Getting on the rollercoaster

Trailblazers Tour Week 1

Day 1 - Châlons-en-Champagne, France

Just waiting for enough water to heat up for a super quick shower, which hopefully doesn’t use up everything in the hot water tank, or too much of our total clean water. #vanlife be’s like that, which would only come as a surprise to anyone who’d spent, say, three nights in a camper van before commissioning their own top-spec, fully off-grid conversion! 

When we first saw Dolly in all her pristine, polished glory, the arrival fallacy hit us hard. This was what we’d been working towards for a year, even if we only knew it for half of that. It’s what we (Zoë especially) had poured so much time, money, and decision-making power into, while unrooted, surrounded by family and in circumstances out of our control. And now she – and we – were done!

Or not. Of course, nothing’s perfect, and we were bugged by a shower curtain that sticks and could leave us stuck in our tiny toilet/bathroom combo. Oh, and Formica surfaces that will. Not. stay clean. But that was nothing – reality hit us hard!

We arrived at LeShuttle ready to finally escape England and start our adventure, and… someone pointed out our grey water pipe, which had been dragged behind us for 2 hours, now punctured and missing the tap. Not to relitigate, but that seemed to be mostly my fault (and partly is), which made things harder for both of us. For the trip under the channel, until we could start taking steps towards a fix, I hated myself, and Zoë probably hated me too – and we both wondered what the fuck we were doing.

Now it’s dawned on me, we’re not on an adventure, we’re starting a new life. And everything the #vanlife vets say about not being on permanent holiday, it now makes sense. The only parts of regular life we’re escaping are children, income tax and being stuck in one place. We still have a home, a car and a pet to look after, they’re just on 4 wheels. And when we need to make repairs and get supplies and deal with emergencies, we’re going to have to do that in a new language every time!

So we’re not making our life any easier. We never have. But we’re making it more fulfilling, rewarding and adventure-filled. And adventures have ups and downs, like rollercoasters. We’re learning that, I’m learning that, especially – by doing. By dealing with what’s thrown at us, and – for me personally – trying not to let my fixed mindset get in the way. I hope I can change. I feel a change coming. Let’s grow. Let’s go!


Day 2 - Lac D’Orient

Happy Halloween! The spookiest our day’s going to get (hopefully) is taking Olive out in the pitch black dead of night, on the outskirts of an off-season national park forest. Zoë was getting real Blair Witch vibes, after the Bechdel Cast reminded us how amazing and groundbreaking that movie was. Maybe we’ll rewatch, but once we’re “out of the woods”. There might be something about seeing folks on a creative adventure, out of their element, getting the comeuppance their hubris calls for… it might hit too hard at the moment.

We hit a low point yesterday. (I hesitate to say rock bottom, because I’m sure there’s farther we could fall.) Sat outside the camper van workshop we’d driven an hour to get to, after the guy had said he couldn’t fix it, and we need a bigger chain which opens tomorrow (now today). Zoë couldn’t start the van, because the insane immobiliser code it was fitted with wasn’t unlocking it. It’s tricksy and rarely works the first time, and, this time, really wasn’t happening. She called the guy who fitted it, and he was as befuddled as we were. Not a good sign!

This is the kind of challenge which seems uniquely designed to frustrate Zo. She’s the only driver (for now), so it’s her job to do this, and she can’t do a bad job at anything – especially when she doesn’t understand what she’s doing wrong, what she can improve on. It’s even deeper – the installer can’t understand what’s going wrong either. And, without being able to understand what the problem is, we can’t possibly come up with a solution.

Neither of us know why, but the van did eventually start. Just as both of us were wondering, what happens if we’re stranded in the middle of France with patchy mobile service and a home on wheels you can’t drive. We drove half an hour to the edge of an animal sanctuary on the edge of a beautiful lake, getting there just in time to see a stunning sunset across the reed-lined water. The fresh bite of the autumn air, the tranquillity, the splendid isolation (only one other motorhome stayed the night here), it all cut through the day’s frustrations and reminded us how beautiful living in the moment, living free, can and will be.

Now, in the (literal) cold (bare) light of day, I remember the task ahead of us. We need to drive back to the nearest town, in the hopes that someone can fix the van – or point us in the direction of someone who can, hopefully further south, where the sun is. Well, first we need to start the van. Wish us luck!

Peugeot Boxer van againat a backdrop of leaves

Day 4 - Cogyny

Up at 5am. Standard. At least I was woken by the sound of Dolly being buffeted by the winds whipping through the Rhône Valley, and not… the underlying anxiety of knowing you aren’t where you want to be or doing what you need to and that MAYBE YOU’LL NEVER GET OUT. 

No, anything but that.

We live in a van now. But I guess we also live in nature. We’re just layers of light beech wood and insulation from a metal shell that’s exposed to the elements. It’s just started raining and the pitter-patter’s mere feet from my head. 

