The Life Nomadic
How one family found its sweet spot in the slow lane
By Michel Miller 01/31/2013
When Brent and Jenn Nims announced plans to rent out their cozy 1,500-square-foot home in suburban Ventura, pack their two kids, two dogs, a cat and a turtle into a 35-foot RV and hit the road for a year, response from friends was understandably mixed. Since then, the Nims have clocked more than 27,000 miles and entered their second year on wheels, joining the ranks of an estimated 1.3 million Americans who live full-time in recreational vehicles. The Nims have no regrets, and the journey — both literally and metaphorically — has been rich with meaning, much of which Jenn has chronicled on her blog “Newschool Nomads.”
The decision to live this somewhat unconventional lifestyle wasn’t made hastily but it was made easily. Brent, a graphic designer and web developer, started his own business a few years ago; and when he was able to bring his work along while visiting relatives out of state, the two began to realize that full-time travel was not outside the realm of possibility. “Once we decided to homeschool [their kids], we thought, why not? What’s the worst that could happen?” said Jenn. “We were tired of feeling busy all the time and wanted to simplify.”
The children, 12-year-old Nathanael and 10-year-old Noah (or as their parents sometimes refer to them, Thing One and Thing Two), are both at an ideal age to travel, and the educational opportunities make for a strong argument in favor of going mobile. “They are old enough to remember the trip, but not yet at that age where they just want to be with their friends,” said Jenn. The only negatives were being away from loved ones and the financial uncertainty of depending entirely on freelance income. (Jenn worked as a fitness instructor before they began traveling.)
Nathanael and Noah Nims and their best friends Nigel and Nico
at the Wright Brothers National Monument in Kitty Hawk, NC.
Preparation was a year-long process that involved selling their two vehicles in order to purchase a fifth-wheel RV and a truck to tow it with, and slowly letting go of the belongings they didn’t want to store. The day before they left, they drove around town with a truck bed full of their stuff, asking friends to take what they wanted. “It was very liberating,” says Jenn.
Liberating, but also bittersweet. Just before their big departure, Jenn wrote in her blog:
“Today, I sat on the floor folding my laundry as if it was an ordinary day. A day where I would wake up in my bed, a bed that is no more. A day where I would school the boys on the couch, a couch that has moved on. A day where I would drive the streets I know, the streets that I will miss.”
When they did finally leave, it wasn’t the sun-drenched Disneyesque daydream Jenn had imagined: birds singing, friends gathered, farewell kisses and well-wishes. Rather it was a somewhat clumsy escape on a cool, damp evening in late October. No birds, no friends, just the quirky Nims family doing their best to heed the call of the open road. “We felt like outlaws,” she later wrote. “It was a combination of exhilaration, exhaustion and fear.”
The Nims’ two dogs, cat and turtle are along for the ride
as they travel the U.S. in their home on wheels.
They’ve been to every state except Wyoming, Montana, Utah, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Alaska and Hawaii, which they are hoping to visit this year — minus Hawaii, for obvious reasons. They’ve eaten fresh lobster in Maine; spent Independence Day in Boston, swum with manatees in Florida, celebrated a birthday at the Biltmore Mansion in North Carolina, seen the Peabody Ducks in Memphis, shopped vintage in Austin and battled ticks in Yorktown. Among their favorite stops are New York City, the Badlands in South Dakota (“like being on another planet”), Washington, D.C. (“a homeschoolers dream”), and New Orleans. “Despite its reputation, it’s a great place for families,” says Jenn. They’ve seen flying squirrels, alligators, wild horses, prairie dogs, buffalo, foxes, skunks, wild turkeys, coyote, rabbits, turtles, javelina, snakes, stingrays, barracudas, crocodile, a porcupine that crossed the road and plenty of deer.
