My summer gig on Orcas Island just fell apart after a week. I don’t know where to go.
I’ve parked my Airstream at the Deerwood RV Resort on the outskirts of Eugene, Oregon, so I can figure things out. It’s raining. I know that’s what it does here, but every drop feels personal. I’ve been on the road for two years, traveling from San Diego to the San Juans, with detours to Spain and Mexico and Michigan and a few stops to see my kids in Denver. I’m gritty.
Campgrounds have just reopened after the early pandemic lockdowns. A startling number of Cruise America rentals are filing into Deerwood, tentatively driven (and more tentatively parked) by a whole new class of RVer: techies from Silicon Valley, gay couples from San Francisco, and families from Seattle—younger adults with full-time jobs and no interest in pickleball or water aerobics.
Watching the rain pelt the couple next to me as they wrestle with their sewer lines, all I can think about is how these new nomads (“newmads”) are going to make finding a place to park the Flying Cloud—already next to impossible because RV infrastructure hasn’t kept up with the number of vehicles on the road—impossible. Even before this influx, reservations at state parks and desirable RV resorts needed to be made months in advance.
It’s the week after Memorial Day. I’m screwed.
On the radio, Kenny Loggins sings “Celebrate Me Home,” a ballad lamenting the uneasy highway. As I sing along, “and I never know where I belong,” I start crying.
I don’t want to do this anymore—ricocheting from place to place; retreating to hotels and Airbnbs when living in a trailer gets claustrophobic, then moving back into the trailer when other people’s rules get claustrophobic; bunking with friends to ward off loneliness; falling in love with other people’s dogs and having to leave them. I need a home to go home to again.
I’ll sell the trailer to one of these newmads and settle down near my kids for a while. Think about what just happened. Figure out how I’ll do this better next time.
Here’s what I know.
I won’t buy another Airstream (or any RV).
This is hard to admit, because my nomad dreams were so wrapped up in romantic ideas about touring around in an Airstream, but the shiny trailer never sparked the kind of joy it should have for all the money it cost—and kept on costing—in aftermarket products, ongoing maintenance, licensing, insurance, gas (my truck averaged about 13 mpg when hauling), and hookups at campgrounds and RV resorts (when I could get them). On the West Coast, the minimum per night in a campground where I felt safe was $55, and the nicest parks run well over $100 a night. When I was lucky enough to book a parking spot for a month, it cost around $1,600—about the same as the mortgage I’d been paying on an appreciating home in Boulder.
A Sprinter van would have given me a lot more freedom and mobility, and I hope to try one for an extended trip (they’re too small for me to live in full time, though lots of people do). I can rent one for somewhere between $70 and $700 a night, meaning I could journey for two weeks in a basic wagon for around $1,000 or the most tricked-out, badass mobile out there for about $10,000. Either way, I’ll spend a fraction of what it would cost me to buy, outfit, license, insure, and maintain a van of my own.
I’ll explore co-living.
RVing wasn’t for me, but I did like how easy it was to meet people in RV parks and campgrounds. There’s instant community when travelers circle their wagons (and there’s a hot tub). I didn’t realize how much I needed that camaraderie until I spent a month in an Airbnb on Bankers Hill in San Diego, where I knew no one. I made a couple unsuccessful attempts to connect with humans—a coworking space, Tinder—and spent a lot of time alone. (Loneliness, it should be noted, is consistently the number-one thing that causes digital nomads to give it up and go back home.)
My mood and perspective changed completely when I moved to a co-living house on the beach in Encinitas, the surfer paradise just north of San Diego. I got to chat with fellow travelers over coffee in the morning and share sunsets with them in the evening, and everyone was respectful of each other’s work needs during the day. It felt like college again, but with people who have been to cool places and done inspiring things.
As more people discover co-living, its popularity has soared—even through the pandemic. Rates at Outsite and other companies that offer private and shared rooms in houses around the world have skyrocketed since I stayed in early 2020 (like everything, I guess). Coliving.com, a sort of Airbnb for co-living houses, offers some more-affordable options.
I’ll stay longer in fewer places.
In two years, I spent a week or more in 24 locations. That’s not the way to do this.
According to a survey conducted this year by the website A Brother Abroad, digital nomads overwhelmingly prefer to stay in one place for about six months at a time. Longer stays let you relax and get to know a place, embed in the community. They’re also easier on the body (travel takes its toll), a lot more conducive to getting work done, and more affordable (long-term stays are cheaper, and getting from place to place always costs something.)
I’m working through my commitment issues. Next time, I’ll stop and stay a while.
I recently read the average digital nomad spends $1,875 per month, or $22,500 per year—and I was incredulous. I consistently spent double that, sometimes triple in expensive California.
