99 Problems

Published on February 5th, 2020 | by Michele Bigley


The Psychic’s Prediction: One Mother’s Adventures in #VanLife

When I was in high school, my dad moved out of our house for about 13 hours. He came back with a hand-scrawled list of all these issues he had with my mother, brother and I. He started with the order that we must thank him for putting food on the table, and driving us to various baseball and cheerleading practices. Turned out, my middle-aged father just wanted to be appreciated.

For “The Night” he was absent as we came to call it, he escaped to my cousin’s house in the suburbs of the suburbs of LA.  His nephew lived with a supposedly gifted psychic who despised my mother and our traditional lifestyle. Bashing her co-dependence and our familial unit repeatedly until my dad, flooded with false strength, lots of weed and a touch of testosterone, opted for a night away from his cushy life only to return, a day later, desperate for our attention, and with even less patience for our neediness.

The night of his return, he exploded in a fit of rage about my constant barrage of friends filtering in and out of our house, spending afternoons swimming in our pool, watching Days of Our Lives while munching on uncooked Cup ‘O Noodles, and skateboarding on the quarter pipe my parents had constructed for my brother. When I told him that’s just how life was and to get over it, he looked visibly shaken and then muttered the words that would haunt me for decades: You know what the psychic said about YOU, missy? Your life is going to be nothing like this when you grow up. You know where you’re going to live? In. A. Trailer. Park.

“A trailer park?” I gasped. “Me?”

At the time, we lived in a five-bedroom track home in the northern part of LA’s San Fernando Valley. My bedroom was a shrine to all things Michele with bookshelves stacked with Barbies and photos of my high school sweetheart decked out in his button-down sweater or his baseball uniform, and an impressive collection of Sweet Valley High books. A wall-sized mural of a male model reflected in my wall of mirrors, creating the illusion of a room of admirers aimed at me–a chubby Jewish Valley girl cheerleader with her heart set on being a fashion designer to the stars, or an actress, or a teacher.

Photo by Wyron A on Unsplash

I would always have a house. A big one. A shrine to yours truly, complete with unlimited cable TV, period-stained sheets that magically got cleaned, and a closet full of personally-designed Vans tennis shoes.

“No way!” I shouted, rolling my eyes. “Ew.”

My father laughed at me. A slightly cruel, slightly broken laugh, and said, You’ll see.

Looking back now and seeing how much faith my father had in that psychic makes me wish I had a spiritual advisor. How easy life would be with an unlimited withdraw account of my destiny playing out in the cloud of some other person’s head. If only there existed a magic eight ball human who I could go ask the answers to all my existential worries and be assured that all will work out in the end. 

Because it turns out, psychic John was right. In 2013, casualties of San Francisco’s vomit-inducing housing costs, we were bouncing between vacation rentals in Santa Cruz, trying to find a long-term rental, and, as luck would have it, we were stuck without a home. That’s when I took up residence in a camper van with my two kids and my very urban husband. Our home was exactly 17 by 7 feet. There was no place to escape farts, bad moods, annoying music, boredom, loud children; there was no space to have sex. And forget having a room of my own. There was no place to read quietly, talk on the phone about how annoyed I was with my life, write. And the one time I tried, plugging into an outdoor outlet in an Idaho campsite, a bird pooped on my laptop. In the van, we were captive in each other’s moods. Four humans. Living the dream. Motoring from Santa Cruz, through San Francisco, past the Nevada desert’s brothels, across sleepy expanses of Idaho, all the way to Yellowstone National Park. And back.

There were many goals of this trip—to buy us time to find a place to live; to bond; to search for wolves (my older son’s favorite animal at the time); to see slices of our country that we’d never encountered; and most importantly, to entertain the life of nomads, a life my husband and I had flirted with from our couch in San Francisco for a decade. But most of all, my goal was to never ever have to be rocking #vanlife as a permanent situation.

Which is why it surprised me when, by the time we circled back to Winnemucca, Nevada, once again on the useless hunt for healthy food to feed our children, that I realized we had nearly hit a groove in our ability to co-exist in such small quarters. Sure hindsight is 20/20 and all that, but we had definitely been #winning in our hours engrossed in Winnie the Pooh audiobooks, sappy pop music, I Spy, license plate hunting, and quietly judging the way that other Americans lived.

