Where do we begin? At the very beginning, of course. My #VanLife journey, even though I didn’t know it yet, began in the fall of 2018. The idea was born, much in the way that most wild ideas are hatched - while falling down the rabbit hole of YouTube.
Anyone who knows me knows about my obsession with tiny houses and tiny living. As an Entertainment & Lifestyle consultant, the “Lifestyle” part of my work revolves around designing highly functional spaces for the way we live. Tiny living fell right into my pocket of expertise as I had spent years teaching people how to “customize your space for the life you WANT to lead, not just the life you have.” I designed closets, home offices, garages, pantries, and storage spaces. I also organized them to suit my client needs - regardless of the size of their space. In my personal environment, I had been slowly downsizing over the years and at that time, was living in a 100-year-old home, sectioned off into 4 small studios ranging from 150 -300 sqft, with a communal kitchen and bathroom.
One day, in the summer of 2014, I stumbled upon a post on Instagram featuring a 100sqft tiny house - and the obsession was born. I immediately scoured the interwebs for any information that I could find regarding all things tiny and came across a post for a Meetup event about the tiny house movement happening locally in the Atlanta Metro Area. That introductory meeting with a group of 11like-minded people lead by Will Johnston, turned into a 5-year relationship with what has now become Tiny House Atlanta & The MicroLife Institute. On the organization's behalf, I have since taught several workshops at regional tiny house festivals surrounding “The Magic of Minimalism” and how to “Downsize & Organize Your Way to Happiness” as Tiny House Atlanta advocated to change laws around legalizing tiny living in the state of Georgia and the city of Atlanta.
So what does all this have to do with #VanLife? - you may be thinking. Let me tell you a story- it’s gonna be a long one so get your popcorn, get a drink, sit down and buckle up because I’m about to take you for a ride.
Have you ever felt restless? Like no matter what you do, no matter how great your work is, or your home, or your relationships - that something was missing? That your daily routine, once so comforting in an uncertain world, had somehow become stifling? That all of the relationships and connections that you spent years building, once so enriching, had now been compartmentalized to the point that people no longer listened to the details of your conversation? They were so sure that they knew exactly who you were, that they could predict your next sentence, next feeling, or action because you had always been known for being: Competent. Compassionate. Responsible. Consistent. You were no longer being seen or heard. A pillar of your community, it was taken for granted that you would always be there to service clients, help build other people's dreams and provide unwavering support for friends and family.
My 5-year journey with Tiny House Atlanta on my quest for tiny house living was making strides - albeit small ones - but was not moving quite fast enough for my restless yearnings. I tried going the traditional route as my next step, getting approved for a mortgage and house/condo hunting for a year with no success as blatant racial and socioeconomic discrimination ran rampant in a seller’s market at the beginning of the Trump era. I took several meetings with my other Entertainment & Lifestyle consulting clients and friends who had become clients, to explain my dissatisfaction with the work itself and being taken for granted to no avail- people hear what they want to hear because they need you to remain in the box that they put you in- no matter how desperately YOU may need to evolve and break free.
One night last fall, amid my usual tiny house YouTube spiral, I stumbled across a video of a guy living in his van to allow him the freedom to explore nature whenever he wanted. I remember thinking, How cool! I could never do that, but I wonder how he fit his entire life into a van? With my love of metropolitan cities, clothing, culture, and fine dining as a Native New Yorker, my Jamaican roots only yearned for the occasional weekend adventure out in nature. After watching that initial vanlife video, I texted my friend and former roommate, Kevin, with a link to the video telling him about the vanlife movement and suggesting that he try it. Having thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail a few years back, Kevin had always been a free spirit who seemed confined by walls and traditional lifestyles. “You going to live in van soon?” he replied. "Tempting, but I couldn’t handle full-time in a space THAT small and having to figure out parking every night. In reality, I would probably just want one for weekend trips, etc.”, I responded.
Our conversation continued; I loved Kevin’s enthusiasm for the movement itself while continued to be fascinated with the design aspects of #vanlife. Over the next few weeks, I watched at least 100 #vanlife videos in the evenings after work as a sort of “guilty pleasure” after spending my days organizing and designing luxury spaces in affluent client homes or producing music videos, doing voiceover gigs, and creative consulting for my Entertainment clients. As time went on, I brainstormed the idea that I could get a van to use as a mobile office and went to test drive one near my home right before Thanksgiving.
One day, in January of 2019, I was working in the home of one of those affluent clients: organizing several spaces and supervising the installation of a particularly luxurious Master Closet late into the evening, when I was attacked by one of their multiple dogs and bitten in the face and mouth. Full stop.
My life changed that night and the next few days were a whirlwind of doctors trying to repair my face, attorney consultations, and therapists as I cocooned myself in my 300sqft studio in order to wrap my mind around the shock of such a violent trauma.