I wasn’t prepared for how much everything cost. Next time, I’ll be more responsible. It’s not that hard—I don’t even have to learn QuickBooks. Apps like Destigogo and The Earth Awaits are available to help me calculate where I can afford to travel based on my time frame and how much money I have. Radical.
I’ll get mail service.
I never got counted in the 2020 Census. I was having mail sent to a friend’s house in Boulder when it happened, and the letter with the code I needed to get counted online never made it to me. There was a lot going on at my friend’s house, and forwarding my mail wasn’t a priority. I get it.
I chose to use my friend’s address not because I was worried about my mail—I pay my bills and do most transactions online anyway—but because of all the things attached to an address, from health insurance to vehicle and voter registration. I like having Colorado plates and voting in a blue state.
But next time, I’ll spring for a professional mail service like PostScan Mail or Earth Class Mail to sort, scan, and shred my mail, then send digital copies and forward important documents (like the Census letter) and checks (I may have missed a few of those, too). Most of these companies are in Texas and South Dakota, which have low income tax rates and loose residency requirements, and they can also help me become a citizen of one of those states even if I never live in them. I’m not down with the way those states restrict their citizens’ rights, though, so I doubt I’ll ever check that box.
I’ll bring my own Wi-Fi.
Finding reliable Wi-Fi is a digital nomad’s number-one complaint.
Being able to hotspot my phone was a lifesaver when I started traveling in 2018, but it never gave me all the bandwidth I needed to work and watch Netflix. I was constantly data starved.
The good news is, portable Wi-Fi technology (like all technology) has improved exponentially over the past couple years, and now I can buy a high-speed portable hotspot like the Skyroam Solis, which can handle unlimited data and up to 10 devices.
I’ll also research Wi-Fi speeds before I plan an extended stay in another country because some don’t have the bare minimum to support remote work, and this is beyond frustrating. The Digital Nomad Index (circleloop.com/nomadindex) and Nomad List (nomadlist.com) give good snapshots of global internet speeds, and provide a lot more info nomads need.
I’ll bring my own coffee.
If coffee doesn’t matter to you, you can skip this section. (I’ll never understand you.)
Too many times, while staying at Airbnbs or dog sitting or visiting friends, I found myself in a kitchen in the morning without a way to make coffee. It seems unfathomable to me, but apparently some people are not caffeine junkies and they overlook this morning ritual.
I put together this kit to make sure I never have to wake up without caffeine again:
- An Aeropress (a plastic tube with a plunger that makes an excellent cup of coffee)
- A stainless steel reusable filter for Aeropress
- A portable immersion heater (a little clip you put inside a cup to heat water)
- Ground coffee
- Powdered milk (I like my coffee brown)
I’ll bring my dog.
My Catahoula died right before I hit the road. I borrowed a friend’s toy poodle for the first leg of my journey, but when I had to give him back after four months, loneliness set in. Not having a pet makes traveling easier and gives you more options—just watch how many available rental properties drop out when you filter for a “pets allowed”—but extended travel without a best friend was unbearable for me.
The first thing I did when I landed in a home again was adopt a senior Shih Tzu. He’s grumpy but adaptable enough to travel. I’ll plan my next journey around his needs.
I’ll bring less stuff.
Before I set out, I bragged about getting rid of everything that didn’t fit into my Airstream. That wasn’t entirely true. I stashed furniture with my kids and friends, and I had to rent a storage unit for the bins full of memorabilia and photographs I couldn’t let go. I cursed my sentimentality every month when I paid that bill.
Even after spending months purging almost everything I owned, I still carried around things I didn’t need and never used, detritus that weighed me down and cost me—in gas to haul my overstuffed trailer and in baggage fees when I transferred clothes I never wore into a big pink suitcase to travel by air.
Everything I need to live my life, full stop, can fit into a carry-on suitcase and a backpack. That’s what I’ll take next time, no matter where I go. Unencumbered. No excuses.
I’ll worry less, appreciate more.
At least, I hope I will. I’m always working on this one.
Digital Newmads Facts
Digital nomads (aka digital gypsies) are people who use technology to do their jobs from anywhere on the planet. According to the Jerusalem Post, you have to move locations at least three times in a year to qualify. And workers are doing it in increasing numbers.
- The number of digital nomads in America has gone up by 49 percent, from 7.3 million in 2019 to 10.9 million in mid-2020, a study by Emergent Research and MBO Partners found.
- There are 35 million digital nomads of every nationality living and working across the globe, according to a 2021 survey by the website A Brother Abroad.
- While vacation paradises from Anguilla to Bermuda to Costa Rica to Dubai are all attempting to lure remote workers with year-long visas and incentives, Mexico is home to the most (14 percent), followed by Thailand and Portugal, A Brother Abroad found.