The kids probably know more about American history than most high school graduates. They’ve earned more than 70 Junior Ranger badges, including the special 150th Anniversary Civil War Historian badge. They’ve visited numerous historical, art and science museums, including the Smithsonian, the Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. While on the road, Nathanael has started pre-algebra studies and composes music for the piano (he even wrote a piece for his dog); and Noah, a voracious reader, consumed approximately 100 books last year. “I think the education goes beyond what we can even understand,” says Brent. “A lot of it is just organic in the travel, getting to see places in person, a lot of the history and museums.”
A family portrait at Crazy Horse in South Dakota.
As the boys have been soaking up all that knowledge and life experience, their parents have learned a few things too; technology, paradoxically, is what allows them to slow their roll (they didn’t look at a paper map for an entire year and Brent has checks mailed to his virtual post office box) and community is not defined by geographic boundaries.
Though not intentionally part of a movement, the Nims are members of a national network of families who are traveling full time in RVs. “We’re not perpetually on vacation,” says Brent, though some people perceive it that way. They are living and working, paying bills, being schooled, just like everyone else — they’re just doing it on the move. The most surprising aspect of this journey has been meeting kindred spirits. “It’s been amazing, like a mobile neighborhood but a neighborhood where you actually know your neighbors,” says Jenn. “I think since we are living a slower-paced lifestyle there is time to really get to know each other. We’ve also explored new places with our road friends, and something about discovering together deepens relationships rather quickly.” Brent agrees and cites the shared moments as the most memorable so far. “We never experienced the richness of that kind of friendship before,” he says. Even after they part ways, they stay in touch with other mobile families and often make plans to meet up again in new locations.
With the cost of fuel at an all-time high, one can’t help but wonder if the economics of full-time RV living make it a cost-prohibitive lifestyle. The Nims consider themselves squarely middle class and say they’ve encountered people from a full range of socioeconomic backgrounds who have traded the perceived security of staying put for the freedom of a nomadic lifestyle. “I do think anyone could do it,” says Jenn. “I’ve met so many people who sold businesses, or people like us living on a budget who can’t eat out a lot, people who are working seasonal jobs, do eBay and campground hosting to make it happen, and people who use the YMCAs for showers.” Brent has managed not only to retain his clients, he’s also picked up a few new ones along the way.
Networks and RV clubs such as Thousand Trails also help make living on the road more affordable by offering huge discounts (after an initial membership fee) at campgrounds nationwide, and Walmart allows RVers to camp overnight in its parking lots, not the most idyllic place to wake up but nonetheless a privilege the Nims don’t take for granted. While they do stay with friends and family from time to time, in a typical month they spend $225 on camping fees and $650 on gas. They prepare most of their meals and have suffered no costly vehicle repairs to date. They are able to tailor their budget to accommodate sightseeing and recreational or learning activities, staying longer in some locations to offset gas costs, for example. Jenn regards the National Park Pass as the best deal going at $80 for a year, which usually includes educational programs, movies and tours.
Learning on the road is like school with a view.
Living in such tight quarters with virtually no time alone isn’t without its challenging moments, but for the most part they’ve managed to keep life peaceful. When they socialize with other road families, parents and kids usually split up, each group piling into a separate RV for a few hours. This provides necessary social opportunities for everyone. When one of them feels exceptionally irritable, he or she might go for a bike ride or take a walk for solitude. This lifestyle has also forced them to personally stretch and grow, as Jenn touches on in one of her more reflective, confessional posts:
“We have been forced to deal with each other. The good, the bad, and everything, oh yes everything in between. When you are together all the time in a 300 square foot space there is no sweeping things under the rug. The rug is just too damn small and the dirt just too much. We lost that parental luxury of ‘pretending not to see’ and oh how do I miss it! Problems are always two feet away and retail therapy isn’t an option when your closet rod is already breaking under the weight of too much stuff.”
