Life Lessons from the Road on Simplicity, Flexibility & Community
Life Lessons from the Road on Simplicity, Flexibility & Community
Insights from an inspiring young adult and professional athlete who lives in a van.
By: Abby Holcombe
"No (wo)man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river, and (s)he's not the same (wo)man." - Heraclitus
I've been driving for the last week straight on my first solo international road trip in my Winnebago + Adventure Wagon. I started in Denver, Colorado, and I'm less than an hour from my destination — Beachburg, Ontario. I'll be living in Beachburg for the next month to train on the world-class kayaking features of the Ottawa River.
While this might be my first time traveling solo to Beachburg, I am no stranger to the Ottawa River. And as I approach the last hour of my drive, I can't help but reflect on all of the lessons I've learned while living on the road. I find that everywhere I have traveled, I've taken little pieces from each location, river, community, etc., and they have shaped me into the person and athlete I am today. Because I've been traveling to the Ottawa River for so many years, I have learned many lessons on the river and the land that surrounds it.
Looking Back on My Growth in a Meaningful Location
The Ottawa River has been a place of exponential growth for me. It's pretty special to think back to where I was during my first two visits. The first trip was during our first year living full-time on the road. I started my first online school classes on the banks of the Ottawa River and spent most of my time outside of school, fishing, swimming, and playing with the other kids.
My parents were excited about kayaking on the Ottawa River, but I couldn't care less about the paddling, I just wanted to spend all my time with other kids my age.
The following summer, I spectated my first Freestyle Kayak World Championships, also on the Ottawa River. I honestly didn't have much interest in watching the competition, but that's when I decided I wanted to be a World Champion one day. At this point, I'd started to build a community of people from all around the world thanks to our travels.
I was also beginning to get the hang of completing my online school classes, and I'd fallen madly in love with our nomadic life of full-time travel. That same summer, I also started to really enjoy kayaking, thanks to World Champion Kayakers Claire O'Hara and Emily Jackson.
They both showed me how rewarding it is to push yourself physically and mentally in a kayak, and even though it felt like torture at times, I secretly grew to love it, and I've shaped my life around it ever since.
Between those first two visits and now, I've struggled and thrived. I've been scared and brave. I've won and lost. I've been alone, and I've been surrounded by incredible people. I've even been surrounded by incredible people but still felt alone. I've been insecure, and I've been confident. I've thrown big and small tricks in my kayak.
The list could go on and on. In short, some years were better than others, but my love for travel, kayaking, and the river always drew me back to the Ottawa River. Last year was probably the most difficult of all of my visits.
How Van Life Has Helped Me Grow
After winning the Freestyle Kayak World Championships last summer, I felt incredibly lost as to what I wanted to do next. I felt alone. I felt so much pressure to be someone I wasn't, and I started to dislike kayaking because of it. I didn't think that I'd want to go back this summer, but so much can change in a year.
I knew I was ready to give it another go, and I'm so glad I did. This year is already a brave, confident, happy, and fun visit, complete with good friends and a reignited spark to continue to progress my paddling.
The opportunity to reflect on past versions of myself and see emotional and athletic growth by revisiting places I've traveled to is why I continue living in a compact van down by the river. It's addicting.
Not only do I fall in love with places like the Ottawa River and want to return, but it also gives me a benchmark to recognize personal growth over the years. It's special and is absolutely my favorite part about traveling, besides the kayaking of course.
It is incredible to think that my first visit was more than nine years ago, during my first year traveling full-time with my parents, and that this is my first year traveling full-time in my own Winnebago. I've learned a lot, met many incredible people, and fallen head over heels with kayaking since my first visit in 2014.
Top 3 Lessons I’ve Learned from Living on the Road
I've grown so much as a person from all of my years of travel— these are my lessons from the road:
My lesson in simplicity started in 2014 when we were packing up our brick-and-mortar house to move full-time on the road. I had to pair-down my bedroom and playroom to fit into two small duffel bags that would stow away in the overcab bunk of our Winnebago View 24J, where I would be sleeping. I threw every toy, stuffed animal, and outfit that could fit in those two bags.
After a few weeks of precariously sleeping with, or more accurately on top of, my overfilled toy bag that I had barely touched, I realized that I didn't need much in the Winnebago. I had the whole world of adventure, exploration, and entertainment right outside the RV door.
The longer we traveled, the greater my appreciation grew for all the little details of life on the road. I quickly realized that you don't need much to thrive in your surroundings. A level parking spot, a body of water (for kayaking or swimming), and occasional access to the internet would be my version of a perfect destination. I was quickly amazed by the endless places that fit my criteria.
