Yes. I really am going to do this

In the past year I have been denied tenure and my house burned down. I now find myself with no spouse, no offspring, no job, no debt, and not much stuff. As I explain below, It’s a beautiful opportunity.

I effectively sold my house and the vast majority of my belongings to the insurance company at a pretty decent profit. In addition to the money for the house and contents, Travelers Insurance is paying for temporary housing, which includes a large house on a beautiful street, two bedrooms of furniture, televisions, couches, kitchen essentials, linens, and a washer and dryer. That all ends on April 30.

I have applied for a number of jobs and remain somewhat optimistic that the perfect job will materialize, and if it does, it will be somewhere other than Knoxville. Given that I’m going to make a long distance move, I see no reason to find a place to live and acquire stuff like a bed and other furniture only to haul it across the country. I therefore have purchased a 1985 VW Vanagon Westfalia (full pop-top, stove, sink) that Thor and I can live in until we have reason to find more stationary lodging.

Throughout my life, I have seen many of my closest friends do things like hitchhike across the US, backpack across Europe, teach English in Asia, spend a summer in Russia, move to Ecuador, or otherwise experience long term travel. I have not. I took a year out of school between high school and college. My high adventure? Working at Wendy’s Old Fashioned Hamburgers. Part of me thinks that I too should travel in a foreign land, but Thor is old, and if I were to leave the country for some months and have him die here with a stranger seems cruel. I already left him in a burning house.

What I find very interesting is the bimodal distribution of reactions of those whom I tell that I plan to live in a van, down by the river (and if you do not recognize the allusion to a Chris Farley skit on Saturday Night Live, you should definitely follow the preceding link). For example, I mentioned this to a clerk at a sporting goods store today and he said “congratulations.” Someone whom I pay to support my mental health has told me, in no uncertain terms, that indoor plumbing is a very good thing. Another mental health care professional thinks it’s a fantastic idea and that not living in a van for at least a few months would be a frivolous waste of an opportunity. Others have told me explicitly or implicitly, that I surely have taken leave of my senses, like a recent text message from a friend:

“You are really going to do this, aren’t you?”

I suggested that if it turned out that Thor and I don’t like the camper we could, for example, rent an apartment.

“You do realize that you and Thor could live with us any time, right?”

I’m not planning to live in a camper because I have no alternatives. I am planning to live in a camper because I can.

Losing the bulk of my belongings due to the fire was strangely liberating. All of those old hard drives, power adapters, random computer parts, books, hundreds of albums, and all manner of stuff that I can’t even name, is now gone. I don’t own a TV, a bed, a couch, or a dining room table. I’m looking forward to figuring out how to live with only what will comfortably fit into the camper.

I’ve driven across the country twice, once from Nashville to San Francisco, via New York (for a family member’s wedding) and subsequently from San Francisco to Knoxville, for the job that I am about to leave. I think we made the NYC to San Francisco trip in under five days. San Francisco to Knoxville may have been in as few as three. I live in a big country. I’ve had the good fortune to live in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Vermont, Nashville, San Francisco, and Knoxville and experience some fairly different cultures (given that they were all in the same country, I mean). I have traveled, mostly for conferences, to most the biggest cities, but there is much that I have not seen. I haven’t seen the grand canyon. I haven’t seen . . . well, I don’t really know what else I haven’t seen. I’m planning to try to figure that out.

This entry was posted in All, iLiveInMyVan and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

35 Responses to Yes. I really am going to do this

  1. Katlaya says:

    Jay… I think you are TOTALLY doing the right thing. I have recently just come out of doing something similar when I lost everything minus the insurance money. It was a horrific experience, but also very liberating. It frees one up to get to know oneself and decide without all the literal “baggage” what is important in life. I also left Knoxville. You are in for a major opportunity to find you. You may be surprised to see how many envy you without being able to tell you. Enjoy!

  2. Rex says:

    As Kat said – many will indeed envy you as indeed I do. I have always loved the opportunity to re-discover myself as circumstances change. This is an opportunity not to be missed in my book. If you happen to head north toward VT and you need someone to look after a few of your guitars, let me know!!!

  3. Hayduke says:

    The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation and then get outraged if you don’t.

  4. mare in atl says:

    Talk about making the best of what could be a stressful situation! Cook without a book, in a home on wheels. I look forward to the updates and if you can cook it in a Westy, the rest of us should be able to keep up.

  5. Elena says:

    I have fantasized about doing this, but I have three dogs and my concern is for their safety and comfort. I’m curious how you’ll keep Thor warm enough/cool enough/secure when you have to leave the van for periods of time?

  6. pfaffman says:

    Elena, I don’t see how one could travel with three dogs. I’m mildly concerned about what to do with Thor when I need to go somewhere he can’t, but we had some practice after the fire when he was clearly not comfortable being left in a new home. I’d tie him outside a store or just let him stay in the car. I think it’ll work out, but there will definitely be some things I can’t do because I won’t be able to leave him for long periods of time.

