Meet Badass Mom Emily Harteau
Most of our adult lives, we find ourselves working and taking care of our families in one spot on this earth. That’s just what everyone does, right? But once in awhile you hear a story so extraordinary and inspiring, you start to think differently about your own life.
Meet Emily Harteau—creator, explorer, and voice behind the wildly popular blog Our Open Road. This well-traveled mama of two young girls (Colette, 5, and Sierra, 2) lives full-time with her family in a 1990 VW camper van as they road trip through South America, reexamining the true meaning of the American Dream. They hope to leave us all with the desire to create, eat well, spend quality time with our loved ones, and adventure (even if it’s in our own backyard). Here, Emily shares the tales of her nomadic family and takes us on a wanderlust-filled ride.
Tell us a bit about your upbringing and how it shaped who you are today?
My parents were wild in a way I cannot fathom—they had a child with each college degree! My brother was in-arms (and wearing a tiny gown and mortar board my mom had made for him!) when they received their Bachelor’s degrees. I was born at-home, on campus in Santa Cruz during the Master’s Degrees, and my sister was born during the Doctorate degrees. Raised in Sacramento, CA, my siblings and I explored the American River, just 2 blocks from our house, taking long bike rides and slow walks exploring this strip of nature in suburban normalcy. Our family spent summers traveling the Western US packed into the back of our caravan, exploring National Parks and small towns. In our family adventures, my parents were a great balance—my father researching and route planning, and stopping at every pull out to take in the fresh air, epic vistas and snap a few (hundred) pictures; my mother (who studied Anthropology then Childbirth Education, lactation consulting and midwifery) always worked to show us the many facets of the places we were traveling. In this regard, I learned to get out, but also to take in and feel the pulse of a place, to look to understand the history of a place. The family road trip is very much in my blood and these early experiences are essential to who I am. I always had a deep-rooted knowledge that I would see the world, I just had no idea how.
Although this is a dream for me, it is certainly not a life for everyone.
Tell us a bit about your unique living situation—we’re all jealous.
Ha! Well thanks, Adam and I say to be inspired, not jealous. And although this is a dream for me, it is certainly not a life for everyone.
I live as a full-time nomad traveling overland with my family in our 1990 Volkswagen Westfalia Campervan. We departed California in October 2012, and have traveled about 40,000 miles through 16 nations, having reached the southernmost city in the world, Ushuaia. We are slowly driving a figure 8 around South America. Two years ago, our second daughter, Sierra, was born in Brazil and is a dual citizen.
As a twosome we purchased the van, so for our now family of four, it is becoming a bit tighter, but allows us to see the world from an incredible perspective for which we are very thankful. The Westy, which is sometimes called the “Swiss Army Knife,” of vehicles, provides so much more when the awning is out and the top is popped. When a place of beauty is before us, it is an open and sprawling paradise which square meters don’t apply to. But in long stretches of rain or snow, the van surely feels snug. Our tiny home is what gives us access to this beautiful planet in such an intimate way, and out in the great wide world is where we spend most of our time. Enjoying slow travel allows us to spend short stints driving, and more time doing.
But a yin to all that yang is necessary too. The benefits of slow travel are that we can take the time to pause in a place when we feel the call. We rented a bungalow in Brazil for 3 months around the time Sierra was born (postpartum in a van was NOT going to happen). And now, for a 5-month stint, we have rented an adobe home in the Sacred Valley of the Inca in Peru. It is a place we have come many times, and keep being called back to. Adam and I have some goals and creative projects that require us standing still for a bit, so we have happily unfurled into this place to realize those next steps.
How did your family come to make the decision to live on the road?
Adam and I have traveled together for over 15 years, always scheming our next adventure. Our decision to leave on this trip (a one-year journey that has now become our life) was formed from pieces we gathered along the way and dreamed we would share with our “future family,” like the passing smile of a mother carrying her infant in a front pack on a remote hike in New Zealand, and two gregarious children on a tiny island in Thailand that told us of how they were sailing around the world with their parents. When I was pregnant with Colette, Adam was working on a project that would have put us in India and Nepal for 6+ months. That project fell through and we knew the time had come for us to plan our own grand voyage. It took a year of plotting and planning, scrimping and saving, assembling a crowd-funding video to pre-sell Adam’s artwork, selling off our gear at garage sales, hosting fundraisers at friend’s restaurants, and so much dreaming and researching before we were all ready to go.
