To Renovate or Not: The "Right" Way to Get on the Road

Lately I've noted quite a few discussions in comment sections on IG, on blogs, and on profiles of Airstreamers/RVers/vanlifers over the past few months, and it's largely centered around how travel/adventure should be the reason for the rig (if you aren't using it as a stationary residence), and that the focus should be on the end goal: getting on the road. 

 First Airstream renovation, April 2015. We were broke as a joke, which is a big reason our first build was so simple in execution and amenity. 

First Airstream renovation, April 2015. We were broke as a joke, which is a big reason our first build was so simple in execution and amenity. 

I agree. 

I could be wrong, but what the discussions are skirting around (without actually coming out and saying it), is that it would seem some people are renovating for those juicy before and afters on Instagram and get their fifteen minutes. I believe that the critique largely circles around people who are using the RV/caravan/Airstream/#vanlife trend to get famous, and as RV life has skyrocketed in popularity the last couple years, there are people out there who are building out caravans for the sake of starting lifestyle blogs and getting big followings and free stuff.

Yet I also believe that there are far fewer of those folks than there are hard-working people who are full of hope and excitement and who willing to put in the crazy tough work and sacrifice to give this travel thing a go, and those people deserve understanding and support from anyone who has gotten on the road ahead of them, no matter how they got there. 

 Ellen grinding rust off the chassis, June 2014. Shreds of subfloor RESTING in the belly pan, it was so rotten that it just fell apart. 

Ellen grinding rust off the chassis, June 2014. Shreds of subfloor RESTING in the belly pan, it was so rotten that it just fell apart. 

The issue I take with people slamming everyone who takes the time to build their rigs out from the get go is pretty simple. 

Everyone's story and circumstances are different.

As I stated above, I fully believe that if your goal is to travel, that adventure should absolutely be the driving factor to live in any type of adventure-mobile. I also believe firmly that reasons to chase the adventure should come from the heart, not vanity or celebrity. In our case, we decided to travel before we knew we wanted an Airstream. The Airstream idea came into play several months into our research and planning stages to get on the road. The question that I posed to Ellen is right here on our website: 

What if we sold everything, bought a bus, and traveled

It was always, always about the travel and the reasons behind it. Hell, that's why we travel to our renovations now, which isn't as dreamy as it sounds. It would be a million times easier to have a studio and shop somewhere, but we want to live on the road, or at least get as close to that as we can, even while renovating. 

Four years ago, our reasons weren't much different than they are today: we wanted more from life, we wanted to find a place we fit (hint: we found it), we wanted to be together more, we wanted to explore, we wanted to create art and shape our own lives, to break the mold we'd been not-so-gracefully trying to fit ourselves into. During the stretches where it felt like nothing was happening toward our goal, even though we were working our asses off, all I could think about was what it was going to be like to finally get on the road and how our lives and hearts would undoubtedly shift and change. I would make lists of places we wanted to see, and hung a map above our bed that we studied at night. Everything I wrote was about the goal. Every song I listened to made me think about travel, and the word rolled off my tongue multiple times a day. Yet there were concrete steps that we had to take to get on the road. 

Was I jealous of other travelers who were able to buy new rigs and already had jobs that allowed them to be mobile? Abso-fuckin-lutely. But that was not our story, and those were not our circumstances. For us to travel, we had to figure out how to make it work in every aspect, not just one or two. We turned our ENTIRE lives upside down. When all was said and done, our new travelin' life was a completely different one than the traditional, "American-dream", convenience-filled life we left behind. We had different jobs, a hefty savings account, and an adventure-home we'd designed and built ourselves. That kind of change doesn't happen overnight: it took us a year and a half to slowly make change happen that would allow us to safely and responsibly get on the road. 

 mE, ABOUT 30 POUNDS HEAVIER THAN i was when we finished the renovation. The work was so laborious that I shed weight without even having to go to the gym. Also, I remember thinking at this point there was no way this trailer would ever look good again. 

mE, ABOUT 30 POUNDS HEAVIER THAN i was when we finished the renovation. The work was so laborious that I shed weight without even having to go to the gym. Also, I remember thinking at this point there was no way this trailer would ever look good again. 

In our case, I had just closed a photography business on a sad and indebted note. I was freelancing when I could and nannying part time for $400 buckaroos a month to make ends meet and build out our Airstream and save for travel. Ellen was teaching, and one of our (many) reasons for deciding to travel was largely propelled by our inability to have a life outside of working, commuting, and living paycheck to paycheck. That didn't go away with the decision to travel. We still had to live paycheck to paycheck...and now we had to figure out a way to bring in extra cash, buy an RV of some kind, and also figure out how to make money on the road! Ellen couldn't exactly bring the teaching job with us, and I couldn't be a nanny from the road either.

