"I definitely have a wanderlust, an adventurous spirit. But for the first 40 years of my life, I did what everyone expected me to do. Now, I get to ask, “what does Diana want to do?” And it’s a little uncomfortable sometimes, but I’m getting used to it."
The sun rises early above the flat line of the horizon in Joshua Tree, and it doesn’t take long for the blue light of dawn to give way to the stark yellow bright light of day. The night before we’d sat around the fire at camp, processing aloud the previous days of the almost-two weeks that we’d been traveling. It wasn’t a normal experience for us, meeting so many people on such a deep level in a short amount of time – and we were recognizing the value of this community that we had hoped to find when we’d dreamed up the idea for this trip.
So on the first morning of the few days we’d spend in the desert, we headed out to meet Diana, a former elementary school teacher that lives in Joshua Tree spends her time away from home exploring in her Ford Transit ModVan. We talked about the experiences that gave her the perspective of life that she has now, and what inspires her to get out on the road.
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So what’s your usual kind of routine when traveling?
I go as far away from other people as I can. Some of that is to challenge myself to get comfortable sleeping out alone. I always bring my dog, who’s probably chomping at the bit to come out and say hello. He’s here. He’s a great camper.
I photograph things —- I’ve gotten back into night sky photography, to just kind of remember what I’ve learned before, and I read (my) journals, contemplate projects. A lot of times, try not to let anything in the head. Like this, right? The wind just sort of blows it out.
Being a military kid, my dad was a lieutenant colonel in the army, so we moved a lot. And now I’ve lived here over half of my life, and I still have that wanderlust to pack up and move after 30 plus years. When I go away, I always meet somebody, and it restores my faith in people, just because people are really kind and they enjoy the outdoors and we get excited about how we camp and what (gear) we have and that kind of thing. Most of the time it’s heading out toward the Green Valley or Death Valley because it’s so close. My other favorite place is the Eastern Sierra Alabama hills in the fall…it’s amazing. Those Sierra mountains just have such an incredible energy, and then I come home and I feel grounded again.
When I go away, I always meet somebody, and it restores my faith in people.
That makes a lot of sense. I think we all want to find a way to get into that free headspace somehow. What brought you to live in Joshua Tree?
My late husband and I bought this house in 1985. (Before that) I was in Columbia, South Carolina getting my master’s degree. That’s when I met Nick. And sometimes you just know when somebody is a right fit. We decided we wanted to get married probably six weeks into the relationship, and we decided whoever got a job first, that’s where we would go. He was an engineer for the government working at Fort Jackson at the time, and he was in communication with some people at the marine base out here. And he got the job before I did. I’d never been west of the Mississippi so I thought, why not?
And then how long were you here before he passed?
Let’s see…November of ‘85 until July-ish of ‘87. So we weren’t in the house very long. But in fact, we weren’t even in the desert that long, but the connections that we made during that time were incredible. The amount of people that gathered around me, you know, I mean, here I was 20 something years old and a widow, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. And we’d signed things Mr. And Mrs., so all our bank accounts were frozen, I couldn’t even get ahold of money to live.
I had just signed a contract with the school district and the teachers got together and they gave me money, so I could eat and pay bills until the probate and all that kind of stuff, you know, was done. And it was going through all of that, that just gave me a solidified sense of community, if that makes sense.
And I had it on the east coast. I loved growing up there in South Carolina and having family in Wisconsin. We traveled a lot, and we always instantly kind of connected with community, but it was different here.
Sometimes I feel like I don’t want to be here, I’m ready for forests and water, maybe a little more city life. And I travel, and I go do that, and I get excited. And then I come back and think, you know what, I can’t replace what I have. I have fantastic neighbors. I mean, these guys across the street and next door, were here before me. And they have been a part of every joy and tragedy that I’ve had in my life. We all leave each other alone, but I know that I’m in need, they’d be right here. We’re here for each other, and you can’t recreate that so easily anymore. Or maybe you can —- but I value that.
And, you know, this (the van) will take me places to get my heart’s desire of traveling and experiencing new things. It’s my tiny, tiny home on wheels. There are those different things that happened throughout your life when you start thinking, what do I want to do with the rest of it? You know, my kids are all grown, they’re doing fine. What do I want to do? And that’s what made me go, I’m done with the full time work thing. I want to get up and do what I want to do when I want to do it. And sometimes it’s days at home piddling around in the studio, taking the dog for a walk. And then sometimes it’s like, let’s go camping. And all I have to do is put fresh food and water in there, and we’re ready to go.
