After Living in My Van Traveling for 4 Years, I Appreciate a Home Base

USA News


  • I grew up in the suburbs and always felt like I wanted to be in motion.
  • My partner also wanted to travel, and we spent four years traveling the world.
  • But I started to feel like settling down. It’s allowed me to reflect on the places we’ve been.

Growing up in the outskirts of Chicago, I never thought I’d be surfing from the cold waters of Canada to the rugged coasts of Mexico, snowboarding through Japan, climbing in the craggy Tetons, or exploring the American West out of a 60-square-foot self-built camper van with no permanent address.

Throughout five or so years of sustained adventure and nomadic wandering, I cultivated a life on the move — a dramatic and purposeful departure from the fear of stagnation I felt growing up in the strip malls of my hometown.

Over the past year, though, I’ve changed things up, putting roots down among the sweet-smelling pines of a California ski town. After slowing down enough to catch my breath, I realized I wasn’t running away from home — I was running toward finding my own.

Growing up in the suburbs made me want to see what else was out there

The road didn’t always appeal to me, but I knew from a young age that hormones were not the only culprit in the discomfort I experienced in my teens.

I never felt quite at home as an adolescent — not because of an absence of love, but because of a feeling deep in my being that I was not where I was meant to be. In high school, anxiety started to eat at me. Mine made me question not just my place of residence but my place in the world. If everyone I grew up with seemed perfectly content in the suburbs, there must be nothing wrong with the place itself. It was just that I didn’t quite fit.

Survival instincts kicked in — fight or flight — and I chose the latter. I left the flatlands for college in the West, hoping it would make my fears vanish like the rolling cornfields I’d left behind. I put my head down, piled on classwork and extracurriculars, and blazed through school, adopting a classic flow: If you’re always on the go and constantly exhausted, it’s easy to forget your worries.

Once I started traveling, I was hooked

After graduation, I kept moving, falling in love with hiking and camping and climbing and photography — all activities that kept me busy and at least momentarily fed my nervous system serotonin and beat back that feeling of stagnation.

I was traveling to unbelievable places, embarking on adventures I’d never dreamed of back in the suburbs. But my fear of not doing enough in life would sporadically rear its ugly head. Despite my new passions and feeling of purpose, I worried that I wasn’t doing enough to be successful, to be happy, or to be in the right place.

I was lucky to find a partner who shared my love of adventure and appreciation for constant motion. Instead of finding an apartment to move into together, we built out an old Chevy Express van, equipping it with a small kitchen, a bed, a wood-burning fireplace, and a shared pee jar. Wood panels and blue paint made the 60-square-foot box look like a home, while our laughter and midnight slow dances made it actually feel like one.

Katie reading in the van in Mexico

Botwin reading in the van in Mexico.

Courtesy Katie Botwin



Eager to enjoy the benefits of our new home on wheels, I became a freelance photographer. On our first van trip, we relished the romance of the road. We warmed up with tea and peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches by the fire after surfing through torrential rain in Canada, biked along rocky shores in Oregon, and marveled at sunsets over the Pacific Ocean from remote bluffs in Baja California. We worked in coffee shops and libraries and trailhead parking lots, staying as long as we wanted at each stop until the road beckoned us.

When we weren’t in the van, we still filled our calendar with adventures until it was overflowing, like when we booked a two-month work-and-play snowboard trip to sample the legendary powder of Japan. I figured a different continent would quell the fear that I wasn’t doing enough in life, that I just wasn’t moving fast enough — but old thoughts crept in between the excitement of onsens, sushi, and snow.

A ski resort in Japan

A ski resort in Japan.

Courtesy Katie Botwin



Upon our return, we continued exploring the western US in the van, from the winding rivers of Wyoming to the deserts of Utah and the rocky coastlines of the Pacific Northwest. The trips were a blast, and we had adventures I wouldn’t trade for the world; I grew and learned immensely from the experiences we shared during this time.

I started to wonder whether being in motion was the same thing as moving forward

The photos I took on those trips are priceless treasures to me now, and they speckle our walls. But those trips were sometimes exhausting, partly because I was unable to shake — or even articulate — my worry of not taking concrete steps forward in my life.

We woke up every day knowing it would be different from the last. People, countries, views — everything was constantly in motion. So why, deep down, was I still suffering from a fear of a motionless life?

We decided to put down roots in a funky little spot in a Sierra ski town. After traveling for years, I find it so surprising that I can actually enjoy stillness. While the road still calls to me, and I still answer from time to time, my years on the road have made me deeply appreciate the power of permanence.

This home base has given me time to reflect, to sift through memories and moments, and to address anxieties instead of run from them. It’s also given me time to breathe. In the blink of an eye, it seems, I’ve gone from constantly chasing the next adrenaline rush just around the bend to reveling in the tranquil wonders of roots.

Katie in Canada

Botwin in Canada.

Courtesy Katie Botwin



Being stationary, I’ve come to realize, isn’t synonymous with stagnation, just as life on the road doesn’t guarantee growth. What matters more than our GPS coordinates or travel plans is how we chart a path through our own insecurities and challenges. For some of us, travel is a means of healing; for others, it’s an escape from the harshness of reality. For me, it was a bit of both.

For years I chased new places and new adventures, certain that constant motion might dampen my internal struggles, but I was completely unaware that it prolonged confrontation. My most fulfilling adventures these days don’t need to involve a passport or my climbing shoes or my snowboard; they might simply be sitting with a good book in my favorite chair by the fireplace, recording my thoughts in my journal, or having a craft night with new friends.

These days, I often find myself sitting in contentment, happy to just be, happy to be still. I’m exploring myself and my new community in ways I didn’t — or couldn’t — while I was on the road. I still feel that fight-or-flight instinct some days, but now I’m finally brave enough to plant my feet, ball up my fists, and throw a punch.



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