Words by Katy Anne, Photos by Ilana Freddye
I first met Ilana two years ago at the San Jose airport. We'd both just flown to California to work for a traveling farm dinner company. I left my job of two years, moved out of my apartment, sold what I could of my stuff and left the rest of it on a street somewhere in Brooklyn. Ilana flew from Seattle (her hometown) where she’d been hanging out since she worked for the company the summer before. I didn’t know anyone, barely knew anything about where I was, and she and I were fast friends.
With six other people we traveled the country visiting organic farms, from California to New York and Texas and back to California. A lot of people were exhausted by the end of it, ready to fall back into a routine. But Ilana and I shared a thirst to keep going. It seemed impossible to settle back into a “normal life.” We both stayed unemployed for almost a year. She moved back to Seattle for a while and I moved into an Airstream trailer in a sleepy town in California.
In the winter we both signed up for WWOOF accounts and bought one-way tickets to Hawaii. For weeks we wandered around the Big Island, sometimes driving, sometimes hitchhiking, sometimes backpacking, eating next to nothing and sleeping in hammocks whenever we could find trees. That’s probably the most vagabond either of us have ever been. We made salads with canned chickpeas and free avocados. We made a head of cabbage and a lemon last three days. And we did whatever we wanted. We slept in shitty, humid hostels and drank too much kava. We fled from the weird farm we’d originally signed up for on the Big Island and ended up at a farm on Oahu, where we slept in an army trailer in the jungle with one mattress. We spent our days shoveling sand and putting up drywall and cooking meals in a kitchen with no running water and feral cats that climbed the wood beamed ceiling. It doesn’t sound as glamorous as it actually was to us -- those two months were electric and impossibly free. And then they ended too. In many ways I think we’ve been trying to make our way back there ever since.
At some point in the story we agreed to settle down for a year: to take it easy and rebuild our savings accounts, to be the twenty-somethings we sometimes felt we "should" be, to work towards something tangible. I remember Ilana telling me we were living another kind of adventure (“an adventure in staying still” if I remember right) while we planned for the ultimate adventure -- to buy a vehicle of our own and make this more of a permanent lifestyle.
Ilana (being the more fiscally responsible one) found a job in Seattle and I stayed in my hometown, transcribing someone’s novel and writing articles for off-brand magazines. It was hard to find a job or even a place that sounded palatable. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I wasn’t happy and I wasn’t unhappy. I thought about moving to San Francisco and working for a chef I knew. My stepdad had just bought a VW Eurovan that collected dust in his garage and somehow I convinced him to let me and Ilana take it to California to job and apartment search. Looking back now, the "apartment search" seems more like an excuse to get us on the road again. Ultimately I just wanted to drive somewhere and so did Ilana. We wanted to see Salt Lake. We wanted to eat frybread in New Mexico. We wanted to experiment with living in a van without having to fully commit to it yet.
That trip was formative: two weeks of hilarious ups and downs that probably should have turned us both away from #vanlife. We learned what it’s like to sleep in 120 degree nights in people’s driveways with propane secretly leaking into the van (we had headaches for days and didn’t notice). We peed in the bushes in major cities. We ate most of our meals out of cans, on the floor of the van or in the grassy parts of parking lots. We got in stupid fights.
And yet, I think if anything it solidified that we were both built for this. It didn’t make sense to me to move to San Francisco anymore. Instead I moved back to New York City. We both took jobs we didn't hate and tried to love, promising ourselves we’d buy a vehicle and start traveling by May. We saved money. Fast forward to May and we both quit our jobs like we said we would, found a camper from a man on Craigslist in California, bought a domain name, and here we are. We spent years telling ourselves the timing wasn’t right and maybe it still isn’t. But we're taking the leap anyway.