Learning How to be Free

Traveling the continent in a travel trailer, Shelly Cox ’86 has learned a lot about herself.
For the last three years, home has been wherever Shelly Cox ’86 and her husband Tracy Waldon decide to park their Airstream travel trailer. Sometimes home is within the Chugach National Forest, in Alaska. Sometimes it’s in Wisconsin, parked among a whispering patch of grass beside Lake Superior. Maybe they stay for three weeks. They could also decide that, after three days, they’ve had enough, aim their silver bullet of a home down an uncluttered stretch of road, and move on. 

Heavy with the burdens of life — the rigors of work, the pain of losing loved ones — Cox dreamt of getting away. When she first met Waldon, back in 2015, he was planning a retirement of traveling the country in an Airstream. Imagining a life free of daily demands, Cox pictured herself floating above the pressures of the day-to-day. “I fell in love with the idea of saying goodbye to everything that I had known,” Cox says. “I had recently lost a lot of family members — everyone in my family, really — except for my son. I had a lot of responsibilities, and a very, very full life of being busy and weighted down with these responsibilities.” 

Then, in November 2019, Waldon received an unexpected opportunity to retire, and the shape of their journey began to take a more solid form. They sold Waldon’s house, almost all of their belongings, and bought their Airstream. Their life felt weightless; small, but particular. “I felt very free, like a balloon lifting into the air,” Cox says. “I could just go. I had nothing holding me down anywhere. So that happened.” She speaks with retrospective blasé, a contemplative casualty. So that happened. This is not out of apathy but instead comes from the acute awareness that life, like the tires on a track, rolls on. 

They embarked with a loose plan, not a rigid itinerary; such structure would have been counterintuitive to the free-wheeling life on wheels. They had destinations — spend some time in the Keys, experience an Alaskan summer — but their trips are plans of improvised precision. Their next stop, their next home, is entirely up to them.

Coincidently, their life on the road began just as the first coronavirus lockdowns went into effect, when the global mood was an agitated moan. Cox felt lucky to be outside of all that, isolated with her husband. When they first hit the road, exploration manifested itself in two forms: exploring new regions of the country and surveying this new nomadic variation of their relationship. The couple had dated for four years, and Waldon proposed just before they began their journey. “This new life of ours has been a crash course in getting to know each other,” Cox says. “It was all a whirlwind. Living in a 200-square-foot trailer makes for a real study in getting along, and I think we’ve been very successful. I’m proud of that.” 

Together, within those 200 square feet, they balance what Cox calls the physical and intellectual demands of the road. Their intimacy has been accelerated by proximity. Cox and Waldon prefer to boondock, which means they tend to set up their quarters entirely off the grid, with no one around, in places that are not neatly manicured campgrounds. Sustaining this preference, she’s learned, requires scrupulous attention to detail. For the sake of efficiency and personal space, they’ve learned that it’s best to divide tasks. Waldon handles the logistics of the travel and all things mechanical, and Cox secures everything inside the Airstream before each departure. 

Boondocking forces them to supply their own sources of electricity, waste disposal and clean water resources. They work together to hook and unhook the hitch attaching their Airstream to their red Ram diesel truck; Cox has had to learn to work with electrical tools and read the meters they use to monitor their systems. Their life is loose, but the stakes are still high; their world is their trailer, and it needs to be handled with care. “In order to tow the Airstream, we have to be very careful about where we go,” Cox explains. “We can’t go on narrow roads or under low overpasses. We try to avoid interstates entirely. Everything we do is done carefully because everything we own is hitched behind us. It’s a delicate matter.” 

Cox is a vacationer on a trip that never ends. She’s come to learn that the most difficult aspect of this new life is the balance between enjoying the endless vacation and navigating the challenging logistics that come with sustaining the trip. “The balance now is not home, family work,” she says. “Now it’s enjoying nature and making sure we can safely and comfortably be in a place that allows us to enjoy our surroundings. I’ve had to learn a new set of skills. I’ve had to learn how to live in this capsule. I’ve had to learn how to enjoy nature while under this pressure of figuring out how to get out into it.”

One might look at Cox’s life on the road as an easy escape to freedom. No mortgage. No yard work. No boss to answer to. But complete freedom has its own constraints. Each day holds something unexpected; there is no routine to hold on to, no familiar face that she doesn’t have to meet for the first time. Even a trip to the grocery store requires her to punch an address into Google Maps. Every day is new, and that newness can be exhausting. She’s discovered that you need a little banality to keep your bearings. “It’s like being a perpetual stranger in a strange land. Everything is always new, and we’re always strangers there,” Cox says. “It’s not only that I miss my friends a lot, but I also miss that person you know that you can say hello to at the register at CVS.” 

On the road constantly, she finds it hard to connect. To document her travels and keep her friends apprised of where she is, she began blogging about her journey (https://www.goingdowntheroadfeelinggrand.com/). A recurring feature of Cox’s writing is her expressions of longing. She has a section of her blog where she gives herself space to reflect on her family. She imagines writing to the people she can no longer speak to, her words an attempt to reduce a separation greater than any distance. “I often find that I would like to be telling family members about my travels, but they’re not there anymore, so there’s no one to tell,” Cox says. “I think through the lens of the people I miss. My sister had wanted to live on a boat and didn’t get to live that dream, and so I feel like I’m doing this a little bit for her. One of my mom’s favorite things to do when traveling was something she called grinning at the groceries. No matter what exotic place she was in she loved going to the grocery store to look at all the food that was unusual. I have found myself thinking about them more than I ever had. Because I’m imagining how much they would enjoy this.” 

At the beginning of the trip, she thought travel would remake her — that she’d reach the exhilaration that she figured revealed necessary knowledge. The places she would go, she thought, would give her insight. But now she realizes that to find comfort on the sometimes lonely road requires a search inward. “It’s so trite, but it’s true that, no matter how astounding the places are that I visit, I’m still sitting with myself at the end of the day, thinking about all the things I’ve been through in my life,” Cox says. “It’s up to me to make myself happy. I’m traveling the world, but I’m also like a nun in a cloister. In the end, it’s just me.” 

Still having fun, she is no longer as effusive as she once was about the trip. And that, she says, is just fine. She’s learned that, no matter where you are in the world or what you’re doing under the vast blue sky, joy takes work. So, if you ask her how she maintains her happiness, she’ll tell you, with a smile: “That’s a work in progress.”