“Hey, how about we rent out our house for a year and go live elsewhere, maybe even in a Spanish-speaking country for a while?” That’s essentially how our conversation started. And what ensued from that conversation?
Our journey started with a few pre-conditions:
- I found myself taking on a contract where I was working from home.
- My wife, Juliet, is retired.
- Juliet and I were endeavoring to learn Spanish to help create opportunities for more friendships.
- Our kids have all grown and moved away from the area.
- Other factors were conspiring to give us an inkling that we might consider moving to a new city.
With these pre-conditions, one evening we attended a Spanish-speaking meetup in Oceanside. There I heard the story from a man in his 40s who went to live in-country with his wife for a year to learn Spanish. With our pre-conditions in place, we realized that living in-country to learn a language wasn’t just for college-age singles. It could be us!
This was the catalyst that led to lots of discussion, clarification of our goals and ultimately to a plan that involved renting out our house for a year, living in Ensenada, Mexico for 3 months, followed by stays in a few US cities – mostly near where our adult children live.
We didn’t initially plan to live in an RV. But with the number of destinations we had in mind for our year, we realized that an RV provided the simplest solution to moving our stuff around – as well as the right model for renting living space.
Here are some of the expectations I had:
- A 200 sq. ft. RV is very small compared to my 3700 sq. ft. home. I don’t need a lot of space so I think it’ll be fine. But how would I do in this small of a space?
- We had a couple of destinations picked at the start: (Ensenada, Jackson MS and Cincinnati OH). But what other destinations should we pick? It’s not that often one has this kind of opportunity, so let’s take advantage.
- I have worked at home on many projects and for extended periods of time. I know how to be productive. I will apply the same techniques in the RV. I just need Internet and power and a space for my laptop.
- Acknowledging that additional needs and distractions will arise, I reduced my expectation to have around 30 billable hours per week instead of 40.
- My go-to exercise is running. I should be able to do this anywhere.
- Community might be difficult to maintain
We’re now 11 months into this exercise. How well were my expectations met?
At the start of this journey, I had full expectation that I would do fine in a small space – even dropping from 3700 sq. ft. to less than 200 sq. ft. of living space.
And by some measures, it turned out just as I expected. I rarely feel the need to have another room to go to. I have a great, comfortable bed. I can take a shower without crouching. I have enough room to cook and clean up.
It may sound daunting to live in a 200 sq ft space. But there a couple of advantages in an RV over typical spaces. Everything is explicitly designed for this tight space. The closets, the bathroom configuration, the kitchen. Everything.
In addition to the RV itself, we spent a couple of weeks outfitting the RV with all kinds of space-efficient devices: wall-hanging shoe-holders everywhere to hold random stuff. Hooks to hold measuring spoons and cups and other utensils. Mason jars that doubled as drinking glasses and food storage. A set of pots with removable handles that stack as one. Wall-mounted spice rack. Instant Pot. And we used 3M Command Strips all over the place.
We even brought Alexa with us – sticking the echo dot under the kitchen cabinet. We used double-stick velcro for that one. It’s super handy to have an expert to ask all of those burning questions.
There were a few habits we incorporated to help make it work. For instance, since the cutting board fit nicely over the sink, it gave us more counter space. But it meant that we had to always clean up right away after each meal. This fits our personal style anyway. But once in a while the freedom to delay cleanup can be nice. We’ve just never had that freedom during our year in the RV.
At the start of our journey, I worked in the RV a lot. I even found a way to configure a stand-up desk arrangement for the times I wanted to work standing, And even though I was productive with this configuration, it became impractical to continue as a regular habit.
What surprised me the most was the dynamic of sharing the space with Juliet. She is definitely capable of ignoring me so that I can focus. But it is hard for her to do that for an extended amount of time when I am sitting 5 feet away from her. And I am capable of ignoring her. But I did not want me ignoring her to become the norm for our together time.
This by itself was enough justification for me to search out a coworking space – which I found readily in every place we lived. And it was a good solution most of the time – something I discuss more in Productivity later. A secondary issue justifying a coworking space was the spotty availability of WiFi which I discuss later in this post also.
