeks of community and camaraderie at Bob’s annual Rubber Tramp Rendezvous in Quartzsite, Arizona.
Watching Bob’s videos, it was like someone flipped the light switch on in a dark room:
This was the life I wanted to live. These were the people I wanted to meet.
I needed to get to Arizona for the RTR!
But what would I do after the two-week event? It seemed silly to drive 3,000 miles and then turn around and come home. Where would I be able to comfortably car-camp when winter pushed the Arizona temperatures below freezing?
I opened the maps app on my phone and zoomed out from Quartzsite. Then I saw it: Baja California, Mexico, a 1,000-mile peninsula extending southward from the California-Arizona border, sandwiched between the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortez, funneling at its southernmost tip into the tropical oasis of Cabo San Lucas.
A winter road trip from New Hampshire to Cabo.
I spent the next three months preparing for the 3,000-mile drive from New Hampshire to Arizona, and the additional 1,000 miles I’d drive south from there into Baja to spend the winter camping on the beach with my dogs.
It didn’t take long to realize that my Kia would not be the ideal vehicle to live in for months on end. I had survived one night, but what about one hundred nights? How would two 55-pound dogs curl up in the backseat with my driver’s seat fully reclined? I experimented with folding the rear seats down to lie diagonally across, but my feet hit the tailgate door and I could barely lift myself onto my elbows before my head touched the ceiling. Plus, I’d have to give up all of my trunk storage. Seth thought he could remove the passenger seat and build me a platform to extend the length, but this seemed a bit extreme. Besides, where would he ride if he came out to visit me?
Now I was on a mission to find an affordable vehicle I could sleep in that was reliable enough for me to drive 10,000 miles in winter, alone.
Some friends of ours were selling their vintage 1990 TransVan, and we drove five hours south to Connecticut to check it out one weekend in October. I fell in love with the rig, until the battery died after our first test-drive. The generator only worked if you hot-wired it through the hood of the van. The shower was located in a 4-square-foot closet that also housed the toilet and sink, and we weren’t sure if any of them functioned. The dinette table folded down and the back of the blue-suede couch folded out to convert to a king-size bed that took up half the van, leaving the 3-foot hallway between the bed and the rear door blocked by our duffel bags.
The living space felt tight with two humans and two dogs, but mostly I worried about reliability. And gas—the war in Ukraine had just pushed regular unleaded past $5.00/gallon. The owner thought the van’s gas mileage might hit the low teens if we were lucky, but I doubted it. We already owned a 1991 Winnebago Warrior that we’d attempted to drive cross-country the year before. With the same Ford chassis as the TransVan, our Winnie got 6 miles per gallon with a tailwind, and by the time we made it to Seth’s parents’ house in Ohio, we had spent the entirety of our trip camped in the parking lots of rest areas and AutoZones while Seth patched and repatched the exhaust and replaced other faulty parts. After a week of repair work in his dad’s driveway, we turned around and drove home - a mercifully uneventful trip, until we rolled into a Pennsylvania campground and a man ran towards us flailing his arms and pointing to inform us that our brakes were on fire.
We retired our Winnie in the driveway of my in-law’s summer cottage at Spofford Lake and used her as our summer weekend getaway, but I didn’t dare drive her anywhere. And I would never trust another 90’s-era Ford Econoline. So we said goodbye to the TransVan and scoured Craig’s List for more modern van conversions.
I decided that fuel economy and reliability were more important to me than spaciousness and amenities, which narrowed our options to converted minivans and SUVs. Our budget limited us to mid-2000s models, which I reasoned were only half as old as the Winnie and the TransVan. We settled on a green all-wheel-drive 2004 Honda Element from a guy named Matt in Concord, who built it out as a camping vehicle for his ski trip to Colorado last winter. Seth was excited about the newly-rebuilt engine, which only had 18,000 miles on it (compared to the 180,000-mile odometer). Matt had replaced the back seats with a sliding plywood platform welded together and covered with a 3-inch foam mattress, which was long enough to sleep on if you slid the front seats all the way forward. He’d custom-cut the foam around the shelving he built to house a solar-powered battery wired to a rooftop 100-watt panel. Beneath the sliding bed frame was a cooler-sized mini refrigerator wired to the battery, and a marine heater connected to a thermostat dial. He’d cut shiny silver pieces of Reflectix insulation to cover the windows and sunroof. Matt said he’d camped comfortably in below-freezing temperatures with the heater on and the windows covered. It seemed like just the rig for a cross-country winter adventure.
After bringing the Element home, Seth and I spent weeks getting her ready for the road. I bought waterproof coverings to protect the bed and seats from muddy paws and wet dogs. He checked the brakes and suspension and replaced a dented front fender. We ordered recovery boards and a tow strap in case I got stuck in the desert sand or mud. He installed the mini carbon monoxide detector and wireless phone charger I found on Amazon. I bought a pee jug with a female-friendly attachment, and Seth found a large brown plastic coffee can with a wide mouth and handle that would make a great mini poo bucket. I tested it out in our bathroom (to be safe), with one of my dogs’ poop bags inside, folded around the rim.
