I have been talking to a lot of solo women travelers lately. I am drawn to them. I want to sit down and hear their stories. I want to know their challenges.
I look back at my own journey from the city to tiny living. It was difficult for me to transition into a smaller space, even though someone was with me, supporting me through every step.
But it's different when you're making a change for yourself on your own, no strings attached. This is Ranae's story, one that is raw and honest. She takes us back and forth, from her current life to where she was before. She reminds us that fear is a powerful thing that keeps women from traveling alone.
I’ve committed two hours. I take a slow pull of coffee. I see a familiar face approach. His wiry body plops into an indent on the couch beside me and we chat for 20 minutes about watering plants, milkshake flavors and Kendrick Lamar’s newest album. We make tentative climbing plans for tomorrow morning.
I’m in a climber-infested coffee shop on a rainy day in Bishop, and it smells spicy: dried sweat, dreads and caffeinated pours intermingling. It could be the guy across from me or the guy next to him. Or me. It’s probably all of us. You start to appreciate the scent after a while.
My eyes move back to the computer screen, reluctant as receding waves. I beg for another face, smiling and talkative: a distraction. The white block on the screen continues to stare back at me; its vacuous persistence taunts.
I zone out to the curser, marvel as it catches the beat of the café’s ebbing folk music, and go for another sip. My coffee’s gone. It’s been gone for a while, I know, but my fingers continue to wrap the ceramic handle, my lips search out the cold lip, anticipating, and I motion to tip the cup, again and again. Habits are funny things.
I get up for a refill, still no words of any value on the page—only spaces where the delete button holds full sway. I’m uninspired.
You see, I know you want to read about my car—my house. It’s a 2005 Honda Element. You’re curious why I chose that car. I have my reasons and can ramble them off accordingly. The seats fold every which way, you can hose down the plastic interior for a quick clean, you can cook on the hatch, it gets decent gas-mileage, it's inconspicuous, it has good headroom and overall utilization of space and it's got Honda dependability.
You want to know how I’ve built it out to be equally affordable and efficient, practical and comfortable. I used two 4X4 plywood pieces hinged with glued-on carpet, PVC pipes for legs and an old mattress pad for the semblance of cushioning—that’s my bed, my complex organization system? Translucent plastic bins can slide beneath said bed. I repurposed an old Chinese calendar into an earring holder and it hangs on a bungie cord, alongside dirty clothes I’ve determined have one more wear in them before they need to be laundered. My one and only normal bra—pink and ultra-feminine—has tried to escape out the window a number of times and gets an “oo-la-la!” from passengers now and then. Perhaps it’s a metaphor for my ever-fleeting femininity—barely hanging on.
And you want to know how you can do all this too. How you should go about it—the purchase and the build out.
I start to write.
The decision to live on the road does not have to be complicated, stressful or even well thought out. Do you have a job you can’t stand to leave? Consider a hiatus—call it a sabbatical. Is there a partner in the picture who’s unwilling to join? Envision the other fish in the sea (probably much more stimulating) and let him or her be a part of the baggage you’re choosing to leave behind.
A groan parts my lips. An exasperated housewife has burst through French doors and my studious neighbor, wanting silence to examine his Facebook feed, takes a precious moment to flash me a stare of disdain. Would you please suffer silently, thankyouverymuch? I do not recognize him. He’s wearing clean, holeless jeans and a button-up. Not a climber. I laugh and shrug and mutter something about tits and balls. How can I respect someone so clean?
Embrace it. Live a little. My guess is, if you decide to make the leap (I consider it more of a skip), and commit to a stint on the road, that says enough about who you are and what you’re into, to assure you’ll have a worthwhile time.
Worthwhile time? Hah! What does that even mean? I sound like I’m promoting Summer Church Camp.
Here’s the thing. I thought I’d be doing this for a year, at most. I thought this trip would relocate me. I would travel for a few months, dink around, see the states, pick a city that has bike-commuting potential and good beer and start up life again. I didn’t expect to find living on the road as easy and gratifying and sustainable as it is.
And there it is: the first sentence that encapsulates what I really want to talk about.
I’ve been on the road for over a year now, riding solo, flitting in and out of an ever-expanding, déjà vu community of fellow climbers who’re all doing more or less the same thing. We call ourselves Dirtbags—a term for someone who foregoes societal comforts and convention in order to devote her time and energy to that which she’s hell-bent on honing—climbing, in this case.
Some of us get a little pretentious with the title (a certain amount of groveling is required; Sprinters are frowned upon), and our cars and build-outs, hometowns and first languages, past jobs and alternate hobbies may all differ.
It’s a lifestyle, really. No one’s in it for sponsorships (but if someone’s offering…). It’s like a 9-to-5 that pays in play, and a very personal pursuit.
How did I get here?
I’ve always been a bit of a wanderer. Restless and curious, a lover of learning. When I was young, I wandered about through books. After college, I wandered about through foreign cities. I wanted to see firsthand all those lives and worlds described in literature and, if not become a small part of them, at least peer in through a closer window and glean something.
When I started climbing two years ago, it took only a few months for me to decide I would utilize my savings to buy a car big enough to sleep in, throw up the middle finger to ever-skyrocketing Portland rent, live on the road like a dirty hippie and climb every day. I’d found an intention—a physical, technical and mental challenge I could spend hours each day exploring—to assuage my restlessness, alongside a community of supportive and like-minded individuals who, like me, seemed more interested in quality of life than in society’s basic standards of productivity, status or happiness.
