Last year, my husband and I left our careers, sold our house in Los Angeles and most of our possessions, and moved into a 300-square foot motorhome to travel around the United States with our two kids, Rita and Charlie. (We also brought our two dogs.)
Although we'd talked about traveling with the kids for years, we'd initially envisioned it happening a few years down the road. We thought we'd maybe hit the road during summer vacation, or take the kids out of school for a few months and rent out our house. But we just didn't have the time to go on real family vacations for more than a few days at a time. We'd gone on a road trip in California with them a few years ago and we loved it, so we decided to talk seriously about taking a cross-country road trip as a family.
Eventually, we realized that now that our kids are 8 and 6, it would be more difficult to pull them out of their routine and take them on the road as they got older. We thought now was as good a time as any to put the plan into action. So we sold our house, quit our jobs, and took the kids out of school so we could roadschool them in our RV while we traveled across the country.
Before we decided to do this, I had no intention of homeschooling (or "roadschooling," in this case). But once we made the decision, I attended an introductory seminar about homeschooling, and it was interesting to learn about the the different options available in conjunction with public or private schools. Plus, both of my kids are self-motivated students and very strong readers, so homeschooling them seemed like a manageable undertaking. All I needed to do was fill out an online form to pull them out of school and get the ball rolling. (Note: each state has their own rules and regulations regarding homeschooling.)
Before we hit the road, I'd envisioned us sitting around the campfire under the stars, cooking dinner in a cast iron pan over the fire, and enjoying coffee outside in the crisp morning air.
I quickly learned that I'm not the only mom doing this. In addition to the growing movement of people who are documenting their experiences with the #vanlife hashtag, there are also online communities of families who are bucking convention by leaving suburbia behind and journey across the country (albeit in less Instagram-worthy RVs).
As a roadschooling mom, I've developed my own curriculum for my kids. Rather than sticking to a specific time period or subject, we’re learning about geography, geology, nature, and history at national and state parks, as well as local museums and visitor centers. The lessons vary depending on where we happen to be: for instance, we learned about the history of the Gold Rush in the Sierra Nevada of California and the Black Hills of South Dakota, and I taught them about the geological formation of slot canyons, or narrow canyons formed when water gradually erodes rock, when we toured the spectacular Antelope Canyon in Arizona (pictured below). As we traveled through the Southwest, the kids learned about ancestral Pueblo history and culture at ancient dwellings, and they also learned about food and beverage production at the Tillamook Cheese Factory in Oregon and the Coors Brewery in Colorado. (That one was admittedly not as strong on educational value, but it was a fun day nonetheless.)
In addition to what they're learning about United States geography and history, the kids are also learning how to become comfortable interacting with adults, from campground managers to park rangers to parents of new friends. When I let go of my natural tendency to step in and make sure my kids aren't being bothersome, it can be enlightening to hear how they describe what we’re doing and where we’ve been to other people. Their boldness and curiosity has led to some memorable experiences, like the time Rita wanted to talk to a family cleaning crabs at the shore in Newport, Oregon. After a few minutes, she and Charlie joined in with the other kids at the cleaning table. Even though they'd just met, they got along splendidly.
Life on the road isn't all breathtaking scenery and Instagram-worthy sunsets.
As much as it can sometimes feel like the kids are rushing through museums and not paying attention, it’s gratifying to see that they are actually retaining information. They recognize and identify different types of rocks, plants, and trees, and they're making connections between the things they've learned. For instance, after we read about banana slugs, the kids were thrilled to encounter them firsthand in Trinidad, California (pictured below). And when visited Mount Rushmore, at first the kids weren't sure who Teddy Roosevelt was, but they remembered that he was the president who created five National Parks because they saw a photo of him with the naturalist John Muir when we visited Yosemite last fall.
Before we hit the road, I'd envisioned us sitting around the campfire under the stars, cooking dinner in a cast iron pan over the fire, and enjoying coffee outside in the crisp morning air. In reality, we cook, eat, sleep, shower, use the bathroom, watch movies, and hang out in the RV when we’re not out exploring. It’s just like living in a regular house, only smaller. We have a bathroom, and the kids share a little bunk room. (I should note that their bunk beds have flip down TVs with wireless headphones, so they are not exactly roughing it.)
When you're moving around as much as we do, though, doing regular errands can be incredibly annoying. I’m constantly navigating new supermarkets, from familiar chains with unfamiliar layouts, to independent small-town grocery stores. Sometimes, if there's no grocery store, we need to rely on dubious offerings from gas station convenience stores. We’ve learned to make do with staples that we can find pretty much everywhere — apples and bananas, yogurt, tortillas, eggs, sliced ham and cheese. Even if the overall selection is limited, sometimes I find a surprising gem like a locally made cheese, or fresh sausage, or the dirt cheap Coho salmon I made in Washington State that I still dream about.
It was amazing to find out how little stuff our family actually needed.
Laundry has also become an adventure in itself. The amount of laundry our family of four produces hasn't changed since we were in our house, but it sure seems to accumulate faster when we no longer have access to a washer and dryer. Most campgrounds offer laundry facilities, but they range widely from a single washer and dryer to a full-on laundromat. And since most of them only take quarters, if you don't have any change, then you're outta luck.
On the road, we've experienced narrow and rocky hiking trails, ocean beach riptides, and dizzying heights without guardrails. We’ve survived all of these scenarios without a scrape (knock on wood), and the only ER visit we've had to make so far was the result of a playground accident. So if anyone thinks this lifestyle is inherently dangerous, I'd say there's no more risk than the one you'd face at your old neighborhood park.
Now that we’ve been on the road for almost a year, it’s amazing to see how little stuff our family actually needs to get by. Because we only packed what we could fit into our 300-square foot RV, we have very few unnecessary items. We bought a Costco chest freezer to store food, but it seems unnecessary now that we are managing with a standard freezer and a small fridge. Kitchen supplies, pots and pans, dishes — I don't miss any of it. The things we do miss, like an oven, counter space, or a second bathroom, still feel like fair trade-offs for the freedom and simplicity we are experiencing on the road.
That said, life on the road isn't all breathtaking scenery and Instagram-worthy sunsets. Like any other family, we have arguments, and my husband and I have had some middle-of-the-night, panicky conversations where we ask ourselves countless questions: what the hell are we doing, where are we going to end up, what if someone gets sick, etc. Because he works remotely and I've temporarily put my career on hold, there's pressure on him to earn enough as the sole breadwinner for our family, which can cause some stress.
This has been a huge change for our family, and in a lot of ways we didn't know what we were getting into. We’re not sure how long we'll continue, but if we decide tomorrow that it’s time to settle down, the new experiences and bonding we’ve had together as a family will all have been worth it.