(See other articles in this series in the Travel section.)
When I got on the road, I literally got on the road. I started with a house full of possessions. I spent a month whittling them down to just what I could fit in the car.
I sold what was small and valuable on Amazon. Their Fulfillment by Amazon service is a godsend when you want to advertise a pile of your belongings and can’t wait around for them to sell. You create all your listings on Amazon.com and create a shipment order. They divide the order into sensible box-sized groups and give you packing lists. You send your items to one of their warehouses, where they sit until they sell. When you have a buyer, they ship the item (and handle returns). With a trip to the post office, you can rid yourself of a ton of clutter and not think about it again until the deposits appear in your account.
I sold the things too big for Amazon (like the TV and bicycle) on Craigslist. What didn’t sell there went into a weeks-long yard sale. I’d move it all from the porch to the yard each morning, and work on the house until someone knocked at the door to buy something. What still didn’t sell I marked down and finally set out for free. I sent a few momentos to my sister to keep for me. A shocking amount of trash still remained. Boxes of it covered the whole verge between my sidewalk and the street. I set it out the night before I left and avoided the garbage man’s evil eye.
At last, I was on the road. My hatchback was stuffed to capacity. Bankers boxes filled the storage area and were stacked two tall and three across on the back seat. The passenger seat was in the full forward position to accommodate the things stuffed behind it. It’s how I was living, but everyone I met thought I was moving.
It was still a lot to manage. When Al and I would go on a trip or I’d go housesitting across the country, I’d have to pay to store the car somewhere. When I got back, I’d have to get Uber to drive me to the storage facility. I was always digging through boxes looking for something. If I was staying somewhere for any length of time, I’d have to carry all the boxes into the house. And all the driving was terrible for my back.
A year into my travels, I decided to go to Europe and see how well I could get by with just a backpack. After three months, I’d never missed a single thing that was back in the car. I rented an apartment in Fort Lauderdale last August and spent the month selling the car and everything in it. I spent the first week of September setting up residency in Texas. My belongings now consist of one bag and a virtual address, and I’m a citizen of the world.
I’d started by bringing everything I thought I might need. I had cookware and linens in case I stayed in a cabin. I had a sleeping bag and a big comforter. I had warm weather clothes and cold weather clothes. I had jackets and a winter coat. I also had boxes of paperwork I just hadn’t taken time to process before leaving my house.
I came prepared for the eventualities I imagined. Once I was living my new life, I used less than half of what I had and needed less than half of that. Hauling around household goods wasn’t worth the time or two I used them. Keeping an all-weather wardrobe made no sense when I was avoiding Winter.
Now I use the cookware that’s available in the house I’m sitting or the hostel where I’m staying. In the in-between times, I can still go to a grocery store and pick up something to take to a picnic table. I avoid truly cold places, but if I’m somewhere chilly, my homeowners usually have a closet full of jackets I can borrow.
If you’re unsure whether to bring something, wait and buy it when you get there. I’d rather pick up a winter coat in a thrift store and drop it off when I leave than lug one around the tropics for months beforehand. I wanted to use the gym on the ship I took around the Mediterranean last Spring. They require shoes, and I only had sandals. I bought a cheap pair for $20 before I boarded and gave them to the steward when I left. $20 was a bargain for not having to carry them around for three months so I could use them for two weeks.
Digitization lets me carry everything of real value with me. My Kindle has all my books, including my guidebooks. I scanned all my paper photos year ago. I left a few originals of my deceased partners with my sister, but printing the high-resolution scans gives a better picture than the fading prints. During my month in Fort Lauderdale, I finished scanning my last boxes of papers. I have copies of all my financial and medical records in the cloud and on my phone. The cameras in phones are incredible now. If any paper comes my way, I capture it in a scanning app and drop it in the trash.
I don’t have to pay homeowners insurance. I don’t have to pay car insurance. The money I would have spent there goes toward my travels. Since everything I own is in one bag, I can go on a moment’s notice. If an opportunity appears, I take it.
Until you’ve lived without a “permanent” address, you don’t realize how many basic tasks of life demand one. If you want to drive a car, you need a license. If you want a license, you need to prove that you live at a specific address. Even if you don’t. If you want to vote (and I definitely did this year), you have to register in your “home” district.
