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Life on the Road

The perks and problems of driving, residing and traveling under one roof

Living in a 500-square-foot Manhattan apartment is great preparation for moving into an even smaller home, which is exactly what Trudy Lundgren did when she sold her co-op and bought a 1985 Bluebird Wanderlodge RV with 320 square feet of living space.

In July 2004, Lundgren, then 53, and her partner, Lisa Wade, 43, packed up their pets and possessions and hit the road — for good. While it isn't uncommon for retirees to travel the country in an RV, Lundgren and Wade weren't setting out to retire. They were reinventing the way they live and work. 

See also: Reality Check: RV Life.

"We are working, but look where my office is, and look at the view out my office, and every couple of weeks it changes," says Lundgren, a freelance graphic designer. "I don’t have the stress of a nine-to-five job. I don’t have the stress of living in a big city. Whenever I want to, I can get up from my computer and go outside and be in nature."

The women had long spoken about wanting to someday leave New York and live elsewhere. They just didn't know where. "So we decided, let’s take a trip around the country and find a place to live," Lundgren says. Traveling by RV was appealing since both had fond memories of road trips with their families. (Lundgren was raised in Southern California; Wade, a former flight attendant who later worked in retail sales, is from Kansas.)

When the September 11 terrorist attacks destroyed the World Trade Center towers, and with them much of Lundgren's client-based projects and personal sense of safety and well-being, "we upped the timetable 10 years," she says. By coincidence, on that day, instead of being in their downtown New York apartment, Lundgren and Wade were in Pennsylvania visiting an RV show as part of their extensive research about RV travel and life.

Since leaving Manhattan, the pair has parked their 40-foot Bluebird (named "The Catbird Seat") in, among other states, Texas, Alabama, Tennessee, Arizona, New Mexico, Missouri, Wyoming and Washington. Sometimes they stay in a place for one night; other times they settle down for several months. Although their living quarters are smaller than what they had in New York, "the kitchen is bigger," Lundgren says. And while the Big Apple had been their playground, America's parklands are now their backyard. The women are traveling all the time, yet they're home. "We don’t live out of a suitcase," Lundgren explains. "We sleep in our own bed every night. We have all of our clothing with us. We never have to pack or unpack."

Next: Watch out for bumps in the road. »

The profit from selling Lundgren's apartment covered the costs of buying, enhancing and outfitting the RV. Aside from spending $75,000 for the RV and the Toyota RAV4 and trailer that came with it, Lundgren's biggest expense was the $5,000 satellite dish she needed to secure a reliable Internet connection for her work. (Remember, this was 2004, before wireless and the widespread use of cell phones and other mobile technology.) But keeping Lundgren's business alive remotely, and with it a steady income, proved to be a dead end.

As a Plan B for income, the women secured hourly, often minimum wage work at local businesses near where they stopped and through Workhamper, an organization that helps RV travelers find temporary jobs. Wade, who has a degree in music, has worked as a manager at a McDonald's and as a maid and front desk clerk at a hotel. Lundgren, a graduate of George Washington University in Washington, D.C., has worked an array of blue-collar jobs, including as a grocery store clerk and a cashier at Wal-Mart. To save on their RV park rental fees (see Reality Check: Living in an RV), the women have scrubbed RV park bathrooms, mowed lawns and cleaned swimming pools.

"These aren't the jobs you necessarily want, but when you need money coming in, they're jobs you’re glad to have," says Lundgren, who saw other benefits to her temp work. "After having a career of sitting behind a desk all day and working on a computer, it was a nice change of pace to do physical work. It was different. Less responsibility. Less hassle."

In 2006, the women landed work that is so suitable to their new lifestyle it's as if their troubles led to great blessings. Working for a company that publishes visitor guides for RV parks, Wade goes out into the community surrounding a park and sells ad space for the guides. Lundgren, meanwhile, stays behind in the RV with dachshunds Wilhelm and Friederich and designs the ads from her home office. The jobs, which Lundgren and Wade have held for nearly five years, provide income from commissions. Because they are now required to travel and live out of an RV for work, many of their RV costs can be deducted as business expenses come tax time.

Since living without an address is difficult, Lundgren and Wade's official place of residence is Livingston, Texas, specifically the Escapees RV Club, which is where they get their mail (it's forwarded weekly) and see their regular doctors. When their driving days are done, the pair will likely live inside their permanently parked RV at the Escapees full-service compound.

At this writing, the women are living in an RV park outside of San Francisco. They'll be spending more time in that location than planned because of an unfortunate accident.

The good news: The Bluebird Wanderlodge is fine.

The bad news: While visiting a friend who works as a firefighter, Lundgren, who turns 60 in September, asked if she could slide down the firehouse pole. She did, and promptly broke her left ankle. Although Lundgren will be able to drive using her right foot, the required surgery will keep her off the road for a couple of weeks.

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