A year ago, Liz and Dan Collins and their 10-year-old son, Noah, were merrily going about their daily lives in their North Side neighborhood: work, school, soccer games.
Life was not boring, but their idea of adventure was a weekend trip to Belle Isle or kayaking on the James River.
Now? A new adventure is literally around the corner every day.
They sold their home, bought an RV and hit the road to see America.
They didn’t see this coming, but then, like the rest of us, they didn’t see COVID-19 gaining on us in the rear-view mirror.
The pandemic has changed everything about how we do anything — most especially work and school — and how many of us view our lives. Some see limitations; others, like Liz and Dan Collins, saw opportunity.
“It started when we found out from the city of Richmond School Board that at least the fall semester would be virtual. When that happened, it started my wheels turning. I guess I was maybe into my third glass of rosé when the idea kind of hit me,” Liz said with a laugh. “And here we are.”
She added, “Dan did not talk me out of this harebrained idea.”
Without missing a beat, Dan said, “And apparently I was supposed to.”
Where they are, when last I checked, was Nashville, Tenn. They had just arrived Thursday evening after a drive from Asheville, N.C. They’re headed to Missouri on Sunday. After that, not even they know for sure.
They left Richmond on Nov. 13 and headed south and west for the first of what they expect will be many stops in the coming months.
“Not knowing what comes next is exhilarating and scary,” Liz said. “I’ve heard if it’s scary and exciting, then it’s the right decision. Maybe it’s the fact that every day was turning into Groundhog Day due to COVID and we just couldn’t stand the thought of it continuing as is. We needed to shake things up. It’s just a calling that we couldn’t ignore. And I’m very lucky to have a partner who will support my crazy ideas.
“No idea who we’ll be after this, but we’re going to enjoy our own evolution.”
Liz is working remotely for her corporate job, often from the dinette table in the back, while Noah attends class, usually from his preferred spot in the passenger seat. Dan, who left his job as a school photographer, is building his fine-art photography portfolio and keeping the RV humming. The other day, Liz overheard Noah fielding questions from incredulous classmates, including, “Where are you going to live after this?” and “Do you have campfires every night?”
The family went for a mountain hike near Asheville on the day before Liz messaged me with an update.
“Going great!” she wrote. “I have to do my yoga outside by the lake, which is awesome. A little cold, but the ducks all come to watch me.”
When the pandemic made public indoor spaces off-limits, fresh air became the destination for many. From dog parks to national parks, people have flocked to the great outdoors, sometimes in overwhelming and record-breaking numbers.
The lure of the open road also has been strong. The RV Industry Association said shipments of RVs for 2020 likely will top 2019 by 4.5%, despite a two-month shutdown of the RV industry earlier in the year. Initial estimates for 2021 project up to a whopping 19% increase.
A lot of Americans have acted on the get-out-and-go urge by acquiring RVs, but how many have taken the drastic step of selling their home, putting their possessions in storage and actually untethering themselves — at least to an extent — from their former lives?
The pandemic set this whole thing in motion — Liz was already working remotely for her job as a process manager with a large Richmond company, and Dan’s job as a school photographer had been largely upended by school closings so he was considering quitting to stay home and help shepherd Noah through his virtual fifth-grade year — but it was the housing market that pushed them to act.
They thought about holding on to their house and renting it, but they didn’t want the long-distance headache. They decided the time was ripe to take advantage of a seller’s market. They had a contract offer only a few hours after they held an open house.
They purchased a 30-foot-long motor home (with a 20-foot-long car trailer) before the house sold, so all that was left was learning how to park it. And fill it with gas. Serious maneuvering was required through the gas station parking lot, but all was fine — once they figured out which side the RV’s fuel-filler door was on.
Another early test came on their first “dry run,” a camping trip to Twin Lakes State Park near Farmville in October. They left Richmond later than they had hoped and arrived at the park after dark, in the pouring rain, without a handy campground map. Yet Dan eventually finessed his way into their campsite, and then hooked up to the electric and water service. All while it was still raining. Hard.
“It’s like he’s been driving these things his entire life,” Liz said.
He hasn’t, of course, and neither has the family done long-distance traveling quite like this (“I’ve driven across the country, but it was to get from A to B,” Liz says. “It wasn’t to meander.”) And they’ve not done anything resembling this sort of campground living or whatever it is they’ve settled on calling what they’re doing. “Dan keeps calling it ‘camping.’ I keep correcting him. I don’t camp,” Liz said with a laugh.
That first trip was a series of learning experiences — they brought a coffee maker but not a carafe — and unfortunate mishaps, such as a couple of falls because of the slippery footing that resulted in bruised egos but no serious injuries. Liz woke up the first morning with one eye swollen shut. She drove into Farmville to see a doctor and get a prescription for the infection. She also brought back coffee.
“One thing we’ve learned is we must remain flexible,” Liz said with a laugh.
Overall, they “absolutely loved” the initial experience — though the falling acorns were slightly perilous when she stationed herself outside the RV during online meetings for her job.
They returned home and with the help of friends tidied up the details of selling the house and preparing to leave on an adventure with no certain destination and no known end-point.
Their rescue hound, Rufus, is along on the trip, too.
“We always joke that we’re just taking him to find new places to nap,” Liz said.
They honor Rufus with their Facebook and Instagram travel blogs, which readers are invited to follow, #RollingWithRufus.
After the stop in Missouri, what then?
Though none of their plans are firm, they’d like to visit some of the national parks out west, including Yellowstone and Grand Canyon. While in Arizona, Noah has expressed an interest to visit Sedona, a desert town surrounded by red-rock buttes and known for its vibrant arts community. Colorado is on their list, as are Utah and Nevada, particularly Las Vegas, where they have friends. They will spend Christmas in the Texas Hill Country with Liz’s family. At some point, they’ll come back through Richmond and head up the East Coast.
After that? “We might do another loop.”
They expect to be gone for a matter of months, maybe even a year. Depends on how much they enjoy it, how well they weather the frustrations that are inevitable and how well working remotely, well, works.
After arriving in Nashville the other night and realizing they had crossed into the Central Time Zone, it suddenly dawned on them, so to speak, the wake-up calls will come earlier and earlier as they drive west, as in up and online by 6:15 a.m. to match up with class and office hours back east.
“We haven’t told Noah yet,” Liz said.
Meantime, there are sunsets to admire and new roads to venture down, daily discoveries that amaze and inspire — all of those along for the ride. Almost.
“Rufus remains not at all impressed,” Liz said. “He just wants his carrots and his bed.”