Five months into what we planned to be our one-year-long voyage, as we were departing Colombia entering Ecuador, we had approximately eight weeks to reach Tierra del Fuego before the weather would make it difficult to reach our southernmost destination. So we opened to the possibilities of the unknown and the decision to slow down was made. We knew we were (are!) on the journey of a lifetime* and rushing to check off places visited seemed very unlike the purpose of our departure.
We, of course, had to figure out our finances and brainstormed many ideas before settling on one. Now, our main source of income is our 24 Hour Bazaar.
Tell us a bit about your 24 Hour Bazaar.
Along our travels, Adam and I collect exceptional artisan goods which we combine when in artisan rich areas, we curate an online flash sale featuring fair-trade, handcrafted items that when we started were available for “24 hours,” but now we usually offer for a few days. We present a carefully chosen assortment to private individuals and wholesale accounts globally, shipped directly from the field to their (your!) doorstep. I am so pleased that 24 Hour Bazaar has created a circle, which connects the artisans, an international audience and us. All the craftspeople we work with are stoked to share their goods with a wider audience and make a fair wage doing so; to support tradition and process in the arts is infinitely rewarding to us as artists. This flow of finance, art, and inspiration is a pairing that we could only have dreamed of before our departure, and are thrilled to now call our work reality. To be on the list, please subscribe on our website ouropenroad.com or send us an email firstname.lastname@example.org
How do you source products to sell?
Our eyes are always open to find unique and quality products to share with the world! We research villages that are known for their artesania, we ask locals for recommendations on elders in the village who may know who (if any) still practices their traditional crafts, and sometimes we just stumble upon it. Recently in Bolivia, we were driving in the high Altiplano and saw some women tending to their sheep and llamas, with a large loom set up where they were weaving. Traveling in our own vehicle, we have the flexibility to follow the leads we discover that take us straight to the makers.
What is your favorite thing about living on the road?
In this dance of chaos and color, simple moments and intense learning, there is no favorite. It is all the pieces working together, the time to absorb it, to reflect on it, to snuggle in bed with my babies. To live in the present, really in the world, with all the hues that brings—the moments of staggering beauty, to witness heavy truths in this complicated world, it is an intense circle that gives so many rewards.
Live in this world with all the hues that it brings.
What is the hardest thing about living on the road?
Being too far from friends and family is surely the hardest part.
We try to share glimpses of the various struggles we have—both our own and those of others we encounter, but we try to focus on the overwhelming majority of the positive aspects. As our favorite entrepreneur Yvon Chouinard has said, “It’s not an adventure until something goes wrong.”* Our motor, which we replaced from the original VW to a Subaru motor, was supposed to bring reliability but that’s been very far from the truth! The motor has been out 5 times in 3.5 years for major work. We have been robbed 3 times, which has been difficult financially to replace the stolen items, but those are possessions, not people and we are thankful we have been healthy and safe throughout this adventure.
How do your friends and family feel about it?
When we departed, our plan was to be on the road for a year and our family was quite supportive, but a bit concerned for our safety. Once we were on the road and they saw the quality of life we were living, and how amazing the vast majority of folks we encountered were, their fears subsided. Now that we are on the road full-time, they have reluctantly accepted this decision of ours. It is double sided—they love that we are living our lives so fully, spending our time with the girls, but they wish we were closer. They miss the hell out of us, as we do them, but technology is a fantastic tool that allows us to talk to them face to face.
How will you incorporate your nomadic spirit to “real” life when the kids are school-aged? Or will you stay on the road?
This is something we put a lot of thought and focus into. But I must first say that this life is SO real! We are much more engaged in the world and removed from the bubble that is easy to escape to. We spend more time outdoors, less time with screens, more time doing, less time commuting, more life lived.
