Family in a Van: A Wild Adventure Still Unfolding

We were excited when we got the initial phone call from Courtney Hayes-Jurcheck and her husband John Jurcheck, both 40, who were traveling across the country with their sons, Luca, 5 and Oliver, 9.  They left their home in Denver to volunteer on farms and WWOOFing sites living in a 1987 Vanagon. They wanted their romantic, counter-cultural adventure to include Agape. Courtney commented: “Our motivation for this journey stemmed from our deep desire to connect with new communities, nature, and ourselves. We wished to serve others, to learn life skills that we did not learn living in the city.” “Support and serve” are delicious words to any community. “Wow”, we thought…” Yes!”  Courtney also confided that “One of our biggest motivations was to give our boys a true, deep and meaningful experience.” John and Courtney were also pursuing anti-racist training and nonviolent communication with their boys daily and hoped to “give our boys a true, deep and meaningful experience.” Interview with the Family in a Van Agape: When did you become interested in traveling to communities? John:  It was a snowball effect and Covid had a part to play.  A lot of lives changed drastically, and ours certainly did.  We were in public performance and event careers, heavily affected by the Pandemic.  I had been a professional theatre actor most of my life and Courtney runs a wedding and event planning company, which fell apart with Covid hit.  We wanted to make a big change in our life. Agape: Tell me about your decision to travel the country. Courtney:  We put a down payment on our VW Vanagon in January 2020. Covid hit, so it ended up seeming so synchronistic that we had this availability.  We rented our house quickly for income to support the journey, got on the WWOOF website and here we are. Agape: You’ve been on the road now seven months.  What were the initial experiences like? Courtney: On August 1st we rented our house out, practiced letting go of attachments to outcome, practicing trust, not expecting things to work out, but go into the river and trust that the river will guide you where you want to go. We started our trip August 19 and we drove through the night all the way to Nebraska, trying to get to Ohio and our first farm.  Forty minutes into our journey, battery and coolant lights went on.  We spent our first night in a truck stop in rural Colorado. We decided to keep going, limped along, got a new alternator in Nebraska.  We learned to keep our cool, be flexible and breathe, not be attached if things don’t go well. Agape:  Seven months is a good chunk of time. What stands out for you? John:  That people in this country really do want community; they really want to feel like they belong to something. And when you talk to people one-on-one, they want to help. We were traveling in a political climate that was highly charged–elections, run-off elections, turmoil as a country.  Yet, when we talked to people across the political spectrum, they were generous, open, and interested… remarkable, frankly. People are concerned about being connected to the land, protecting the land, food-justice, teaching people the skills to build their lives on their own. Agape: How does seven months living in a van affect your family? Courtney:  We have had time together compared to our former lives.  Between school, work, and babysitters, there was not a lot of “us” time, a precious thing to have.  We are at a perfect time in our lives to do this. People comment that “You must not have a lot of personal space.” We have learned how it doesn’t matter how big the space; you can always create your own little bubble.  We have books to lose ourselves in and walks to take us outside.  We have learned to appreciate those moments. John:  Let’s be honest; it’s been a big challenge trying to figure out how to communicate clearly and make sure everyone is getting what they need.  Seven months now, but we feel as if we just got started.  Working out communication challenges has been a gift, honestly. Agape:  What is your parenting philosophy that guided this decision?  You have some wild ideas. John:  One of the wild ideas is called “unschooling” which is a belief that if you provide a space for children, they will learn all they have to learn coming from within themselves and be self-motivated. We had Oliver in public school halfway through his first-grade year when we realized that his needs were not being met by the system.  We decided to pull him out and placed him in a nature school and an enrichment academy one day a week.  We really saw him blossom. His personality started to take shape. Courtney:  The boys have learned practical life skills that I feel most children in America don’t learn, like taking care of chickens, goats, bunnies and how to cut and stack wood.  They can build and tend a fire. Interview with Luca (5) and Oliver (9) Agape: Luca, did your parents ask you whether you would like to leave home and drive all over the country? Luca:  No.  They said:  Do you guys want to live in a van and travel around and go to farms and work with animals and stuff like that?  And we said: ‘Yes’ so, we just went. Agape:  How is that different from learning in school? Oliver:  Because we get to travel around and to take care of animals. Luca: And because every farm teaches us a new thing about bunnies and how to get eggs.  