There are two approaches to travel. One approach is to pack a suitcase or a backpack and suspend the rigors of everyday life for as long as your schedule/bankroll will allow. When your time and or money runs out, you return home and resume business as usual. The other is to haul your life down the road for an indeterminate amount of time, gypsy style. That works if you really are a gypsy; chances are you’d own a reasonable amount of essential possessions. The rest of us are doomed.
You may have seen the work of photographer Peter Menzel who did a photographic study of people and their stuff from around the world, called Material World . In the exhibit/book, families empty their homes of all their stuff, and Menzel records their worldly possessions. As you might expect, Americans win the “pile-o-stuff” award. We also like big spaces to hold our stuff. According to the census in 2014, the average American home was around 2,400 sq ft. I recently read it is now upwards of 2,600 sq ft. Our present home has around 1,500 sq ft of living space, so we’re on the small side of the housing trend. Still, we have a mountain of stuff, and until we started living in what amounts to a tiny house, we didn’t think much about our relationship with our possessions. We’re back at home as I write this, and the ritual of unloading the RV to move back into the house got me to thinking about space.
Our motorhome with all four slides open has 380 sq ft of living space. That’s huge by IKEA standards, but it would be easier to cope with the space if either our RV could occupy infinite time and space like Dr. Who’s TARDIS or I could get my hands on Alice’s Drink Me/Eat Me shrink and grow combo. Dogs, bills, plants, laundry, dishes, belongings and us are wadded into a lumbering vehicle that any self-respecting gypsy would consider excessive. We’d certainly be able to manage better if we didn’t waste our 380 squares of living space on things we don’t need. It’s said that nature abhors a vacuum, so it is that if we find an empty space, we also find one more widget or doodad to fill it.
Take something as mundane as food. When we first started traveling, I was in love with the idea of cooking my own food on the road (so healthy!). Including the freezer compartment, our fridge’s capacity has 12 cubic feet. By comparison the average residential fridge is 22 – 31 cubic feet, so that gives you an idea of how much real estate we have to work with. One bunch of broccoli takes up most of the vegetable bin, and the shelves are just deep enough that you can slide a carton of eggs in and shut the door without smashing them.
I’m learning. Fresh food is for when we are near a grocery and it’s practical to shop every few days. Complicated recipes stay at home. I made the mistake of making zucchini pancakes one day—which we love, but it requires fussy chopping, grating, draining, whipping egg whites, crumbling feta cheese, then cooking and keeping said pancakes warm. Afterward, it looked like a bomb went off in the RV, and it was an epic moment for Ben, who does the clean-up in exchange for my cooking. I am now a big fan of those five-ingredient meal recipies.
I came to realize that stocking our tiny home using ideas informed by life in our big house was causing us grief. Usually when we travel, we go for 2 – 3 months. We have to make decisions on what to take and what to leave, and I am not gifted with the talent for strategic downsizing. We misjudge the importance of objects and on every excursion there is a point where we wonder what we were thinking. Weird stuff we hauled around on this most recent trip was: A roll of white picket fence material; a bin of kitchen extras like a wine bottle holder; a blender (I guess I thought I might make gazpacho?); COSTCO-huge-sized box of band-aids; more folding chairs than we have friends to sit in and so on. When you’re living in a space where cereal boxes are too tall to fit upright in cupboards and you review all the untouched items you’ve hauled around for 3,000 miles—well, it’s embarrassing. Not only that, you spend time you’d otherwise use having a good time shuffling through all the stuff you thought you’d need to get to the stuff you do need. I think the picket fence was intended for something to do with dog control, but I can’t remember how we planned to use it. On the plus side, we have the receipt. Other excesses defy common sense. Take the ginormous box of band-aids, which could have covered the wounds of the entire population of Apalachicola, Florida. Twice. Get this news: Apalachicola sells band-aids too, at CVS and in the grocery stores! I still have a bazillion band-aids, so if you get a boo-boo I can hook you up with some first aid.
I now make decisions about the number of duplicate objects we need using a ratio of inconvenience to relative ease. For example, I have two sets of sheets for the bed. We can have clean sheets and I don’t have to scramble right away to find a laundromat. I can’t put off laundry day for too long since dirty sheets take up hamper space, but it’s nice to have clean sheets. There you go; inconvenience : relative ease explained. To those of you who may question how the ratio of inconvenience to relative ease works with three dogs; that situation isn’t up for discussion here. Let’s just say the ratio theory is evolving.
We prepare for what we know about our destination rather than adding to our burden of stress and stuff in fear of what might happen or what we might need. Come to think of it, when we return home we find ourselves looking at our house with the same set of eyes made fresh by realizations from the road and we are simplifying our lives here. It’s time to let the space in our lives be just that–space. Who knew RV life could be so Zen?