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Downshifting from Van Life

I’ve aimed to write this post for over eight months. (All photos in this post are from that time frame too!) It’s for anyone dreaming of traveling long-term, and also for those living that dream wondering, “Will we do this forever?”

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As long-time readers know, Chelsea and I launched our van trip in fall 2013 for a four-month jaunt down the coast of California. “FOUR MONTHS IS SO LONG!” our friends opined. “Don’t forget Oliver,” said Chelsea’s parents as we dropped our fuzzy companion off for cat-sitting.

Little did we (and my unsuspecting in-laws) know we’d live the van life for three years, not four months.

Backpacking with Chelsea’s parents in the Jefferson Wilderness last July.

The Magic of Full-Time Travel

The excitement of travel pulled like a large planet’s gravity. We easily fell into an orbit that took us to 18 countries by van, bike, and plane. I freed up time and mental space by hiring more people for my business, extracting myself from day-to-day client work. It was a scary leap with a real chance of disintegrating into a broken heap. (At least we had the van!)

Things worked out.

Patrick rappelling off a route at Smith Rock.

So we traveled. It was relaxing, simple in many ways (open calendar, every day!), creatively inspiring, a sabbatical from many of the responsibilities of “adult” existence.

I dove into photography and writing and built this blog. My random musings somehow attracted a million visitors and allowed us to meet many adventurous people who eschew the (typical) American Dream.

Many readers are in our shoes, professionals tired of living someone else’s narrative of “success.” They’re flipping the bird at the 9-to-5 and proverbial picket fence and heading out to find open space where the wind sings through trees or roars over the desert landscape.

I met Rich and Esther at a trailhead in 2016. “Hey, I know your van!” Here’s Rich a year later zipping down Xanadu, a sweeeet trail with sweeter views near Leavenworth, WA.

We chewed up mountain bike trails, then 7,000 miles of roads while cycle touring the U.S. and Europe. New York and Santa Cruz each distracted us for a month, as did studying Spanish in Mexico, roadtripping Iceland, and volunteering at a farm sanctuary.

Our travels also strongly focused on people. We spent quality time with our families and developed friendships all over the globe. I regularly stay in touch with buddies from our travels and see them around the states.

Making a snowman with my nephew, Sam. He then crushed me at a snowball fight.

 On the Road…Forever?

At one point, Chelsea asked me, “I wonder if we’ll always be nomads?” At the time, the answer felt like a resounding yes.

And yet, like any frequent activity, the shiny luster faded from full-time travel. What started as a sort of sabbatical turned into a repetitive daily orbit of logistics. Traveling went from stimulating immersion in new places to shallow dips into too many places, voyeurism without involvement. Even a few multi-week stays and volunteering felt too short.

 

Paul dives into Waldo Lake on a chilly October day. Yes, that water is as cold as it looks.

We missed community and tired of constantly saying goodbye. We met adventurous and stoked people, but interactions were short-lived. Was it possible to create a traveling caravan of friends who rolled around together, we wondered…?

Instead, we dug deep in a short time period with people, talking life, traveling, unconventional choices. Then travel inertia – gotta keep moving! – or common courtesy to not overstay our welcome would grab hold. We’d exchange hugs, talk about plans to meet in the future, and point our wheels toward the distant horizon.

Enjoying the views off NW chair with my buddy Robert on Mt. Bachelor. That’s Sparks Lake and South Sister in the distance.

The Travel Pull

When I questioned why I wanted to keep traveling, I unearthed four primary reasons:

1) Daily access to the outdoors
2) Momentum (we’re moving and therefore must keep moving)
3) Positive reinforcement feeding my ego (people saying “wow, I’ve always wanted to do that!” or “you’re living the dream!”)
4) That we COULD travel full-time, so we should (right?).

Not if it no longer fed what we sought to do or how we wanted to grow.

Of those four aspects, only daily outdoor access made sense anymore. Chelsea felt this earlier than I did and was ready to land in one place.

There’s a metaphor here about hanging onto something…

I’ve seen this shift in dozens of travelers. Friends with big social media followings or a popular blog often hit a point where another new place didn’t ring their bell anymore. Posting online starts to feel forced, a job rather than a joy. Their social media profiles blinked out, blog posts shifted to every few weeks, then quarterly, then gone.

I was no exception.

A magic, strenuous day on Angel’s Staircase in the N. Cascades.

Figuring out where to park the van was the hard part. When we’d return to Portland for visits, I felt trapped by the big city. The combination of gray days and no quick access to nature dragged on me. I was depressed and irritable, frustrated with concrete and traffic.

During our travels, we eyed mountain towns in the west as potential places to pop out landing gear and stick around for awhile. Santa Cruz, Boulder, San Luis Obispo, Bozeman. There was always a reason a place didn’t feel right.

