Love yourself first and foremost. Fill yourself up with so much love that you can’t help but let it spill over to the world around you. Mary Brewer is 26 and from Chicago. She went to the University of Illinois at Chicago and studied Sociology with a focus on Gender and Women’s Studies. She believes believes she will return to school soon for my doctorate in Gender and Women’s Studies, but JUST got out of school debt so may wait until someone finally has the good sense to make education a social welfare priority like many other thriving societies, or just go to Germany and get it for free. In the meantime, she packed her belongings and her dog and is traveling the United States by van.
What made you decide that you wanted to take this road trip?
Well I was living in Chicago and working in the service industry. I had finally been able to pay off my student loans and save some money, so I wanted to travel. The idea of the open road and seeing the USA seemed super whimsical and exciting so I set out in planning what I initially said would be a 4+ month trip.
What preparations did you make in order to embark on this trip?
So I bought my van, a Chevy G1500 Express, took out the seats and the carpet, and outfitted it to live in.
I also forwarded all my mail to my mom’s house. Left my apartment, and paid off all my student loan debt. I also got car insurance with roadside assistance in case of break downs, sold some of my stuff, gave away some, and packed away the rest that I couldn’t bring with. I also read a lot of blogs by people living and traveling in their vans (or just traveling alternatively/ on the cheap) for advice on outfitting the van and for living on the road.
How did your friends and family react when you told them you were going to live out of van for an X amount of time and travel the country?
Haha! Most people said I was crazy, but were also super excited about it. I still get a lot of comments on how jealous everyone is and how they wish they could do it too (you can).
My parents and close friends weren’t too surprised. They know I’m a bit of a hippie and that traveling is super important to me, so they were excited, supportive, worried, inquisitive, but not very surprised as this decision fits with my personality.
What improvements and changes did you make to your van in order to make it feel like your home?
Well, as I said, I took out the back seats and carpet. I also screwed some bolts into the walls to hang a hammock from (inside the van) secured some extra lighting to the ceiling as well as a smoke alarm and carbon monoxide alarm, made some curtains for the Windows, fastened an extra large net to the ceiling for blankets and other large items to be stored, and bought a bunch of plastic drawers and drilled holes in them to secure them together with zip ties and then drilled holes in the van and put eye hooks into the van to then secure the drawers to the van walls (to prevent tipping during transit). I also put bungee cords around the drawers, secured by zip ties as well, to prevent the drawers from opening while driving. I also bought quite a bit of camping equipment: 7 gallon water jug, sleeping bag, sleeping mat (in case the hammock got uncomfortable), a solar shower, lantern, roadside emergency kit and first aid kit, a cooler, and a headlamp. I also gathered together the kitchen supplies I needed, like bowls, cutting board, knives, utensils, ziplock bags, etc. and packed them into the drawers.
Other than that I just figured out a way make room for everything I needed and I set out!
You’re traveling with your puppy, Baby. Does being on the road with her make it easier or harder?
Yay! Baby! She’s the best! Having her with me has been a challenge and a blessing. She’s helped me through some hard emotional stuff, by just being here and being unconditionally loving, as dogs are. But also, it’s been hard. I got her when she was a 2 month old puppy. And anyone who has raised and trained a puppy, knows that it can be a fucking struggle. She’s peed on pretty much every surface in the van, she’s torn up my steering wheel and my seats, and driven me crazy. But I think living in the van and being able to be with her almost 24/7 for this past 7 months has been so helpful in socializing and training her. Just the other day, the vet said she was the most well behaved 8-month old pit bull he’d ever seen, which of course, made me so happy because it’s been a fucking struggle. I’m always there to give her love and to discipline her when she’s not listening, so it’s been really consistent and constant for her.
And she’s taught me so much. I’ve never had to be solely responsible for a living being, in this way, before and she’s taught me a lot of patience.
How are you sustaining income at this point? You have been gone for more than six months.
Well, I saved up about $10,000 before I left chicago, I live very frugally, and I have stopped to work a couple of times on the road. I have a lot of experience in the service industry, so picking up serving and bartending jobs is pretty easy and they’re literally everywhere. But I’ve also tried some forms of online work like teaching ESL and doing sales (I hated the sales work).
