Some people have a soft spot for kids. For others it’s old people. For me it’s always been the homeless. I grew up in a big city with a sizable homeless population, and a lot of rich people too. As a kid I understood the maxim that a place is only as rich as its poorest citizen, without knowing these words exactly. As a teenager I would regularly sit with homeless people I’d encounter and ask to hear their stories. By the time I got my first job during college, I had made a friend who was homeless and with whom I spent my lunch breaks, sharing a Subways sandwich sitting on the sidewalk and talk about whatever was important to us or whatever made us laugh. Oftentimes the latter.
In college I took a sociology class which required us to volunteer somewhere locally. I chose a homeless shelter where I helped out serving lunch, manning the front desk, and some IT support. As part of the class we were required to conduct some research on the sociological group we had volunteered to aid. I decided to interview a bunch of the guys that came in for lunch every day, collect some stories, and write a paper on what I’d learned.
There was this one guy I interviewed that made a subtle impact on me. He was young, black, and unusually happy. It was a lot of fun getting to know him. When I asked him how long he’d been homeless for, he corrected me immediately saying, “I’m not homeless! I’m homefree!” I didn’t get what he meant at the time, although eventually I would.
After graduating in 2011, I went on to build a career as a web developer, eventually earning the privilege to work remotely (pre-COVID). I got to live and work for 4 years outside of and across the US. It was an exhilarating time full of freedom and adventure. As fun as it was (and it WAS) I always grew tired of any place I was in after about a month or so. One time I was staying in one of the most beautiful homes in one of the most beautiful neighborhoods of Colorado for FREE. As a registered Trusted Housesitter I had been entrusted with the homeowner’s estate and a couple simple duties including watering the garden and walking the dogs for a full month. This was one of the most amazing spaces I ever stayed in, yet I was totally stupefied when after just 2 weeks into my stay I was paid a surprise visit by a rather unwelcome guest… depression.
With the exception of walking the dogs, I couldn’t get out of the house at all. I’d just sit there, trapped by negative intrusive thoughts, bouncing off of the walls all around me. I had felt depressed before, but never in such an objectively perfect place. Was I mentally ill? Was there some unmet need that had gone unnoticed? I had no clue. At the end of the housesit I looked for another place to stay in for about a week. And then I didn’t.
It was the summer of 2021 and if “vanlife” was popular before COVID, it was on the verge of becoming a movement in Colorado after the pandemic. It seemed that every other person I met was either camping out in their vehicle, or getting ready to. My little Honda Civic had a teardrop trailer hitched on the back, and so without over-thinking it I decided to give the idea a try. What did I have to lose?
At first I struggled finding where to safely (and legally) park at night. I changed towns almost every night and got to know a lot more of the area than I had in the rest of the time that I had an official mailing address. My schedule soon aligned with the early closing hours of libraries and coffee shops, and with the early rise of the sun. Then about a week in I found myself once again being attacked by nonstop nasty thoughts bouncing off the doors of my car all around me. That’s when I got “the knock”.
A cop stood outside of my tinted windows one early morning. I discreetly got dressed and stepped outside to meet him. He politely informed me that I couldn’t park in the lot atop of the hill I had found, which I felt was a shame because the sunrise was so beautiful there. I graciously took his kind eviction and made my way into town. On the way in it hit me. I wasn’t feeling depressed anymore! Just as suddenly as it came did it go with that simple knock on my window. Somehow being outside, vulnerable to the movement of the world, had saved me from the slew negative thoughts that would have otherwise crippled me before I had a chance to save myself. Being in my car I couldn’t just sit there, stuck in my head. The world wouldn’t let me. And with that constraint, I suddenly felt free!
I continued car-camping for a year after that. My routine was wide and varied. For 2-3 nights I’d stay close to the mountains, then I’d head into the city where I had picked up a gig as a tarot reader one night a week. The next night I’d hop into the next town where the best ecstatic dance community in the state held their weekly get together. Like that I found a collection of coffee shops, libraries, and meetups spread out in 5 different towns, which I collectively called home. I never had to overstay my welcome in any one place, or get stuck feeling bored of where I was. 3 months into the adventure I got some confirmation that my lifestyle, although non-conventional, was actually pretty cool when my younger sibling decided to move out of their place and join me on the road, touring my weekly favorite destinations.
Admittedly, car-camping does have its limits. Although it’s becoming increasingly popular to live out on the road as mental health from quarantine and rising rent prices encourage people to consider more nomadic options, most towns still aren’t very accommodating to their house-less neighbors. On a personal level, after a year of getting my fix of this alternative lifestyle, I’ve expanded up to the limits of my living situation, and am ready to go beyond with all that I have gained from this experience. Including but not limited to a daily gym workout regiment, an earlier sleep schedule, and a minimalist setup that I can easily sell/donate and replace wherever I go. Having tasted freedom and constraint on the road, as well as in a home, I intend to keep my newfound freedom-focused mindset, liberated by the constraints of normal living, and committed to taking responsibility every day for my happiness, my wellbeing, and my living situation, whatever that may look like in the months and years to come.
I heard someone once say that all living beings have one of two options: either expand, or die. Though it may sound extreme, I’ve found it to be true. The life I found safely within my comfort zone wasn’t one worth living. Perhaps I’ll have a place of my own again someday. A base which I can travel from. However I doubt if I’ll ever let myself feel trapped at home again. I have finally learned how to be “homefree”.