During the first half of our travels, we had 2 vehicles with us – one SUV which also pulled the trailer. The other a Prius. We caravaned together to get between locations. This was a pain for Juliet who hates driving. But it meant that we could each keep independent schedules. It was especially helpful in Jackson where wedding planning and prep were a normal part of our time there.
When we dropped to one vehicle so that Juliet wouldn’t have to drive between locations, I definitely felt the impact to my productivity. We were always working out how I would get to my coworking space without leaving Juliet without a car for the day.
Our goals in the cities where our children live were pretty well aligned. We would live and work there and do things together on the weekend or evenings depending on everyone’s availability.
But the other destinations required a lot of discussion and refining of goals to get alignment. Juliet wanted to take in the sights and events that people associate with each destination. But I am working. So it’s not really an option to go sightseeing all the time. And often when we did arrive in the new city, the time we might have had for sightseeing was used up just by getting set up, finding the services we needed to get plugged into (coworking, workout locations, grocery, etc.)
Ultimately, it was a bit of resignation of the limits of what we could accomplish from a sightseeing perspective. We could still accomplish our goals of trying out a few different cities. But we definitely weren’t going to come back with a map of the United States showing that we had visited every significant site in even a handful of states.
Everyone is influenced by their peers. And for us, some of our peers were the people vacationing full time in their RV. This created enough pressure that we had to have this conversation a few times about our own goals. And not just about destinations, but about activities we planned when we arrived. Often when people show up in a city, there are some events and/or attractions that are standard. But many of these are day-long activities easily accommodated by being on vacation. We are not on vacation (most of the time), so we had to figure out what could fit into an otherwise ‘normal’ week.
Along with trying out cities, visiting friends and family was an important part of selecting our destinations, but we had to limit this to some extent. I talk more about this later in the section on Productivity.
Choosing An RV Park And Experiencing A City
In each of the cities we visited, we wanted to be close to the city center. But by living in an RV we found our choices very limited and the idea of living where we could use mass transit and experience the city on a daily basis was just not possible. Often the RV parks located near city center were not kept well and/or had no availability. This meant we ended up staying far from city center and significantly altered our experience. In Cincinnati we ended staying in Lebanon, OH – about 45 minutes from downtown.
Because our goals differed from typical full-time RVers, many of the tools created to help people find RV parks were not useful to us. To us location was primary. Most other aspects of an RV park were secondary. This also factored into us not getting much value out of RV park memberships. These tend to focus on giving you a great experience without much regard to location.
In cases where we visited family in small towns, we sometimes had as few as 1 RV park to choose from. Thankfully we always found an opening!
Internet access in the RV was a bit of a challenge. For my low data rate devices (Echo Dot, security camera, temperature sensor), I have a persistent connection with a Cellular wi-fi hotspot. But for higher bandwidth needs, I found that I had to figure something new in each locale. On rare occasions, the RV Park WiFi was good enough. Most of the time not. For my work, I could make up for that by renting a coworking space.
We brought an Apple TV with us, but found we could rarely use it, even to watch Netflix. It consumed too much bandwidth for my Cellular Hotspot and most of the time the RV Park WiFi wouldn’t connect or didn’t have the bandwidth to support streaming. Juliet especially missed this a lot.
To stay fit, these were our main avenues:
- Walking – mandatory just to take care of Panda, our 80 lb mix of Lab and Australian Shepherd. We walked a lot.
- Running – fairly easy to fit in when the weather cooperates
- Whole body workouts – required a lot of determination to make happen
We brought our dog Panda with us. At home he had a large yard to run around in. But on the road, we never had that luxury and walks or trips to a dog park were his only outlet for exercise. So we walked a lot.
In Ensenada, we joined a local gym and I could get workouts in there on a regular basis.
In Jackson, we allowed Wedding prep to completely drown out exercise.
In Cincinnati, there was a crossfit gym next to my coworking space. After observing the training style, we both decided to join and both found this to be a great way to get a good workout regularly.
