Unemployed, at Wits End

We turned our pandemic boredom into an epic road trip.

Did you dream of renting a van or RV to get away from your house during the lockdowns of 2020? Did you long for a different set of walls to stare at? Even a different kitchen to clean?

My husband Jeff had the same dream, and I was just pandemic-desperate enough to agree with him. Our desperation turned into an extended adventure that played out on the highways, campgrounds, parking lots, national parks, and friendly driveways of America.

How it started

In July, 2020: Before the wildfires; after the start of widespread protests against police brutality. Before Los Angeles was putting deceased covid victims in freezer trucks; after NYC had been through that phase. Our family of 4 in isolation was slogging along, trying to adjust to a life void of outside social interactions. Both of our teenagers are happier around people; they prefer being with friends to being alone most of the time. Darla was 16 and Zane was 15 and neither was interested in spending any quality time with their parents.

My husband and I hadn’t been able to work since the lockdowns began in March — not from home, not from 6 feet apart. This gave us plenty of free time to plan Family Fun Activities to torture our poor children. In an effort to improve our conversational Spanish, we had watched 126 episodes of a cheesy Mexican sitcom, “Silvana Sin Lana.” We had done over 100 sessions of “Yoga with Adriene” on YouTube; practiced and performed an intergenerational Tik Tok dance; Darla had baked about 20 new desserts from scratch; I had ridden over 800 miles on my (NOT A PELOTON) stationary bicycle; and our son’s spine was nearly fused to the couch cushions from playing countless hours of video games.

On July 20th, Jeff went on his morning walk, which was as much of an escape as any of us living in cities were allowed back then. Upon his return he floated the idea of buying a used motorhome and renting out our house on AirBnB. He knew the idea was insane, but to his great surprise I agreed it was a good plan. Our largest asset is our house, which we own. So collecting rent while we vacated the premises seemed like a good way to supplement our government subsidy checks. Buying an RV sounded legitimately absurd, but it also seemed like one of our only options for change. Staying home was taking a toll on all 4 of us.

In two short weeks we bought an RV, stocked it with our clothes, food, and supplies, and prepped our house for rental.

On the road: unedited excerpts from newsletters I wrote along the way

August 6, 2020 Bridgeport, CA A few days into our first stop.

We’re taking this trip to shelter-in-place somewhere new and our kids are less than thrilled about it.

Because of the months of covid-mandated isolation and limited contact with their friends, I find it hard to distinguish between normal teenage angst/despair that will blow over and an actual problem.

August 15, 2020 Hat Creek, CA

Here we are again, in the middle of nowhere with no cell phone service and incredibly crappy WiFi which we have to pay for. Our spot is facing a forest, which means no watching (or easily meeting) other campers.

I tried for an hour to get a strong enough WiFi signal to send my last newsletter. But it never worked. There was nothing to do but go to bed. Which I promptly did. The next morning I woke up and cried.

August 28, 2020 Portland, OR

This pandemic bullshit has me frustrated, like you — restrictions on social contacts and the general feeling of mistrust when I meet a stranger. I want to be friendly; and at the same time I do not want to be disrespectful to them or get close enough to breathe their air. These interactions make me realize how far our society has moved away from the idea of community, of looking out for each other. We don’t take care of our own parents like we used to, much less our neighbors and friends. I don’t feel a comraderie for strangers that I think other cultures feel.

When I consider which aspects of my life I’d like to change, community is one of them: more community!

When trying to get together with beloved friends gets to be the last thing on my long list of things to do, I know I’m in trouble. It’s not okay to be too busy for a visit with friends. My main goal on our trip is to visit with dear friends we haven’t been able to see in years. We came to Portland to see Nina and Jody, who moved away ten years ago. Back when we were neighbors we saw each other multiple times a week, raising our children together like cousins. This reunion with them was a great reminder of the healing power of good relationships.

September 13, 2020 Yellowstone National Park

Y’all. We saw so many geysers and mud pots and bubbling cauldrons. They all smelled disgusting and were not my favorite. But Jeff was determined to see them ALL and read the placards and talk about how amazing this earth is and how the planet is so diverse and yadda yadda yadda. One time, when I didn’t come bounding over to see another field of stink-pots he said, “Come here. Come be old with me for a minute.”