We had a real mountain to face, and knew that our expenses weren't going to be drastically cut because we were traveling: we had to figure out how we were going to make travel AND building our rig out happen financially. Living on the road isn't as inexpensive as one might think: sure, you get rid of your mortgage, but you pay for campsites (BLM land isn't everywhere, there are portions of the country where you've gotta suck it up and pay, especially with large rigs that aren't exactly suited to stealth camping in public places). $30.00/night x 30 nights = $900.00 (that is more than our mortgage at the time, which was $680/mo.). You get rid of your bills, but you've gotta have mobile internet and pay for gas. You still have to have insurance and for us, we had student loans and credit card debt as well. 

The only way we could afford to get on the road was to buy a cheap trailer and then cheaply fix it up over time without a single amenity on board: we had no hot water, no heat, no AC, no fridge, no stove. We couldn't afford those things. In order to buy our first Airstream and get started on the work, we held a series of yard sales to sell all our stuff and sold Ellen's 1994 Toyota pickup truck. The sale of the truck was $4k, and that's what we bought our first Airstream for: $4k (we haggled down from $4800). We bought a 1957 Airstream Overlander in terrible condition because that's what we could afford and that's what we could find. 

It's important to see perspectives and stories outside of our own.

There are reasons that you may not know for why someone may have to spend a year or even longer renovating before they even get to get on the road. In our case, we'd work as long as we could on the money we had, stop, save more, work again, stop, save more...you get the idea. 

If we'd had money up front, we could have done things differently, like buy a newer rig that didn't need as much work (though we live in a 1994 now, and it needed to be fully gutted, just FYI). If we'd had money up front, we likely would have been able to finish our renovation a lot faster. There were months that would go by where we couldn't work because we couldn't afford supplies. There were many weeks as we got closer to finishing the Airstream renovation and our house was under contract that we had to eat on $25 a week for a family of three (which meant Ellen and I didn't eat breakfast or lunch for weeks on end so our daughter could) just so we could buy supplies and make our dream happen.

Some people have to sacrifice a lot more than it may look like from an outside perspective to go after their dreams. I think that a good bulk of people who do their renovations up front do so because they have to, and it's not just the renovation that they are transforming over time: it's their entire livelihoods and lifestyle. I think that's worth commending and respecting. 

 I took this picture in March 2015, after we'd been working toward our dream for a little over a year. we'd sold almost everything we owned, had an interested potential buyer for our house (they'd later back out), and we'd taken a dilapidated old trailer and turned it into this. I remember just sitting on the floor with grateful tears pricking at the corners of my eyes.

I took this picture in March 2015, after we'd been working toward our dream for a little over a year. we'd sold almost everything we owned, had an interested potential buyer for our house (they'd later back out), and we'd taken a dilapidated old trailer and turned it into this. I remember just sitting on the floor with grateful tears pricking at the corners of my eyes.

I think it’s admirable when one must have patience and puts in the work to get to where they want to be. That doesn't make someone less of an adventurer or full-time traveler. It might - just might - mean they wanted it more, because they had to wait for it and strive for it and deal with the emotional rollercoaster that is transforming an entire life and an old trailer for a long period of time. It's easier to give up when you have to wait a lot longer than others had to and your work and efforts aren't paying off yet. There isn't instant gratification, and that can be trying. Pushing through the tough lot over and over again, like we had to, isn't an easy thing to do. We admire those who have to do this tremendously, because we've been there. Hell, we're still there. We're still not making very much money and we are still working toward the freedom to travel where we want, when we want. 

 On the road, July 2015. We'd made it, and we had a beautiful home we loved. We'd accomplished everything we'd had to, and we'd overcome all of the obstacles we'd faced. It felt surreal and we had just incredible gratitude for it all, and pride for our gumption and hard work. It had been worth every single trial to wake up in places like this. 

On the road, July 2015. We'd made it, and we had a beautiful home we loved. We'd accomplished everything we'd had to, and we'd overcome all of the obstacles we'd faced. It felt surreal and we had just incredible gratitude for it all, and pride for our gumption and hard work. It had been worth every single trial to wake up in places like this. 

If you're someone who got to get out right away or quickly (i.e., a few short weeks or months after deciding to travel), your circumstances were likely different from someone with less mobility in their job/a smaller budget/kids, etc. You're perhaps waiting to renovate later on and make your space reflect your tastes after you've gotten some road life under your belts, while someone else may have to save money and work to find a mobile job and build out their rig over time and on a strict budget. There are pros and cons to each way, and not having to wait doesn't make you better, it doesn't make you a superior traveler, it doesn't mean that you're right and someone else is wrong. It just means your story, your circumstances, your budget, your job, your family life...looks different from someone else's.

As long as someone is getting on the road and doing so for real, heartfelt reasons...it doesn't matter how they got there, or how long it took them, and it really doesn't matter that it looks different from what you did.

Have a beer around a campfire with the ones who had to wait when they finally get out on the road, victorious and fresh and excited, and let them share their story, and you share yours, and then all agree that half the adventure is getting to the adventure, no matter how long it takes, and the adventure is worth every step it took us to get to it, and then raise a glass in gratitude that we are all just living our versions of our best and most beautiful lives, and working to keep them alive, no matter what.