When we left Cincinnati, we ended up going slightly different directions with our fitness regimen. I found a Crossfit gym in each of the next cities we went to. And Juliet signed up with Orangetheory. Orangetheory provided the most consistency and her membership allows her to go anywhere. With Crossfit, I had to sign up with each gym in each new city.
I found good coworking spaces in all of the places where we lived for more than a few days. This helped me to be more productive, solving 3 of my challenges: access to good internet, a place to ‘go to’ to work, and giving me a separate space from Juliet during working hours so as to improve our time together.
I think my most productive location was Jackson, MS – at least until the week of our daughter’s wedding. In Jackson I had a desk in what was essentially a private room, and we each had a car so didn’t have to coordinate rides with Juliet. The dedicated desk allowed me to leave my large monitor there, which helps with productivity especially when coding.
My least productive locations were the places we stayed a week or less. With that short of time, the time scarcity led us to choose to spend time with friends/family. It would be the same if they came to my town to visit. Except by doing multiple of these, it was like having family show up in town every week. At some point, it’s too much time away from work.
In the cities where we spent a month or more, it was very natural to fit family activities on evenings and weekends and not hit work productivity the same way. This ultimately influenced our decision-making process for where we would go. We had to be kind of ruthless in limiting the cities we would include in our itinerary.
Life maintenance took a bigger chunk out of my time than I expected. Getting haircuts took more time. Getting the car serviced took time. Driving between cities takes time. Disconnecting the RV and reconnecting on the other end takes time. With travel prep and setup, it’s easily a 3-day hit to move between two cities that are a 1 day drive apart. If you combine that with family visits, it can look like this:
After finishing 6 weeks in Cincinnati, our next major stop would be Austin. But we wanted to pass through Kansas to visit my sister and her adult children. We would be going through St. Louis, so we spent two nights there with a full day to explore the arch – and get groceries, cook, etc. Then 3 nights in Emporia, Kansas – next to a busy rail line and two highways (that never stopped at night). Then a long day driving to Austin – estimated at 11 hours, turned into 13. (I broke my own rule and traveled on Friday – paying the price with 2 extra hours in traffic).
We arrived late Friday night, then spent the weekend getting set up, visiting with friends and orienting ourselves. Monday and Tuesday were spent visiting coworking spaces, getting our SUV fixed (we blew a radiator hose on the drive from Kansas) and getting a start at becoming productive again.
I didn’t budget for times like that – a week and a half of zero productivity – even though on the back side it seems like I could have. At this point in our journey, I could see the Kansas week wasn’t going to be a work week. But it I didn’t quite have that perspective when we started out.
Of course, productivity is not just about hours worked. A case in point…
In Cincinnati, I met people in the coworking space and at a couple of meetups that introduced me to other activities going on in the area. I learned about a startup conference happening that prompted us to extend our stay in Cincinnati. It was attending this conference and preparing for it that ultimately led me to make a major course correction on my startup project. It’s almost impossible to measure the benefit of that kind of productivity. I could have spent months working on something and ultimately killing it, essentially wasting those months instead of killing it early and being able to use all that time in other more productive endeavors.
Conclusion, And A Few Unexpected Things
The projects I was working on when I started this journey didn’t last as long as I predicted. My clients had business issues that deferred work I was planning to do for them, so I worked less for others than I thought I would. I had projects of my own that I was able to dive into – something I really appreciated having the time to do. However, we ended up using a lot more savings than we originally planned to make it through the year.
I miss my neighborhood and the communities I was part of in San Diego. It’s not that this was totally unexpected. But it’s hard to appreciate the feeling of disconnectedness you’re going to experience when it is theory vs when it actually happens. Especially for this reason, I am looking forward to transitioning back to living in our home.
As wonderful as it has been to write some code and do some of my own projects, I miss working daily with a team of dedicated people. I’m very glad we embarked on this journey. But I’m also looking forward to the next stage of my career – energized and ready to adopt someone else’s great idea as my own and help it become a success in the marketplace.