“Dude, you live for adventure. You’re not the white picket fence type. If you stayed, you’d have resented her,” his reasoned.
Six months later, I doubted our decision to break up. I was 33, and Tree was the only boyfriend with whom I’d ever envisioned a future. Who knew if I’d connect with another person, and if I did, would I be too old to have kids? Even worse, I realized a large part of my desire to have a child was tied to the passion I felt specifically for him.
I’d made a huge mistake.
The phone rang. Climbing in Yosemite, surfing in Costa Rica — they’d lost their zeal without me, he said. He made a big mistake, too.
We hadn’t resolved our dealbreaker. But through the agony of still being in love and broken-up, we’d each become less sure about “the kid thing” and very sure of our need to be together. Since we had no clue how to compromise — you either have a baby or don’t — we decided not to talk about the future. Instead, we busied ourselves with wine picnics and makeup sex.
Then the Great Recession arrived. I lost my job as a sales consultant in Los Angeles, and Tree, who owned an online adventure store, was facing a serious cash crunch. We couldn’t afford rent, let alone a baby.
Given our grim finances, Tree suggested that we do something very different. “Let’s take a long road trip,” he said. “To the tip of South America. We’ll drive the Pan-American Highway for one year to the end of the world!”
“How will we afford that?” I asked.
“We’ll live in the van. It has everything — a kitchen, a bed. It’ll be like camping! But intense.”
As cramped and foolhardy as the idea sounded, I agreed to go, reasoning this could be our last hurrah before settling down. Two weeks later, we moved into his converted Sprinter to start #vanlife, years before the hashtag existed.
As we headed south, our lives changed dramatically. California high-rises and suburban sprawl gave way to dusty pueblos and small fishing ports. We went from spending weekends together to never leaving each other’s side. Gone were the nights of expensive wine bars and Netflix. Now we visited ancient ruins in Mexico, surfed secluded breaks in El Salvador (where we eloped), climbed volcanoes in Nicaragua, jumped off waterfalls in Honduras and were prepping to paraglide off the Andes.
Well, I was prepping — mentally. For Tree, extreme-sport adventures were like spiritual quests. Big wall climbing, white-water kayaking, these were ways for him to “touch the void,” and if he could share this connection with me? Even better. For me, though, deciding whether to leap off a mountain felt like doing math with a gun to my head. Calculate risk correctly, or die.
One night, as we were sitting around the campfire with a fellow traveler, the conversation turned to children: Were we going to have any? Before I could give our pat answer, Tree said “definitely.” I did my best not to squeal aloud while he explained that, while we were bummed about it, we’d have to hurry through the rest of South America. We’d already been traveling over a year; the clock was ticking.
“But why do you have to go home? Babies are born all over the world,” our friend asked.
Later, lying in bed, I asked Tree if he was really sure. “Yes. It’ll be the greatest adventure of my life, and I get to share it with you,” he said. That night, we both decided to take the leap.
A year later, we found ourselves still living in our van, by then in Peru, with a newborn baby girl in our arms. We named her Soleil, which means “sun” in French. Soon after, we bolted a car seat to the floor of the Sprinter and continued our journey through Bolivia, Argentina, Chile and Brazil for another two years.
As the countries accrued, however, every inch of space in the van filled with toddler gear — a travel crib, books, dozens of outfits and tiny single socks (their matches strewn across Latin America). Finally, we had to admit we’d outgrown our home. Long driving days and constantly moving also became a struggle. Our lifestyle wasn’t working anymore.
So we changed it.
Now, we slow-travel — meaning we stay put for a while, enmeshing ourselves in the community. Our belongings fit in a minivan, but we stay in small, furnished apartments for months at a time, road-tripping and hostel-hopping between longer-term destinations.
For example, last November we became legal residents of Spain, and our daughter attends a local preschool. Our life is replete with pediatrician appointments, play-dates and birthday parties. In December our family flew over from the States, and we spent Christmas with Soleil’s grandma, aunt, uncle and cousins.
In May, however, we’ll hit the road, and I’ll go back to home schooling Soleil. Our good friend, whom we met in Argentina, will join us as we travel through Morocco, Portugal and France, where we’ll stay in hostels and meet up with other nomadic families. Then we’ll spend six weeks in the States visiting relatives before heading back to Spain in September.
The Internet is what makes our adventure-driven life possible. We’re able to stay in contact with friends and family, meet other travelers and coordinate details such as visa renewals and global health insurance. Most important, it allows us to work remotely to finance our downsized, on-the-go lifestyle while still saving for college and retirement.
Sure, we have new things to consider: Is the destination kid-friendly? Did we pack a blanket for nap time? But nothing is more rewarding than living our passion, together. Our daughter is now 4, speaks Spanish and English, is learning French, and loves theater, art, climbing and swinging into space from an overhung rope.
Will we do this forever? Who knows, but as our daughter continues to grow, and Tree and I get older, our lifestyle will surely adapt again — and it will be a whole new family adventure.