By Greg Gerber
It has been more than two and a half years and tens of thousands of miles since the Anderson children lived in a traditional home. For Elizabeth, 16; Ethan, 14; and Grace, 12, it should seem like a long time. But, to them, it feels like yesterday.
“We have been on the road exactly two-and-a-half years today,” Elizabeth explained while participating in the Fulltime Families rally in Montrose, Colo., in July. “I don’t think anyone really knew for sure, but I went back and researched when we actually started our journey.”
They have been traveling primarily in New England, the Midwest and Southwestern part of America helping their mother, Jenna, who transformed the family’s motorhome into a Monarch butterfly mosiac as part of an international art project. To read that story, click here.
“I like seeing all the places we have been,” said Grace. “We’ve been able to visit places like the Grand Canyon and the Statue of Liberty that many kids our age can only see on postcards or over the Internet.”
Elizabeth enjoys the opportunity to try a variety of new things. She’s not afraid to experiment and force herself out of her comfort zone.
“I think RVing has really helped me grow as a person, and it has made all of us more comfortable with ourselves and more confident as teenagers,” she said
Making fiends fast
Although Elizabeth said it is generally easier for her to make friends on the road, it’s sometimes harder for her because there are not a lot of older teenagers — boys or girls — that travel full-time in an RV.
But, Grace said she’s getting better at forming friendships that she knows will end in a few days or a few weeks.
“Most of our friends are also on the road, and it’s more fun when they decide to travel with us for a while,” she explained. “Even when we say goodbye, I know there is a good chance our lives will intersect again sometime soon.”
Even then, Grace said she doesn’t get to develop the especially close “best friend” relationships other 12-year-olds enjoy. “I do exchange e-mail with a lot of other kids, and I get to Skype occasionally with some really good friends,” she explained.
Ethan enjoys RVing because of the new places he can visit and the experiences he can enjoy along the way. But, he does admit it is sometimes difficult living in very close quarters with two adolescent girls.
After all, the three of them bunk down together with their 10-year-old brother, Elijah, in the motorhome’s living room and dining area, which has to be restored to livable condition as soon as they wake up every day.
Elizabeth was enrolled in public school until she finished seventh grade. Since then, she’s controlled the direction and pace of her studies, under the watchful guidance of her parents.
“At first, it was very hard for me to come out of a public school environment because I am such a social person,” she explained. “It was really difficult for me to balance out. But, I have learned so many practical skills while on the road — things I know I will actually use for the rest of my life.”
Moving from place to place has also forced her to be more social in a variety of situations with diverse groups of people, from little kids to teens to adults, from multiple cultural backgrounds.
“I have become very good at walking up to others and introducing myself,” said Elizabeth. “RVing full-time has also forced me to better manage my money.”
Grace treasures the opportunity to visit museums and national parks to learn about history, science and geography in person. “It is sooooo much better than just reading a textbook,” she said with a laugh.
Ethan is a naturalist who enjoys studying about insects and other creatures that crawl, slither, hop and fly around. In fact, he’s maintained a collection of some of the more interesting species that he’s caught. He actually turned his hobby into a business collecting bugs and selling them to a reseller who supplies specimens to public schools.
“Basically, I get paid to catch bugs,” he explained. “I really want to get those ‘mega bugs’ that sometimes freak out others.”
Just the mention of ‘mega bugs,’ is enough to cause Elizabeth and Grace to squirm a bit.
But, Elizabeth is an animal lover in her own right, often volunteering her time at animal shelters in places where they spend extended periods of time. The opportunity to feed the animals and walk the dogs gives her a way to show love to lots of animals before they find permanent homes.
Since beginning their journey, Grace has taken a liking to piano, teaching herself how to play and compose music. It’s a challenge, though, because the rather large keyboard has to be shoved under the couch whenever it’s not being used.
Other 16-year-olds get the opportunity to go out on dates, and that’s a near impossibility for Elizabeth. Although she does try to maintain a long-distance relationship with a boyfriend in Florida, she said not being able to spend one-on-one time with him is certainly less than ideal.
