Almost every couple faces a “now what?” moment as their last kid moves out of the house. There’s a big empty nest looming over this new and uncertain stage in their lives.David and Veronica James chose to look at this next phase of life as a beginning instead of an ending. Rather than staying put and facing the constant reminders of empty bedrooms and backseats, a plan began to develop to sell the nest and hit the highway. But could a homebody helicopter mom learn to let go of her heartstrings and house keys all at once?Filled with a sense of adventure and humor, GOING GYPSY is the story of a life after raising kids that is a celebration of new experiences. Pulling the rip cord on the daily grind, David and Veronica throw caution to the wind, quit their jobs, sell their house, put on their vagabond shoes, and go gypsy in a beat-up old RV found on eBay.On a journey of over ten thousand miles along the back roads of America (and a hysterical, error-infused side trip into Italy), they conquer old fears, see new sights, reestablish bonds with family and friends, and transform their relationships with their three grown children from parent-child to adult-to-adult. Most importantly, they rediscover in themselves the fun-loving youngsters who fell in love three decades prior.
Most people become empty nesters when their kids leave home, but you left home too. How did that come about?
David: We were living in the Virgin Islands and were a bit separated from all of our family and friends in the US. Once our youngest went off to college in the states, like his sisters before him, there was nothing keeping us in the Caribbean. So we decided to sell the house and take what we called a “victory lap,” celebrating a job well done—getting our kids raised and successfully out on their own.
Veronica: One of the reasons I had to resort to drastic measures was that I worked at the kids’ school. I was the quintessential “helicopter mom,” hovering over everything my kids did. The idea of going back to the school without the kids there was heartbreaking. So we whittled our belongings down to sixteen boxes and took off in a beat-up old RV we bought on eBay.
What was the process like from when you decided to take off to when you started your adventure?
David: That’s what Going Gypsy is all about. We cover the year when our son left for college and we hit the road. We did not have this big plan in our heads at the start to live a gypsy lifestyle. It organically grew as we went along. Initially, we got the motor home as a way to take some time to visit with family and friends and see the country without going broke. Once we were out on the road a while, we realized how much we liked it and wanted to figure out how we could keep going. It’s been over six years now.
Veronica: A big thing that jolted us into thinking about a new approach to our lives was when we Googled “empty nest” and a big ad for an Alzheimer’s patch popped up. We thought, “holy cr-moley!” We have a good third of our lives left and that’s too long a time to be sitting around doing nothing. We see our book as a kick in the butt to get folks going and hopefully think outside the box.
How did you dispense with a lifetime’s worth of belongings?
Veronica: The stress of a big move is huge no matter what the circumstances. We gave away or sold a lot of stuff, keeping only the things we knew we couldn’t live without (like photo albums and family heirlooms). Those we managed to fit into sixteen boxes that we put in storage. Now I find I’m more organized the less I have with me. If I have too many things and too much space to spread out in, I get really scattered and disorganized.
How did you adjust to having “no nest at all?”
David: We replaced our nest with one on wheels. The RV became our new home. It’s remarkable how homey it became and how quickly. It’s obviously very condensed, and we do travel light, but when you think about what you really need, we have the basics—a bed, a bathroom, a kitchen, and a table to sit at to eat and write.
Veronica: And the view out the window is different every day, which is fantastic!
How did your kids react to you leaving home?
Veronica: Our son was horrified at first. I remember him saying, “you’re going to live in your car?!” But I think they’re happy for us. My guess is that they are also happy that Mom has things to do besides constantly bugging them about who they are dating or when they might make us grandparents.
David: I imagine what they’re thinking is a mixture of relief and what the heck are they doing? But a big plus in this process has been developing a new relationship with our children as adults. We wanted to make an adult-to-adult connection and not be helicopter parents any longer.
Don’t you miss seeing your kids regularly?
David: We see the kids more than we would have if we’d stayed in St. Croix because we can route ourselves through wherever they are on our way from one adventure to the next.
Veronica: Our daughters live in Manhattan so they are easy to see often. Our son is in Alaska but he is a pilot and has the flying privileges that come with that, so it is usually easier for him to meet up with us.
How do you handle holidays?
David: Our oldest daughter took over the hostess role fairly quickly, as soon as we didn’t have the house any longer. She’s not one to miss out on the holiday treats and I guess she knew that it’s nearly impossible to shove a turkey into a motor home oven!
Veronica: She has done a remarkable job. New York City is an amazing place to spend the holidays. It’s very festive. So everyone is happy.
Was making this leap more exciting or scary?
David: I am a musician so I always traveled a lot and I love it. It was natural for me to explore. For Veronica it was more of a drastic change.
