Every morning, Julia Goebel and Eli Lee eat breakfast in bed. Afterwards, they fold up their blankets and slide the bed back into a couch. For two people who used to never make their beds, they laugh at the surprisingly quick and painless routine. Over the last few months, the couple has adapted new habits as they travel the country in a van which is also their home.
Julia, a Plano-native, met her partner Eli after graduating from The University of Texas at Austin. A month into dating, the pair got a wild hair and took a month long road trip up the East Coast in Eli’s Honda Civic.
“That’s when we found out that we travel well together,” Julia laughs as she talks on the phone with me from Portland. Not long after, they started living together in a bus that Eli retrofitted as a tiny home with the intent of traveling the entire country for months on end. Julia was excited at the opportunity.
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“I had the privilege of visiting different places with my family, but I’ve always wanted to explore more. I wanted to take the backroad and see this beautiful country—just hit the road,” Julia explains.
“There is amazing diversity among places and people in the U.S.,” Eli adds. “[Calling] this country enormous might be an understatement. There are more places you could see and communities to invest in … more than you could do in a lifetime. It seems like now is the best time to start.”
Once they made that decision, next was mode of transportation. The bus was great, but it was also loud, difficult to turn and park, and not very efficient when it came to gas.
“We put everything on the table: hitchhiking, trains, tents. After multiple conversations, we decided on a van. We got so excited, we drove to a parking lot. Using chalk, we drew the floor plan trying to picture it. Our build ended up being almost exactly the same,” Eli says.
The hardest part of their journey happened before they even left: Building the van in the middle of summer—in Texas. For months, Julia worked two jobs, sales and serving at a pizza place, while Eli worked in marketing and as a freelance videographer to save money. When the time was right, they both left their jobs.
“We worked on the van full time for four months,” Eli says. “I estimate we only took 14 days off and worked 1,000 hours together in Texas. It was hot, y’all. But seeing the progress in Julia … she would ask a bunch of questions, and by the end, she was doing the work perfectly on her own.”
“I learned a lot,” Julia proudly declares. “I had no previous building experience, but we put equal amount of time and work into it, so that was exciting for me to learn new skills.”
On the road again
The couple mapped out a few potential routes and ended up going through New Mexico and Arizona to San Diego and up the coast to their current location, Portland. They recognize that this lifestyle is nontraditional and that there are some stigmas attached to it, but this trip has not been an attempt to escape life. If anything, it’s a journey to rediscover it.
“A lot of people think that we have picked up and left,” Julia reflects. “That’s not a motive of ours. This is a lifestyle that we are enjoying and we’re trying it out. We’re still doing a lot of normal things, we’re just seeing new places while we do it. Day by day we don’t plan what we’re going to do. We look forward to places we want to visit, but we don’t plan which leads us to unique experiences.”
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One of their more interesting detours happened late at night after a landslide closed Highway 1. They took backroads around a forest and ended up at what looked like an empty town; houses made out of shipping containers and dilapidated cars littered the area. It turned out to be a simulated war-zone for military training; they promptly turned around.
“On the other side, more cool than creepy, we passed a place called the Henry Miller Memorial Library, named after the author,” Eli recalls. “We saw a sign that said: ‘Christmas Books?’ We were confused; do they have Christmas books or do they need more? We stopped and it turned out to be this fantastic creative space with art installations and a host of really interesting characters. If we’d been so determined to get to our next destination we wouldn’t have even stopped.”
Travel slowly and responsibly
Julia and Eli have traveled for nearly four months now, but to them it feels twice as long. Eli believes the change in time perception is due to the variety of tasks that come with this nontraditional lifestyle.
“The more I repeat a task, the less I’m really doing it with intention. It all blurs together. If you’re doing something different every day, your perception of time is different. Anyone can slow down, you don’t have to be traveling. You can get involved in different things in your town, like volunteering or exploring a new part of the city—just learning something new,” Eli says.
The pair try to invest in every community they visit; they call it traveling responsibly. And that doesn’t mean driving a hybrid car.
“Traveling responsibly means don’t crash and grab,” Eli explains. “Don’t just roll in, try to do everything in 24 hours and see all the tourist places and take advantage of it. I’m a big proponent of ‘slow travel’ because it allows you to engage with the people whose town you’re visiting. They have lives and their local economy matters to them; it matters where you spend your dollars.”
Over the last few months, Julia and Eli have met a lot of people in a lot of different places. One of their big takeaways is at the end of the day, we’re more like our neighbors than we might think.
“Every city has its own unique character, but really, they’re all darn similar,” Eli laughs. “I think if someone hasn’t been to a place before, they will often superimpose these fears. They’re afraid about getting around, or that people aren’t as friendly, there’s more crime. The more time you spend engaging with a community, [you will see that] they’re much more similar than different.
“With all the division right now that we see in the media, it could be good for people to travel responsibly and respectfully. It would help many people recognize that we have more in common than we might think.”