It was a long, warm autumn day in Spain. I’d been driving for most of it. It was getting late so I started looking for a place to park. By this stage I had already been living in my van for a couple of months, so I knew the drill. I drove to and fro along that same stretch of road at least half a dozen times, searching for the best place off the beaten track to pull over. Eventually I steered the van along a little forest road and parked beside a picnic bench. I’d been so busy surveying side streets for a suitable camp spot, I hadn’t taken much notice of anyone else around. As I sat down to drink a cup of tea, a cyclist I vaguely remembered passing some miles back came peddling furiously over, babbling away excitedly in Spanish.
“You!” he said “I see you go backwards, forwards. And I think there is a girl who knows freedom! How far do you travel?” He was smiling, this beautiful, huge, enthusiastic smile and peering past me into the van. I explained the van is my home, I’ve come from England, I live in it.
His eyes widened, “Woooow” he said beaming “I really want to be like you when I grow up”.
I laughed, he was probably not that much younger than me yet it was the sweetest thing anybody had ever said.
“The trick,” I told him, “is to never grow up”.
I’ve always loved adventure, ever since I was a little girl. Inspired by my parents who ran a mountaineering shop on the outskirts of Manchester. I’d sit in awe at the lectures they’d arrange at the local town hall, listening to great explorers recount tales of climbs up everest, K2 and other seemingly impossible mountains. Grainy images flickered on a giant overhead projector as they’d describe with great passion the trials and tribulations they’d undergone to reach the top of the world.
As an eight year old child it was impossible not to be inspired. My dad would show us slides of his camper van adventures around Europe and my sister and I would beg him to take us rock climbing and caving in the peak district. In summer we’d go hiking up the lush pine scented trails of the Austrian mountains. It was as idyllic as it sounds. We’d cup our hands to drink crystal clear water from forest streams and learn to build campfires in the woods. I remember my dad threading those skinny German bratwursts onto twigs and we’d chargrill them over the flames until the sticks burnt through or the sausages fell to bits on the hot embers.
I never saw this as a particularly unconventional way for a child to explore the world. For my sister and I these adventures across Europe had become very much the norm. I do recall feeling slightly perturbed one year when my best friend at school flew to Florida to meet Mickey mouse, whilst we were bundled into the back of the landrover for a two week road trip to Czechoslovakia. At the time I was deeply envious of Julie’s plastic disney ears headband and stories of queuing for hours to ride the worlds biggest rollercoaster. All we came home with were tales of shops with empty shelves and people queuing for hours in the hope of buying a loaf of bread. Looking back of course I’d take seeing the architecture of Prague and experiencing first hand the Velvet Revolution over The Mickey Mouse Monopoly any day.
As time passed my travels continued. I took the traditional backpacker route from South East Asia, through Australia, New Zealand and Fiji. I loved adventure. Climbing mountains just to stare across incredible landscapes, diving deep beneath the ocean to swim beside wild dolphins and turtles, to examine coral reefs and sunken ships. I never stopped exploring. These days on occasion a little voice inside my head reminds me I’m thirty seven and should probably look at settling down, then an infinitely more excitable voice points out there is still so much of the world to see!
I am incredibly fortunate to have an amazing network of inspirational friends. Adventurous souls who remind me it’s okay to want to live life a little differently. Whenever I question my unconventional existence I remind myself that my friend Dion is currently sleeping in his VW polo somewhere near Lapland. A crazy Aussie, an epic road trip from Mongolia to Scandinavia was his first introduction to snow. I think he got a little addicted! And Casper, a self proclaimed South African vagabond who plans to spend new year sailing 400 nautical miles down the Swahili coast in a boat which in it’s present state does not look fit to sail down the Buxworth canal let alone the African ocean! I have friends who couch surf, friends who camp wild, friends who permanently live like true digital nomads, setting up their office wherever life takes them, be that a remote stretch of desert or deep in the Nepalese rainforest. I swear some of these incredible humans make my life in the van look boring.
When I tell people I live in a van their reaction is often ‘gosh you’re brave’, but I honestly don’t see my lifestyle as particularly daring. ‘Do you not worry’ I get asked ‘of what might happen’. Of course I feel fear, but I don’t fear meeting strangers or parking on a beach alone or exploring a town I’ve never been to before. The things I fear are generally centred around convention. I fear falling into the trap of a 9-5, working to the point of exhaustion, driving my mind crazy with the stress and pressure of a monotonous job. I couldn’t stand starting and ending my day sitting in rush hour traffic. I tried it once for 6 months and absolutely hated it. Many of my friends are stuck in that position. In jobs they despise, living lives they’re unhappy in, buying more ‘things’ to seek comfort and justify the long, intolerable working hours. They openly admit it’s like groundhog day. That isn’t living, it’s existing and it really does not have to be that way.
So what stops them taking that leap? The same thing that holds us all back – fear. The paralysing fear of losing what we already have. Rather than focusing on the amazing opportunities open to us, we begin to make a mental list of all the things that could possibly go wrong, we scurry back to hide beneath the safe shelter of convention rather than bravely embarking on a path of self discovery – wherever that may lead. This type of fear is dangerous. The more we over think it, the more ingrained it becomes. It’s a constant tug of war in our minds, we fear change, even as we seek it.
The trick is to replace fear of the unknown with boundless curiosity and be willing to take a chance. Because you never know how extraordinary something could turn out to be.