Education is very important to Adam and I; we are life learners, searching to absorb all we can from these rich experiences we are sharing as a family. For us, there is not a limitation of four walls that dictate a time to “sit and learn”—that mentality is so narrow, and the world is so wide! Adam and I had very different experiences in school but we both agree that the teachers we had and the support available to us in those experiences were crucial to our access to education. We work to foster an environment for asking questions through child-led learning which leads to wonderful discussions that naturally link many subjects together. As Americans, we have many options for schooling our children and we will continue to road-school (also called world-school) the girls as we travel long-term.
Since coming to the Sacred Valley, we found an amazing school that Colette has joined for our five months here. Kusi Kawsay is a traditional Andean school, inspired by the Waldorf philosophy. She is being taught in Spanish and also learning Quechua! It is an excellent cultural immersion, and we are so pleased she is loving it.
Where is home? And how often do you return?
California will always be home—it is where our oldest friends and nearly all our family is but it is A home, not THE home. We fly back stateside about once a year to reconnect with our beloved family and friends. “Home” is now a flexible word that is much larger than the confines of a structure. We call the van home, but mostly we are at home in the world.
Perhaps some day we may be less nomadic. One dream situation is to open an eco-lodge with an organic garden, small restaurant, art studio, big forest behind, a stream running through it and a perfect wave out front… but that requires being in one place. We are open to what chapters the future will hold and do not have any attachment to being always on the road. For now our hearts and life is on the road and each day is still a thrill. We are pleased to be air-plants, which thrive and bloom without having set roots.
How do you decide where to travel to?
Our twists and turns are determined by many factors both spontaneous and planned, in the grand scheme and on the daily. Weather and finances help determine what activities we do. Tuning into the energy of a place, we decide where to camp and how long to stay. We have a loose idea of where we want to be for, say, a season, or we need to be to a certain place to meet someone in three months, so we adjust our course accordingly. Early on we adopted a standing rule that if one of us does not like a campsite, we move, no questions asked. On the road, you are stripped of so many outside filters and your intuition is your best, most vital gift.
We are in love with the breadth and diversity we’ve encountered on the road. We adore high mountains and oceans, the cultural delights in big cities and the slow charm of small towns, deep forests and vast deserts, so life on the road suits us quite well, wherever that may be, sometimes for an hour, sometimes for months.
How long do you stay in one place?
Sometimes an hour, sometimes a season.
How is raising children different on the road?
Parenting on the road (and in life) gives Adam and I the deepest joy. Having lost our first child Aaro, at birth, we know and intensely rejoice in the gift that is life. From this darkness, we have dedicated our lives to living as fully as we can. We want to spend every possible moment with our daughters and what we have created on the road, sharing nearly all our time with them, teaching them of the wonders of the world through experience in which their total wellness: mind, body, and spirit, is our top priority. Our previous life in Los Angeles required us to work long hours to make ends meet. Our life on the road as a full-time family honors our past and celebrates our present!
How have you changed as a mom through this journey?
I don’t think I have changed so much as I have become who I always wanted to be.
How do you and your husband get alone time?
As they say, where there is a will, there is a way. It can at times be a challenge, but it is one we have learned to work with. We think being loving and affectionate in the presence of the girls is healthy, and they in return are snuggly loves. Like most parents, we find intimate adult time after the girls go to bed or before they wake.
What values have your kids learned from your adventurous lifestyle?
They have learned to trust their intuition and have respect for the natural world, other people, and for animals. That the courtesy of “gracias” and “de nada” always bring a smile. To meet each person as a potential new friend, regardless of where or how they live. That having compassion for others will always exceed judgement. Perseverance is power. To trade expectation for experience. To be responsible and accountable when we make mistakes, even when it is hard. To always be honest, and that those that lie can be taught the truth is always the most powerful. And most of all, that LOVE is the answer.
Meet each person as a potential new friend, regardless of where or how they live.
Do they speak any other languages? Do or your husband speak other languages?