They have responded to the everyday annoyances that become magnified in small spaces and unfamiliar places by simply adapting, though they may never get used to certain things: below-zero temperatures, frozen water lines, showering and doing laundry at campsites where big black spiders seem omnipresent, and searching for good-quality fresh produce. When living in Ventura, buying food at farmers markets multiple times per week was part of the family’s normal routine. Now they regard it as a luxury. “I was in a small town in Texas and I understood why people eat [frozen, packaged] dinners because the produce was so pitiful and gross,” muses Jenn. “It’s something more people tend to value here, and we have a year-round growing season [to support it].”
So has the lack of delicious fresh food, not to mention relatively mild year-round weather, made them homesick? “Hands down, Southern California is the best weather and most beautiful, and so many activities you can’t get bored,” says Jenn. “On the other hand, it’s so expensive and that’s why we always feel torn. Every once in a while we feel like drifters, like we don’t have a ‘home.’ We miss our friends in Ventura. We miss taking regular hikes in Arroyo Verde. We miss running into people around town.”
“It seems like the cost of living in So Cal requires more hustle,” says Brent. “Both parents working and the expectations of keeping up with the Joneses. It’s all good stuff but it’s taxing.” While they do miss their friends at home, the relationships they’ve forged on the road have been so surprisingly fulfilling that making this lifestyle a permanent one is something they would definitely consider — once the boys are grown. “I think it’s a great way to live. It seems like you wouldn’t be able to have roots or settle down, but it’s been the opposite for us,” says Brent. For Jenn, “The freedom to come and go as we please is intoxicating.”
The original plan was to travel for one year, but when they realized it was more enjoyable when they took their time, the Nims decided on an extension. The current plan is to return to Ventura in October, making it a full two years of life lived as full-time RVers. No doubt Nathanael (Thing One) will be quite ready to return to “normal” life. Being a preteen, stuck with his family 24/7 has been hard to take at times. Noah is still young enough to revel in the adventure, and Jenn and Brent will take what they’ve learned on the road and happily carry it forward. “One thing we are going to commit to doing when we get back to normal life in Ventura is to leave margins,” says Jenn. “We never want to fill our schedules so full that we don’t have time to deepen relationships.”
The hardest part is over. They took the leap, they survived and they continue to thrive. They’ve given their sons perhaps the greatest gift possible (even if they don’t know they want it): adventure. They’ve discovered what they’re made of and they’ve found their comfort zone in the slow lane. From her blog on the first anniversary of their great entry into the unknown, Jenn wrote:
“I’m not afraid of a house without wheels — there are many wonderful things about having a home in a community — I’m afraid of a life without brakes.”
To follow the Nims’ travels, visit www.newschoolnomads.com. To learn about other mobile families, visit www.fulltimefamilies.com.
No place like mobile home
by Michel Miller
After much research and debate, the Nims decided a fifth-wheel RV would be the best option for living quarters on the road. The Cedar Creek Silverback 33LBHT is equipped with slideouts for additional space, a shower, toilet, range, oven, sink, refrigerator, microwave, queen bed, bunk beds and décor that didn’t quite meet the style-conscious young family’s standards of visual appeal. They spent about six weeks turning it into a house they
could call home and a home where dad could work.
A trip to the garment district in L.A. provided Jenn inspiration for colors and fabrics. After painting nearly everything, Jenn solicited the help of a close friend to sew new curtains and recover the sofa and dinette cushions. The Nims removed a sink from the bedroom to create a desk/work space for Brent and added a tiny sink to the toilet room. Jenn painted the London Bridge on their headboard (they were engaged in London) and hung a petite chandelier over the kitchen table “to add some quirkiness.” Thanks to another friend, Brent was able to put in wood flooring throughout, and what had been an uninspired beige-on-beige interior is now a warm, whimsical, cheery place worthy of a spread in a home decorator magazine. “We wanted it to feel homey and unique since it was going to be our full-time home,” said Jenn. “Most RV interiors are so generic and blah, like bad hotel rooms. We wanted something fun and comfortable.”