Posted on Sep 23rd 2009 by Lisa.
Wright on Time Books: Tell me a bit about your family.
Nathan: As our website claims, we’re a young family of three living in an RV. My wife, Olivia, is a South African who I met online while she was living in Brighton, England, where I went to visit her and we fell in love. I quickly imported her back to the USA, where my son and I lived in Erie, PA. He is almost 8 now and has been such a great kid to agree to come along on this trip with us. His personality has really begun to develop well with life on the road, as he’s very extroverted and seems to make friends with half the people in a park before we even get our rig set up.
Olivia and I are both web designers, which we do to pay our way as we travel around and also do a lot of non-profit stuff for companies we like. Olivia works with a bunch of overseas organizations helping in areas with medical aid and the like. I mostly do stuff for bicycling and transportation advocacy groups, as I like the idea of a “less cars” world. All three of us are into crafty, handmade, homemade, and other such simple things, as well.
Wright on Time Books: How long has your family (or did your family) live in an RV?
Nathan: We’ve been rolling around in the Dutchess, our 29′ home improvement project on wheels, for a year and a couple of months now.
Wright on Time Books: What states/countries has your family traveled to?
Nathan: We’ve been around, but have spent the vast majority of our time in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. Nice and hot and so much to explore just in those areas. I particularly love Texas, and as a bleeding heart, tree kissing liberal I never thought that would be the case. Texas is not all guns and pickup trucks, there is so much diversity there (especially in Austin, but West Texas too) and the Southwest in general is full of artists, loners, vagabonds, dreamers, from all walks of life, people who just seem to be drawn to the desert in search of simplicity, beauty, or a dry place to die.
We’ve also spent considerable time rolling around our home state of Pennsylvania, and Nevada and Oregon as well. This summer we parked our RV for a couple of months and rode trains, planes and automobiles all over the country, exploring some places we wanted to go but not necessarily drag the 7mpg RV across 10 states just to see.
Wright on Time Books: Are you homeschoolers? Do you call yourselves roadschoolers? What type of homeschoolers are you (or do you prefer to not give your family a label)?
Nathan: I like the term roadschoolers, but homeschoolers is apt as well. Roadschooling invokes a swirling cacophony of terms like transient, gypsy and adventure and such things excite me. We spend relatively little actual dedicated time to teaching Tristan. That is, a typical day of “school” for him consists of reading some pages in a book and doing maybe one other activity, like drawing or knitting or working with clay. But the couple of hours a day he spends on that is more about having a little structure to the school day, because I’ve heard that’s important and he does seem to like knowing that he’s “in school.”
But the vast majority of lessons are learned in every day situations, often with his natural curiousity as an impetus to a lesson. He might mention something about how it’s cool that an animal has a particular feature, and that could lead into a discussion on evolution. If he sees some people working in a garden and asks what a tool is for, that could get us onto the topic of how humans came upon agriculture and how it’s changed over the centuries or the differences between my life growing up on a farm vs. his growing up largely in cities. It’s fun, because it often leads me to look up things on Wikipedia at night, I read through them, and the next day I can share what I’ve learned with him. So we both get a lot out of it. Not to mention just the value of building this father/son relationship which I think is really important.
Wright on Time Books: How well does homeschooling work while living on the road?
Nathan: Wonderfully. Being on the move quite often makes it very difficult to have a set schedule, which is something I love about it all, and homeschooling seems to work best when you take advantage of existing situations (like I mentioned above), not trying to force situations. Teaching Tristan when he’s in the mood to learn is getting 100% return on your little investment. Trying to force a kid to do math problems when he’s watching a dog run around outside with a frisbee isn’t, in my opinion, the best way to get him interested in the subject. As adults we have the freedom to learn when we want to, to play when we want to, (if only the normal adult life allowed us to work when we want to as well, I believe more people would be much happier). We develop interests and pursue those interests, we don’t say “I hate baseball but as an American I must like baseball, so I’m going to play baseball now.” We take up the hobbies we like. I’m just trying to get him to figure out what he likes and have the drive to try new things out.
