Hitting the road before retirement age calls for ingenuity and flexibility. Younger full-timers do all sorts of work to support themselves and during my eight years as a full-timer, I thought I’d seen it all, from programmers to pet sitters. But recently I came across Tara Whitsitt, a solo traveler in a renovated school bus, who deserves an award for the most original way of making a living on the road.
A Passion Fuels an AdventureTara Whitsitt’s adventure is proof that any kind of successful entrepreneurial project can take place on four wheels. She is the founder of “Fermentation on Wheels” (fermentationonwheels.com), a nonprofit rolling food lab that teaches the value of sustainable eating choices through the lost art of food fermentation and locally grown foods. Since October 2013, Tara has shared her passion for growing and fermenting healthy food while driving her bus coast-to-coast.
In the last two years she has grown legions of food fermentation fans through her free workshops that demonstrate the centuries-old process of food fermentation. If you’ve ever eaten sauerkraut, beer or pickles, you already know about fermented foods, but did you know that with a little instruction (to avoid getting botulism) you can ferment foods yourself—even in your RV?
Food fermentation is a simple process that enables live bacteria to convert a food’s natural sugars into organic acids, gases or alcohol that keep the food from spoiling. The end result is great flavor and an abundance of probiotics that bolster our digestive systems. Tara’s fermentation fascination began when she lived in New York but she really went crazy over it after relocating to Eugene, Oregon, a laid-back college town with a large fan base of home fermenters. It didn’t take long before she felt compelled to introduce it to the masses, but since food fermenting is already popular in Eugene, Tara knew she had to get out of the West Coast and into the heart of America. The easiest way to do it: a rolling food lab.
Building a Home Along the WayA recreational vehicle was a natural choice for her journey but not just any RV would do. In spring 2013, Tara purchased a 1986 International Harvester school bus that had already been converted to an RV. Like most old skoolies, the rig needed extensive work, but she was fearless about tackling it. The old bus fit perfectly with her vision of reintroducing Americans to ancient, bygone food practices. “I wanted something creative and I wanted to re-invigorate the open-mindedness and aesthetic of a time past,” she told me in an email interview.
The skoolie’s renovations were still in progress when she left Eugene in the fall of 2013, but her perseverance paid off. By the time she rolled into North Carolina in March 2014, her RV was a shining example of a successful vintage bus renovation project. The Fermentation on Wheels headquarters had evolved into a comfortable living space with solar electric power, a composting toilet, a hand-built kitchen fermentation station with workshop space and even a wood stove that would keep her warm during the long winter ahead.
“I started this project with no funds, so all of the building and materials were done by me or with help from others by donation or in exchange for ferments,” she explains. “Once I started making money I began investing in more renovations, which has increased my comfort level immensely.”
Vintage bus projects are fun to dream about, but most of us are too intimidated to actually undertake one. Not this solo traveler. Neither the skoolie’s size nor age got in her way because no matter what obstacles she encountered, she says, she took comfort in knowing that “a vintage bus is way less complex than the modern RV. These machines were built to last.” Of course like any new RVer, she had to graduate past the newbie RVer stage, and do it without the help of a co-pilot other than her cat, Franklin.
“As an inexperienced bus driver, the hardest part is driving the bus. I can still remember crying the second time I was behind the wheel,” she recollects. But, she adds, being proactive about maintenance and knowing that everything can be fixed is what gave her the confidence to keep going. “There’s never been a moment where I felt the bus would drag me down, but I won’t deny: it’s hard work, especially driving.”
Creating Change in Unexpected Places
Tara’s endless source of energy helped her overcome the challenges of being a new RVer, while simultaneously building a national following of fermentation foodies. She has reached a large cross section of people from all types of backgrounds, even in conservative communities not known for healthy living. Over the course of 12,000 miles, she has raised awareness of the importance of eating healthy, locally grown foods.
“I feel every community is ready for this, it’s just a matter of reaching them, and I work hard to pull at people’s heart strings…It wasn’t until I got to Louisiana that people came out and realized, ‘Whoa, this is awesome.’ Fermentation on Wheels wasn’t self-supportive until Mississippi, so the South really changed the pace of my work. There is a lot of support for food change in the region.”
As Tara traveled from the South to the Northeast, Fermentation on Wheels became a media darling. From an appearance on the National Public Radio show “The Splendid Table,” to coverage in the New York Times, so many people have become intrigued by the project that her workshop attendance levels have grown to as many as 50 participants at a time. The workshops are free, but generous donations by attendees keep the bus moving from place to place.
By fall, Tara will start making the long journey back to Eugene. She has enjoyed living on the road, but also misses having a rural home base with all of the joys it brings, like self-sufficiency, food growing and being surrounded by nature. Fermentation on Wheels will conclude in October, just as she envisioned it. “This is not indefinite, rather an art project that will hopefully impact communities in positive ways for years to come,” she explains.
As Fermentation on Wheels has shown, there’s no idea too offbeat to launch a full-timing lifestyle. If you are not old enough to retire but dreaming of getting out there on the open road, what’s stopping you from doing it?
Rene Agredano and her husband, Jim Nelson, just celebrated their eighth year on the open road as location-independent entrepreneurs. Their adventures are chronicled at LiveWorkDream.com. Rene also writes “The Full Timing Nomad” blog at rvlife.com.