I speak functional Spanish; Adam speaks less that I do, but much more than he gives himself credit for! Colette is shy with adults, but bold with kids in regards to speaking Castillano. At Kusi Kawsay, Colette’s kindergarten class speaks primarily Spanish, and bits of Quechua. It is amazing how her skills have improved in such a short period of time. Sierra understands Spanish perfectly, and answers questions with short words perfectly pronounced (si, mas, no).
What’s the most fun part about it for the kids?
Butterflies and monkeys, dramatic mountain peaks and sandy beaches, Argentine ice cream and Chilean blackberries, new friends, new parks, new views… you know, pretty much the same stuff we like, but on a smaller scale.
Any tips and tricks to traveling with little ones.
DO IT! You will find your kids more hugged and loved than you ever thought.
What does your “closet” look like?
My clothing staples pre-trip were more like an arsenal of choices. I am a maximalist by nature, so you can imagine how I try & squeeze a little bit of everything I love into my mobile closet. I only have to pack once a year, which is a bit chaotic, like cramming for a final exam. On current rotation are: Lucy frames from Raen eyewear, a sand colored floppy hat from our 24 Hour Bazaar, vintage jeans I patched up using a friend’s sewing machine in Santiago, velveteen leggings, some vintage striped shirts, polka dot pullover from Bridge & Burn, harem pants from my old women’s wear collection Smoke & Mirrors, an opal bracelet I ‘borrowed’ from my sister that I wear stacked with some brass bangles I got in Namibia and a bronze ‘Eye of Ra’ cuff from Torchlight Jewelry (made of upcycled materials!), new made to order sandals I got here in Peru, lightweight Linedry pants, a few coveted Ace & Jig pieces, waterproof and lightweight Ahnu hiking boots and an Ergo, which I wear so much I include on this list.
My two beauty staples are water & coconut oil, which remain the same on the road. I have just restocked on Dae William skincare, who makes the dreamiest totally organic beauty products.
I am a maximalist by nature, so I try and squeeze a little bit of everything I love into my mobile closet.
How many items of clothing do you own?
Hundreds, but most of that is in Los Angeles, in the attic of our former house, where my sister now lives. I have, prior to our departure three years ago, always worked in the world of fashion and appreciate the craft of beautiful things. My closet in the van is relegated to a small space that can hold 2 pairs of jeans not 20, 4 pairs of shoes not 40. Everything is about 1/10 of my previous options, and must strike the right balance between form and function. On our annual visit back to the USA, I update my wardrobe according to the trajectory of our next cycle on the road.
What’s philosophy on secondhand clothes?
The amount of waste created by the fashion industry has an enormous global impact, and if each person would choose to shop secondhand first, the increasing rise of fast-fashion would slow. As a fashion designer by trade, it is imperative that clothes be well made—and living on the road, I truly push my pieces to their limit. I grew up thrifting and have always viewed it as the ultimate treasure hunt. When you find a piece that calls to you, it is like finding beachglass in the tide.
Where do you buy your kids’ clothes and what do you do when they’ve grown out of them?
My best friend and former business partner Michelle Chaplin has an excellent collection called Ultra Violet Kids. I am super lucky to receive not only hand-me downs and one-offs and also the pick of the litter from this collection that has a cult following. They have chic and comfy, ethically made kids clothes, and now have women’s! My mom is a life-long thrifter (before it was eco or trendy), so she always has an assortment of goods for the girls. Once Colette has grown out of something, I pass it to my bff’s daughter Violet, and after she’s worn it, it returns to Sierra! From there I pass things onto my cousin’s baby girl Charlie. I love to see loved items live a new life from Los Angeles, to South America, to Baltimore—the clothes travel more than many folks I know!
I love to see items live a new life.
Tell us a bit about the process of figuring out what you really need. What are those things for you and your family? How do you decide what is worth buying?