But it’s really not hard to live cheaply in the van. Also when you have faith and confidence in yourself to be able to survive and to make money happen when you need it, you just figure it out as you go.
Where has been your favorite place so far? What are the top three things you have to do there?
Oh man, there are so many awesome places in the USA. I feel like a lot of Americans don’t know that. Some of my favorites are:
Asheville, North Carolina
You have to:
Get tea at the original Dobra Tea House
Drive the blue ridge parkway
New Orleans, Louisiana
You have to:
Dance/March a Sunday second line
Do a voodoo or haunted New Orleans tour
You have to:
Go to Moab and arches national park
Go to Bryce Canyon
Las Vegas, Nevada
You have to:
Walk the strip at night
Go to the Las Vegas sign
See old Vegas
Key West, Florida
You have to:
Swim in the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico
See the sunset at sunset pier
Drive the pacific coast highway along the coast of California and of course swim in the ocean, watch the sunsets, but farm fresh produce on the side of the road, and check out he cute little beach towns
You have to:
Eat at the food trucks
swim at the green belt
Watch the bats wake up at the congress bridge
Go to SXSW
You have to:
Hike Multnomah falls
Swim in Oneonta Gorge falls
Watch the sunset at the pittock mansion
Where do you plan on going next? Is home on the horizon?
It is! I’ll be home in about 2 weeks. I’m so excited to see friends and family and my beautiful city again. I’ve been gone for over seven months and I’m super ready to be able to live in a house, with my own shower and a kitchen.
And there really is no place like home. Especially when your home is Chicago.
I’ll be there for at least a few months, until just after the winter holidays and then I’m not sure. I may take a job in Breckinridge, Colorado and learn to ski, or go back to Austin and work and hang with friends for a while, or spend the rest of the winter touring Southeast Asia. It’s all kind of up in the air.
A lot of millennials love to travel and go place overseas rather than travel around our own country. Do you think it’s just as important to travel the US as it is to travel globally?
Yeah. Definitely. I feel like I used to feel like everywhere else was so much cooler and more exciting than the US, in my early twenties, but I knew the road here was calling my name for a reason. It is so beautiful here and there is so so much to see here as well. I absolutely love traveling abroad, but it’s nice to know that I’ve seen some of my own country and know a lot about it. And not to mention, I see absolutely tons of Asia, European, and South American millennials coming to the US to travel. So I guess it’s all relative. They could be traveling their home countries or continents but they came here for what we have to offer. So that’s pretty cool.
You are by yourself a lot, which can be a bit scary and by that I mean being deep in your own thoughts. Do you think you can describe what you think about while you’re driving?
Wow. I mean. Everything! The same things I would think about when I’m home but having more extended periods of time to think about them. Initially I was processing a lot of stuff surrounding leaving home and the people and places I was leaving. I also spent a lot of time thinking about who it is I am and who I want to be/what I want to do with my life. I also spent a ton of time, and this was the hardest struggle on the road so far, getting right with myself. I knew being on the road alone would force me to face some demons I’ve been ignoring for years. So I did a lot of that. Now I can definitely say I am more comfortable being me than I have been since I was a kid. I’ve taught myself how to be ok with being alone and to own my choices.
What advice would you give to people taking road trips?
You’ll probably pack more than you need, so be open to letting go of what you don’t need, while on the road. I mean that both literally and figuratively. Also, figure out the difference between your intuition telling you to not do something and fear. When you do that, you’ll know the difference between something that is right for you, but you’re just going into fear-based logic mode, and when something is legitimately not a good idea. And then say yes to things. Say yes to more things than you normally would. And even though some place may be an extra 3 hour drive away, it could be absolutely epic and if your heart is calling you to go, don’t say no to it. And be friendly and open to making friends in ways you normally wouldn’t.
What advice would you give your 20 year old self?
Love yourself first and foremost. Fill yourself up with so much love that you can’t help but let it spill over to the world around you. Learn how to set boundaries and take care of yourself first. And to say yes to things: be more adventurous and just say yes to the opportunities life gives you.
What do you miss most about Chicago?
I think every place carries a unique energy and there is no energy like that in chicago. And of course, my wonderful friends and family.
You can find Mary on Instagram and Twitter: @marys_bananas read her writing and travel stories on her blog at: