Today is the first of our new series of “Family Interviews” that I will be publishing every Wednesday. I think it’s about time that we all got to know a few families that are here on VagabondFamily.org. The lucky first family to be interviewed is the Denning Family who are currently in Mexico on their journey from Alaska to Argentina. I’d like to thank them for their personal commitment to getting up at 4am in the morning to work on their blog (you’ll see what I am referring to a little later in the interview). I have been following the Denning’s journey from the beginning and I have to say I am completely and utterly inspired by them, with a lot of envy thrown in for their truck and roof tent setup. If you have even spent 5 minutes with me you’ll realise I am a little obsessed by travelling in an RV, Expedition Vehicle, Travel Trailer or Truck. So to see other families doing this is absolutely amazing. Anyway, enough of me telling you about them, let hear from them directly.
From the highs of real estate investing and to the difficulties during the Global Financial Crisis that hit the USA to now undertaking a trip from Alaska to Argentina with five children. You guys have lived a pretty amazing life in the last 10 years. Can you give us a little backstory on your journey so far as a family?
We started out life normal enough. My husband graduated from college, then took a career where he planned to work until he was 65. We bought a house, adopted our first child, and then the rest followed naturally.
But by the time we had number three, the idea of travel and humanitarian work began to fill our heads. We started investing in real estate, with the idea that we would make lots of money, and then be able to travel the world doing good.
That plan kind of worked, for a little while. It allowed us to finally take the leap, and we moved to Costa Rica in 2007 (driving from the U.S. with our four children – ages 3 months – 4 years at the time).
With the Financial Crisis of 2008, our income dried up and we returned to the U.S. to find employment. But we were still bit with the travel bug, and so began making plans for our next adventure. It was around this time that we began to realize that you didn’t need a lot of money to travel, as long as you combined your ‘travel’ and ‘living’ expenses – making them one in the same.
We set out again, this time to the Dominican Republic (using savings, and some online contract work), where we lived for six months. Next we moved to Atlanta, Georgia for six months, where my husband was offered a position in India with a non-profit, which we eagerly accepted.
We spent five months in Southern India, before returning to the U.S. (this time Alaska) to have baby number five – Atlas.
It’s not always easy starting out a new lifestyle that most people don’t understand. Do you have any insights or suggestions for people who are currently thinking about the way they are going to tell their families that they want something different?
I don’t know that there is an easy way to tell others who don’t agree with your views what you plan on doing. I don’t know if it’s the right approach or not, but we usually didn’t tell people our plans, until we were ready to do them (I guess that’s why some consider us to be sporadic and spontaneous).
We would often plan and plan and plan in secret, only discussing amongst ourselves (Greg and I), until we were ready to launch, and then break the news. It’s a method that has worked for us, based on the relationships we have with our families. (Now they are used to our crazy antics, so very little we do is surprising to them).
Ultimately, we didn’t share because we didn’t care to hear their nay-saying opinions. They didn’t matter to us. We knew what we wanted to do, and we were going to do it. Trying to defend it to others was just draining on our time and energy. And when we announced what we were going to do, instead of what we were intending or thinking about doing, the reaction was totally different. People feel less inclined to talk you out of something when they can see you’ve already made up your mind (i.e., you’ve bought the tickets 🙂 )
Why are you travelling from Alaska to Argentina?
While living in Alaska, before and after the birth of our fifth, we considered if we should settle down somewhere, and where that should be. We looked at Colombia, Hawaii, and Thailand.
The more we discussed, analyzed, pondered and prayed about what we really wanted, what we really enjoyed doing, what brought us the greatest joy, we realized that we loved exploring and discovering new places.
While living in Costa Rica, we had our own vehicle. We loved the freedom it provided. While living in the Dominican Republic, we relied on public transportation, and it really limited our ability to explore.
We also recognized that although we loved living abroad, what we really liked about it was the ability to discover new places, people, food and culture – but that staying in one place for ‘too long’, we tended to get bored. So we decided that we 1) wanted to have our own vehicle and 2) wanted to explore new places as often as we wished. Driving seemed like the most logical option. And since we were in Alaska, we might as well start where we were, and keep going all the way to the bottom.
The more we considered the idea, the more we liked it, until we knew it was the next adventure for us.
You are travelling with your whole family in a Vege-powered Truck with a Rooftop tent. Can you tell us a little about your life in the truck.
How long does it take you to set up each night?
We usually try to look for a place to camp no later than 4 or 5 p.m. (It’s usually dark around 6:30 CST in Mexico). It takes us about 15 minutes to set up the roof top tent, get out blankets and pillows, and start preparing dinner.
Do you sleep in the truck every night or do you often stay at motels or with friends?
We usually sleep in the truck, but we have been invited to stay with many friends along the way, which is usually for more than one night. We have paid for a campground only once, and have never stayed in a motel or hotel. I think occasionally we’ll rent a little house for a month or so, in a place we really like (near the beach!) just for a change.
What are some of the logistical challenges you have on a day to day basis?