Wright on Time Books: Do you have a “home base”? This is especially important for legal homeschooling, isn’t it? Did you sell all of your possessions, or keep things in storage?
Nathan: We don’t have a real house anywhere, no. We are thinking of moving to Austin for awhile and trying to get a more permanent RV spot there. Somewhere we can return and call home if only for the purposes of calling it home. I think we really all just want to take a few months to grow some roots, though, and Austin has been a very gracious host to us in the past.
When we first took off, we got rid of probably 90% of our stuff. We have a few things in storage in a friend’s basement in Pittsburgh. We will quite possibly never see those things again, other than to move them out of her basement and to a Good Will, though. I think if you can go a year without needing something, you probably don’t need it. But nostalgia prevented me from getting rid of every thing, I suppose.
Wright on Time Books: What resources did you use both before you began your adventure and/or while you were on the road? Any particular books or websites that you couldn’t have lived without?
Nathan: I’m sure we looked around the web, but we didn’t do a whole lot of research. Mostly we just tried to find an RV that met all of our needs and was within our budget. I was 100% confident in what we were doing and our ability to do it. Well, after both of my parents were behind the idea, I was 100% confident. At first I was worried that they’d think we were nuts, or doing wrong by our son, but when they accepted it – and they’re not exactly out of the box thinkers, having lived in small towns and farms in rural Pennsylvania all of their lives – I knew we were okay.
Wright on Time Books: How hard is it to deal with the maintenance of the RV? What are the most difficult aspects? Who handles what?
Nathan: Hah! That is the largest downside to this whole thing. 14 miles into our journey our transmission caught on fire and we had to have it replaced twice in a month. We’ve got a rubber roof, which the previous owner painted with normal paint, which is a big no-no, and we have problems with leaks when it rains hard (again, probably a reason we stick to the desert so much). The engine died on us in the middle of the desert, far from cell reception once. Every screw in the place has been shaken lose from driving and I feel like I’ve always got a list of 6 or 7 things that need to be done. I do a lot of the repair stuff, with what limited knowledge of such things as I have. Olivia has primarily taken on the roof-fixing responsibilities. Anything engine related though, we rely on the kindness of strangers and, more often, the town’s local mechanic.
The most reoccurring maintenance issue, actually, is dealing with our holding tanks. The places where our lives’ waste goes. Our sewage can get really stinky, and requires a lot of cleaning out and recleaning. But that has slowly gone from giant pain in the [rear] to just another part of life, annoying at times but a small price to pay for the rewards of travel.
Wright on Time Books: How large is your RV? What is it like? We want to know where everything goes and where everyone sleeps. In an ideal world, would you have wanted a bigger RV, smaller RV, or something the same size but with a different configuration?
Nathan: 29′ long, 9′ wide, much taller than any of our short little statures require. It’s about 15 years old but the interior is in pretty good shape, aside from drawers that fall out and doors that swing open randomly while moving. It’s the most awful combination of mauve and seashore green, and I was gung ho to redo the interior when we first got it but more and more I could care less about the look of our home and just that it’s functioning as it is intended: a small place to sleep and eat, the world is our playground and having a less-than-completely-comfortable home helps to get me out of it and exploring.
When you walk through our front door (um, only door) which is positioned about center in the layout, you are immediately in the very small kitchen. There’s enough space here to make small meals and Olivia works wonders, baking homemade bread and soups and cookies and kumbucha in a space that would fit into most homes’ pantry space. To the right is the lounge, which consists of a small pullout couch (where I’m typing this actually) with a window above it which is great for having a morning coffee or just browsing the web, looking up to watch the clouds go by or whatever mountain or skyscrapers might be kind enough to fill the view. Across from the couch is the kitchen table, which can comfortably seat four but we’ve usually only got three, so a large fruit basket that’s kept fairly well stocked takes up one seat. Lots of web designing, drawing and craft work is done at that table.