The contrast between my perfect destination and long days driving to the next place deepened my appreciation for the little things. For example, there is so much beauty in traveling all day long, and feeling sore, tired, and ready to crawl into bed for a good night's sleep. Stumbling upon a breathtaking campsite that is perfectly level and quiet just as you feel like you can't drive any further.
Or getting caught up in work, errands, or chores and not being able to start your drive until later in the day, but somehow the timing works out perfectly so that you pass the most scenic part of the drive during golden hour.
Outside of driving days, life on the road allows you to appreciate all the little things we take for granted daily, like visiting a friend's house and taking a long, hot, and spacious shower with endless water, or dinner prepared in an oven.
My life on the road has been surrounded by so much beauty, and I'm so grateful that my life in a Winnebago has opened my eyes to all the spectacular things around me.
It seems that those who live a traditional 'white picket fence' life also live a life of habit. When you live in the same town, visit the same grocery store, eat at the same restaurants, etc., you get comfortable and often even complacent. Even if you want to get out of your comfort zone and travel somewhere new, it is tremendously more difficult because you are comfortable in your routine life.
Not that there is anything wrong with comfort and routine, but personally, I like how life in the Winnebago has taught me new extremes of flexibility and how to cope with each unexpected hurdle. Change is difficult and unnatural, but I've always loved how my adventurous life of full-time travel has forced me to be comfortable with change.
I barely remember my 'brick and mortar' life, so from what I can remember, I grew up with constant change and adaptation to my environment. Don't get me wrong, it was sometimes challenging, especially as a kid and an athlete. But because I had the consistency of the Winnebago, I never felt uncomfortable or timid by change or new challenges.
Growing up in a van was this perfect blend of unpredictability and challenges, with the comfort of a home-cooked meal, sleeping in the same bed, and having all my toys, clothes, and kayak equipment everywhere we went.
Some days you get a flat tire, the weather doesn't allow you to visit your destination at ideal conditions, or even worse, Google Maps takes you on the detour of doom and reroutes you on the longest and most complex route imaginable. Something always happens on a road trip, allowing me to handle other adversities, like a global pandemic or unexpected changes during a kayak competition, with much more ease.
Be Grateful for Community
When camping on the banks of a river in France, the rustling of my tent awakened me. My parents were just a mere ten feet away in their beloved Revel. I started to panic, "Who is trying to get into my tent?!" and "What do they want from me?!"
It seemed as though everything was moving in slow motion, and my heart started to race more and more with every inch that the person unzipped my tent. Before I know it, I see an elderly French man with kind eyes and a … basket of croissants?! He spoke very quickly to me in French, plopped the basket under my tent fly, and left me in the solitude of my tent quicker than I could thank him.
I brought the basket into my parents’ van, and we devoured the best croissants we'd ever had while overflowing with gratitude for such kindness from a complete stranger. I left the basket under my tent fly while we went off adventuring for the day, and by the time we got back, the basket was gone. We were left in awe of the kindness shown to us by a stranger.
I have had so many incredible experiences over the last nine years of travel, and my fondest memories are similar to my croissant story. The places I've been to and the rivers I've paddled have been amazing, but no destination will ever top the incredible people that I've met along the way. I will always be the most grateful for the extraordinary communities I've been welcomed into.
Last May, I turned and moved out of my parent's van last July. The kindness I've received from friends, fellow travelers, and strangers who have become some of my closest friends is incomprehensible. As a kid, I knew the community I had was unique. But now that I don't have my parents traveling alongside me, I truly recognized how incredible my communities are.
I feel like the luckiest girl in the world to have such a strong support system and many kind people looking out for me. So many people have made my transition to solo travels much smoother and more comfortable.
I'm naturally introverted, but now that I'm spending most of my time alone, it's encouraged me to seek out friends in each destination more than I would when traveling with my family. Every time I step outside of my social comfort zone, I am always amazed by the kindness I get from the locals, who eventually turn into some of my closest friends.
I've learned so much from each community that's adopted me, and I hope that as I get older, their kindness will wear off on me. I hope to show the next generation a fraction of the support I've received from each community I've been welcomed into.
I've learned so much from the past nine years of travel, with many lessons coming from the last few months of traveling solo. I cannot wait to see what I learn as I end my first year of solo travel and how the places I've traveled to have shaped me in another nine years. Until then, it's time to enjoy another summer on the Ottawa River.
See you on the river. -Abby
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