Some of the biggest challenges are probably dealing with inclement weather (rain), it really puts a halt on our activities, and we have to wait for the tent to dry to pack up and get moving again.
The other challenges are common for most travellers in Latin America – trying to find what you need when you need/want it – internet, laundry, showers, replacement parts, etc. It can be very time consuming.
On top of that, it’s just ‘normal’ living – disciplining children, working on projects, reading, exploring, preparing meals, shopping for groceries, etc.
What are the best things about travelling in your truck?
Freedom! We get to go where we want, when we want, and have everything we need right with us. We never have to worry about having a bed to sleep in.
Would you mind telling us how you fund your lifestyle?
From our first adventure in 2007, we’ve tried several different tactics – essentially we’ve done whatever we could to make it happen. Originally we had an income from real estate and the stock market. We worked in the States and used our savings. We’ve done freelance work, had a job with a non-profit overseas, created websites, and have been paid for travel writing.
We also learned to simplify, and to really minimize our expenses. We discovered that we preferred to use our money for travel and adventure, instead of buying doo-dads or even paying bills (that’s another reason we ‘moved into’ our truck – it allowed us to eliminate many living expenses, such as utilities, rent/mortgage, etc.)
For years we’ve dreamt of creating an income from our website so that it would produce enough money to sustain our lifestyle. That became a major area of focus while in Alaska. We created a course on lifestyle design, as well as other information products, to help others in their travels, and to design the lifestyle of their dreams.
Using what savings we had (and with some work lined up along the way), we left Alaska in April 2011, to begin our journey. Since then our website as continued to grow, and now brings in enough to cover our very limited expenses. Our plan is to keep growing so that we have a healthy cushion of income to continue adding to our savings, and to cover monthly expenses, as well as occasional one-time costs (like shipping our truck from Panama to Colombia).
Having travelled a fair bit ourselves with young children (albeit 2 children rather than 5) does it ever get too much? Do you think your children are any harder or easier to deal with than if you were settled down and back at home in the rat-race?
I think kids are kids – whether you’re at home or traveling, they will get tired, cry, fight with their siblings and complain. I think the biggest difference comes not from your location, but from the parents ability to handle the situation – at home or on the road.
Our kids are good kids, and like most children, can adapt to lots of different situations when given the chance. I don’t think they are necessarily any harder or easier to deal with because of our lifestyle (again, I think that depends more on me), but I do see that they are more developed because of the number and variety of experiences that they are having. They might complain about being tired and not wanting to walk anymore, but they still do it, because they’ve learned that there is no other option. If you don’t keep walking, you won’t get back to the truck. They’ve learned to deal with things in a way that they wouldn’t have learned without certain key experiences that are a result of our lifestyle.
While you are travelling with 5 young children, do you guys as parents get anytime to yourselves? Do you get the opportunity for the occasional “Date Night”?
Greg and I get time to ourselves usually early in the morning. We both wake up between 4-5 a.m. to work and write. It gives us quiet time that we really miss if we choose to sleep in!
As for ‘date nights’, we usually spend that time together after the kids go to sleep (which is usually pretty early, around 7:30 or 8 p.m. When the sun goes down, and it’s dark outside, and the only light is from the light in the cab, you start to feel sleepy 🙂 )
Occasionally we’ve taken a night out to a restaurant, when we’re staying with friends and can arrange for a babysitter.
I recently watched a movie called In Time with Justin Timberlake, where the currency was time. It is something that I think a lot of Vagabond families understand well. If you had a week of time left on your clock what would you do with it?
This is something that Greg and I have talked about. My own father died of cancer at the age of 45, and Greg’s brother-in-law is facing an early death. We’ve asked ourselves what we would do if we didn’t have long to live, and our honest answer is that we would take this trip together as a family.
I guess something I would change is blogging about it 🙂 It is a lot of work (which I enjoy), but if I was going to die, I’d give that up to spend even more time with my kids.
You’re living the dream of so many other families (mine included :)). If money and finances were completely taken out of the equation what is your dream?
We are living our dream, which is very refreshing. If finances were taken out of the equation, and there was no limitation on what we could do, we would make a few changes:
- We would stay at a hotel about once a week (more convenient for laundry, internet and showers). We honestly love the simplicity, closeness to nature, and increased number of experiences that overland travel provides.
- We would do more costly, adventurous activities – like when we drove into Valle del Bravo, Mexico and saw that they were hang gliding, we would have jumped on it in a minute if we weren’t following such a strict budget right now.
- We would keep traveling and traveling and traveling. After we finished North and South America in our truck, we would set sail to the South Pacific, or overland in Europe, Africa and Asia.
- I would hire someone to do all the editing of my blog, photos and videos.
That’s our long-term dream. And I believe we’ll get there 🙂
I have no doubt that they’ll achieve their dreams and over the course of the next couple of years probably create a whole heap of new dreams for us all to follow. Thanks again to Rachel for taking the time to answer some questions.
If you have any questions for Rachel or Greg please feel free to ask them in the comments and I’ll ask Rachel or Greg if they might occasionally pop in to answer them when they get the chance.