So, I did.

September 16, 2020 Gallatin Gateway, MT

I perversely enjoy the repetition of opening and closing all the windows and blinds everytime we leave and then arrive at another campground. Perpetual take-down and set-up: It’s an obsessive-compulsive person’s dream life!

My favorite activity is to go for a solo bike ride when the sun is setting. I put my bluetooth speaker and water bottle in the bike basket. I play some music no one else in the family really likes while I ride — old lady music I guess. Then I bike along a river or back roads looking at gorgeous scenery, stopping to take pictures whenever I want to. I don’t have to take a vote or tell anyone else I’m stopping. It’s so dreamy! I feel like I’m in a movie montage with the music playing. All I need is a baguette and a boyfriend.

Being on this trip often feels like a great indulgence. I have something like survivor’s guilt because everyone is stuck at home and we are not. Staying at home was really starting to mess with my mind. I was so bored I started dreaming of ways to change my life once the restrictions were lifted. I thought about getting braces and changing my entire wardrobe. (Both totally ridiculous ideas.) I did cut off all my hair, which I’ve wanted to do for years. I even started thinking about moving out of our house — my Barbie dream house that I love! Crazytown!

Are you having these kinds of fantasies, too?

I call it pandemic brain, where you start imagining the worst and you feel trapped and confused. I started questioning all of my friendships, and wondering what I could do to bring some sense of meaning to my life of isolation.

All of those thoughts and questions haven’t disappeared just because we are trying this new way of life. But I have more to think about now — making plans, doing chores, researching places — so my mind doesn’t have time to go down the negative rabbit holes as often.

My family would never be on this trip if it weren’t for the coronavirus. Now that we are, I’m trying not to judge my feelings and reactions to our struggles and joys. Honestly, it isn’t working. I overthink everything, same as I always have. But I really am trying to go with the flow, and observe myself living in a motorhome, wearing cute masks, and washing dishes by hand like it’s 1979.

September 28, 2020 Missoula, MT

Do I think we are brave to be on this adventure? Not really. I’m not scared of the trip anymore like I was at the beginning. So, was I brave then?

Am I brave to remain seated in the front seat when Jeff is driving around corners on a mountain? Well, yes. If being scared and continuing on in spite of the fear is bravery, then Yes, Ma’am!

The general premise of our trip isn’t a scary one, though. It was a good decision to get out of the city and take our teenagers away from their pandemic prison with us.

We were so bored. And we all get along, so there’s no physical danger. (Ha! I guess this isn’t technically funny since domestic violence is real and scary. But it strikes me as funny when I type it. The kids still could poison us in our sleep and we could still leave one of them by the side of the road…)

Maybe we are creative, but not really brave.

Zane and Darla think they are suffering, locked in this tin can with us. But we know they are not. They aren’t missing anything back home because of the mandated restrictions and now, because of terrible air quality and wildfires. We are seeing beautiful sites, experiencing a different way of life, and — even though they hate it — spending much less time staring at screens than our friends stuck in their homes. Also, they will leave us one day. And this big, fat, memory will go with them.

October 3, 2020 Buffalo, WY

We’ve got our grocery shopping and meal prep all figured out. Last night Jeff cooked us up some fresh, delicious Montana-raised steaks. Usually we eat a rotation of 10–12 dinners, the same meals we ate at home: lasagna, quiche, cashew chicken stir-fry, pot roast and mashed potatoes, carbonara, and bratwurst. We have so many snacks and candies onboard, too, because emotional eating is no joke!

A big thank you to Lisa who convinced me Febreeze actually works. I hate fake smelling stuff, so I never wanted to try it before. But on her recommendation I bought the EXTRA STRENGTH “crisp clean” variety which has improved our indoor situation by leaps and bounds. My usual method is to leave windows open. But, with the colder weather up here (down to 30s and 40s), we have to close everything up at night.

You have a family. You can imagine what happens when 4 people breathe in one room all night. Pee-yew.

Other than sweeping, dishes, and laundry there isn’t any cleaning to do. So if you hate to dust, mop, and vacuum, move into a tiny house. Dust has no time to gather because every surface is always in use; and constant foot traffic takes care of the muddy floor. It’s like magic!

