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An Outsider Looking In

After hitting burnout working in the fashion industry, I set off to shed my New York City skin by immersing myself in nature for two months of #vanlife.

Bryce Canyon National Park, UT

I never thought that immersing myself in nature for two months of #vanlife would change everything for me.

Working in fashion in New York City for nearly six years, I was constantly stressed, creatively depleted, and my mind was clouded by a tornado of negative thoughts. After spending five of those years working through my lunches and working late just to try and catch up, I realized that I never took a moment for myself in my entire work-day to simply re-center. When these stresses built up and started to overtake my mind at work, I found myself leaving the office and heading to the waterfront.

Zion National Park, UT

My office was only a five-minute walk away from the Hudson River where I could see New Jersey across the water and the World Trade Center and the Statue of Liberty farther south. The waterfront had been recently developed and a small patch of grass facing the water lapping at the piers was added. I would find a seat in the grass, meditate for ten-to-twenty minutes to try and clear my head before I would lay down underneath the shade of a tree to try to relax. When I opened my eyes and looked up, the clouds passed by slowly, framed through the tree branches above with the sounds of birds chirping and wind rustling passing my ears. The energy I felt here, just a short walk away from my office, was a complete night and day shift. I felt myself breathe, and I mean really breathe. This became the highlight of my day, that small connection to nature. I craved more. I could have sat on that small patch of grass for hours, just watching, just being. I was simply there: present and content, my worries drifting away. I always left that patch of grass with a smile on my face.

Grand Teton National Park, WY

In June of 2017, I planned an adventure to chase that sense of calm, that connection with nature. After leaving my full-time job and starting my own business (a creative agency and design studio that works with fine artists, commercial photographers, and stylists, Una Volta Studio), I needed a break from New York City. I loved (and still love) New York with a passion but I felt my heart being pulled west. I found a subletter for my Brooklyn apartment and my boyfriend and I took off on a road trip to spend the next two months living with the land and out of his car. We did not have a fancy converted van set-up, only his 2011 Hyundai Elantra Touring, but we did not let that stop us. We bought a tent and hit the road anyway.

Our ride, ‘Blue’, a 2011 Hyundai Elantra Touring

On our trip, we explored nine states and twelve of America’s National Parks. The majority of our days consisted of:

Rising with the sun
Eating a small breakfast at camp of either rehydrated packets, muffins, or hard-boiled eggs we doused in pepper & paprika from our Multi-Spice shaker.
“Commuting to work” to find the nearest public library to the National Park we were sleeping in (I ran my business from the road and he worked remotely for a biotech company).
Working for a few hours before returning to the park to hike
Returning to our campsite before sunset to cook dinner over the fire
Journaling & reading by the campfire until there was no more light
Crawling into our tent and falling sound asleep

Some days we opted for a full work day and others a full off-day where we would have the entire day to hike the deserts, mountains, prairies, or forests in front of us. Some days were just spent driving from one destination to the next. But I found that each day we spent on the road was more magical than the last and the longer we stayed, the more comfortable our new lifestyle became to us.

Yellowstone National Park, WY

I remember our first night in Bryce Canyon National Park, UT. Our campground was near empty and we scored a coveted campsite on top of a hillside, overlooking a beautiful sunset with no neighbors in sight. Once the sun went down and we were stuffed with campfire sausages and rice, we looked behind us to see a rising full super-moon. We pulled out our binoculars and just stared through them with our jaws on the floor. We could see every small crater on the moon’s surface and it felt like, if we reached out, we could touch it. We looked at each other in awe of the world and after a moment of complete silence, we erupted into a fit of hysteria, our bodies falling into an odd combination of jumping/dancing around our campsite, our faces smiling and laughing with each other. We felt so happy and at peace in that moment. We were just two small human beings camping on the edge of an incredible canyon bearing witness to the beauty both within and outside of our planet, Earth. Talk about perspective.

Bryce Canyon National Park, UT

Living on the road, almost everything we knew shifted in some way, especially the little things. Our entire collection of things – our pantry, our closet, our tent & sleeping bags, our hiking equipment, camera equipment, and refrigerator (an ice chest) – all fit into one small car, all neatly packed next to each other in plastic tubs. We would go a full week without showering: sleeping in our own sweat and dirt that we could never fully get out of our clothes either. Personal hygiene took on a new definition – swiping on some deodorant, wiping our bodies with a wet wipe, and me putting my hair in a bandana and braids. I could never get the dirt fully out from underneath my fingernails, which had all been damaged from climbing rocks and days in the dirt anyway. The bottoms of my feet were permanently stained brown- dirt caked between my toes. Self-care meant spending time each evening to just sit at the campfire, reflect on my day in my journal and then read by the campfire. It was a huge shift from my Brooklyn lifestyle but after time, this became our new normal and we would not have preferred it any other way.

My road trip companion and I in Rocky Mountain National Park, CO

Nearing the end of our trip (after a month and a half living on the road), we stopped in San Francisco for a three-day music festival we had bought tickets for months prior. We were excited to be reunited with friends and with society. In mere minutes upon arrival on the first day, we were in completely over our heads. To go from living by ourselves with only other campers, animals, and nature around us, to being thrown into a crowd of 100,000+ people, all caring about what they were wearing or how many cute photos they could take for social media, was immediately shocking to us. We had been removed from this part of society and to see if from our new lens, felt as if seeing it for the first time. An outsider looking in. The person I was before the trip, someone who used to love such a wild, immersive experience, had evolved. We could not get back to the woods fast enough…

The days we spent on the trail became my favorite. We hiked almost every day and by the end of the summer, I had conquered my longest day-hike to date, clocking in 17mi with 4,000ft of elevation change in just over 9 hours in Yosemite National Park, CA. My boyfriend and I spent the majority of our hikes in silence. We used this time to just be present with our bodies. With our minds. With ourselves. No conversation was needed. And it was perfect.

Badlands National Park, SD

I thought that living with the land had changed me, but maybe, just maybe, it simply shed an outer layer of me. The modern skin I had stepped into based on my urban surroundings had melted away. Instead of changing me, I realized that living with the land offered me the chance to change the way I viewed myself. It offered me the chance to see my true center, the calm, loving energy that had been there all along.

The author, Kayla Clements, across America’s National Parks

*Originally written for and published at www.osprey.com

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