Veronica: The hardest part was the initial decision to make the leap. I was a homebody—I didn’t think I’d be able to do it. But I’m proactive, and a planner, so it was good for me to be able to throw myself into the planning phase. I did have to do quite a bit of fear conquering. I guess I just transferred the fear—now I’m more scared to stop moving than I was to start in the first place!
How many places have you visited?
David: We started in the RV by exploring the US, and then branched out to Mexico and Canada, following the weather like geese. As time went on, we broadened our horizons and added some traveling by air and sea. Now I think we’ve been to over 40 countries on five continents. Later this year we’re heading to Africa, making six out of seven, then our final continent will be Antarctica. We’ll get there!
Veronica: David has also been to all 50 states but I’ve only been to 48, so I need to cover my last two—Alaska and Hawaii. We’re very competitive so I can’t stand him being ahead of me.
What have been the highlights so far?
Veronica: There are so many amazing high points. But I think the Galapagos Islands were up there at the top. I love animals; I’m like a little kid around them. The islands have so many unique species, and they are completely unafraid of humans, so if you love animals put the Galapagos at the top of your bucket list.
David: I answer this question different each time it’s asked because I have so many favorites. Walking along the top of the Great Wall of China was a real highlight. But I could easily name dozens more.
What have been the low points?
Veronica: Yikes. Well, I locked myself inside a hotel room in Italy once. But a big one came when we had a blowout over our traveling styles. We had discussed the empty nest and all that it entailed, but forgot to discuss how we liked to travel. It ended up coming to a head in one of the most beautiful places in the world, Yellowstone National Park, in the middle of a herd of buffalo.
David: I have a go-go-go mindset. I always want to be moving forward. Veronica likes to really get a feel for a place and connect to it. In the end, I learned to adapt more to her style because it is a better way to see the world.
Veronica: I call him a wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am traveler.
Have you inspired others to travel?
Veronica: I hope so. My favorite part of this journey so far has been hearing from folks who chose places because we said how much we loved them. But there are so many wonderful things people in our life phase can do if they aren’t interested in travel, you don’t have to be as crazy as we are to start going gypsy. Do that thing that inspires you, something that you’ve always wanted to explore. Write that book, volunteer in your community, go back to school. And don’t forget to reconnect with your partner, do new things together, and find that pre-kid couple who fell in love all those years ago. We are not self-help writers. We haven’t written a how-to guide. We just aspire to be the same kind of kick in the butt for our readers that we found when we first saw that ad for the Alzheimer’s patch.
David: We try to seek out the unexpected, and discover overlooked gems in our travels. Sometimes they are found in famous, bucket-list type destinations; often they are hiding well off the beaten path. Either way we enjoy relaying stories from out of the ordinary. Hopefully that inspires some people to venture down the road less traveled too.
How have you pushed yourselves?
Veronica: I made a decision to fear-conquer my butt off. As a mom I developed so many fears and it turned into a vicious cycle. I purposefully inserted myself into situations to overcome these fears. Just to name a few, I’ve paraglided off of the seacliffs in Lima, Peru, shot the rapids in Montana, and ziplined over a 300-foot waterfall in Newfoundland—I even went to roller derby camp; it took three days in bed to recover from that little escapade!
David: Veronica was all gung-ho about jumping out of an airplane in Australia. I see no need to abandon a functioning aircraft unless it is on fire. But once she threw down the gauntlet I accepted the challenge. Halfway up our attitudes had done a complete 180—she was looking pretty puny, scared to death, and I was excited at the prospect of freefalling from ten thousand feet.
Have you eaten any strange foods?
David: Tons. We write about that a lot on our blog. I’m not sure if they were the strangest, but the worst by far was silkworms in China. For one thing, the smell made it nearly impossible to eat them. Oh, and the fact that they are bugs.
Veronica: A little clarification here, I ate silkworms, David spit his out. I won that one.
David: Let me just go on the record here: while I admit to spitting out the vile worm, I did eat a bug in Mexico, a cricket to be exact, and it was about a million times better than the silkworms.
Veronica: Yes, he did finally lose his bug virginity.
What’s next for the Gypsy Nesters?
Veronica: The more we travel the more we want to see; we’ve turned into very greedy travelers! We’d love to get to New Zealand. And we haven’t been to Scotland—we both have roots there—so we feel a huge pull to visit. I could name several dozen more… but you really don’t want me to pull out the whole list, do you?
David: When we started out we had a saying: the plan is no plans. We like to leave life open to reveal itself to us so we usually don’t know where we will be too far in advance. We have a river cruise coming up through Holland and Belgium, and we are going to Africa this summer, but beyond that we will see where the wind takes us. In the meantime, we are working on a second book that will cover our adventures after that first year of taking our initial leap into the life of Going Gypsy.