Close-Up: Working from the Road

Close-Up: Working from the Road

Sonia Zjawinski
Apr 24, 2009
Yesterday we took a look at Josh and Jacque's solution to working on the road. In our second installment we meet web designers Nathan Swartz and Olivia Meiring, and their seven-year-old son Tristan, who are currently traveling across the United States...

posted originally from: Unplggd

Last August Nathan and Olivia packed their work and son into a 100-square-foot motor home they purchased for $12,000. "We made it 14 miles and our RV's transmission caught on fire, quite literally," Nathan told me. They had to put another $5k into a new transmission for their 1996 Dutchmen.

"If you've ever seen one of those giant tour buses that rock stars drive around in, then you can imagine how big and fancy RVs get. Ours is nothing like that. It's 29 feet long, has some of the most beautifully tacky teal decore, complete with little flowery pink and mauve patterns on the furniture. It seems like, prior to the turn of the century, all RVs were made with the tastes of 90-year-old farmer's wives in mind."

The family has traveled across the US over the past nine months. To pay the bills, mom and pop spend between 15 to 26 hours a week coding online using a Sierra Wireless AirCard and Sprint's EVDO network. In cities the system can get them 1.4 Mbps speeds, but the further into the boondocks they go, the slower the transmission.

When signals are dismal Nathan and Olivia turn their camper into its own network. Using three different apps (Apache/MySQL/PHP) the two have all the tools they need to build and test their sites' links, coding, and format right on their laptops. Back in town they simply upload all their data to a Web server and go live.

"When we bought the RV it came with a TV and has both an antenna on the roof as well as all the necessary hookups for connecting to cable. However, we gave the TV away. One of the goals of our whole trip was to eliminate these 'life distractions.' says Tristan.

"When we're in areas where we're getting broadband speeds we sometimes watch Hulu. I'd like to see video being presented in this way as more of the standard: fewer commercials and you can watch the shows you want when you want. Also, this helps us keep the TV watching at a minimum, because if we're out in the middle of nature's nowhere then we won't have a fast enough connection to sit around watching TV all day...and therefore we can get out into the places we're staying and explore them more."

When not working they're homeschooling Tristan a few hours a day, four days a week. The two were worried at first about uprooting their son every few days, but have quickly learned that Tristan is getting an education like no other. "There's an exposure to different cultures and being physically present in some of America's most beautiful and historic places that no amount of sitting in a classroom will ever be able to replicate," Nathan says.

How did homeschooling work on the RV? Before we got started with the homeschooling we talked to a consultant – Barbara Dewey – who helped us with a loose general lesson plan. We were really into the idea of sticking with the Waldorf method of schooling, which basically emphasizes the "Whole Child" (basically making certain a child is growing their body, mind and spirit all together, if I could oversimplify it) and has a lot of focus on teaching children to learn, to be inquisitive, rather than to just memorize facts. She gave us a general lesson plan and we just ran with it. It was a bit daunting at first, but once we really dove in it was simple. There are plenty of things that we, as parents, know naturally - everything from how to write your letters and read to knowledge of history and the arts or whatever – you just draw from that go from there.

There are obvious pluses to working from the road, but what are some surprising ones? One of the best is that clients are much cooler about everything. There is a general attitude that if, when you're working at a physical home as a freelancer, when a client calls you and they hear your kid crying or the natural sounds of a working home going on this background that they think you're a bit less professional, like if you don't spend money on an office somewhere you're not legitimate. But once you start mentioning that you're working from the Grand Canyon or mention that you're in a new place today than you were yesterday when you spoke, they start getting interested in what you're doing. I think a lot of people like the idea of traveling all over, or "doing something crazy like that" as I've heard a few people stay, even if they wouldn't actually enjoy living this way themselves, most people are still intrigued by the idea and as long as you're getting their work done, why should they care.

Another great perk is the constant change of location. Have you ever noticed how when you start a new job it doesn't seem as much like work because you're spending time getting settled in more, everything's new, you're in a different environment so that "change" feeling is in the air? Well, moving around like this gives us the ability to have a different view or work from a different coffee shop every couple of weeks, so it keeps things fresh and interesting.

How long do you hope to be out on the road? I hope to be on the road indefinitely for the rest of my life. As for this particular trip, we'll probably do it through the summer and maybe a little longer. It's hard to tell exactly when we'll get bored of doing this and want to settle down somewhere. I miss Pittsburgh and our friends and family there sometimes, but I know that when I'm living there, I have a really strong craving to get out and explore. Maybe the big trick will be trying to find the right balance between having steady relationships and a place to call home like that, and fulfilling our wanderlust.

What has been the biggest dilemma of working on the road?Making certain that we've got a connection at a place before staying there is the only major setback. We don't like to do a whole lot of planning ahead, to keep things interesting, but when you pull into a place, especially if it's somewhere you really want to stay for awhile, only to find out that there's no cell reception or WiFi available, it's a bit disconcerting.

Read more about their travels on Tumble Wagon.

Thanks Nathan, Olivia, and Tristan!

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