Our little green bus sits parked out in the red sand and scrub of the Utah desert. The windows are filled with golden hour reflections of the incredible sandstone formations in the distance. On the stove simmers a pot of albondigas: small, Spanish meatballs in a paprika-infused tomato sauce. The air is heavy with their aroma, and our stomachs are rumbling. As soon as they’re cooked through, I will artfully arrange them and snap a few photos. Only then, after the pictures are taken and checked, can my wife, Ayana, and I finally dig in. They smell fantastic and we’re feeling ravenous after a glass of pre-dinner wine, but this isn’t just a lovely meal in the wild, this is also work.
For the past two and a half years, Ayana and I have been on the road full time in our short-bus-turned-tiny-home. We aren’t the #vanlife influencers you might be thinking of, per se, but we do make our living on the internet. Since hitting the road in October 2020, we’ve traveled to 22 states, covering a lot of ground, and long ago burned through the savings that we had when we started the journey. But, after this long on the road, it has become hard for us to imagine ever stopping, and we’ve had to find creative means to keep the gas tank and the refrigerator full. Ayana makes silver jewelry and practices natural dreamwork with clients over the internet. I spend my days writing as well as developing recipes for other nomads like us. Despite our inexpensive lifestyle, making a living isn’t always easy.
When I left my job as a firefighter, I had a lot of money in the bank. Even though the pay for wildland firefighters is not high, it is easy to save money while working a job that takes you away from home all summer and regularly includes over 1,000 hours of overtime in a six-month season. However, that schedule was also what drove me out of the profession.
At the age of 30, with an injured back and a long list of friends and relationships that my job had forced me to put on the back burner, I needed a change. The plan was to return to Colorado and put all my savings toward starting a new life. In this country we’re all told that we should buy a house as soon as we can afford it. So that’s what I tried.
Boulder, Colorado, unfortunately, is one of the most expensive housing markets in the country. It is no surprise, given the beauty of the town, the access to nature, and the general affluence, but while it had been my home for the previous six years, it was pretty clear that it would not be my home forever.
Teaming up with a friend, we attempted to put our entire shared savings toward a down payment on a rotten old two-bedroom house a couple of towns over. We made it so far as to have the house under contract, only pulling out when, after the preliminary inspection, the owner refused to allow us to have the sagging floor assessed by a structural engineer.
In the moment, we were both frustrated. We’d spent weeks looking at houses and had spent hundreds of dollars on the initial inspection of this house only to have the owner try to pass something off on us. In hindsight, I look at it as the most significant turning point in my life, and one that I am thankful for every day.
At that time, I was trying my best to make a sound financial decision ― investing in real estate ― and fate kept me from it. When it failed, I felt like a weight was lifted from my shoulders. Shortly after that attempted purchase, the market ticked upward again, and even the low-caliber houses we had been looking at were now out of our price range. Instead of putting everything I had toward owning something that might grow my wealth, I felt I had no other choice than to invest it in myself.
What could have been a down payment on a proper, sticks-and-bricks house instead became the freedom to follow the dreams I’d carried with me since childhood. Typical of the millennial experience for many right now, the things I’d been conditioned to want were out of reach, so instead I chose to focus on experiences and the things I could build myself.
Not long after that, I met Ayana and we started converting an old short bus out of Lamar, Texas, into our new house. The process wasn’t quick, as we were both still working at the time to stretch our money as far as we could. (She was a nanny and I worked as a personal shopper with Instacart.) Over the course of 18 months, we not only built our own home but also learned carpentry, electric, plumbing, and even a bit of auto mechanics.
When we finished, we took to the road full time, meandering our way across the country, making public land our home. I worked on my writing, photography, and cooking, all of those hobbies that, in my old lifestyle, I was told didn’t hold real value.
