One of the things I love about travel is making connections with other travelers. While I was in Irvine earlier this month, I took the opportunity to meet and talk with Jema Anderson, a full time traveler and blogger at Gypsy Jema. For the past five years, she has been doing full time RV living around the United States with her husband and four kids.
Besides being a phenomenal writer, Jema is also a visual artist, and creates beautiful custom mixed media art pieces. In fact, her whole RV is a work of art, a monarch butterfly mosaic composed of over 6,000 vinyl decals! You can take a look at this project by visiting www.inspiretoinspire.com, and you can even participate in the art project too! I love how travel and art can bring people together.
A conversation about full time RV living
I reached out to Jema because she and I happened to be attending the same conference, and I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to meet her. We met up the day before the conference and chatted about RV life and parenting. Here’s a recap of our conversation:
So you’ve been full time RV living for the last five years, what initially inspired you to take on that kind of lifestyle?
For us, we came to a place in our marriage that wasn’t working. My husband and I have known each other since we were eleven. We had a lot of background together and got married really young. As the years went by, we were kind of pulled in different directions. And then we just reached a point in our marriage where it was going really bad, and we didn’t know if we were going to stay together.
For two years we did really intense counseling, and when we were done with that, we realized that we needed to pull out of our life as we knew it. Because when you are so used to routine, and so used to the environment that you’re in, it’s hard to make changes. We were living in northern Minnesota at the time, and decided we would sell the house.
We talked about flying in to different places, but that seemed really expensive. One day my husband said, “well let’s get an RV!” and I thought, “that actually is a really good idea!” But we didn’t talk about it for months. Meanwhile, we both had that idea keep pulling at us, and when we came back together to talk about it, we both said, “you know what? That idea? Are you serious about that idea? Because I think I might be serious about that idea.” So we thought, well, why not see what happens.
Can you tell me more about the process of preparing for full time RV living? How did you downsize to fit into an RV?
That was a crazy process. I had to have my piles: the giveaway pile, the pile that was going into the storage unit, and the pile that was going into the RV. Our plan was to go for a year. So we sold the house and we had enough money for a year. And after the year was done, we were going to pick a place and start over. So I knew the furniture was not going to be useful. Someone else could use that. So we gave a lot of it to our family members or people in our community who needed it.
It was a very organic process. And we were in survival mode during that time. We knew we needed out to heal and to save our marriage. Typically we research everything we buy forever until we make a decision. But during this time, something would come up, and we would embrace it. The RV was originally bought by a friend of ours, and he said to us, “hey I have an RV that I could give you a good price on. You want to come look at it?” We looked at it, and thought, “alright, we’ll try it.” Without any research. But it worked out, it’s been a wonderful RV.
How did you get your kids on board with leaving everything and traveling around the US in an RV?
At the time my oldest was thirteen, and she was not on board at all. We pulled her out of school, and she didn’t want to go. The other three were so happy that they didn’t have to go to school. And they were so excited about going on a trip. So with them it was really easy. It took our daughter about two months. She was sad for two months.
How did you guys figure out the costs of full time RV living?
You know, again, we just knew we had a certain amount of money, and that was all we had. So we just budgeted according to that. We learned a lot about how to save money on the road by meeting other families who were saving money on the road. There’s a community, so that’s really cool.
Since your initial budget was for a year, and it’s now been extended for five years, how do you support yourselves on the road?
John had quit his job. He was an IT guy at a bank. And then we ended up meeting another family, and the husband did software development for warehouses, and he really liked my husband, so he mentored him. They worked from the back of his RV, and that’s what John does now.
Now that you’ve been doing this for five years, how have your kids adapted to RV travel?
They have adapted really well. My oldest son is on the autism spectrum, so for him it has allowed him to focus on his passion. He had so much anxiety before, and school was so hard on him, so I’ve seen a big growth in him. And he loves having his house where ever he is. All the kids have really grown by just learning about the world. They’ve met so many different people, and learned about different cultures. I think they have a better understanding and perspective of the world, that they didn’t have before. And a simpler life.
How do you guys do schooling while you’re doing full time RV living?
We do schooling online. It’s more of an eclectic curriculum. Most of it is real life experiences. Just last week, we went to the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, and you learn about all the instruments. And they’re hearing them play, and they get to play the instruments. A lot of their education has been really hands-on: the cave dwellings, going to the Everglades, tasting the food in Louisiana, knowing what frog legs are. So that’s been so much more meaningful.
Do you do any kind of lesson planning, or is it mostly focused on what your kids want to study?
At first I did a lot of lesson planning, and found that was too much like school. So now it’s more based on their passions. My one son is really interested in composing orchestra music. So he is on his iPad, he layers in all the instruments and comes up with a theme every day. One of my daughters does portraiture, she does video editing, and she does photography. And my oldest was into makeup artistry.
Your kids are older kids, how do you all fit into the RV?
Very carefully! It’s funny, we all have our little space. Everyone has chosen their favorite chair or part of the couch as far as where they are most during the day. For sleeping arrangements, the boys have a blow up mattress that goes on the floor, and the girls sleep on the couch that jack-knifes out, and in the morning we have to clean up all their bedding, and that’s the living space. We also have the outside area, so that’s really nice. And John and I will go out to the coffee shop to work some days to get some space. But it’s really interesting. It reminds of what it used to be like. Even if you go back to tribal living, people lived in one room. My grandfather grew up in a one room house! We really don’t need a lot of space.
That’s true! I feel like the more space that you have, sometimes it just adds stress to your life.
Yeah, and it’s interesting because whenever there’s an empty space in the RV, we fill it up. I think it’s a human thing. But I also think we don’t need that much space. In fact, living in the RV, I know my children now, because I’m literally near them all day. I hear their conversations. We have more conversations. In our old house, they were in separate bedrooms.
I thought I knew my kids before. But as I spend more time with them now, I can really understand who they are and what their passions are. Even their quirkiness and their weaknesses. We’ve learned to just accept that and support that. And really, they’ve taught me more about me.
How has the family dynamics changed throughout the course of your full time RV living experience?
I’d say our old style of parenting was more authoritative. And when we went through all of our recovery work and our therapy, we really changed our parenting to be more about communication. So in that way, our family has really changed a lot. I think that’s why we don’t have the typical teenage rebellion going on because we’ve learned how to talk with each other. One of the gifts of being in the RV is being near one another and learning how to practice this new way of communicating that we had never done before.
It was so wonderful to talk with Jema and get to know more about her RV travel life. Traveling families like hers are an inspiration to other families, and can help to show that there are so many different ways of being and living with your family. Plus, listening to her talk about her RV travel experiences makes me want to take my family traveling full time! Thank you, Jema, for your words and stories!
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