This post was originally published in Tiny House, Tiny Footprint.
Rachel is an artist traveling solo cross-country in her '87 Chevy RV. Well, she's not completely alone. Her cat, Chloe, keeps her company on long drives and throughout the night.
Her job centers around photography, writing and travel. And because of this, she keeps extensive dream journals of stories and ideas that she brings to life through her work as an artist.
Rachel is more than halfway done with her yearlong road trip, but she chooses not to think ahead too much. By focusing on the present, she lives in the moment and embraces camping full time outdoors.
Square Feet: 168
Make, Model, Year: 1987 Chevy Lindy
Months Living Mobile: 7
I’m hoping to make it one year before deciding on my next move.
Currently In: Utah
I recently celebrated my birthday in Zion, and before that I was in Arizona where I visited the Petrified National Forest, Sedona, Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Antelope Canyon, Coyote Buttes, Escalante, Coral Pink Sand Dunes and The Wave.
Why did you decide to travel around in an RV?
I had the idea for the road trip right about this time last year. I was living in Los Angeles and planning to get married in August. We were going to do this road trip together after the wedding and leave first thing in 2016. I started mapping out the route to cover the entire edge of the United States and did a lot of research into the van life culture. I checked out different makes and models of vans and RVs on Craigslist but I wasn’t sure which one to choose. I was actually more excited about traveling cross-country in a van together than the actual wedding itself.
At first I was really scared and distressed that I suddenly had to do this by myself. Not doing it wasn’t an option because my heart was already set. I may not have had the courage to plan something like this alone if I was a happily single girl living a comfortable life in the city. But given the unexpected circumstances, I literally had nothing left to lose. After eight years in LA, I suddenly felt that I didn’t belong there any longer and wanted to get as far away as I could.
I moved out on June 1 and gave away all of my furniture and most of my possessions. Two weeks later I bought my RV off Craigslist and brought it back to the new house I had just moved into. I was originally looking for a Toyota Dolphin because I wanted to keep it as small as possible. I had taken a tour of other vans and RVs at a surf competition a few months back and fell in love with that particular model and floor plan. I wasn’t able to find any on Craigslist that were in good enough condition to take me cross-county. And the demand to get a Dolphin was intense. I was looking as far as Colorado for one without any luck.
So when I found the Chevy Lindy, I cried when I discovered that not only was it was road ready, it was also available if I wanted it. I knew I had found my new home on wheels, and that feeling both excited and scared me. Suddenly things became very real. Everything about the process of buying it was smooth and easy, and I even paid the price I wanted for it. I heavily researched Vanagons on Craigslist at the same time, but ultimately decided on the RV because I liked the idea of having a kitchen and a bathroom. I also wanted to have a screen door to keep my cat securely inside.
What was the process like to move into your RV?
Moving into the RV was definitely not easy to do in LA. After bringing it home, I had to deal with neighbors calling and complaining about parking it on the street. I had to move it 3' up or down the curb every time the parking police came to chalk the tires after a complaint. It also stopped running the first week and I had to call AAA to come and put a new battery in it just so I could move it back on forth on the curb.
I was pretty much forced out of the house I was renting by October 1, so that became my departure date…ready or not. That put some pressure on me to get everything ready within three months.
How did you convert your RV into a tiny home?
Renovating the RV was actually a lot of fun and surprisingly stress free. I did most of the work myself and hired out a few of the tougher jobs to contractors.
I spent three months renovating the RV in the hottest part of the summer without AC. I put so much sweat, blood and tears into it, but I loved every minute of it. I made a Pinterest board of the transformation so you can see what she looked like in her original '80s retro-ness compared to what she looks like now.
All went well with the renovations until I dropped off the RV at the mechanic shop and they held it hostage for over three weeks (after telling me they’d only need to have it for a few days.) The entire experience was beyond stressful. Let’s just say that I wasn’t treated well by the men in the shop, and they told me repeatedly about how old and beat up my RV was. They were not impressed with my renovations, and they did not approve of my road trip. Worse, though, is that they didn’t finish some of the most important jobs on my mechanical list such as replacing the breaks, tires and broken taillights. So after paying them way too much money just to get my keys back and rescue Lindy, I had to scramble over the next few days to get some of the most important safety upgrades done at various mechanic shops around LA. Imagine driving the RV in rush hour during all of that and you can imagine the stress levels involved. My tags expired the day I left for the road trip, so a trip to the DMV the day before departure was also on the agenda.
The day before departure, I dropped off my car with family and moved the last of my possessions into a storage unit. Looking back, I don’t know how I managed to coordinate that much into such a short period of time. I’m also not sure how I handled all of that without having an emotional breakdown. Because of the RV mechanic situation, I didn’t have time to properly move into the RV, so I ended up leaving for the road trip with stuff thrown everywhere and was not organized.
With a broken propane tank (thanks, again, to the RV mechanics) and no way to prepare food, I left LA and hit the open road to start living in my RV.
Top Go-To Items
British Berkefeld Water Filter: I can survive an apocalypse with this thing. I can literally drink puddles if I need to. So far I haven’t needed to. But it makes the water taste fresh and delicious no matter where I am. I’ve been drinking from this filter for years, and it only needs to be cleaned periodically. The one time I didn’t drink from my water filter was at a hotel over New Year's Eve in Anza Borrego. You know what happened? I got really sick and so did my friend who drank that hotel water. Should have filtered it first.
Nespresso Machine: I just bought myself one for Christmas. The convenience and luxury of having a freshly brewed cup of espresso anywhere, anytime, is such a treat. It makes the RV smell like a coffee shop and gives me something to look forward to in the morning. It’s also a wonderful thing to share when I have guests over.
Space Heater: Without this, I’d freeze to death at night.
Where do you park?
I mostly park at camp spots or RV parks with water and electrical hookups. I need to plug in my space heater to stay warm because it’s getting below freezing at night. When it’s warmer, I’m OK spending a few nights off the grid in between paying for hookup sites.
Where do you shower?
I always pick campgrounds and parks with showers because they’re bigger and hotter than mine. I used my shower once and it was fine in that moment, but I’ve since turned it into a pantry and winter coat closet.
What has been your experience traveling solo as a woman?
There really is nothing to fear traveling alone as a woman.
There will be challenges of course, but you’ll work through them and surprise yourself with how easy the solutions come to you. Traveling alone is no more more dangerous than living alone in a city. I have never felt uncomfortable camping out in my RV alone and have made friends at every stop who watch out for me.
I’ve encountered all of the worst-case scenarios on the road now, and they aren’t nearly as bad as I had once imagined. I’ve broken down three times, and each time I’ve been instantly helped and taken care of. I’ve been bitten by a poisonous spider that I found in my bed. (That one was not fun, but I survived.) I got really sick and couldn’t leave my RV for days but made it through that too. I’ve been through wind, snow and hail storms and have been OK. And honestly, none of those experiences were as bad as I had imagined they might be.
What's it like living with a cat on the road?
Well, last night I thought about opening the door and letting her escape into the wild just so I could get some sleep and not have to listen to her meowing.
She’s got her moods of course, but she’s getting used to living in a small space and seems to be OK with it. I’m so happy to have her with me. She curls up on my lap while I’m driving and is always there next to me.
What are your hobbies on and off the road?
I do a lot of reading, writing, drawing, painting and exploring. I love photography as well and have been using Instagram as a way of documenting and sharing the beautiful places I’ve been. I’m working on illustrating a Tarot deck in addition to another children’s book.
Favorite place to visit so far?
It’s a tie between White Sands, New Mexico and the Sequoia National Forest in California.
How do you fund your trip?
I run an online business that allows me to work anywhere, as long as I have Wi-Fi. Having strong enough Wi-Fi is really my biggest challenge on the road. I actually bought a second phone with a hotspot just so I would have service on both Verizon and AT&T. That’s been a lifesaver because I keep running into situations where only one of my phones works at a time. Now I am always connected and able to keep my business running as usual. And it’s good for emergency situations. I build e-commerce websites for fashion clients using Shopify, and that type of business is very sustainable from the road.
I also design cards for Hallmark and have been so fortunate to be able to build this trip around that job as well. When I told them I was leaving LA to hit the open road, they supported me 100%. I’m working with the team remotely and sending nature footage and illustrations back to the animators in LA to create a line of nature and meditation inspired e-cards. Now I get to visit the most incredible natural wilderness areas in our country and get paid for it. It feels like a dream sometimes.
What about healthcare and retirement benefits?
I’ve never worked for a company before in the traditional kind of way, so I’ve never had benefits or health care provided for me. I’ve been paying for my own health care since leaving college, and I have money market savings accounts set up. I don’t have investment accounts or a 401(k) because I’m not a fan of the stock market. But I use my business as my investment vehicle, and I keep accounts set aside for my retirement that I contribute to and don’t touch.
What has been the most rewarding thing about living small?
By far the most rewarding parts of this lifestyle are the unplanned experiences. Everyday is a new adventure that can’t be planned, predicted or replicated. The people I’m meeting along the way are so kind and generous. The places I’m visiting are wild and beautiful. I knew there would be these types of experiences, but I never imagined there would be so many and so fast. It feels like magic sometimes. Time feels like it has slowed down, and at the same time it feels like so much is happening in such a short amount of it. It’s pretty incredible how much living there is to do when you step away from your planned-out life.
What is the most challenging thing?
Because the RV is a small home on wheels, it requires some work to set up and break down. For that reason, it’s not so easy to just hop in it and drive to town or run out at night somewhere. I could tow a car behind it, but I would barely make it uphill without that extra weight. That limits me in some sense to how far away from my camp I can wander. If it’s within a two-mile radius, I’ll walk. But there are some points that require a car or off-road truck to explore, and I’m not able to get to those places.
I’m also avoiding big cities for the same reason of not wanting to drive an RV through them and having to deal with parking. This has been the only real limitation I’ve faced on the road.
But the trade-off is that I get to live in a small house in the middle of the wilderness with heat, water, electricity, a fridge and a bathroom. And it forces me to rely on my new friends and neighbors to go exploring with. If I was entirely self-sufficient, I’d probably be alone more often.
What is your advice to others who want to live small or work on the road?
Do it! There will be no better time to start and it won’t be easy. But it will be worth it. Keep in mind that the breakdowns are part of the adventure.
Who inspires you in this lifestyle?
@ourwildabandon was the first Instagram account that truly inspired me to do this. After that, it started snowballing into more and more adventurer and van dweller accounts such as @wanderingwesty and others like it.
And then there was Pinterest. I started to find before and after pictures of van conversions and trailer renovations. As a designer, I couldn’t help but daydream about what I would do with mine if I had one. Finally, I went to a surf competition one day and was able to look inside vans and RVs and really get a sense of the space and what that would be like. That’s the day I fell in love with the Toyota Dolphin and decided that would be my vehicle, which led me to Lindy.
Do you plan to go back to your previous way of living?
There is no way I can ever go back. I won’t live in this RV forever, but I won’t be going back to LA anytime soon and renting another apartment. I would like to build a treehouse and keep traveling.
What's next? Any news you want to share?
I’ve got another five months to go with Lindy before reaching the west coast again. I’m hoping to find land to buy in the Pacific Northwest so I can build that treehouse of my dreams. But until then, I’m only thinking about the next day, the next stop and the next state. I’m so focused on living fully and presently that I’m letting my life take shape as it’s happening.