Not to say those who live a more conventional life are automatically unhappy or unfulfilled. But it wasn’t working for me.
I can talk about the logistics of my home quickly enough, but they are asides. I don’t take particular pride in my build out—this one was done in a shameless rush (I didn’t plan on long-term, remember?). No indoor kitchen; I cook outside on a Coleman stove. No toilet; I can’t even pee in a bottle like the boys in their cargo vans (squatting-space issues), but keep an eye out for my future book: A Shit with a View. I use those inflatable solar-powered Luci lights (my favorite “luxury” purchase at $20) to read at night or light a shared dinner table, and a shoe-organizer for my clothes, which I fold in half once stuffed and squish under my plywood bed. A bright pink storage bin holds all my food and dishes, but, because I don’t have a roof box, it sits on my bed whenever I have to drive anywhere, along with a foam roller and my crash pad (bouldering).
But I don’t want to talk about which car you should get or how you should build it out. For me, having spent this past year tucked up in an Element is a testament to how little the vehicle really matters.
Fresh air and open trails, sharp rock and coffee shops, friends’ apartments or bigger vans when it’s frigid outside. Being forced to get out there, every day, and go after that which inspires me, be a little uncomfortable, meet people before I’m quite ready.
When you have tidy walls built up around you, it’s easy to forget what they’re keeping you from exploring.
My point isn’t that you shouldn’t think it through. Weigh those costs and benefits, scribble out some lists, talk to people who’ve done it and tour their rigs (or just peruse the entirety of this blog), strive to locate and design the most comfortable future home, because my guess is, you’ll end up staying in it for longer than you anticipate. If I had known I’d be on the road indefinitely, perhaps I would have taken more time to save for the larger, equally dependable rig; maybe I would have built it out with a bit more patience than I generally provide such things. Of course, then I wouldn’t have a project for this summer, and I wouldn’t have discovered the amenities I can easily do without (a toilet, a shower), and the ones I’d really like to have (enough space to stretch, a desk I can write at without crouching). There’s always downsides, and there’s always something left to learn and to change.
But if you’re dedicated to embracing the road lifestyle, a Toyota Corolla could work for you if it’s what you’re working with now and it’s time to go (and I’ve seen it done, quite comfortably, by a 5’9” male).
Don’t let logistics bog down a simple decision: transition your life to four wheels and get the fuck out already. Because getting a little squished up and having to squish your stuff into a small space is good for the soul. Learning how to dumpster dive and eat oatmeal for weeks at a time is good for the soul. Foregoing a traditional shower for river dips and spontaneous sprinkler hose down is good for the soul (amazing, in fact). You’ll be surprised at what little space you actually need, how many things you can benefit from doing without, and how comfortable the uncomfortable can become, with just a couple days of sleeping.
I’ve learned to love simplicity; it makes contentment so much more accessible. We’ve all felt the overwhelming, debilitating sensation of too many options. Life on the road has a beautiful way of bringing focus back to those things we’d prefer to take our time considering.
An appendix for women
It’s a reality I want to see shift. I know there are many ladies out there who’ve felt and resisted the tug to hit the road because of one overarching theme: fear.
I’m a single woman living out of my car. I drive and camp, hike and climb alone often. I’m not saying being afraid is irrational. There’s no denying violence against women is an issue—a concern to be considered. But it can happen anywhere.
There are ways to assuage your rational fears. I have climber shoulders and a loud mouth that, I think, deters some harassment—but I wouldn’t depend on my strength or spunk to protect me. I have mace, for the surprises. And when I crash in removed places—on the side of the road, in a dark parking lot, at an unpopulated campsite, in a hot springs pullout—I do so not expecting to be attacked, but in preparation in case one were to happen. There’s a difference and it’s significant.
One reason the Element’s been great is because it is relatively inconspicuous; the majority of passers-by don’t assume someone’s asleep in there. It’s also a highly dependable vehicle, which should be a consideration for all women traveling alone who don’t know enough about the mechanics of their vehicle to tinker with, diagnose, and repair it in a breakdown situation. I’d rather not have a sput-sput-kaput out in the middle of the desert, because yes, I currently lack that knowledge. And not every man who stops to help a purdy lady with a purdy mouth will have good intentions.
My personal safety is ultimately my responsibility, and yours is yours. I have met and climbed, ate and communed, drank and danced and mingled and laughed with endless kind, respectful, supportive and safe men. I have not yet been in a situation in which I felt threatened. Still, I will not naively apply my personal experience to an unknown world that, unfortunately, still contains and propagates violence against women.
You will have to deal with the sprinklings of a creeper: a dedicated ogling at a gas station or a catcall when riding your bike. But these things happen in day-to-day life no matter where you are, as you well know, and I don’t consider these much beyond a nuisance. Still, my advice would be just as momma’s always was: trust your gut to digest all interactions, and don’t bother asking it logical questions. Intuition is paramount to your safety and shouldn’t be second-guessed, and actions taken with it as your guide should never be a cause of embarrassment. Ignore it if the boys laugh or don’t understand: they never will. They have no idea what it’s like to contend with rational fear so often.
But let boys be your allies too. Develop a community wherever you decide to go. If you’re a climber, you’re in luck—there’s a welcoming, loving collection of wanderers in seemingly every beautiful place that there are pebbles or mountains to wrestle.
No matter what, know it’s feasible. Leave now and glance back with a shrug.
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