I hope you had a peaceful and joy-filled holiday season and found some time for self-care. After diverting my posts in the past few weeks to talk more about self-care, we return to the topic of retreating. Enjoy this interview of Heidi Eliason, self-described Middle-aged Runaway and retreater extraordinaire.
In 2006, when she was 45, Heidi Eliason quit her job, sold her house, and retreated to life on the road in an RV. What started as a one-year plan turned into five years traveling around America. This edited interview is about that journey, which produced a book.
What inspired you to take your journey?
Desperation. I was depressed and burned out from decades of hard work, financial struggles, and the emotional impact of facing an empty nest. I knew I needed a major life change when I started envying the homeless people I saw to and from my boring job in San Francisco. It sounds crazy, but it seemed to me like they had so much freedom. They didn’t have jobs and they could do whatever they wanted. So, I sold my house, quit my job, and bought the motorhome (the “Green Monster”). It was a time of incredible freedom and self-rediscovery.
Weren’t you scared?
I had some fears, but they were more around things like how to handle a 30-foot motorhome towing my car. I was supposed to have a behind-the-wheel driving lesson when I picked up the motorhome, but my instructor canceled at the last minute. I then picked up my daughter at the Las Vegas Airport and drove the motorhome over the Rocky Mountains to Minnesota to visit my family. I just had to learn (how to drive it) on the road. So that was kind of scary.
How did you prepare emotionally for your journey?
Once I made the decision to do it, I was totally excited and motivated. I did get overwhelmed at times with the preparations and preparing my house to sell and learning about RVs and the “full-timing lifestyle,” as it’s called. I had never driven a motorhome or camped in a motorhome and knew nothing about RVs. I did feel a jolt leaving my daughter. She temporarily dropped out of college and moved back home to California, so I felt like I was abandoning her. But she was completely supportive. Other than that, I was really excited for the change.
Did anyone try to talk you out of it?
No, but my dad was concerned about the motorhome breaking down. He was an auto mechanic and didn’t have a good opinion of them. My mom was nervous about me traveling by myself. To let her know I was okay, I called her whenever I reached a new destination to let her know everything was okay.
What costs were involved and how did you manage them?
I lived frugally (buying the motorhome with proceeds from my house sale). My plan was take one year off of work, but when I approached that first year, I wasn’t ready to stop. I was loving the lifestyle, so I found work I could do while still traveling. Some RV people get paid to be campground hosts. I tried that once but it wasn’t a good environment for my dog, so I had to leave that job after a month. Then I found a job selling aerial photos of homes and properties (photos that property owners might want to have of their home, winery, farm, or ranch). I traveled to wherever these places were and sold them to the property owners. That allowed me to keep my freedom and my own schedule. I also did freelance writing for an RV travel company and consulting jobs in instructional design.
How did you choose your destination or itinerary? Did you have a plan, or was it pretty much wherever the wind took you?
I’ve never been a huge planner, but there were two destinations that I had on my itinerary: driving to Minnesota to visit family and the Albuquerque Balloon Festival to meet up with a friend that I had met a few months before. Other than that, I decided on my next destination based on what sounded interesting and whom I met along the way. I traveled to Baja, Mexico, with some people I had met. I wanted to visit national and state parks, and meet up with my daughter periodically.
What things did you discover about yourself during the journey?
My life was just completely transformed as a result. I was depressed before I started, had just given up on life. I lost my passion for living, my self-confidence. I knew I was desperately unhappy but I wasn’t sure what to do about it. I had this fantasy about buying a trailer and running away to the beach. When I realized I could sell my house and do that, I saw this window of freedom open up. So, I reconnected with myself. I discovered that I could be happy. I found my passion and joy again. I gained confidence in my ability to travel solo and handle new and unfamiliar things, like driving the motorhome and handling whatever came my way regarding repairs or situations I encountered.
Did any of your relationships with your family or close friends change?
I had an experience with my dad on one of my trips back to Minnesota. He was an alcoholic when I was growing up, so I had a lot of anger toward him when I was a teenager. I thought I had processed all of that. He did end up becoming sober. We had a close conversation about his childhood and how difficult it was. It made me realize why he became the way he did, the things he did. It gave me more compassion for him. There was a deeper level of healing that I had in my relationship with him.