Enter Bend, Oregon, the seat of Lifestyle Awesomeness. We’d visited the surrounding area a fair amount, but never dug into the city. After traveling Iceland and Canada in 2016, we rolled the van into Bend to rent a friend’s place and see how things shook out.

Sunset at Old Mill on the Deschutes River in Bend.

How It Feels to Be In One Place

Over a year later, our new homebase is Bend! We sold our Portland home and bought a house in Bend in a quirky, connected neighborhood.

People don’t randomly wind up in Bend. Most work hard and create the opportunity to live here. We’ve discovered new friends are available and prioritize investing in friendship and family, time outside, health, travel and giving back to the community. We’re loving the strong community of active, positive, engaged friends and the easily accessible outdoor magic.

Cookbook club! Get a bunch of friends together and cook amazing food from one vegan cookbook per month. It’s that easy!

Thanks to prioritizing access to and preservation of public lands, Bend is an outdoor playground with miles of singletrack for mountain biking and running, skiing on Mt. Bachelor and world-class rock climbing at Smith Rock. If there’s a downside to the town, it’s minor growing pains as it goes from small to medium size. Sometimes there’s a 3 min wait at a roundabout! (NOOOO.)

What makes Bend resonate for us isn’t solely the outdoor wonderland. For a mountain town, there’s a lot going on. Music, coffee shops, kombucha makers and breweries galore (not that I drink beer!), unlimited festivals in the summer, all the running and biking events you’d ever want, and a growing business hub are just a sampler.

The open space we created for traveling shifted easily to other arenas. A natural organizer, Chelsea spearheaded things. She joined the board of a local vegan nonprofit, started a plant-powered running group and cookbook club, and filled our calendars with marches, fundraisers, and political events. In a year, we’re more involved in Bend than we ever were in Portland.

Plant-Powered Runners! This crew is awesome.

Rallying friends at our house for the Jan 2018 Women’s March in Bend.

On top of that, I’m finding myself more active in Bend. This is thanks to the strong outdoors scene and access to everything I love to do so close to our door.

I spent 2017 in a mix of physical activity (perhaps too much!), joining events with Chelsea, and investing energy into my business. This year, I’m aiming for less work and more creative time and travel, plus weekly Plant-Powered Runners outings, big dinner parties, and community events. I’m surprised how easily time traveling is filled with other satisfying pursuits.

How can you not get outside with this 30 minutes away?

So What’s the Plan, Yo?

This city is a stellar fit for us and we’ve decided Bend is our home for the foreseeable future. We’re rooting, but we will still step off into sweet adventures.

“Are you selling the van!?” people have asked. No. Freaking. Way. Too many climbing areas the van needs to visit! I also need it to scope out the trails around Crested Butte, c’mon! A trip to Wyoming and Idaho is already slated for May.

My shredder friend Jeremy launching off Trail #3 at Cline Butte with the Cascades in the background.

We’re kicking around an idea for another bike tour; the idea of long climbing trips to Greece, Spain, or Mexico makes me salivate. These travel boots aren’t even close to done walking!

This is a shift to a lifestyle we talked about for the past few years. We’ll dig deep into community and still water the seeds of travel when we feel the itch. By spending months in Bend mixed with trips near and far, we’ll polish both sides of the travel and home coin.

A snowy Crater Lake during a week-long mountain biking van trip to Southern Oregon.

Van Life as a Mindset

The social media tag #vanlife represents freedom from a staid, boring existence. There’s a reason Millennials are flocking to it. We’re repeating the paths of anti-establishment parents back in the 1960s. This time around, though, people can work remotely, freelancing from Yosemite, writing software code from Moab, or editing science papers in a ski resort parking lot.

Even if Chelsea and I aren’t traveling in a van full-time, #vanlife carries into the way we live. For me, it’s a mentality as much as a way of life, encompassing adventure, minimalism, and an open-minded, flexible approach to travel. It’s an examined, intentional approach.

About to examine the downhill on Fuji Mountain near Waldo Lake!

This is a new phase, and not the last. I expect continuing shifts filled with moments for play and exploring, time for growth and building, space to give back, and occasionally the chance to do it all. There’s no playbook for this version of the American Dream, just an evolving patchwork quilt called life. A stitch here and there adding new experiences, a rearranging of the patterns as needed.

It’s about the adventure of living a balanced, exciting life of play, community and contribution. Full-time travel no longer lit us up, so it was time for a shift. We all need to weave together pleasure, purpose, and pride. Done correctly, it creates a strong rope to hoist away toward a happy, satisfied life. That’s our aim in this next stage.

The ever-evolving book of our lives continues. The Bend chapter continues with rip-roaring satisfaction and fun. Instead of “going places to be moved,” as Pico Iyer describes travel, we’ve landed and sunk both feet in deep, toes gripping, arms wide.

It feels great.

We’re still having fun!

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Have you traveled long-term and felt the pull to land somewhere? I’d love to hear how you handled the shift from full-time travel to a rooted existence.