That afternoon, however, our patience was growing thin—we were hungry, tired, and restless to stretch our legs. Of course I didn’t expect to find Gracias Madre (San Francisco’s vegan Mexican restaurant) or French Laundry, or even a Chipotle in Winnemucca, but I also couldn’t imagine feeding my kids crappy fast food. I encouraged my husband Eddie to pull into the mini-mart so I could cook us dinner in the parking lot. My husband was not pleased—San Francisco had morphed a boy who used to survive on bacon sandwiches and In & Out into quite the food snob. I planned to make the kids mac and cheese—somehow I was ok with this because the box told me it was organic—and a farro, feta and broccoli creation for Eddie and I.

When the boys piled out of the van, I opened the truck and fired up the kitchen. Our tricked-out minivan’s trunk had two burners, a fridge, a sink, and a cutting board area. So far on this trip, I’d crafted meals in dozens of campsites, on the site of the road, and even through a hailstorm while a red fox watched where my scraps fell, so the parking lot of a mini-mart wasn’t that far of a stretch. But Eddie smirked, “You’re really living up to the psychic’s prediction right now, Michele.”

I thought about the tonality of his accusation. His slight disgust. Then considered my mom’s laugh when she called after I’d sent a photo of our camper van, and her simple snort, “You?” How easily we all folded into the momentum of living on the road. How simple this life turned out to be. And how horrified my younger self would have been looking at the woman I became—a mom of boys with no Barbies in sight, a traveler, a teacher, a writer, someone who preferred to wander than have a home, someone who felt, ugh, comfortable living out of a van.    

A woman with two young children trailing behind her looked longingly at my disheveled hair and shirtless boys as they screamed, “I want a popsicle,” and ran into the convenience store. My husband, the sweets-buyer in my family followed them inside, likely hunting for a Snickers bar for himself. The mother asked if we were traveling, and I said yes, we were living in a camper van exploring the west until we could find a place to call home.

“Wow,” she breathed as one of her kids pulled the other’s hair, “that sounds amazing.” The hair puller hollered at his brother who retaliated with a big ball of spit. The mother ignored them, lost in a reverie of my ridiculous life. “To be unencumbered,” she whispered. “To be free.”

Part of me wanted to show her the real cost of freedom—peanut butter and jelly sandwiches smeared on the seats, my kids’ cracked out eyes from too much iPad watching on that day’s drive; Nikko’s stinky ass pee clothes piled under the front seat (of course he insisted on not wearing diapers anymore the second we took to the road, just like he started walking the day before we boarded an airplane to Hawaii). Frankly, her reality and my reality were probably one in the same. Parenting at home is just as challenging as parenting on the road, the only difference is that (if you’re lucky) you have more space, more toys, and most likely some version of childcare at home. When traveling, you have the world to entertain your kids and inspire rather than your stuff. I finally settled on explaining that I was encumbered, and I was definitely not free. I am way freer when I have a bathroom that’s all mine, than when I am traveling. We just chose a different way than what was expected of us as a family because we needed to step into the unknown together and find a place we want, and can afford, to live.

Photo by Paula May on Unsplash

Once we left our flat in San Francisco, we could not afford to go back to the City, a place that defined us all for so many years. And my husband and I didn’t want to settle, like so many friends we know, and end up in communities that we would not visit if we were traveling.  And then be one of those people who swear they love living in the paradise of Danville or Aptos or Boise just because that’s where we landed.

By this point the hair puller had tackled his younger brother and the mom took on the role of tired mother with no time to dream of a different life. “I’m taking you home and throwing you in the bath,” she screamed, as if that were a threat. What I wouldn’t give for a bath.

When she disappeared into the store, my family reappeared: Nikko’s hands sticky from his dripping frozen treat; Kai’s lips lined with red sugar water. Eddie looked at the water boiling on the burners, wrapped his arms around my shoulders, and said, “Ready to go home?”

I poured the pasta into the water, taking in my young boys, who would not tolerate, let alone rejoice in, this type of adventure when they grow older. Maybe the psychic’s prediction wasn’t an omen to be terrified of, but one to embrace, something even to be thankful for. A life on the road could be a gift. “I am home,” I said.  


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About the Author

Michele Bigley is a two-time Lowell Thomas award-winning travel journalist who has danced on six continents. Her writing has appeared in the New York TimesHidden CompassOutside, WiredAfarLos Angeles TimesCNNBoston GlobeSan Francisco ChronicleYes!, Via, and many more. She writes the newsletter, Our Feet on the Ground, about parenting in the Anthropocene. When not traveling, she teaches writing at University of California, Santa Cruz. She’s writing a book, Mothering in the Anthropocene, about how taking her sons to meet people stewarding fragile ecosystems helped her become the adult she hopes her kids will be. Her two sons, Kai and Nikko, remind her that making the world a better place is the only work worth pursuing. Follow her adventures on Twitter and Instagram

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