After spending two years whittling my possessions down to what could fit into an Airstream, I sold my home in Boulder, Colorado, and headed west in 2018. I finally had the freedom of the open road I longed for since I was a kid. I was a digital nomad, trading pine trees for palm trees, living the dream.
There was a problem, though: The road was a nightmare.
I had some issues. My first — and probably the biggest flaw in my Airstream dream — was I don’t love to drive. Hauling a 27-foot-long, 9,000-pound trailer down steep grades with runaway truck ramps and signs warning truckers they’re not at the bottom yet is one of the scariest things I’ve ever done.
I bashed in the side of my Airstream Flying Cloud trying to take it through a car wash (don’t even ask). And I never did learn how to properly park the damn thing (or maybe I learned that’s the trick of parking the damn thing: once you stop everyone collectively exhales relief, no matter which curb or yellow line you’re on).
The first rule of the road, I quickly learned, is nothing ever goes as planned. My first stop was an extended stay at the Chula Vista Marina just north of Imperial Beach, where I could watch the sun spill orange into San Diego Bay from my dinner table and wake up to swaying palm trees outside my bedroom window. It was going great until the RV resort announced it was closing to make way for a billion-dollar mega-development.
As I followed the Chula Vista diaspora off into the sunset, I learned the second solid rule of the road: If you don’t make parking reservations at least six months in advance, you’re not getting hookups in any desirable locations. The parking situation for RVs in southern California is akin to, and probably worse than, the parking situation for cars in the state’s overcrowded cities.
For RVers, the parking situation is pretty bad everywhere. As the economy soared — with stutters and stops, of course — over the past decade, anyone and everyone who ever wanted an RV (myself included) bought one. While there are still a decent number of Airstreams at today’s RV parks, those spots are packed to capacity with shiny new Tiffins and Jaycos, and a good smattering of Prevosts — the rock star buses starting at a cool million bucks.
Most of the towering motorhomes are owned by boomers, some of whom traded in their homes (like I did) to live the dream on the road. These days a lot of the old school Winnebagos and Lances are driven by millennials, some of whom are living the dream because they can’t afford to buy the old American dream, a traditional house.
By and large, there are too many rigs on the road. More than 11 million Americans and Lord knows how many Canadians own an RV. Most of them are in the southern United States from November through April. Driven largely by experience-hungry and Instagram-famous millennials — #vanlife is exploding.
A good half-million of the RVers out there with me were making the road their home — and they definitely weren’t all snowbirds. The average age of today’s RVer, according to the RV Industry Association, is 48.
Like everything else in this country, RV parking infrastructure isn’t keeping up. It’s damn near impossible to find a spot if you stay on the road past lunchtime — which pretty much kills the whole freedom-of-the-road, drive-til-you’re-done dream I was chasing. I spent far too many nights in Motel 6s, which are actually cheaper than the nicer RV parks and let big rigs park in their lots for the mere cost of a room.
Securing parking became a full-time job — a problem because I already had a full-time job as a freelance writer. My colleagues and clients loved to hear about my adventures, but the last thing they wanted to hear was I was so busy unhooking sewer and electric lines, packing up and securing my Airstream (and everything in it), hitching it to a truck, hauling it to a new spot, unhitching, plugging in and setting up a sewer line, then unpacking and unsecuring everything again that I hadn’t yet gotten to their projects.
I learned why digital nomads steer clear of KOA Campgrounds, which cater to families, sometimes with groups so large you can’t imagine how or where everyone sleeps inside that Prowler Travel trailer, the best-selling RV of all time. It’s great to see kids riding their bikes in the streets while their parents drink beers and listen to ‘80s metal — until you have a conference call or a deadline.
I stopped making friends because I got tired of having to say goodbye a couple days later — and I don’t have the capacity to follow even one more living-the-dream story on YouTube (which all my new friends were producing).
And of course, there were experiences that made the nightmare worth it. I’ll never forget walking on sand made from fish skeletons along the banks of the Salton Sea as charcoal-colored clouds moved over the Chocolate Mountains.
I finally got to see Slab City — an anarchist squatter RV community on a former military base known as “the last free place on earth.” (The residents there aren’t actually all that thrilled with looky-loos hanging around, but it’s worth a drive through.)
I went on epic bike rides around Mission Bay and Coronado and parked for a month on the banks of Lake Powell, one of the most spectacular places on earth.
When the pandemic hit, the road went from difficult to impossible. In a great game of musical chairs, campgrounds and RV parks let anyone who was already there stay inside and closed the gates to everyone else. Caught out, I took a job in Mendocino County, which I wasn’t very good at, because it came with a parking spot on a 12-acre campus.
When that didn’t work out, I headed up to Orcas Island in the San Juans to help a friend build a permaculture garden. The gig came with a parking spot, too, but I forgot to tell my friend living in a field without water, electric or cell service — no matter how great the view — wasn’t conducive to the digital nomad lifestyle.
It was time to move on again. The thought of traversing mountain passes and metro areas on the way to the next place — wherever it might be — made me tired. I’d reached the end of my road.
I loaded the Airstream onto the ferry to Anacortez and went home to Boulder, where my heart sank a little at the smell of pine trees, then soared with every welcoming hug from my kids and friends — people I knew, who knew me, who weren’t heading to Lake Havasu in the morning or asking me to like their YouTube videos using all my different emails so they could reach the makeshift pinnacle of 1,000 views.
I moved in with friends and started looking for a home on solid ground, in a market where prices seemed to have doubled since I left. I sold the Airstream for $20,000 less than I paid for it and tried not to think about the lost money.
I lived my dream and learned a lot of expensive lessons. I know now I can survive pretty much anything — but no matter how meticulously I plan and follow through, I’ll never be able to control what’s around the next bend.