Peter and Allison Barr are eating peanut butter sandwiches outside a Wal-Mart in Elkins, W.Va. It’s winter, and a heavy snow is starting to dust the motor oil-stained asphalt. To the shoppers panic-buying milk and white bread, this is just a grocery store. But to Peter and Allison, it’s home. At least for now.
Tomorrow, the married couple will park their Class C motorhome on some lonely forest service road. From there, they will venture into the Allegheny Mountain Range to bag some of the highest peaks in the eastern United States. Next week, they will start snaking back down to Asheville, N.C.—the city they left behind more than two years ago to be digital nomads.
“We wanted to have deep and meaningful experiences while we’re still young,” Allison says as the couple’s cat, Oscar, nuzzles into her lap. “And we weren’t sure how much longer we could count ourselves young,” Peter adds.
To clarify, Peter and Allison are both 38 years old—sprightly by today’s standards. But it’s no secret that an increasing number of tech-savvy millennials are having the same realization. Shaken awake by the pandemic or a soured relationship, folks are bidding adieu to 9-to-5 jobs and embracing a location-independent lifestyle bankrolled by remote work. In fact, according to a 2021 report produced by MBO Partners, more than 10 million Americans identify as digital nomads—a 49 percent increase since 2019.
However, unlike some nomads who are forced to downsize after facing an eye-opening calamity (think: Covid-related layoffs), Peter and Allison weren’t strong-armed into the full-time RV lifestyle. “We both had careers that we loved and adored,” says Peter, who previously worked full-time as trails specialist at Conserving Carolina, a land trust in Hendersonville, N.C. Allison, who taught at a public school, remembers being “very, very happy and content.”
Except in the summertime. Each year when school let out, the two would set off on a grand adventure. They’d climb the Tetons or hike Yellowstone, crashing in their truck for weeks at a time. Despite a packed itinerary, these trips only whet the couple’s appetite for adventure. They wanted more, says Allison: “It was just never enough.”
Fortunately, Peter and Allison don’t shy away from bold decisions, especially when made in the name of adventure. A decade ago, Peter was working as a bench scientist at a water and soil lab in Charlotte. All day, he sat in a room with no windows and daydreamed about being outside. “I was so miserable in that career,” he says.
So, Allison made a proposition: Peter would thru-hike the Appalachian Trail while she moved their lives from Charlotte to Asheville. Peter, who had fallen in love with the mountains during road trips as a kid, was sold. And in 2010, after logging 2,181 miles, he summited Mount Katahdin.
Years later, the couple once again found themselves deciding between divergent paths. They could continue living a secure and stationary life or they could take the training wheels off and travel full-time.
After nearly two years of planning, they decided to take the plunge. But, unlike other digital nomads who cut all ties with conventionality, Peter and Allison still live with a fairly straightforward routine. Peter works part-time remotely with Conserving Carolina, where he pours his “heart and soul” into developing the Hickory Nut Gorge State Trail, a 100-mile trail network that traverses some of North Carolina’s roughest terrain. Meanwhile, Allison manages their Asheville home on Airbnb for extra income.
“Everybody has a different path to this lifestyle,” says Allison. “Some people think, ‘Oh, I could never leave my job’ or ‘I could never sell everything.’ But there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach.”
The same goes for rigs. In their travels across North America, Peter and Allison have witnessed other full-timers living in everything from 30-square-foot truck campers to palatial Airstreams. Wanting something bigger than a van but less cumbersome than a giant RV, the couple opted for a 2010 Fleetwood Jamboree Sport.
After purchasing the rig in Utah for $35,000, they added some upgrades: a Wi-Fi booster, shatter-proof window treatments, six solar panels, four lithium batteries, and two Roku televisions. Peter and Allison needed the “26-foot-long box on wheels” to have everything they might need to keep their cats, Oscar and Sweetie, comfortable while boondocking (Sweetie passed away from old age a few months into life on the road).
But proper boondocking still requires foresight. Before Peter and Allison drive hours from the nearest town, they fill up on propane, top off their 50-gallon fresh-water tank, empty the black and gray tanks, and stock up on food. “It’s been interesting to see our new roles in the RV,” says Allison, who oversees meal prepping and campsite selection while Peter navigates back roads.
In some ways, life as a digital nomad is vastly more complicated than life in a traditional house. For starters, Peter and Allison camped out in this Wal-Mart parking lot in West Virginia just to get cell service. Peter is always tinkering with the rig because something is always broken. But what RV living lacks in convenience, it makes up for in memorable experiences.
As of last December, the two had visited 70 lighthouses, climbed more than 300 peaks, and ogled more than 100 waterfalls. Peter has also hosted in-person and virtual events for Exploring North Carolina’s Lookout Towers: A Guide to Hikes and Vistas, a book he co-authored before hitting the road. Plus, he’s started offering private trail consulting and is teaching an online course on sustainable trail building at Rockingham Community College.
Allison is chasing passion projects too. She’s pursuing her Master of Library Science online at Appalachian State University and now has the time to read—a novelty in her past life. But more than that, the couple has time to genuinely connect with other people.
“With Covid-19 and our country’s political divisiveness, it’s easy to lose faith in humanity,” Peter says as snow starts to blanket the RV. “But being out here, meeting people who have opened their homes to us and shared a meal with us, you’re reminded that everyone wants the same things out of life.”
To follow Peter and Allison’s journey, visit www.adventuresahead.net.
Cover photo: Peter and Allison exploring the western United States. Photo courtesy of Peter Barr