In the six years after graduating college we have lived in Hawaii, WWOOFed (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) in Portugal, moved to Denver, lived out of a van, and backpacked through Asia twice. My Instagram boats beautiful pictures from our adventures all over the world.
My definition of authenticity, never settle and continue to explore, be the only one I know doing strange and different things. Sounds exciting and adventurous, right?
The reality, 6 weeks after arriving in Hawaii we came back, WWOOFing lasted one farm instead of one year, and we found living in a converted van miserable. We tried many different things, but we had also given up on them soon after starting. I fear failure and disappointing those closest to me.
The one thing we did crush, Denver, we made it our home. Seems cliché to say, but to claim a home is substantial for an Army brat. For the first time I chose a place to live, it became our first real home together, and where Matt proposed in the garden.
Denver was comfortable and I made plenty of money, but I felt stagnant. I became restless in one place. Stationary seemed the opposite of what I thought my life would look like.
A cross-country road trip would get us moving again. We could scout for a new place to live while we explored North America.
Have a van buildout you can be proud of
Originally we thought we would use Matt’s Landcruiser for our road trip adventure, but I stumbled upon an old mail van on craigslist. We bought the van and named him Newman. Unique, full of rust patch character, this old van fit the bill.
We dedicated months to build Newman’s interior collecting free materials whenever possible. Soon we realized Newman stood out against the average white sprinter most van lifers preferred. His character helped us gain enough traction on Instagram we thought we might be able to monetize our trip.
After months of preparation, the time came to set sail on the open road. Denver became the first home I decided to leave.
We felt instant regret when the apartment had been emptied. I felt like I couldn’t change my mind after months of converting the van into a liveable space. Besides, we had sold everything, turned in our notice to leave the apartment, and quit our jobs.
What would my friends and family think if we stay now? My mind nagged.
The only item remaining on our to-do list, leave. So we did.
When we arrived at the Kansas, Colorado border I noticed our cat had a bloody lip most likely a result of a bump he had gotten prior to our trip now irritated by an anxiety-ridden clenched jaw. We pulled over to take a break. While refueling I received a call from my mom saying she had been involved an accident requiring surgery. It felt like the universe told us to stop.
We took our bruised little egos and drove back to Denver. Our apartment had already been rented but an identical apartment in the building would soon be available.
Maybe we could keep Denver as a home base and use Newman to travel. I felt in my heart we needed a home.
Our landlord agreed to let us live in the alley with the van while we waited for the apartment to open up. Happy to see us return, our neighbors welcomed us back with open arms.
Warning: Heart and head conflict ahead
We realized we couldn’t stay. The ego kicked it.
I can’t do this, it's too stagnant. It’s exactly the same. Am I going to go back to my old job? What are we going to do for money? I thought we didn’t like Denver anymore.
But more than anything my ego said, “You amped up this whole experience. Friends and family are waiting to see your adventures. Everyone is excited for you.”
We have to go.
We told the landlord we would not be taking the apartment and agreed to at least try van life because we put in all this effort. The trip back to Denver must have been a momentary freakout.
I knew I wanted a home base and I didn’t want to travel in the van. We both did but the drive for authenticity, to do something weird and abnormal won. I felt everyone expected crazy from me.
Plus, we didn’t have any friends living out of a van, big check for authenticity and a big stroke to the ego.
Got 99 problems but a transmission linkage ain't one
Rough is the best way to describe our first voyage from Denver to Kentucky. The transmission linkage broke. Matt turned into MacGyver fixing the linkage with a paperclip while in a parking lot.
Packed with presents and items to store at mom and dad’s, we left no room to sleep in the van. We didn’t want to anyways without AC in the middle of summer.
Excited to show Newman to our friends and family, we arrived in Kentucky. Their reactions were less encouraging than Instagram’s. They saw a bucket of rust and questioned our safety. After all the work we had put into Newman this felt disheartening.
