I Took My Home on the Road. Only Then Did I Discover How to Be Truly at Home With Myself.

For Jupiter M. Contreras, home meant freeing themself from what it means in the first place

When I decided to move my entire life into a 1979 Coachmen RV, most people thought I’d lost my mind. Moving 27 years' worth of my life including my two giant dogs, Zeus and Apollo, into a 24-foot-long vehicle that offered less floor space than the master bathroom in my soon-to-be ex apartment was, ironically, a very large undertaking.

As I packed up my 900-square-foot space, I sorted my belongings into three piles: Things to Take, Things to Sell and Problems for Future Me. As the “take” pile was loaded into my new home where every inch was sacred, items were made to prove they were worthy of the space they required. Things that didn't make the cut but I didn't want to sell were added to the growing pile of gifts left to Future Me. A busted old guitar that I might learn to play on the road? In. Record player? Out.

Though I couldn’t admit it, in the weeks leading up to hitting the road I began to worry I was making a mistake. Still, it was a perfect storm of factors that had made the move to a home on wheels the most attractive option available for me to stay housed and move into the next chapter of my life.

I had long decided I wanted to go to law school, but, while working two jobs, I wasn’t able to dedicate the time and energy the application process required. After enduring significant racism and homophobia at my job, a wave of layoffs had rippled through my corporate work environment. The reality was very clear: my ability to stay housed (and move forward with my career) would always be in someone else’s hands unless I made a drastic change. I figured it would be pretty hard to lose the roof over my head as long as I owned it, so I bought the RV.

A final trip to my storage unit in June 2020 signaled the end of my year of renovations, and with that, I hit the road seeking sanctuary in solitude. Whether I was sure or not, with every turn of the key I was reminded of the reality of my situation: It was too late to turn around.

For the first few weeks of my travels, I had neighbors. Their presence meant I wasn’t exactly comfortable leaving my rig, for fear of how my Blackness or my queerness (or the combination of both) might be perceived, and for what I’d do if some act of violence were to befall me in the “nowhere” I’d driven myself to the heart of.

On my first night of true solitude, I began to understand just how easy it is to take up space when no one’s asking you to do so only in ways that make sense to them. As I continued to travel, this theme reappeared.

Everywhere I went, I found myself experiencing life to the fullest when no one else was around. Being alone outdoors was the first time I experienced life with no one to police me or project their concepts of gender and sexuality onto the canvas of my existence.

Solitude became an escape, just as I’d hoped. I drove my house as deep into remote public lands as possible, leading my little wolf pack on long walks through forests and desert landscapes. I conquered my fear of standing on the roof of my RV and spent more nights than I can count laid out up there, subjecting the wildlife and the heavens to my haphazard guitar plucking. Each time it felt like the sky held more stars than I’d ever seen before, and on too many occasions I fell asleep trying to count to be sure.

I swam topless in the waters of Mexico, feeling the sun kiss parts of my body that other eyes selfishly demanded either pleasure or shame of. I stood atop mountain peaks in California and peered into sun-soaked valleys, out of breath and full of joy. I raged uncontrollably in the woods of Southern Illinois, asking the trees to hold just a drop of the pain I felt after losing my mom, free of shame for the first time in decades. I spent all of my time outside, alone, and I discovered, in that roundabout way that adults have of “discovering” what they once knew as kids — that crying, screaming, playing and laughing do not define or devalue you as a man or a woman or a person; it all only confirms that you are alive.

One of the few times I emerged from my solitude was to host The Midwest Vanlife Gathering in Illinois. It was one of my first times since making my RV my home that I was around large groups of new people for an extended period of time. I wasn’t sure how I would be received, but I hoped for the best. I was pleasantly surprised. I met with nomads of all ages, gender identities, races and faiths around our nightly campfires. It didn’t matter who I was — we all shared a burning desire to see more of the world around us. I came away from the gathering with about 50 new friends and a growing list of places to see, including Sleeping Bear and Nordhouse Dunes, added at the behest of some of the sweetest nomads to ever come out of the Mitten.

Somewhere along the road I began to realize I had unconsciously created a mental version of my Problems for Future Me pile. In that pile were things about myself I’d noticed in the past, but never had the time to unpack as I tried to keep up with the pace of the city. Primarily, that was never really feeling like a “girl” or a “guy.” If gender was a line drawn from masculine to feminine, mine was the surface on which the line was drawn. If gender was the difference between the sky and the ocean, I came to understand myself to be both and the earth in between.

After six months of living with two dogs in a 200-ish square-foot space, no one was more astonished than me to find that I felt not only OK with my choice but relieved by it. Life in the city had left me with a perpetual sense of dread, always wondering if my rent would increase to exceed my budget or when the pendulum of quarterly layoffs would swing my way. Despite the square footage of my apartment, the circumstances around my existence in that chapter of my life felt smothering and temporary. Moving into a vehicle, on the other hand, felt liberating.

Owning my tiny space allowed me to take ownership of the way I navigated the world. I put art on the walls. I changed my pronouns. I painted and repainted my cabinets until they made me beam with joy every time I saw them. I introduced myself by a different name in every new town I rolled through until I found a name that brought me that same joy. I got piercings that made me fall in love with the face I saw in the mirror. I dyed my hair in hues that made me squeal with delight. I booked a top surgery consult and chose clothes that felt true to who I was and who I was becoming. I built my home and travel itinerary with my own two hands. And similarly, I built myself.

After four years on the road, the person I am today is incredibly different from the version of myself that locked up that storage unit in 2020. I couldn’t find space for my record player in my RV, but I found more than enough space for a beat-up guitar, two giant dogs and me, in all of my expansive, messy, radiant, boundless glory. For my first time living in less than 300 square feet, I think I did just fine.