For the past three years Jenny Abegg has stepped away from the normality of a settled life and embraced the fluidity of a seeker.
Pop culture often exaggerates the romance of life on the road, focusing on the freedom and spontaneous nature of casting responsibilities to the wind, the living from moment to moment without a care in the world. But Jenny has never sought to play this role. There was purpose in the way she let go. And her discovery is beautiful and inspiring.
Specifically, she wrestled with a shadow of anxiety. She still does. She confronts it bravely, in a way that asks others to join her beyond the boundaries of comfortable living.
Jenny found one of the most vulnerable and challenging environments in the outdoors and carried her anxiety to the heights, seeking the one place where only she could help herself.
Who does that? Who fears the bear and decides to sleep in its den? It takes a determined person to even acknowledge their own anxiety, let alone meet it face to face. For Jenny, climbing is therapy.
“I’m a little child in the rock” she says. “I’ve learned to parent that ‘little Jenny,’ that defiant little girl in the Chief. She comes up when I’m climbing, in intimate relationships. She is this part of me that is super defiant, and overwhelmed with feeling and flooded with emotion in such a way where there is nothing else. My hope in my adult life is to be able to comfort her but not pander to her too much.”
In dealing with anxiety, the hard part is pinning it down, naming it, and acknowledging it has a hold. For Jenny, climbing is where she can isolate anxiety and address it directly.
She explains, “It was climbing, 5 years ago, that started the process of looking at this. It’s helped me have this tangible experience where in these times on the rock I’m able to feel it, and say, ‘I’m in control, and I’m the only one right now who can save myself from feeling this. No one is going to come up here and save me.’ That’s what has been so transformative about climbing.”
Jenny has been on a migration path that many climbers know well, relocating from crag to crag, following the seasonable weather. In this constant transition climbing acts as the catalyst for a change in mentality.
“Without climbing I might still be making excuses about not living the kind of life I want to live. Or I might still feel intimidation about the world and how to be happy and how to have good relationships,” Jenny says. “There would be more ignorance and less awareness.”
A Dodge Safari van, fondly named Ol’ Blue has become her full time residence. Jenny talks about this van as a friend. They are close. She feels toward Ol’ Blue as one feels toward a long-time travel companion.
“Moving into my van was just as symbolic as taking falls while climbing, as if I was saying, ‘I’m going to do something on my own,’” Jenny explains. “Right now, the van symbolizes a life that I’m moving on from.”
Jenny says her life before Ol’ Blue was just fine. There really weren’t any major concerns, and, all told, she had the advantages of great parents, a solid education, and a supportive community. But expectations crept in that Jenny found stifling.
She saw taking to the road as “breaking free from all of these shoulds: I should work with inner city kids, I should get a higher degree, I should contribute to the world. I had been living my life to make other people happy, and I felt like I hadn’t been able to do anything for myself.”
Now, after three years on the road with no permanent mailing address, Jenny is ready for consistency. At least she thinks so.
“I’m very much craving stopping. The constant movement hasn’t been running away from anything, but more it has started to lack substance,” she says. “For the sake of health and good friendships, my own climbing and my career, staying in one place will be much more productive. I’m really looking forward to it.”
This may be another point where inaccurate romanticized vanlife assumptions prevail. The idea that less responsibility and obligation are going to put a person in a better space, permanently.
Jenny explains, “I never want anyone to see what I’m doing and think, ‘Hey, I need to quit my job and move into a van and I’ll be happy.’”
After we wrapped up our shoot, Jenny said, “I wish that you could have done a photo series on a bad day in van life. Like when two people are living in a van and it’s so messy. Or when you’re creamer curdles every morning ‘cause you don’t have a proper cooler. When you have cops knocking at your window, or having to bathe in this gross body of water behind town. You’re lonely. You’re driving 17 hours to get somewhere and you are out of podcasts and there’s no one else to call. And you’re seeing that your friends are having a cool barbeque on the beach, or one of your friends had a baby, or even when somebody sends a 3-month project in their hometown, and you realize, I’m really alone.”
Yet that was the objective for Jenny. To be alone. To work out the self. Tom Waits sings, “Never saw my hometown till I stayed away too long,” explaining how perspective comes from a distance.
Jenny echoes this sentiment when she says, “I’ve begun to crave a commitment to a place that yields good community and good friends. It’s hard to feel like you’re giving back anywhere when you’re constantly in motion.”
Part of that commitment is giving back to a climbing crag and community, opportunities life on the road hasn’t provided.
“I’m really excited to be somewhere where I have a sense of ownership. On the minutia, I’m excited to have climbing projects that I go to two to three times a week, where it takes me months to do but I can go back to it. The place where I am looking for now is where I can be happy and also give back and serve. Serve because I want to, not because I have to. The times where I’ve felt most fulfilled are when I’ve felt rooted.”
This fall, Jenny is parking the van and taking on a steady address in Bend, Oregon, although she is concerned that perhaps the road is her home. Living in one place after living in no place seems a bit constrictive. Yet, despite the possibility of stagnation, she is looking forward to the next stage of rootedness.
In an excerpt from one of Jenny’s poems, she wrestles the concept of home and away, as always, on her own terms:
There is no edge to this vast world,
Or sign that says I’ve reached.
I’ll never get ‘there’,
In fact, there is only ‘here’.
I’ll know only in part,
Hear just a sampling, behold merely a fraction,
And in that, find enough.
So I might stay here. Or walk down the way.
Whichever path my footprints leave in the sand,
I want to continue to love extravagantly,
Give thanks daily, listen intently,
Observe with wonder,
and be present, knowing I’ll never arrive.
Forgetting my hurried search for entirety,
I realise the infinity in each moment,
The abundance of each piece.