Sometimes I feel like I don’t want to be here, I’m ready for forests and water, maybe a little more city life. And I travel, and I go do that, and I get excited. And then I come back and think, you know what, I can’t replace what I have.
I think when we first talked that was a connection that I drew from, is how much your van felt like home, but also how much Joshua Tree felt like home and how rooted you felt here.
Yeah, there’s a part of me that feels like well, maybe I settled, maybe I was too afraid to move, you know, when you have a sudden tragedy like that.
We always flew together, we’d go to Catalina Island and have breakfast, and Anza Borrego State Park, or Big Bear—- all kinds of places. That morning, I was in a grumpy mood and I said, you know, go fly. I’m gonna stay home and clean the bathrooms. Two hours later, these two huge tall sheriff’s officers were standing at the door to let me know what had happened. And the folks at the airport, they swore I was with him, so they were looking for a second body, and I was at home.
It’s those kinds of things that make you believe that there’s this silver thread that draws us to where we need to be in life. And I’ve learned to trust and listen, to “this doesn’t feel right, maybe I shouldn’t do this”, or, you know, “this feels great”. And every time I come back to home base, I have a super long tether. It feels right.
That’s beautiful. I remember you also mentioned that it felt really synchronistic when you got your van —- did you quit your job?
It was one hour, one hour, my whole life changed. And it was because someone made an offhand comment to me, that made me snap to, and go, “what is all this?”. Thirty-something years of teaching, and this is how I’m going to be talked to…I had kind of mulled it over and figured out a trajectory time of when I would start entertaining retirement, but then everything landed right with the numbers, I knew I could live on this amount, and get another job and put more into my art to make up the difference.
Freedom to be able to do different things was important. So within one hour, I called the Teacher Retirement Board and said, “Well, I’m early, but let’s make sure my numbers match yours”. And they did, so: check.
I called a university to see if they needed supervising teachers to supervise student teachers. So that could be a side job: check.
And then the third call is ModVans. I said I’m signing the contract, I’m putting my downpayment in, put me in the queue. And I don’t regret that moment at all.
I’ve learned to trust and listen, to “this doesn’t feel right, maybe I shouldn’t do this”, or, you know, “this feels great.” And every time I come back to home base, I have a super long tether. It feels right.
Why did you name your van Lucy?
Lucy means light. I was actually having a conversation sitting in here with my neighbor of 30 plus years across the street. And she was telling me names that they gave different walkie talkies and things in their family and as soon as she said Lucy, it just fit. Lucille Ball is funny. Lucy in Peanuts is kind of a kick ass kind of a girl. And I looked up what it meant, and it means light. And it just felt right.
It’s not too serious. I feel like a cliche actually (laughs). Single Woman in a van with her dog. But the thing is, I just love camping and hiking and this just seemed to take care of everything: safety, security, comfort. I have everything I need, hot water, an outdoor shower, a toilet, and a refrigerator.
I definitely have a wanderlust, an adventurous spirit. But for the first 40 years of my life, I did what everyone expected me to do. Now, I get to ask, “what does Diana want to do?” And it’s a little uncomfortable sometimes, but I’m getting used to it.
It sounds like that’s a part of your rhythm of coming out here, is to ask yourself that question. Being on the road for a couple weeks at a time, what does that experience give you?
It gives me a place to find my center. Again, that sounds so cliche, but it’s true. My daughter always talks about micro-adventures and how important they are —- that we don’t have to go on these grand “get on an airplane and travel to another continent” kind of thing to have a great experience. You can do it in your backyard. I do love my home and my neighborhood and my friends and my family. So that foundation gives me the freedom to go out somewhere and see something new and get recharged and excited, and then come back. I always find an appreciation for what I do have.
We ended our conversation with Diana thanking her for her openness and the time she’d shared with us. The courage that she had to set out into a new adventure is something that felt very inspiring to see, and throughout this series of conversations we’d been having along our route West, the people we were meeting had told a similar version of this story in their own way. The common threads of seeking to be more present and finding a different, more thoughtful quality of life had woven through every story we’d heard. We said our goodbyes to Diana and headed back down the sandy road, to meet some other friends of Moon, Jupiter and their two hot dogs.