  7. luckygamer says:

    John Woestendiek is a former Baltimore journalist and now writer. He recently traveled the country with his large dog, Ace. I believe they stayed in a lot of hotels and friends homes, but you may get some good insight from his blog,
    I do not know him personally, but he seems so down to earth in his writing, he’d probably love to have you camp out here in Maryland :-)

  8. runninghayes says:

    I found your website through mamapundit. I live in the boring state of Oklahoma, but my family is in Wyoming/Montana. If you ever need a tour guide or a place to park just let me know and I’ll totally hook you up. :)

  9. jzzy55 says:

    We have a nice driveway, and two friendly standard poodles.
    Have fun. We have relatives who’ve done the RV life, and quite enjoyed it. I think you need to be able to show a fixed address, though, if you are in any kind of police-involved situation.
    Just curious: if you don’t live anywhere (and your house no longer exists), what is the address on your driver’s license?

  10. Black Betty says:

    I would include the Grand Canyon and Niagra Falls. Have a wonderful time. Looking forward to reading all about it.

  11. hendirks says:

    Have you read Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck? It is one of his lesser known books chronicling his road trip in a camper with his poodle, Charley. I was fascinated by how the author of some of my favorite novel characters characterized himself. Of course I associated your adventure with his when I read about it on

    Hope you have safe travels – and if you make it out to Boulder, CO I have a driveway and a shower.

  12. mymsie says:

    Good for you for taking a chance! My friends and I Vanagoned (behold my power: I just made up a verb!) from MN to TX for spring break one year and had a ball.

    I seriously sympathize with you regarding academia. My Mom is a professor. She started her undergrad when I started kindergarten and finished her PhD when I finished high school. As a result, I held education and institutions of learning in the highest esteem. It’s been disappointing to learn about the underbelly of academia through her experiences. Although it’s certainly not all bad, some seriously unfair stuff happens. I hate when people answer serious life challenges with platitudes but I’ve no doubt there’s something wonderful in store for you. :)

  13. Marissa says:

    What an exhilarating plan! I must confess how jealous I am right now. When my husband and I were having a difficult time finding jobs two years ago I told him I wanted to sell everything and travel. He thought I was crazy. You are most certainly welcomed here in Utah for parking and a hot meal/showering etc. We have two friendly Corgis. For travel destinations, I would highly suggest Great Sand Dunes National Park – Colorado, White Sands National Monument – New Mexico, Carlsbad Caverns National Park – New Mexico, Strawberry Park Hot Springs in Steamboat Springs , Colorado (HIGHLY SUGGEST – I went last month and it was worth it!). I’m new to Utah – but I heard Arches National Park is amazing and the town of Moab is pretty swell.
    Something to consider: does your health insurance put up with lots of travel/out of network use? I had a friend who traveled a lot and had a hard time with his health insurance carrier.

    I might think of more awesome places to visit and post again!

    A very heartfelt Congratulations to you! This will be an amazing adventure!

  14. Tess says:

    I think you are very brave. If you like history, San Antonio, Texas is a nice stop. The Alamo, Missions, Riverwalk, etc. will not disappoint. We have a nice 2 acres, plenty of parking and dog space. Come before August as the weather is perfectly intolerable.

  15. dtrauner says:

    Coming to you from mamapundit.

    What an awesome adventure. Growing up my family had a similar van and although we didn’t take off on a journey like yours, we did spend 3 weeks every year camping around the nation.

    You and Thor are welcome at my home if your journey brings you to the Tampa Bay area.

  16. JessicaRabbit1313 says:

    My x fiance always said when we retired he wanted to drive around the country in the OscarMeyer WeinerMobile. I think you are going to have EPIC fun!

  17. Susan says:

    Huh. I think it’s a great idea. How many times in one lifetime can a body just up and see the country? I’ve never been able to do it.

    See the country, make some new friends, try some new food. It’ll be fun.

  18. maidel says:

    Best. Time. Ever! I grew up in Knoxville, with my mom and dad teaching mathematics at U.T. In 1985, at age 26, with 27 credit hours left to graduate with a degree in philosophy, I took off in a 1969 VW van, a Vietnam vet boyfriend and and Old English Sheepdog puppy. We lived and traveled in the van for a few years, then ended up in the Florida Keys and bought a sailboat and lived on that for a while. Then at age 30, I went back to school. Those days in the van were some of the best of my life. I’ve often wished I could do it again. I think you’re going to have a blast. If you’re ever in Los Angeles and need a driveway to park in, my husband (not the Vietnam Vet) and I have a nice one. We live near the Hollywood sign and can show you a neat path to hike to a nice dog park just under the sign (not official, but everyone goes there with their dogs). Or if you want to pick my brain about anything. Like doggie tips (We tied Spike to the van in safe places, and left her in the van in less safe places. But we had to be careful of the weather, and traveled with the seasons so that it would always be spring or fall). I cut mosquito netting to fit all the van openings and Velcro’d it all the way around. We washed our clothes in a bucket with the lid bungee’d shut (bungee cords are your friend) and the driving would slosh the clothes around enough to get them clean and then we’d refill with fresh water to rinse. To dry, we hung and spread everything all over the van. We kept one guitar, a nice icebreaker if you want one…I actually got a gig in Maine for a few weeks once. Anyway, I soooo look forward to stalking you. What a fabulous thing, to travel and be free of most encumbrances. I wish you the best! Mai

  19. pfaffman says:

    I’m not really sure about that. One thing that I’ve heard that people do is just pretend to live at a friend’s house.