In this new life, we visited national parks we’d never seen before, swimming in icy rivers on the Olympic peninsula. We fished for trout in alpine lakes in Colorado, our bus parked nearby, its little wood stove burning cheerily. We basked in the desert sun in February in southern Arizona, surrounded by stately saguaros. We even joined the circus and followed it from one corner of the country to the other as a part of their traveling show. Taking that step away from safety and toward the unknown opened a new world to us.
It was not only travel experiences that we found but also new careers. For the first time in my life, writing was easy. Something I’d struggled at for as long as I could remember was finally flowing for me. By building the bus and this life with our own two hands, we proved to ourselves that we could do anything we put our minds to. And so, I wrote a book.
All my life I’d dreamed of seeing my name on the cover of a book. During our first two years on the road, I developed recipes, shot photos, wrote essays and stories, taught myself graphic design, built an audience, raised money on Kickstarter, and worked directly with a printing company to have the first 3,000 copies produced. Everything but the cover art and the actual, physical printing, I did myself. It was a pure expression of what can be accomplished when you are passionate, free, believe in yourself, and are willing and able to make some sacrifices. Nine months after publication, close to 1,200 copies have been sold. If anyone wants to argue that the millennial generation is lazy, feel free to tell them that story.
For Ayana and me, as well as the rest of our generation, it can sometimes feel like the dream we were sold as children was taken from us. A stable job with a good income, a house, a family, all these things became harder and harder to attain as we grew up. But, in the absence of that old American dream, we’ve learned to forge our own path.
When we bought the bus three months into our relationship, people thought we were crazy. When I decided to put all of my savings toward supporting myself while I chased a career as a writer, people surely thought I was a fool. When we decided to take off and travel full time, rarely spending more than 10 days in one place, no one thought it would last. And maybe we are a bit crazy and a bit foolish to forgo the standard, safe life and to trade a steady income and a stable house for the uncertainties of a nomadic life. If I’d chosen to buy that house all those years ago, I would undoubtedly be richer now. But I don’t think I’d be as happy.
All of that said, this lifestyle is not easy and is certainly not always glamorous. Living this way means experiencing the weather as it comes, both when it’s boiling hot and when it’s bone-chillingly cold. It means few showers, frequent uncertainty about where you’ll spend the night, and a constant struggle to make a decent living. But, even as I sit here now, with my bank account lower than it has been since I was in my early 20s (more than a decade ago now) and all sorts of fiscal alarm bells ringing in my head, I am filled with nothing but gratitude for this life.
Building our bus gave us a kind of freedom that few people find. It’s not just physical freedom from a job and a mortgage, but mental freedom as well. Building our home and creating our own path taught us that, truly, we can do anything, live anywhere, and be anyone that we want to be. We don’t have the white picket fence or the 2.5 kids; there’s no stable income and certainly no pension down the road, but if we aren’t living the new American dream, then I don’t know what you would call it.
For our generation, that dream is freedom. Freedom to wake up on our own schedule, to choose each week what our backyard will look like, to do work that matters to us, and to spend our time with the people we care about. We may have startlingly little wealth, but we are rich in that one commodity that can’t be bought: time.
Chasing my buslife dreams may have cost me a lot of money and made me an outsider to an entire section of society, but I wouldn’t change a thing.
A.J. Forget is a modern nomad, living out of a 90-square-foot bus named Sweet Bea and traveling across the United States full time. In the autumn of 2017, Forget left a career as a wildland firefighter in order to pursue his other passions of cooking, travel and writing. He is a self-taught chef, creating gourmet fare in his tiny kitchen with a three-burner stove and no oven. Forget wrote “The Buslife Kitchen” cookbook to show others that cooking international cuisine in a tiny kitchen is simple and anyone can do it, whether in a bus, van, RV or boat. Forget lives with his wife, Ayana, and their dog, Tori. When he does park for an extended period of time, he considers Boulder, Colorado, his home base. To learn more, please visit TheBuslifeKitchen.com. You can also follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok @the.buslife.kitchen.