A few days ago, I was scrolling Instagram when a picture caught my eye. Posted by a certain popular outdoor women’s group, this picture featured a certain type of girl on top of a certain type of mountain that was clearly located in a certain US state that also happens to be an island. Leggings, windswept hair and stylish hiking boots were all protected from the dirt by a certain type of culturally insensitive blanket that she was laying on. Next to her lay a backpack, the contents of which were displayed artfully and included a certain brand of water bottle and, this part made me laugh out loud, a certain novel that is popular among college students trying to find their destiny. The soft smile on her face as she took in this idyllic scene seemed to say, “See, happiness really is this easy.”
These kinds of pictures are ubiquitous on the internet. Many people get paid a lot of money to make the “traveling millennial” lifestyle look appealing enough to make you buy their products. I have lost count of the pictures I have seen of a smiling woman gazing out the back of a Volkswagen surrounded by feather pillows and prayer flags*, drinking coffee and gazing at the ocean. I myself have fallen wholeheartedly for this aesthetic that, while rooted in dirtbag philosophy, has been capitalized on by internet culture.
When we first started living in our tiny house, I spent an inordinate amount of time wondering if I could use the hashtag #vanlife when I posted my pictures. While we certainly were living the lifestyle, something about our big trailer didn’t quite fit in with the vanlife crowd. I realize now that it was my better judgement telling me to look below the surface.
All these skinny white girls are failing to capture a huge part of the reality of being nomadic. The first couple months of travel in our little house were extremely difficult as I struggled with emotions and fears that were never advertised as part of this live-your-best-life adventure. Vanlife did not cure my depression and anxiety disorder. Vanlife did not make me more secure about my body. Vanlife did not make my relationship with my partner perfect. I tried to leave it all behind to pursue a commercialized ideal, and it took me a while to realize that my life had to come along for the ride too.
I love living the traveling life, but not because I get to drink coffee surrounded by billowing linen while I gaze at the ocean. I love it because it has allowed me to fully embrace the kind of work that I want to do. I love it because my boyfriend and I are building a life together, literally from the ground up. The vast majority of my time is not spent standing on mountains while the wind plays in my hair but instead is spent working my butt off to bring me closer to my goals. This lifestyle makes me take on my biggest anxieties everyday and I am getting stronger because of it. I don’t always enjoy it, but I do always appreciate it. I am still just living my life and it is messy and can be overwhelming, just like it always has. While I used to find it intoxicating, now when I see a girl with tousled blond hair surrounded by billowing white linen gazing out at the ocean with a cup of coffee in hand, I just assume that we have nothing in common.
*Full disclosure, I definitely have prayer flags hanging in my trailer.