With one side of my face numb due to nerve damage, swelling, multiple sutures and most of my mouth bandaged, I had a lot of time to think, since I couldn’t talk - at least not clearly, or without excruciating pain in the parts of my face that I could still feel. I was having cognitive challenges and difficulty focusing my eyes due to the shock and trauma, so even thinking and putting together coherent sentences became taxing at times.
What is the universe trying to tell me?, I thought, as I continued down my YouTube spiral when I wasn’t asleep ( which was most of the time) as eating was too difficult. As I texted friends and family and emailed clients to let them know that I had been injured, my brother, Jamel, texted me an ad for a silver van as he knew about my fledgling idea for a mobile office. I had seen this van on the internet twice before but had disregarded it. Although it had all of the features that I was looking for and was the right price, it was silver and I had my heart set on a white van.
As the days of recovery continued, I wallowed in the why me? mental litany that most people go through after trauma. The thoughts swirled when suddenly, I had a moment of clarity: maybe this was the Universe’s way of telling me to break free of my self imposed and societal constraints and take a big risk. The unsatisfying life that I had been living the past few years was now over, as I had been diagnosed with PTSD and was too terrified to do basic things and interact with people. I certainly couldn’t return to entering client homes - never knowing who (or what) would be behind the door when I arrived for an initial consultation as I had been unpleasantly and dangerously surprised many times before. I was even terrified of my then 15-year-old cat, Anthony, who had been my constant companion and emotional support animal. He had been gifted to me a few weeks after his birth shortly following a previous trauma.
I decided then to rethink this idea of #vanlife, not as just a mobile office, but now as a literal vehicle of transition between my old traditional life to a lifestyle of freedom and opportunity. Inspired and feeling clearer then I had in days, I broke out my graph paper and sketched a design. Being the design nerd that I am, I used my computer to then create a 3D rendering of my interior design so that I could see how the space would “feel” as I walked through it. Could I do this?, I thought, we’re about to find out. “No day but today”, right? to quote one of my favorite Broadway shows.
I called and emailed several dealerships throughout Georgia, but none of the salespeople would give me the time of day. Does that mean that I shouldn't do this?, I worried. Then I remembered the ad that my brother had texted me for the silver van and noticed a few serendipitous occurrences. The van was not located in Atlanta as I had hoped; it was in Tennessee. Murfreesboro to be exact. The very small town that my brother had just relocated from. I looked up the address of the dealership only to find that it was situated practically across the street from my brother’s previous job. Hmmm, I thought, I wonder if Jamel’s old boss would do me the favor of checking out the van, as he and Jamel had become close friends over the years and Alan was always willing to do a favor for family. I emailed that Murfreesboro dealership and they responded graciously and immediately. I explained my situation about being out-of-state and injured and unable to talk on the phone, hoping that they would allow Alan to take a look at the van on my behalf. They told me that the van had had a lot of interest, but that they would be happy to hold it for me until Alan was able to take a look and help me make a decision. A few days later, Alan went to the dealership just to find that the kind salesman who had been helping me via email, was the same man who had sold him a car a few months before. The stars had completely aligned.
OK!OK! Universe, I hear you! Silver or not, this is my van! I filled out the paperwork online and asked my family to supervise and drive me to Tennessee to collect my new home. I was still loopy, swollen, fatigued and in no position to travel, but I gathered the courage to leave my house, face the public and journey out-of-state towards my new life.
As only a short time had passed since the attack, I continued to have challenges with speech and cognitive function so my mother and brother came with me to the dealership to act as translators and to help make sure that I understood what I was signing. Forty-five minutes after walking into the dealership, I walked out the proud owner of a silver 2017 Promaster 3500 High Top 159” Extended cargo van.
I decided to build the entire van myself, even though I had absolutely no previous carpentry or building experience. I mean, I am a designer, so I usually create the idea for a space and send teams to install them, or I assemble prefab furniture and shelving, but I had never even built so much a picture frame completely from scratch. I decided to take on the task of learning how to use a circular saw, jigsaw, and drill to create a tiny home on wheels as a way to heal from the trauma of the attack and to rebuild my dismantled life.
As we drove back to Atlanta from Tennessee, my brain thought, What the hell did I just get myself into? but my heart replied, The greatest adventure of your life.
I built stealthily around Atlanta - on street corners, in public parks, and home improvement store parking lots, bandaged, and mentally overwhelmed as there is no linear path to recovering from a mental illness like PTSD. And as my face healed slowly, with the help of several doctors, working with my hands along with therapy, helped heal my mind. A few months later, I decided to take the newly christened Reaux, my unfinished van, and my now 16-year-old emotional support cat, Anthony, who needed round the clock care due to recently diagnosed kidney disease, on the cross-country road trip of a lifetime. I later discovered that it would be the last adventure of his lifetime as we surprised friends and family along the way with the news of my transition to a more authentic self, toward freedom and now #vanlife.
Join me on this journey via Instagram @Rolling_Resilience as I travel down this resilient path of healing committing to #NeverLetYourFearDesignYourFuture.
See you on the road. ;-) ~Claudia MB