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I vividly remember the day I left my cozy apartment in Mill Valley, a bedroom community north of San Francisco, and started living in a car. My apartment looked barren; I’d given away most of my stuff, and the rest I’d stashed in a shipping container in Sausalito.

That shipping container held the items I couldn’t bear to part with. A couple pieces of furniture that tethered me to the world of apartments. Some childhood mementos. Two suitcases of my clothes.

I felt so vulnerable and alone. Was I doing the right thing? Was giving my nice apartment up to start living in a car and a tent to pay off my debt the best decision?

Was giving my nice apartment up to live in a car and a tent to pay off my debt the best decision?Click To Tweet

I had to say goodbye to coffee on my couch in the morning, a closet to store my clothes, a stove on which to cook, a bathroom to use at night!  I had to say goodbye to my sense of security. I also said goodbye to my sense of autonomy, since I was living in my boyfriend’s car.

Giving up my sense of home was one of the scariest decisions I’ve ever made.

Feeling homeless when I first started living in a car

How living in a car changed me

My car is a wreck, I thought to myself on my third day of living in a car. An overflowing laundry basket sat in the back seat next to a clear bin full of bathroom stuff. A pile of shoes was crammed on the floor behind the driver’s seat. A dress or two hung from the headrest. It looked bad.

I was parked on the side of the road near my storage unit trying to get organized, and couldn’t help but feeling conspicuous, rummaging around in my car with messy hair and mascara smeared around my eyes. I hadn’t slept very well the night before; too many thoughts and worries.

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It was quite an adjustment going from place to no place, and I’d woken up in fits and starts, knowing why I was doing this but also wondering how long it was going to last. I was exhausted and just wanted a warm bed with thick blankets to nestle under.

Isn’t this exactly what homeless people do? I thought as I put a pair of dirty socks into the hamper. Rummage around looking crazy in their messy cars?

Flashbacks of people in similar scenarios flashed through my head: The woman with dark circles under her eyes and ill-fitting clothes digging around in her garbage-filled trunk. A man with ratty hair and plastic over his windows trying to find something in the back seat. Those people always seemed to have a capital “H” emblazoned on their foreheads. “H” for homeless.

It was obvious they’d fallen on hard times, and I wondered if other people thought the same thing about me. Do I look homeless? It was hard to know.

That morning, I spent some time cleaning up and organizing my car, swearing that I wouldn’t do this for long, just long enough to pay off my debt.

This way of life had me feeling down and out, constantly rummaging and puttering about, and I caught a glimpse of how a living situation can truly shape a person and how they feel about themselves.

And as the weeks turned into months, I started to redefine the meaning of home.

Car life and the meaning of home

How living in a car changed me

A hike in Palm Springs. Living in a car made me feel much more connected to nature than I’ve ever been.

When I lived in the car we stayed in campsites near San Francisco and commuted into the city for work.

Even though it was odd to be doing this every single day, as a lifestyle, there were joyous things about camping beneath the stars.

After a busy day covering stories for the radio station and fighting hordes of angry drivers, I felt soothed coming home to the trees. Life felt simpler in the campground. All I had to worry about was getting water for our campsite and preparing our dinner.

There were no chores, no cleaning, no anger, no stress, no pretention, no competition for the fanciest house or car or restaurant. There were only deer and owls and the trees and a little babbling brook nearby.

With living in a car, there's no competition for the fanciest house or car or restaurant. Click To Tweet

That night, while lying in the huge tent with my boyfriend Tom, I thought about his friend Heinrich and his enduring happiness and thankfulness for the natural world. Heinrich’s favorite word was “fantastic”, and he used it regularly to describe what he thought was beauty in life, especially when it came to sleeping in his van.

What was fantastic to him was the beauty of nature, of being, of inhabiting a lifestyle so far outside the norm.

“Isn’t it fantastic?” He’d murmur over a glass of red wine when he visited us at the campsite. “I pull up near these bushes with fragrant flowers and slide my van door open all the way. I smell flowers all night while I sleep. Isn’t it fantastic!” He’d shake his head from side to side and smile with deep pleasure at the memory, at the beauty of the world we live in.

Maybe the big “H” on my head didn’t have to really mean homeless.

Maybe it could mean Happy. Or Healthy. Or Hopeful. I was on my way to being debt-free. I was enjoying nature. I was with Tom. And that, in itself, truly was fantastic indeed.

What I learned living in a car

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View of the Columbia River Gorge while taking a nap inside the Prius

I didn’t live in a car for long, only four months, but it taught me a lot.

  • It taught me what I truly need to live and be happy, which is my family, friends and nature.
  • It taught me that I am resilient, that even though I feel homeless one day, I’ll be okay the next.
  • It taught me that I can live in a small space with my significant other, a skill that has now translated into living on a sailboat together.
  • I’ve learned that I’m really not into buying and owning stuff.
  • It taught me that life truly is an adventure to be enjoyed and experienced, and that we should truly take moments out of every day and relish them

I know my experiences living small have changed me for good, and I hope for the better.

How has living a smaller life changed you? I’d love to know!

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