When we return from our annual visit stateside, I spend a few days organizing our wardrobes based on our desired route when we return to our life in South America. So I make piles of everyone’s wardrobe, and make sure we have a variety of each necessary category (long sleeves, short sleeves, dresses, leggings, pants, jackets, sweaters, outerwear, swimwear) then editing and editing until I have a suitcase sized stack, which goes in a box, because when you live in a van, there’s no room to store suitcases! I fill in the blanks with trips to my friends, sister’s or friend’s kids’ closets, then a run to Target for fresh socks and undies, and a trip to REI to ensure we all have the technical gear we need (base layers, waterproof outer layers, good hiking boots). I know it is worth buying if I have made it through the editing process and still think we need it. At this point, I trust my intuition on what we can and can’t find on the road. And, when on the road we discover beautiful treasures, I am happy to add that to the edit but living in such a tiny space, it is essentially a one thing in, one thing out policy.
We have a one thing in, one thing out policy.
How do you cook in the van?
Maintaining food integrity for our family is something I happily invest a lot of time in. Before we left, we were a bit concerned it’d be hard to eat as well as we did in California. Coming from Los Angeles, you can find almost any global ingredient, pre-made product, or restaurant (oh, the ease of delivery after a long day!)—17 types of edible flowers, 14 flavors of hummus or delivery from any international cuisine—all within arms reach. So the ease and convenience of such products are not available, but whole, real foods are (as well as processed over-sugared, over-salted crap that we steer clear of).
The thing about food is that people everywhere eat! There is always something in our fridge or pantry, and usually a pretty tasty and colorful assortment. Grains, nuts, fruits, and vegetables are easy to find in every village or city we have been to. Taking some time each week to create a fridge full of easy to grab items that set us up for good choices, is a great investment of not so much time. When at all possible I shop direct at small farms, farmers markets, or roadside stands. Adam is now used to hitting the brakes when I squeal “stop!“ as we pass such delights. We usually find a verduleria, green grocer, and stock up there on all our fruit and veggies. We go through a lot in a week, as I prepare produce-heavy food. If we are in a bigger town, there is usually a natural health foods store, where I can stock up on sundries like tahini, miso, nori, and organic dried legumes. Last stop is the regular grocery store, to fill in the blanks. In many places that is the only option, so I have become well versed in making the best with what’s available. In areas where there is no supermarket, we’ve definitely already stocked up and we will be eating in style in the wilderness!
I cook nearly 90% of our meals, and am currently working on a cookbook.
Do your meals change based on the culture of where you’re traveling?
Absolutely! Eating local means trying the flavors of the place you are in and is one of my favorite ways to experience the culture of a place. That does not always mean eating out though! I love to go to a farmers’ market and ask the sellers about some local ingredient I have never seen before. We have wild harvested calafate berries in Patagonia, coconuts and bananas from Mexico to Ecuador, Pan de Indio wild mushrooms in Tierra del Fuego, miner’s lettuce from canyon cracks, blackberries everywhere in Chile in summer, apples and pears in fall, morels and dandelion in spring and Adam has fished countless rivers and streams along the way. Of course, we like to indulge too. When we were in the Bolivian Amazon, there was an amazing French Bakery, so we breakfasted there quite often–croissants with mushrooms in béchamel or hot from the oven quiches, cold blended coffee (a savior in the heat!) or fresh squeezed orange juice and chocolate croissants for the girls. I made salads (raw shredded beets and carrots are a fave of the girls) for other meals too, but we mostly dined out as it was too hot to cook in the van. Now, in the Sacred Valley, we are delighting in their highland foods—quinoa, a variety of 4,000 potatoes (seriously!), endless varieties of corn, aguaymanto berries, and so much more. From a handful of farms, we’ve pulled our own veggies and plucked our own berries, thanking the farmers for their noble work. Giving place to where our food comes from, explaining the cycle to our girls is very important. So much of the global economy is food based and in making decisions with our pesos, we can vote for sustainable choices.
This is the first post in our three-part series with Emily Harteau. Look out for Emily’s boho style on a budget and her 7 must-read road trip tips!
Photography: Adam Harteau
Are you or do you know a truly badass mom? Leave a note in the comments or email us at email@example.com.