You can see right into the cockpit from there, Tristan rides at the kitchen table, I always drive, and Olivia is technically supposed to handle navigation, but seems to be more comfortable in the role of simply being driven around while I fumble with the steering wheel and atlas. Above the two front seats is a long, narrow bed and some cabinets that all serve as Tristan’s very own bedroom space. That was important to me, that he had some of his own space, not just that he would sleep on the couch at night or whatever. I wanted him to know that this was his little corner to retreat to if he’d like, and to know how much space he had for his toys and things, important as he needed to realize that the days of bringing home piles of plastic every holiday were over.
Traveling the other direction from the kitchen we’ve got a great, large bathroom, which serves many functions from storage closet to dressing room to actual bathroom. Behind that is Olivia and I’s bedroom, with a short queen sized bed and some storage. For being so small, the layout actually can feel quite roomy at times.
Wright on Time Books: How often do you move to a new location? Do gas prices and campground costs affect this? Where do you usually stay the night? Do you have a regular route that you repeat, or do you continually seek out new places to visit?
Nathan: We typically live in places we like for two weeks to a month, sometimes as long as 3 months. Other places we might only stay the night if we’re on our way to somewhere we think is better, or a couple of days if we’re all spent on driving. Gas prices and campgrounds are great ways to gauge what we need to do next. If we want to save money, we’ll try and find a campground that has a $250 or $300 / month rate. Stay there a month, no money needs to be spent on gas and the rent is cheap, so we can save up a ton and maybe go and stay at more expensive places or travel a bit further the next month. But all in all, our moods, not our wallets, seem to dictate where we’re going. The more a place has to offer, the longer it’ll take us to get it out of our system, I guess.
Wright on Time Books: Who does the driving? Do you ever have issues driving such a large vehicle? Do you avoid cities or curvy/narrow roads up mountains, or do you take them in stride?
Nathan: I am the only licensed driver in our little group. I don’t like driving, well, I don’t like driving a lot. For one, prior to this experience I hadn’t owned a car for about three years while living in Pittsburgh and found it incredibly liberating. No insurance, high gas prices were nothing more than radio talk show filler to me, no worrying about where to park or having too many drinks to drive home. On the other hand, I love roadtrips, but being in shotgun, to me, is a reward for having driven all morning. Now that I am always driving if we’re moving, I’d rather just not do it at all. To that affect, we usually don’t drive more than 3 hours a day and I always try and take 2 lane highways. I hate the Interstate, for a plethora of reasons, but mostly it boils down to the fact that the US Highway system, those 2 lane, non-divided roads, are winding, go through the most beautiful of America’s landscape and you actually get to see towns, real life towns, not the perimeter Walmarts and McDonalds and giant gas station depots that surround the Interstates.
Wright on Time Books: How long have you been on the road/plan to be on the road? Has this worked out to your liking?
Nathan: We’ve been living and traveling in the RV for a little over a year. We plan to continue living in the RV, but are going to take a few months break from traveling while I try and fix up a much smaller camper van. Since we seem to return to Austin every few months anyway, I just think that having a van we can travel in for a few weeks or a month will be cheaper and easier than hauling around our giant RV, which can sit patiently and wait for our return when we do go off.
Wright on Time Books: How do you handle privacy issues while living in close quarters?
Nathan: You learn to require less privacy, for one. But aside from that, if Olivia needs some time to herself, she can go and work from a coffee shop. If I do, I typically go or a bike ride or just sit outside of the RV and work. Tristan rarely requires privacy, for him, he wants attention, but he’s very good at amusing himself and exploring parks we live in when he can tell we need time to ourselves. We’ll also just ask him to go play as the two of us need some time together, and we’re getting better and better at it everyday, I think.
Wright on Time Books: How do you keep in touch with friends and family? Do you visit them? Do they visit you? Phone, e-mail, etc.? What about holidays and birthdays?
Nathan: I still have a few really close friends from high school, and am used to keeping in touch with people and using them as an excuse to visit their various corners of the country. Email, Facebook, text messages, there are so many ways to keep in touch now that I often feel like I’m still close friends with some people I haven’t seen in years. We visit our friends in Pittsburgh a couple of times a year, we’ve got lots of friends in Portland and Lake Tahoe, so there are some places we’ll always be returning to. And some friendships are just fine over Facebook.