“Dating and developing those type of relationships is different for teens who RV fulltime. Because they aren’t likely to stay in one place, there is no real chance for teens to develop those relationships,” she explained.
“But, it also means I just don’t date for the sake of dating,” said Elizabeth. “It gives me the opportunity to go looking for the right person and to connect with people on a different level. Hopefully, that makes for stronger, more lasting relationships.”
As soon as she turned 12, Grace started babysitting for other fulltime families who just need a few hours of adult time or who need the kids out of the RV to give mom and dad time to clean and organize.
Elizabeth also does a lot of babysitting, but she is looking forward to this winter when they family spends their second year in Breckenridge, Colo., where she learned to snowboard. She’s hoping to find a part-time job at a clothing shop, boutique or, perhaps, even at the resort.
“Showboarding is a pretty awesome,” she explained. “We are originally from Brainerd, Minn., so we all love winter sports. We’ll live in the RV all winter and that gives me a chance to get a job at one of the resorts.”
As one might imagine when talking with two teens and a tween, personal space is a big concern of RV living.
“When we bought our first RV, we never considered that we would need places for each of us to have some ‘alone space,'” Elizabeth explained. “So, finding a place to ourselves is often difficult.”
Grace is more concerned about her parents, noting that its them who sometimes seem to need time and space away from the kids. Occasionally, mom and dad will order the kids to bed in order to enjoy a movie by themselves.
“But, it’s not very fair,” she said. “Some nights, we wish we could watch a movie or TV show together.”
The Andersons are hoping their next RV will be a fifth wheel, something they all think will give them a little more room, thanks to the three-zone living areas.
“There are just those days when you’re upset or having a bad day and you want to be by yourself,” said Elizabeth. “It’s just hard getting away from everyone else when six people are sharing the same confined space.”
Space is even tighter for Ethan and his brother. They both share an inflatable air mattress in the middle of the living room. The bed has to be blown up and taken down each day.
“Because we all sleep in the middle section of the RV, it is very cramped,” he added.
Grace wishes the bathroom would be bigger because the shower space is too small and the toilet is cramped right next to everything else. It might not be as bad as the toilets in an airplane, but it’s a close rival.
Elizabeth said not having a lock on the bathroom door makes her very uncomfortable. “Normally, I feel a need to hold on to the doornob all the time, and if I can’t reach it, it freaks me out a little bit,” she added.
Dry camping — or boondocking — is the worst, they all agreed. The showers are shorter, or nonexistent, and sometimes they have to resort to using portable toilets at a few of the remote state and national park campgrounds.
“That can be really irritating because they are often disgusting things,” said Ethan.
The RV parks, especially public campgrounds, tend to be extraordinarily beautiful places to visit and to live for a few weeks, they agreed. However, some lack amenities they take for granted in private campgrounds — WiFi being top on that list, followed closely by electricity.
“Don’t get us wrong. It’s not ugly here at all,” Elizabeth explained. “It is just hard for a Jellystone Park to compare with the spectacular scenery of Antelope Island, for example.”
Holidays are hard
For Ethan, holidays are harder-than-normal. First of all, there isn’t a lot of space to store decorations, so Christmas and Halloween just isn’t the same in an RV. Although they have a “baby” Christmas tree, he described the expectations around the holiday as “different” than it was in their original home.
“Not being together with our other family members is hard,” he explained, noting that not many relatives ever come to visit them. “I don’t know where we would put them if they did.”
“We used to be five minutes from our grandma and all our cousins,” added Grace. “Even though we are closer as a family, I do miss spending time with everyone else, especially around the holidays.”
“Living full-time in an RV is certainly not the same as being in a house,” Elizabeth explained. “Yes, we lost a lot of things we once enjoyed, like seeing our family more frequently. But, we gained a lot from moving out of a traditional house as well. RVing is an entirely different lifestyle. It might not be ideal for others, but for us, we really enjoy doing it full-time.”
PHOTOS: Top — Elizabeth, Grace and Ethan Anderson; Middle — The Anderson clan at a Breckenridge, Colo., ski lift in summer. Pictured are Jon, Elijah, Ethan, Elizabeth and Grace; Bottom — All four Anderson children cram into the main living area at night.