This day is too long. As I write this I am sitting at my desk at work, writing another email, staring at the same screen. My office is windowless, and I often catch myself staring into space dreaming about the day I leave here… the day I hit “play” on my Van Playlist and drive—no idea where I’m going, no idea when I’ll be back—trusting that everything will work out. And even if things don’t turn out the way I imagine, at least I’ll know that I tried. I’ll know that I changed my circumstances. I have been stuck with this feeling for so long: a sense of waiting for my life to get going even though I’m in the middle of it. So let me start, let me take a step, let’s start at the very beginning...
I grew up in central Washington in a Bavarian-themed town called Leavenworth, just 2,000 people nestled deep in the Cascades. My parents, who are both German, have a love of travel that cannot be understated. In German, this is called “Sehnsucht”: an intense yearning for something far-off and indefinable. We traveled a lot when I was a kid. Alaska, Europe, Australia… To my parents, giving me the gift of travel was better than any education money could buy. Travel became a sense of identity for me. And so for good and for bad, I cannot let the other side of the mountain go unexplored.
After taking a gap year in Europe I decided to attend the University of Washington to pursue a degree in marine biology. Leaving Europe to come back to the States marked a great personal transformation. Abroad, I had been extremely focused on the material, on my next purchase, the next big party. During my time at UW I slowly felt that person melt away. I became interested in experiences instead of things, and spent a lot of my free time daydreaming about my next adventure.
Throughout college, I felt scattered about picking a major. I seemed to know what I wanted to avoid, but I often found myself selecting classes at random. As luck would have it, though, one of these random classes changed the course of my life. It was an introductory law class that discussed whether law could save the whales, and it brought to my attention the various social, political, and scientific influences that can affect environmental issues. I decided to focus my energy on whale biology and began absorbing everything I could about marine mammals. This took me to New Jersey to study harbor seal diets and later to San Juan Island to analyze vessel interactions with Southern Resident Killer Whales.
Upon leaving UW I did what any self-respecting recent grad would do: I landed an unpaid internship. My mentor secured me the sweetest of opportunities in the Cook Islands working with humpback whales. It was one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of my life both professionally and personally. It was in the South Pacific that I hatched the idea to extend my trip to New Zealand. What began as a few months away had quickly turned into a year.
I lived in New Zealand for ten months, in three different cars, and I had the time of my life. It was the first time I realized how little I needed in order to be happy. I camped on the side of the road every night, pitching my tent and cooking on a pocket rocket. I rarely showered and when I did, it was often in rivers or lakes. I met the best people. And I learned that beyond differences in languages and culture, we all want the same thing: a life with more joy than sorrow and a life that we are proud of. I loved my life on the road and found utter fulfillment in being nomadic. This feeling never quite left me.
I moved back to the States to begin applying to grad schools. I was living at my parents’ house when my mentor encouraged me to move back to Seattle; he had a spot for me interning at the National Marine Mammal Laboratory. I worked for REI and interned for six months before landing my big kid job. A retirement plan, name tag, parking spot and 9-5 schedule at the largest government-funded marine mammal lab in the country—man, I was set! At the age of 24, I had a full-time job working with beluga whales: a scientist’s dream.
At least my ego thought it was the dream. I took pride in being the “whale girl”, people in awe of my work. My parents were thrilled, I was happy, and I began to settle into this life. I found a great apartment, I found all the best happy hours, and I quickly started sleepwalking through my days. One year turned into two, and the opportunity to transform my work into a graduate degree emerged. That’s when I noticed this nagging feeling in the back of my mind, when I began to realize maybe this path wasn’t for me. It was a sinking feeling… I’d keep driving the same road to work every day, I’d keep living for the weekend. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wanted to jump in my van and leave it all behind. But how could I abandon a steady job and move into a car? Where would I go? Would I be able to settle down at thirty-five? What would people think?
After some introspective time, talks with family and friends, and many “van life” blogs later, I felt like I could finally put my hands on this idea with some confidence. Once just a dream I would entertain only in those bleary moments just before sleep, I felt ready to try this new reality. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t experience fear. I was redefining for myself what success meant, and what I came out with is this: success doesn’t have to be conventional. It doesn’t have to be an easily definable job title. It doesn’t have to mean impressing strangers. Success can mean living a life that is unequivocally your own, one that is self-defined. Maybe it’s not grand, maybe it’s not glamorous, but at least it’s yours.
So there you have it. The events that brought me here. If you are still reading this, and I hope you are, I am happy to answer any questions about my previous travels. Send me an email! I believe the most important things in this life are the people we meet, the connections we share, and the memories we help to create. I’ll see you on the road...