I’m launching a new series today and am really excited about it! “Parenting Against the Grain” is an interview series featuring families who’ve made interesting — and often unconventional — choices about how to live and raise their children. My hope is that their stories will inspire you to have the courage to be the parent and live the family life you’ve always dreamed of — no matter what that looks like.
I’m thrilled to introduce you today to Emily Harteau, who, together with her husband Adam and daughter Colette, lives a nomadic life in a customized van. Emily and Adam document their incredible journey traveling across South America on their site, Our Open Road. Beware: You’ll get lost in Adam’s stunning photos and the adventurousness of this young family. Enjoy the Harteaus’ story!
Zoe Saint-Paul: Please tell me a little bit about your family – who you are, where you’re from, how you met, what you do professionally, and anything you wish to share about your daughter.
Emily Harteau: I am Emily Harteau — born in Santa Cruz, raised in Sacramento, and moved to Los Angeles at 17 to attend college. Adam and I met at Otis College of Art & Design — he studied fine art and I studied fashion design. We’ve been together since 2000, which gave us many wild and amazing years together before we welcomed our daughter, Colette Nova, in January 2011. We’re expecting another babe in June of this year, which we’re all very excited about – especially big sister Coco.
What made you make the decision to try a nomadic lifestyle?
Adam and I tried to take one major trip every year, but upon returning, it always felt too soon. We would talk and dream of sailing around the world or planning a round-the-world trip, choosing a few key destinations to explore over the course of a year. When we got our VW Westfalia in 2003, our eyes opened to the possibilities of overland travel, and in 2007 we took a trip around the U.S. and Canada, which whet our appetites. When a project that would have put us in India and Nepal for more than six months fell through, we knew the time had come for us to plan our own grand voyage. We planned for a year before it all came to fruition.
We departed California on this “Our Open Road” journey in October of 2012, driving through Mexico, Central America, and into South America. We returned for a visit stateside in August and September 2013, although in that time, we still traveled almost continuously. We are nomads at heart.
The beauty of overland travel is that we’re in control of the pace at which we travel (border crossings due to expiring visas and specific dates to meet visitors excluded). This gives us the ability to tune into our needs as individuals and as a family.
What did family and friends think, and did that have any impact on your decision?
We are insanely lucky to have a tribe that totally supports our dreams. Of course, they miss us, as we do them. They all came together to help this journey get underway and continue to do so in many small ways as we’re on the road. The strength from having a solid foundation like this can’t be underestimated.
Even when non-nomadic, we’re not “schedule” people, and being on the road requires flexibility as circumstances always change. That said, we usually wake a bit after the sun comes up, rise and do morning duties: teeth and toilet (many times there’s no “toilet” per se). I prepare breakfast while Adam tidies the van and Colette spoils us with her morning sweetness. After breakfast, if it’s a driving day, we pack up camp; if we’re stationary, we set into whatever the day’s adventure, excursion, chore, or work is.
How do you handle disagreements as a couple in such a small space?
We speak frankly and keep things civil. If necessary, we’ll wait until we can find a time or space to discuss things without the always-open ears of a very smart 3-year-old.
How has it been different (harder? better?) than you expected?
We quickly learned to trade in expectation for experience. Having an open mind and heart for what is, instead of what we thought we would encounter, had read about, heard about, etc., was the simplest and most effective mental transition.
How is parenting different on the road? Do you see changes in your daughter and in yourselves as parents?
Parenting on the road is different from life in the states because both Adam and I are (nearly) always with Colette. We don’t have to divide our time between jobs and family. We’re very thankful that hosting the fair-trade flash sales we call “24 Hour Bazaar” allows us to finance our travels and directly support the talented artisans we meet on the road. (To sign up for notifications of our bazaars, please email us at email@example.com.)
What are the values and messages you want your daughter to absorb from this experience?
We hope to instill an appreciation of the world’s rich natural beauty and the cultural, artistic, religious, socioeconomic, stylistic, and racial diversity. An attitude of gratitude and an eagerness to learn are traits we hope will remain with her.
What place have you visited that you’ll never be able to forget?
Many places known and unknown are seared unforgettably into our memory — the faces of kind strangers, magnificent monuments, and wild places. Valle de Cocora in Colombia, Machu Picchu, the unparalleled Amazon, and Hierve del Agua in Oaxaca, Mexico, all come to mind as especially magical places.
We address our fears and concerns as they arise. People who live in rural America or other rural places have to address the same question of health care as we do while traveling. Colette has, thankfully, been very healthy in the 17 months we’ve been traveling. We also travel with a well-stocked first aid kit, which holds a variety of allopathic and homeopathic remedies.
Before departing, we lived in Los Angeles, which is statistically far more dangerous than most of the places we have visited. We talk to locals, make the smartest decisions we can, and follow our gut. Adam and I always check in with each other before confirming our camp for the night, asking, “Does this feel good for you?” If either of us is unsure, we leave and find a place we both like. On the road, your instincts are heightened and you learn to trust your intuition.
You are due with a baby girl in June – Baby Spider, as she’s called on your blog. What has pregnancy been like on the road? Do you plan to come back to the U.S. to give birth or have your baby somewhere in South America?
The first trimester was rough. We were at 12,500-foot elevation for a good two months — a height that’s difficult enough without the added hormonal roller coaster of growing a child! Adam was able to spend a lot of time with Colette, so I was thankfully able to get some very necessary rest. The moment I hit 15 weeks — when the placenta attaches — we also arrived at lower elevations, and it was like I got switched back on to my normal self. The second trimester I felt great and had lots of energy; I just got into the third trimester and am feeling wonderful.
We’ve had regular medical attention — I just brought the paperwork from the previous appointment with us and explained to the doctor our nomadic life. As a cash patient, it is shocking that the full payment in Peru and Chile is far less than a co-pay for a visit is backing the States. We plan on setting up a base camp for a few months in Florianopolis, Brazil, and having baby Spider there, where she will gain dual citizenship.
Do it! If you can work it out, the rewards of spending time with your littles on the road is incomparable. Children are highly adaptable, and what you show them — offering the world as a playground — is a wonderful gift to share.
I would call it a journey, not an experiment, and this journey is just life on the road. Our home has wheels, but it’s still our home. The greatest challenge and success has been the journey in and of itself. Making the decision to go, departing the comforts of life as we knew it, and trading it for the unknown was a leap that has rewarded us tenfold.
For now, life is on the road. We will slow down for a few months to welcome the new baby, and then continue on this journey we call “Our Open Road!”
I’m so grateful to Emily for making the time to talk to me! The wannabe nomad in me definitely resonates with their amazing experiences… Could you ever imagine living on the road like this with your family? What appeals to you about it — or scares you? And if you could do it, where would you love to go?
If you enjoyed this post, check out my interview with Becky Morales of KidWorldCitizen, my conversation with Ania Krasniewska about sending her daughter to Forest Kindergarten in Copenhagen, and my post about teaching children to be “citizens of the world.“
Images: Adam Harteau for Our Open Road