When I called the Healthcare Marketplace to get insurance for my second year on the road, I asked what policies were available for someone who doesn’t have a permanent address. The call center rep said, “You have to have an address.” “But I don’t have an address.” “You have to one. You can’t apply without an address.” “Ok, but I don’t have one. How do I apply?” “You have to have an address. You have to pick which State you’re applying for.” “I don’t live in any particular State. I might live in seven States in a year. How do I just apply for nationwide coverage?” “You can’t, you have to pick a State.” “Which State should I pick?” “You have to pick the one you live in.” “I don’t live anywhere. I live everywhere. But I need health insurance. How do I apply for it on your website?”
“You have to have an address.”
It will take a long time for bureaucracies to catch up with the reality of modern life. I was dealing with serious health issues at the time and the deadline was near, so I did what my Abbott and Costello and Kafka friend required. I lied. I applied with my old address, pretended I still lived there, and punted the problem down the road.
When I came back to it the following Summer, I chose the Escapees RV Club as my solution. Twenty years before the Internet allowed people to work from anywhere, they began helping retirees who lived in mobile homes and faced them same problems. They receive my mail, scan the envelopes, and email me when there’s a new one to review. If I tell them to scan the contents, I have a PDF of them the next day. That’s usually all I need, but I can also add mail to the queue of items they’ll ship to me the next time I give them a forwarding address.
I was already doing this with a company in California, but the Escapees Club has been in business for 39 years and is a major part of their small community. They’ve helped a couple of generations of travelers jump through the residency hoops. It’s ordinary business to the town; I did everything I needed to do in a few hours. When I went to the Department of Motor Vehicles, the receptionist asked for my address, and it was like a codeword. He shouted to one of the clerks, “He’s Rainbow Drive.” I’d set up mail service with Escapees and redirected all my bank accounts there. When I gave them my current license and brought up a PDF of a bank statement with the Escapees address on the Web, they took my picture and handed me a new license. Who knows when I’ll be back in Livingston? Maybe in seven years to renew the license. In the meantime, Texas has helped me enshrine my casual lie as an official one.
From there, I took the license to the County Clerk’s office. In ten minutes, I had registered to vote and arranged to have an absentee ballot mailed to my partner’s home. I went on to Austin to my first appointments with a new doctor, dentist, and optometrist. Friends had recommended Austin and I thought it would be a good place to stop for checkups during my travels. I’ve since been reconsidering and thinking about moving some of my care out of the States, especially as my Spanish improves. High quality, inexpensive healthcare is available in many places in Mexico now, and the word is getting out. When cruise ships are in port, you can’t get a dentist appointment.
I’ve pursued my goals to their extreme ends. I wanted to travel, and I’ve reordered my life so it’s one long trip. That’s not possible or desirable for everyone. Two years ago, my father needed me with him. I could be away from home a couple of weeks a year. Even if you don’t have responsibilities keeping you home, you may just like your home and your community.
Traveling doesn’t have to mean turning your life upside down. Travel on your own terms. Travel within the constraints your life requires. But take the time to consider which parts of my path might help you realize your own dreams. Do you have too much stuff? Could you convert it to cash and drop insurance payments to fund your wanderings? Could you digitize your records and automate your finances so you’re not worrying about what you’ve left at home? Could you learn to pack light and have a bag always ready to jump on opportunities that appear?
If you have any interest in traveling, look through the toolbox of the modern nomad. You don’t need to use it all. Any steps you take to live just a little more like a global citizen will lessen the friction and deflate the excuses. Soon you’ll face a new problem. Instead of being frustrated by daydreams of where you’ve always wanted to be, you’ll have to face the fact that there’s no reason you can’t be there. So why aren’t you?
4 thoughts on “21st Century Travel: Possessions and Residency”
You’re a terrific travel writer, hope you find some venues to get your work out in the world. And you’re personal essays about family are so evocative, so I think you’ve definitely got the potential of being an excellent memoirist.
I’m a writer also, but more in the crime and police procedural genres. I live near NY City where I spent most of my life (which is in the final quarter.) I also studied writing and literature and have a masters degree, which I paid for with my social security (worth every penny.)
Anyway, just wanted to give you some affirmation re your writing. If you ever get to NY in your travels drop me a line, would love to meet you for a drink or cup of coffee, discuss the craft.
Thanks so much! I appreciate your comments. I’m glad you’ve been able to pursue your writing dreams; it sounds like it’s been fulfilling for you. I’m staying in Jackson Heights until April 15th, so let me know if you get into the city. 🙂
Love your articles…sound free and fun with virtually no baggage. Do you still house/dog sit? We live just south of Escapee’s in Livingston, and need a sitter
Thanks! Yes, I’m still housesitting, but currently booked through November. Post an ad on some of the housesitting sites, and I’m sure you’ll find someone great! 🙂