How to be miserable while feeding your ego
After dropping all the gifts and storage items off in Kentucky we finally started to live in the van.
It sucked. We didn’t enjoy it at all. Maybe the Midwest was the problem and we would love the west coast.
We got to the cold and rainy west coast and still didn’t find happiness. No refrigerator or regular yoga practice made staying healthy difficult. The van too small inside for yoga and outside the rainy Pacific NW weather wouldn’t cooperate.
The ego kept prodding. I know you’re unhappy and you hate every part of the experience right now, but keep trying. People are relying on you.
When we get to Seattle we’ll be happy.
Seattle turned out to be an ordinary city and we slept in the Walmart parking lot. Well, sleeping with lots of interruptions as the cat had adjusted to sleeping all day and up all night.
Trying to take Instagram worthy pictures detracted from the whole experience. Everything felt staged and phony. Spending an hour to position products in a picture to tag a company is a lot of draining work.
Your pictures are getting reposted. Big accounts are featuring you. You’ll be able to monetize your Instagram account. You can do it, be one of the van lifers.
We need to get to Portland.
Every day we kept driving instead of trying to find one place we liked. Ego kept poking. Keep trying. Try harder. Keep moving.
Honesty could be found in my posts cloaked in humor. People liked the honesty and it was reassuring to have them resonate with me.
At the end of the first month, the van had been leaking water at night. Both of us lethargic from being unhealthy hated the experience and talked about our disappointment.
We saw other people doing it. What’s wrong with us? Why can’t we do it?
In Portland, we decided we had enough. We found an apartment and applied for the lease. Then we realized we didn’t want to live there. We didn’t even like Portland, it happened to be convenient at the moment.
We wanted to return to Denver. I had found a home, challenging as it was to admit. The feeling of home, I'm not sure if I ever had that before. I could stay in Denver. I didn’t have to live the nomadic Army brat lifestyle anymore.
Do you make this mistake with authenticity?
Home felt serene, peaceful, and sweet. We settled back into an apartment and found a new rhythm to our daily lives.
Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, we felt super normal and lame. Ego cried, “Keep moving, keep doing something.”
All the painful lessons we learned through our van life experience could be logically explained away. It’s the van that we didn't enjoy, but we love to travel. After all, we did agree to a home base, not an eternal destination.
We decided we would head to China for two months. The trip was everything we wanted it to be through the first few countries, but somewhere in Beijing I became ill, so ill I could not eat or get out of bed. Matt navigated the stores using his Google translator to find the right medicine.
Diligently he looked after me bringing me fresh fruit, Gatorade, and additional remedies as needed. Once well enough he thought we should return home, but I persisted. We could not possibly give up on yet another adventure.
With half my strength we did move on. Eventually, I admitted he knew best. My body needed rest to recover and home would be the best place for that.
How to be authentic (even when you have no idea who you are)
Now we’re back in Denver, home from the China trip, we’re finally forging our own path. We’re trying to do our own thing together, to figure out what makes us happy, to define what authenticity means to us.
Van life became a good lesson in ego and how easy you can lose yourself.
Our sense of authenticity was wrapped up in being different from everyone else. Family and friends’ reactions to our adventures fueled our self-esteem. We chased what other people thought we should be doing instead of focusing on what we wanted.
While we truly did want to go to China, the whole trip revolved around redeeming our failed van life attempt. It turned out to be another great example of letting the thoughts of others trump my own feelings, even my health.
Now we’re letting the ego go.
I tried to be authentic with all of these crazy experiences, by being different. I’ve had to face all the ways I once defined authenticity and realize those no longer matched up with the person I am today, that letting those definitions go is not failure, but rather a natural metamorphosis into another stage of life.
Authenticity is different for each person and it varies throughout our lives. Today I’m done with crazy adventures. I’m tired. I want some land to grow food and escape from the world. I’m 28 and I’m okay with it.