    There’s some other answer, though, as homeless people get services from the city and have library cards and such.

    Another thing I’d considered was listing the address of the property that I own (which does not have a house on it).

  20. pfaffman says:

    I finished Travels with Charlie a couple weeks ago.

    Boulder is definitely on the list. I may look you up indeed.


  21. pfaffman says:

    I’m not entirely sure that the University of Tennessee made the right decision by not giving me tenure, but I would not in any way characterize the decision as unfair. And looking at the colleagues that I’m leaving behind, in many ways, I’m pretty lucky. Relationships end for reasons other than one party being solely to blame.

  22. pfaffman says:

    I’m less worried about out of network insurance stuff this summer than I will be with finding some insurance after mine runs out in August. I can do COBRA, but it will be prohibitively expensive. My plan is to get all of the health care I can now and get some catastrophic care after that.

  23. pfaffman says:

    But why wait until you’re retired and are too old and tired to do stuff? But the WeinerMobile does sound awesome.

  24. pfaffman says:

    In Travels with Charlie, Steinbeck describes washing his clothes exactly the same way that you did.

    I’m taking a guitar and a mini PA system. I’m tempted to also take an electric, but I can’t imagine there will be room.

  25. Alexicographer says:

    @Elena, I’m a sometime RVer, and I’d guess your best bet with 3 dogs (I’ve traveled some with my 2 large ones) would be a real RV (class A or C or a trailer) that you could leave parked and secure, with air-conditioning. This actually had to be done with my dogs this summer when I was camping and was in an accident and had to be hospitalized (I wasn’t alone, but the people camping with me left the dogs in the air-conditioned camper when, e.g., they came in to see me in the hospital). But honestly unless you’re willing/able to commit 100% to real RV technology (something airconditioned) and well-planned trips (not needing to stop in the summer heat to buy groceries), or to plan your route in a way that keeps you in mild weather (probably feasible), I’d think it would be tricky. I do find that having a pickup truck with a camper top works better for the dogs than having them in a “real” vehicle, as the back of the truck doesn’t get nearly as hot nearly as fast in the summertime (I live where heat is more of a problem, and my current dogs are shaggy monsters who could survive more-or-less subarctic temperatures, so I’m more aware of the heat than cold, though I realize either can cause serious problems), but obviously even that only goes so far.

  26. Alexicographer says:


    You may want to check out this site for tons of information about the RVing lifestyle — A lot of it may not be for you, but issues like this are addressed all the time there. See . Basically, you’ve got some latitude and what you choose can affect issues like what taxes you owe, licensing and insurance rates, and so forth.

  27. ebf9q says:

    It is not very far from Knoxville, but if you are rolling through Chapel Hill, come see us.

  28. hendirks says:

    Hooray! Boulder is awesome and I love to show it off.

  29. pfaffman says:

    Hey ebf9q. I love Chapel Hill, Thor has never been! I haven’t made it through in a while. I’m definitely adding you to my itinerary. I’ll give you a holler; here’s my address: [email protected] – Jay

  30. maidel says:

    I had read Travels with Charlie years before, so maybe I was subconsciously channelling.

  31. johnfking says:

    Oregon is heaven on earth. Portland is 45 minutes from the Pacific and 45 minutes from a 12,000 foot mountain (Mt. Hood). Mar and I will be out there in July. If that fits your timetable, there are at least 12 pubs I'd like to show you!

  32. johnfking says:

    Oregon is heaven on earth. Portland is 45 minutes from the Pacific and 45 minutes from a 12,000 foot mountain (Mt. Hood). Mar and I will be out there in July. If that fits your timetable, there are at least 12 pubs I'd like to show you!

  33. pfaffman says:

    I'm planning to be out Portland way around July. There are a couple of beer festivals and a college roomate that I'd like to see.

  34. Pantone Swatches says:

    I think it’s incredibly brave what you are doing, and in the current economy, extremely smart. It’s amazing how you can look at distaster- as either devistation or a cleanse. And it’s good to see that you’ve taken the latter route. Have you found that it makes you appreciate the little bits a little more? And how are you getting internet service by the way?

  35. Fashion Book says:

    With change comes new opportunities! Have fun in your new adventure! Things will come your way and it’ll work out the way it should. The best thing to do is embrace all the changes and make the best of it!

Comments are closed.