Describe a frightening experience you had while on your journey. How did you respond and how did it change you?
I was camped on a beach on the Baja Peninsula in Mexico with other RVers. Some kayaks had been stolen from this little three-sided shelter made of palm fronds on the beach. We decided to form a neighborhood watch so that if anything suspicious happened, we were going to honk our horns to let the other RVers know. One night I was woken by whispering in the shelter next to my motorhome. It was too dark to see anything, so I couldn’t tell what was going on. I honked my motorhome horn. Then I saw a young couple creeping out of the shelter, two young lovers that were looking for a quiet place, and here I am honking my horn! My fellow campers teased me about it. I realized I had been primed for crime because of stories I had heard before I went to Mexico (in 2007). However, my experience with the Mexican people were that they were friendly, kind, and helpful. So I knew I shouldn’t give into fears about what other people tell me. That was an important lesson for me.
Did you have an experience that was potentially dangerous?
Not really, although I had learned some tricks from other solo women travelers. One woman would set a large pair of men’s beat-up work boots outside the RV door to make people think a big man was around. I had my dog, but he was just 25 pounds. So I got this giant water dish, like a Great Dane might have, which I put outside my motorhome. Once, I was passing through rural Mississippi and had to stop for a night. I was driving a long way on a narrow, deserted road in the woods, where I didn’t see another soul. It was late in the day, but there was no place for me to turn around, so I kept going. When I found the campground, there was only one beat-up motorhome that looked like it had been there for a very long time. The hair on the back of my neck stood up. I didn’t see anything, but it just didn’t feel right. I trusted my intuition and left the campground, backtracking 20 miles or so to another campground. That was the only time it felt really weird. There were a couple of other times I experienced some fears while traveling to Baja, but they were baseless.
When I was reading the book, I got a real sense of the community of people, the life on wheels, and it seemed like you really slid right into that, making some close friendships. Is that an accurate description?
Yeah, it’s very true. I’m still in contact with some of those people today. I discovered a wonderful community. They’re so helpful; there were many times when people offered to help me (fix a flat tire, help with RV repairs). One of the beautiful things about the trip was the community of fellow travelers.
How did you know when you ready to stop the traveling?
I was in California selling some aerial photos, and a friend met me there. We were walking down the street in this town and I looked in a shop window and saw a set of dishes I liked. So I bought them, which made no sense because they were breakable, and you don’t want to have breakable dishes in a motorhome. I packed them in the trunk of my car (which was being towed behind the Green Monster). It was the first sign that I was ready to settle down. It had been five years (being on the road).
Was it hard making the transition from life on the road to a “normal” life?
I was ready. Emotionally, I was sad dropping my motorhome off at the storage place to move into my townhouse. But I was ready and excited for the next chapter. I had gotten a good job and was ready to start that. I was also ready to have my established relationships with friends and family again. Although making new friends while traveling was wonderful, at times I missed having those established relationships with people where you could just call someone and say “hey let’s go to a movie,” on the spur of the moment.
What advice would you give others contemplating retreating from life and doing something completely different?
Be brave; feel the fear and do it anyway. We often let fear of the unknown or self-doubt prevent us from taking risks and adventures. It’s okay to feel afraid, but don’t let that stop you. It’s going to feel uncomfortable and scary at times, but have faith that things are going to work okay; just push through. Also, be flexible. Things aren’t always going to go the way you planned or hoped, but really wonderful things can come out of unexpected situations. You need to be open to whatever comes your way. And finally, be kind to yourself. I wasted a lot of time beating myself up for the mistakes I made. Woman especially are much better at taking care of others than taking care of themselves, so we need to let it be a time when we just focus on ourselves and what we need. Let it be a time of healing and discovery or whatever it is that’s needed.
Heidi Eliason is a freelance writer, editor, and consultant in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has written travel articles for an RV adventure company and developed training courses and manuals. “Confessions of a Middle-Aged Runaway” is her first book. Visit Heidi’s website to learn more and to buy her book. You can listen to the full, unedited, interview on my Podcasts page.
For links to retreats and other resources, visit my Resources page.
Read my memoir about a two-year retreat I took in Scotland.