We learned how to take care of goats and kittens.  At Agape we learned how to chop wood. Agape: What have been some of the most exciting things you have done? Oliver: We get to be outside almost all the time and play.  We get to be with animals, like the goats, and we can run around with goats.  They are called “kid” goats because they love kids!  On Martha’s Vineyard they had four goats six months old and not super tall but up to my waist.  They would run around and chase us, and we would chase them. Agape:  Luca, what animal was your favorite? Luca: Bunnies and kittens are my favorite so far, like Ricky. (Agape’s then new kitty). Agape: Boys do you miss home at all? Luca:  I miss my friends. When we travel, we can run around a lot pretty much everywhere.  We have swings and toys and a van.  I like it a little better than home. Oliver: I like it 100 times better than living in a house.  Living in a van is fun.  We can help and do work and have a lot of playing and fun times. Agape: Back to you John and Courtney.  How has the pandemic and travel affected you? John:  Like the kids, we worry they don’t get to be with friends and peers. It wasn’t like that before.  But we do have the gift of time, so we can keep ourselves isolated if need be.   Occasionally they can meet kids, and we can quarantine and create a bubble to keep safe. Courtney: We are grateful for spending so much time outside.  We have really been able to have a deep awareness of our country, how the mid-west is different from New England and the South.  We got to see the different levels of care and precaution.  It was an eye- opening experience to see America in this incredibly, historic moment of time. Agape:  What has been the most difficult adjustments during the trip so far? Courtney: For me it’s been tough, making our food all the time in the van and missing the feeling of being taken care of.  Then there are seemingly inconsequential things like in New York, needing to book camping on line 24 hours in advance. John: Early on it was the fear of being stranded and the responsibility of bringing my family out on the road and getting stuck. Will we be stranded?  We kind of worked through that.  Again, it made us realize that we need a lot less than we think we do.  We can get by, and we can ask for help.   We worked through all those fears.  I still question it every day.  I ask myself, “Am I doing the right thing for my kids,my family, myself?”  This is a gift because we live outside, get fresh air and freedom. Agape:  Oliver what have you learned that you want to take home with you? Oliver: I want to live outside and have lots of animals and friends to play with. Agape: Another thing you said is that the focus of your trip is service…what have you learned from that? Courtney: Huge lessons in gratitude. We have been the people who always had guests and dinners at our house, and we weren’t comfortable asking for help or having others provide for us. We’ve always wanted to be of service to people, through our art.  But, now in physical terms, we use our bodies, for food and shelter, room and board.  How awe-inspiring and fulfilling it is to live a low transactional life, trading time and services instead of money. Agape: Is there anything you have experienced thus far that has changed you permanently? John:  We have never worked well in conventional American society.   We always have known it.  Everything that was going on in Covid was our chance to walk away from things we didn’t really believe in.  As a straight white male, I am coming to terms with our nation’s history tied up in race prejudice, white privilege, and class hierarchies.  I have been in theatre all my life and I decided that the best thing that I can do is step out of the conversation and just listen.  My voice is not the one that needs to be heard right now. Courtney:  I have been permanently changed by this experience.  I won’t go back to a nuclear family structure.  I think that communal living is the way to truly survive and thrive as humans, and so I think that we have always known that, but this journey has confirmed this.  I think that I will either travel or live in community the rest of my life. John: There is this great quote we think of all the time.  “All adventurers eventually die of heartbreak and it’s the heartbreak of trying to fit back into normal society.”  We have been changed so deeply by this experience; I don’t think we will ever be able to go back to a conventional American way of living.  We will always crave the freedom and openness we have found. Agape: You will know a lot more if you keep on traveling. Courtney: Living at Agape has been a huge eye-opening experience while observing how you can create a lively, successful community structure. Your prayer in the morning sets an incredible intention for the day, as do communal meals. We just love the open communication that we haven’t found done as well Agape does it.  We are inspired and aspire to continue to learn from you all. John: We had an idea of communal living, and we went in search of it.  When we came to Massachusetts, we felt that there was something special here.  At Agape we felt, oh, this can be done.  People really live this way. It’s just so heartening and affirming to see a community like this can thrive so beautifully. Agape:  Carry it on and continue with our deepest admiration.  Thanks for sharing your lives and vision with us.