It’s funny, actually, being on this grand adventure and all, because of Facebook and our website, we’ll go to tell people some stories and they’re like “Yeah, I know, I read it on your blog.”
Wright on Time Books: Does anyone ever get homesick for your old life? How do you deal with that?
Nathan: Only in two respects, and very slightly: I love Pittsburgh and tried to be very active in keeping that city progressing along. It’s an amazing place, it’s a secret and most people around the country think of PGH as a smokey old factory town, which it isn’t at all. So I kind of regret hearing about all of the great advances it’s making with bike lanes, the park system, transit, lots of cool stuff happening that I’m missing out on. But I know it’ll all be there if/when we move back someday.
The other thing I miss is just having close friends you can meet at a bar or whatever. I’ve gotten pretty good at meeting and making conversation with strangers over the past year, but sometimes you just want someone you can easily talk to, or not even have to talk to, just hang around with, and not have to “meet” someone. But I love this life and feel blessed for all it’s given me and my family.
Wright on Time Books: How do you pay for your living expenses? How do you make money while on the road? Do you work full-time/part-time? Do you work certain times of the year and travel other times? Have any of your children had paying jobs?
Nathan: We pay our expenses the same as anyone else, US Currency.
Olivia and I are both independent, freelancer web designers with decently successful little businesses. A couple of laptops, some Sprint air cards for Internet and finding enough time to work when there are Grand Canyons and Rocky Mountains and all types of fun things right outside of your window is the hardest part.
Wright on Time Books: Do you have a towed vehicle? Bicycles? Mopeds? Etc.?
Nathan: No tow vehicles, just three bicycles, two of which are typically with flat tires at all times. The desert is harsh on bicycle tires, but we are well accustomed to walking 4 or 5 miles a day, which we even did in Pittsburgh. We look for places with good public transit and ride our bikes when we can’t easily walk to a place.
I recently bought a little scooter, though, and we might get it hooked up on the back of the RV, but probably not. It’s just being stored at my mom’s place right now, though I’m going to ride it from Colorado to Austin in a few weeks, just for the fun of doing something like that.
Wright on Time Books: Do you have any pets that travel with your family? How do they like living on the road?
Nathan: No pets. We’ve almost inherited a dog or two, in particular a stray mutt followed my son and I around this little town, Marathon TX, when we stayed there last February for a month. We all fell in love with him but he was just a puppy – with paws the size of human hands – so we figured he’d probably turn into Clifford the Big Red dog and therefore had to say goodbye to him when we left.
Wright on Time Books: Where is the best place you’ve been according to each member of your family?
Nathan: Best small town: Bisbee, AZ. Best outdoorsy area: Grand Canyon. Best city: Austin, TX. But there are other great ones too: Ohiopyle, PA, Tahoe, Flagstaff, AZ and Marathon, TX come to mind.
Wright on Time Books: How can we find out more about you and your family? Website, blog, Facebook page, Twitter, etc.? Please tell us also what the next great adventure for your family is!
Nathan: We’ve got videos, photos and we write about our travels at tumblewagon.com. Twitter and Facebook exist, but tumblewagon.com is where it’s all at, really.
Next great adventure…we’ve all got so many dreams, so little time to do them all it seems. Olivia will be hiking the Appalachian Trail next summer, and that should be an amazing experience but she’ll be gone for 3 months / time over the next two summers so it’ll be a bit hard for us all too. But she’s an amazing hiker, on these long distance hikes, she’s walked across England and done some trails in PA as well. Tristan is particularly excited about starting a soccer league in Austin this fall, so that’s his main focus right now. I’m doing the above mentioned scooter trip and then want to fix up a van so that we have a simpler, cheaper way of traveling when we don’t want to bring the whole rig along with us. I also want to get dropped off in Transylvania, when Olivia does her big hike, and hitch hike to Portugal. Just to see what it would be like. I haven’t explored much of Europe, or anything outside of the US, and really want to get some more stamps in my passport.