Not that I’m complaining. I’ve had the best sleep for years this week. I’ve escaped a lot of that anxiety, leaving some of it in our tracks, turning away from it as I shift into a growth mindset, and letting a lot go as we both ease into a slower, simpler way of life. And exhale.

I’m just noticing that I’m becoming – and there has to be a less insufferably hippy-dippy way of saying this – more in tune with nature. Most mornings I’ve woken around 7:30am, with the sunrise. And when it’s pitch black at 6pm, it feels like time to wind down – cook, clean, read and fall asleep. Either I lived in Berlin too long, or there are actual health benefits to syncing your circadian rhythms with the sun. 

I do wonder how I’ll get anything done when I’m back at work, anything other than eating, drinking coffee, getting to the next stunning location and sleeping, but… what else is there? OK, there’s We are Childfree, but we have a plan to get back to that, to fold it into this little adventure. I can feel the toxic productivity leaving my body, shrugging the straightjacket from my shoulders.

For now, all we have to do is head south for the winter. Just find a spot with some sun and some wifi to rest and work for a while. Somewhere to plan our next moves, before we head towards some inspiring childfree trailblazers to photograph. 

This is our life now. This is life. We’re living.

Day 5 - Villeneuve-lès-Avignon

Yesterday started and ended on a bit of a mission. We woke to heavy rain, noticed that the field we were parked on was starting to get waterlogged, and Zo had to pull some expert manoeuvres to get us out of there. 

Then last night, we felt unsafe when what mere months ago used to be a playground but has since been razed to waste, proved to be the meeting spot for local youths setting stuff on fire. OK, it was just small bags of – something? – but it didn’t help that there was definitely a fire somewhere. You could smell it in the air, and hours earlier the local fire service had bombed past us on our dog walk. Maybe out of an abundance of caution, we quickly battened everything down, rolled out and found somewhere less sketchy to stay. 

It feels like we’re still dialling in our radar for danger, calibrating our vigilance. Now we’re considering the weather and the ground beneath our feet before parking for the night – that’s easy. It’s harder to tell the difference between a French town that time forgot and a place that hope has abandoned, between the rustique and the derelicte.

It’s hard to know who to trust. On the way out of England, some lads were asking about Dolly, and we had to pull over to search her for tracking devices. Yesterday, an unhoused man appeared at the passenger side window and scared the shit out of us, but he was just pointing us towards a bigger parking space.

We talked about how living in cities and travelling to unfamiliar places has set our default to “trust no one”. It feels like a shame, and it would be more open-hearted to approach the world with “trust everyone” (is there an in-between?) That stranger in the car park meant us no harm, and maybe those firebugs didn’t either, but I don’t know if we’ll be able to let our guards down. Or if we should. But where’s the line between vigilance and hyper-vigilance?

We’re exposed. To the elements, to “unsavoury elements” – even if admitting it makes me feel like a curtain-twitching neighbourhood watcher. But we’ve no neighbourhood to watch over us. Without the context of knowing a place, its people or their language, we have to look out for ourselves. That feels sad, but true.

Day 6 - Tarascon

I had a nightmare last night, that we were surrounded by family, travelling the next day and still hadn’t packed. Zoë was reassuring me we had plenty of time, as I’m sure everyone else was too, but I was trapped in this feeling of “WE HAVE TO GET OUT”.

It’s pretty plain what this was all about. It could even be a replay of a scene from last week, or any of the weeks running up to our deadline for getting out of the UK. We were racing against a ticking clock with tons to take care of, and it felt like every task we closed opened two others.

But now, on the other side of it – well, I’m realising we’re not on the other side of anything. I can still wake up with a to-do list top of mind, even if the nature and urgency of the tasks has changed  – leave this campsite by lunchtime, replace the grey water pipe this weekend, find a base with strong, stable internet by Tuesday… You don’t just drive off and leave the anxiety of unfinished business behind. I always come back to this quote: “No matter where you go, there you are”.

I could feel it creeping back last night, this feeling of things not going “to plan”. We rolled up on an aire, a rest stop that was barely open. There was no water, no other facilities, we were quickly losing light – and I was getting more tired by the minute. When we decided to book into an overpriced, outdated Camping, it felt like a real defeat. We’d “failed” at being off-grid, and we hadn’t made it to the south coast “as planned”.

Lol, my mum just texted asking for an update on our “itinerary”. Um, head towards Greece? We’re taking it day by day, trying to adjust to this new way of life, and give ourselves grace to enjoy the adventure. We still carry around all the things we “should be” doing, but we have to trust we’ll find time and space to do them all. That’s hard when the voice in your head echoes another family member who said we just need to “plan plan plan”.

Today’s plan? Well it was to get to the Camargue Regional Nature Park and share a beach with the flamingos. But I’ve just seen a scary “Orange Warning for Coastal Event” so the new plan has become… not that. Who knows where the day will take us! 

Photos by Zoë Noble
Words by James Glazebrook