Late October into November was unseasonably warm and I should have been out hiking, but instead I spent two weeks recovering from a traumatic surgery to remove scar tissue from my uterus - the latest setback in my 2-year fertility saga. The first week of recovery involved a balloon catheter inside my uterus that caused nonstop labor-intensity cramping. I had to take four Advil, six times a day, just to be able to sit up straight. I spent a lot of that week lying in the back of my Element with the tailgate open, Laney curled up at my feet and Baxter lying next to me with her butt in my face, while Seth worked on the cars. With five vehicles in our driveway that have collectively traveled over one million miles, there’s always something for Seth to work on.
One night when the temperatures were forecast to dip into the 30s, I decided to test out my new car-sleeping setup in our driveway. Seth tucked me in, kissed me goodnight, and closed the tailgate (he had figured out how to install a pull-cord so that I could open it from the inside and get out in the morning). He went in the house to go to bed and I lay there, curled in my sleeping bag, gazing at the stars through the wrap-around windows and moonroof until my breath fogged the glass and my eyes grew heavy.
It was heaven!
I took the experiment a step further in the morning when I practiced balancing myself between the arm rests on the front seats to use my new pee jug, and was very proud of myself until I saw the volume of liquid that had missed the jug and landed in the cup holders in the center console below me.
I didn’t try the poo bucket.
One day, when I was up for it, Seth taught me how to change a flat tire. It felt somewhere between spoiled and sexist that I’d never learned this skill. I wasn’t sure I was ready for the responsibility, but I also knew I might have no choice, especially on the dusty back roads of rural Mexico. I get pretty whiny about manual labor, but he insisted that I single-handedly figure out how to wrestle the spare out of its compartment, crank up the jack, loosen the lug nuts, shimmy the full-sized tire off, and lift the spare so that the holes lined up and I could slide it onto the lugs. I huffed and puffed against the weight of the wheel. It couldn’t have weighed more than a 40-pound backpacking pack, which I was used to hoisting single-handedly, but my arms didn’t have the same leverage or strength when outstretched in front of me as I squatted in my pajamas on the driveway. As soon as I’d tightened the last lug nut, I abandoned the experiment and let Seth switch the wheels back and put everything away, since I figured that part wouldn’t be necessary in an actual emergency.
In November, Amazon delivered me road atlases and Baja guidebooks. I finally upgraded from an ancient iPhone that demanded to be charged every few hours to a new model that promised 24 hours of use without a charge, and has built-in satellite SOS. I traded in a decade-old Kindle that was a hand-me-down from a friend to a newer version that could hold thousands of books and last for days on a single charge. For Christmas, Seth gave me a shiny blue tailgate awning with built-in bug netting, and I got him a brand new 2-burner Coleman camp stove that was the ultimate self-serving gift.
All of this unfolded in the shadow of my fertility drama. There had been two miscarriages the year before, followed by a miracle pregnancy in April with our first fertility treatment. After we lost that baby in the first trimester, we waited and waited for my period to return so we could try again, but it never came. Finally my doctors discovered the scar tissue and did the October surgery, but there was no guarantee it would help. I may or may not be able to get pregnant again. This knowledge sucked the air out of my lungs and dropped me to my knees, howling and pounding my head against the floor. It was emotional territory to avoid at all costs.
The RTR gave me something else to focus on. Preparing for it gave me purpose in those months of despair. If I couldn’t have a baby, at least I’d have an epic adventure.
December 28th was my planned departure date, giving me a leisurely 10 days to make the cross-country trek and arrive in Quartzsite in time for the RTR.
But on the morning of the winter solstice, I awoke to my period for the first time since March.
Cycle Day One is go-time for fertility procedures; it’s the first domino that tips the chain of events, from blood work to prescriptions to follicular ultrasounds to trigger shots, leading up to the day of intra-uterine insemination, or IUI, when my husband’s sperm is collected and centrifuged and squirted past my cervix by a nurse wielding a very skinny turkey-baster.
Cycle Day One is the day we had been waiting for since June, and it arrived a week before I was supposed to leave for Arizona, and for Baja.
I thought maybe I could do both: go to the clinic, get pregnant, and somehow still make it to Quartzsite and the Sea of Cortez. Then, as I shared last week, my eggs let loose before we had a chance to do the procedure, and a tumor on Laney’s leg doubled in size overnight. I woke up on New Year’s Day knowing that if I wanted another shot at having a biological child, and if I wanted to take care of my fur baby, I would have to stay in New Hampshire for another month and trade the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous and the Baja beaches for the fertility clinic and the vet's office.
And so I found myself this morning cozy under the blankets of my king-sized bed with Laney curled up beside me, Frankenstein stitches on her knee and the clear plastic cone around her neck, instead of opening my eyes in the back of the Element with two dog butts in my face and the desert sand between my toes. I watched Bob Wells on a 30-second Instagram reel instead of sitting in my camp chair at the Quartzsite Town Park. I gazed out my window at snow flurries and chimney smoke instead of desert sunrises and sunsets.
But it’s OK. Given the circumstances, I’m exactly where I need to be.
There will be more adventures to come, and when they do, I am ready to go!
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