October 7, 2020 Casper, WY

Announcement: Today marks 2 months we’ve been living in this RV! We’ve covered over 3,000 miles and eaten 5 family sized bags of Trolli sour gummy worms. I don’t think any of us actually believe we’ve come this far. I’m legitimately proud.

October 16, 2020 Gypsum, CO

We arrived at the River Dance RV campground just in time for another glorious sunset. As the name suggests, we are parked right on the banks of a river and Jeff is having the time of his life. Last night his right hand was sore from reeling in so many large fish! (He releases them all.)

This loose rhythm of camping, then visiting friends makes the trip feel fresh again every ten days or so. We spend enough time in the complete wilderness to be sure we don’t have the coronavirus. And then are able to enjoy a big change in our schedules. We get time alone, time with each other, and then time with new people. I love it so much!

October 22, 2020 Flagstaff, AZ

How could we make a tiny space feel even smaller? Adopt a dog!

Yesterday we found 2 year-old Marvin at the Best Friends Animal Rescue in Kanab, UT which is right above the grand canyon — right along our route! After meeting lots of adorable dogs at the 4,000 acre facility, we chose Marvin because he is a real people lover. He currently has a few extra pounds on him. So he needs to lose a little weight and get back in shape, just like me and Jeff after using this trip as an excuse to enjoy unlimited Oreos and Ruffles. Marvin, you fit right in!

Darla got really sad today and expressed to me her concern for Marvin. “He’s not happy in this RV. He can’t sleep. He’s so nervous in here.”

I could tell she was genuinely concerned, and also projecting her feelings onto the dog. Just exactly like I am doing watching my kids live through covid. I didn’t cry with her right then. But I will be crying about this on my bike ride later.

October 26, 2020 Grand Canyon National Park

Today we are at the Grand Canyon which is our last official destination in the motorhome. Our trip is ending soon and, unlike my children, I am sad for its curtain call. Marvin woke up early of course, so I took him outside and then made breakfast for teenagers who wouldn’t be up for hours. Maybe because of all the emotions from last night, I got choked up watching the kids sleep (right beside me cooking), thinking about our trip together being almost over. It needs to end. And I’m sorry it’s ending. Both are true.

Home again

November 3, 2020

I’m having stretches of time where I have no motivation to make plans or even call people. Good things happen. Then I remember that we are still in a city in a pandemic and I still have huge limitations on my ability to earn money or be of service — exactly what I was feeling before we left. I’m sure you can relate.

Our main focus [since we arrived home] has been to get the RV ready to sell and… what do ya know? Jeff listed it for sale yesterday and got multiple responses. He met with a retired couple this morning and they bought it for his asking price. Boom.

Needless to say, Jeff is feeling very pleased. Tomorrow we will take their money and wave goodbye to the Winnebago forever.

What we learned

Perhaps our teenagers learned some practical life skills? I think their most obvious takeaway was that we, their parents, are the worst; and living in an RV is ridiculous. They learned that Wifi is more essential than emotional support or food.

I learned from this year of isolation we’ve spent together that I will miss them even more when they move out in a few years.

Jeff realized he would like to live in a motorhome again sometime, once the kids are gone and he can retire for real. This trip was merely a practice round of retirement.

Or adventure was a welcome break from the coronavirus. And yes, we are so lucky to have had it. Part of the pandemic experience for me has been trying not to feel overly guilty — for all of it, every aspect of my life and privilege. Still, living in an RV for months with 2 fully grown teenagers was no walk in the park. (Imagine the disagreements, the eyerolls! the food consumption.) The long term effects of our trip remain to be seen. Our family isn’t a more cohesive, peaceful unit now. We didn’t learn to navigate the decision fatigue of coronavirus restrictions any better. But Jeff and I are confident it was the best use of our time and resources at the moment. And much to the disgust of Darla and Zane, given the chance we would do it all over again.

To read the complete newsletters — and see many more photos — from our adventure, subscribe to Notes from Nonni here.

Submit your own pandemic reflections essay! Find the instructions here.

Thanks so much for reading. Shannon

I make a mean martini; am often reading; and usually thinking about my relationships, my teenagers and how I’m probably messing them up.