After losing his job, former CNN journalist Chris Moody and his wife Cristi Moody were at a crossroads.
The couple decided to make a massive life change. They gave up their New York City apartment, sold most of their belongings, and moved into a 72-square-foot off-grid van.
They set out across the U.S. — covering 40 states and tens of thousands of miles — to find how some people are redefining the American dream outside of city limits.
“We wanted to find out if there’s anyone out there that’s living better,” Moody says.
There’s more to life than getting a job, buying a house and collecting material goods, he argues. He wanted to think beyond the standard narrative of what a “successful” urban American life looks like.
To kickstart their venture ascending from the old-fashioned American dream, they needed a mobile home. Moody admits he’s not much of a carpenter, but within a month’s time, he and Cristi converted a white RAM ProMaster high top into a tiny oasis, complete with a kitchen, bathroom and bed that folds into a couch.
The cargo van’s electricity is powered through two solar panels, which he says is just enough to turn on the lights and water, charge their cell phones and boil enough water for a pot of coffee.
“After that, you’re starting to run out of electricity,” he says.
When their self-built tiny house was finished — with some assistance from Cristi’s father, an electrical engineer — they hit the road.
On the couple’s more than 35,000-mile journey, they encountered many different communities, including groups of fellow minimalists and others living in tiny, off-grid homes.
Moody says among the people he met, many of them were pushed out of traditional housing because of “skyrocketing” housing prices. The median home value in the U.S. has gone up 4.9% within the last year, according to Zillow, so the savings from significantly downsizing could pay off financially.
Then, there’s folks who simply want to pursue a minimalist lifestyle, he says.
He also discovered the people he visited were less interested in what was buzzing in the Washington, D.C. political scene as they were in local to-dos.
“I found that on this trip if I allowed other people to talk about what they wanted to, politics did not come up much at all,” Moody says.
He saw for “people that are trying to live a little bit differently,” regional politics, particularly when it came to zoning and building, were more top-of-mind than national affairs.
As a former politics reporter, this offered a fresh perspective. Moody now urges journalists to “spend time not just in rural areas but places outside of New York or Washington D.C.”
“I would say that for the most part, the people that we encountered, they’re living according to their values, and that has led them to make very different conclusions about how they should live in the United States, and I would say, has made them happier than a lot of the rest of us that are running on the hamster wheel,” he says.
The duo also reassessed how traditional gender roles play into their marriage. In such a small setting, Chris observed Cristi taking on “more domestic work,” such as tidying up the van.
“When you live in 72 square feet with no other rooms to hide, you’re either doing work and helping with the chores, or you’re lounging,” he says. “We learned to work together in ways that we were never able to do in a more comfortable setting.”
The Moody’s time traveling in the van proved valuable on many levels. Moody says they found their quality of life increased when separated from materialistic desires and the hustle and bustle of city living. Adhering to minimalism provided them an abundance of quality time together and a feeling of freedom, he says.
Right now, the Moodys are visiting family in Washington, D.C., but still living out of their van. Both are trying to avoid “falling right back into all of those old habits” that they left behind in New York City.
Moody says the pair hopes to continue exploring the country and meet more people rejecting the old-fashioned American Dream and pursuing alternative lifestyles.
“People all across this country, I would say, have cracked the code or are experimenting with redefining what it means to live that American dream,” he says, “and not the one that was maybe set by previous generations.”
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.