In early 2017, Bionca Smith was up to her neck in bills. "My rent was late, and my credit-card debt seemed insurmountable," she says. "I had a nice apartment in San Francisco and a fancy car, but I felt trapped. Something had to happen, but I wasn't sure what."
Frustrated and on the verge of tears, she posted on Facebook: I want to travel the world and explore hidden, wonderful gems with my son. "When someone replied, What's stopping you? I felt a click inside," says Bionca. "I realized that the only thing stopping me was stuff. Everything I'd worked so hard for was bogging me down."
Her home and car had once been things Bionca was proud of-signs that the single mom was crushing it in her job as a sales executive. She was also creating a life for her 10-year-old son, Carter, that was very different from her own upbringing in an unsafe area of Saint Louis. "Growing up, I wasn't allowed out of the driveway, and we never traveled," she says. "My biggest dream was to see a beach." While in school, she had been mercilessly bullied for her acne: "Kids would throw things at me. I was afraid to raise my hand, afraid to try to make friends."
When she was 20, Bionca became a mother, and she vowed to do better for her son. She landed her job, relocated to California with Carter, and worked long hours to support the life she thought she should strive for. But work left her little time for Carter, who was buried in homework and struggling with reading in school. And Bionca's heart wasn't in corporate America. Her real goal was to become an entrepreneur, which she believed would give her free time for Carter and also solve her financial problems. She took out loans to start a business as a motivational speaker and life coach. "But the bills were still there, and I was drowning in everything," she says. "All I wanted to do was escape."
Ticket to a New Life
As she stared at the Facebook response, Bionca made a promise to her son. "I wanted to show him there was a lot more to life than putting all your money toward bills and not having enough time to spend with your loved ones. I decided to get rid of everything and start traveling the world in 30 days. That's where it all began," she says.
Step one: Bionca notified her landlord that she was giving up her lease, a move that made the dream feel real. Next she needed to figure out how to handle Carter’s education. "I would need to homeschool, but I knew nothing about it," she says. Through research, she found an online school called Connections Academy; using its curriculum, she would be Carter's daily learning coach, and in addition he would join virtual classrooms with other kids and have one-on-one time with a teacher every two weeks. "As for me, I was an entrepreneur, and I knew I could work from anywhere," she says. "Carter and I could travel the world."
It was time to take the leap. "We literally spun a globe, pointed a finger, and landed on Thailand," Bionca says. She researched the country and decided that with a low cost of living, her longed-for beaches, and plenty of culture to explore, it was perfect for Carter and her. With a first destination chosen, she sold, donated, or stored most of their belongings. "I didn't tell a lot of people what we were going to do at first," she says. "Some we did tell fed us fear, because it was nothing they would do themselves. I was called selfish, like I was doing all this just for me."
For the next eight months, mother and son traveled through Thailand and Africa, staying in homes they found on Airbnb while Bionca worked on her burgeoning business. She found clients through social media and coached them over the phone and via video chat, paying off her credit-card debt in five months. Carter flourished, becoming an eager reader and passing second grade with honors. "When your child has freedom and flexibility, he can learn in so many ways on his own terms," says Bionca. "Watching his transformation was amazing."
Eventually, Bionca tired of booking flights, cars, and places to stay. She had seen videos of van life in the U.S., and the concept-living in a tricked-out van and exploring the country-appealed to her. "I loved the idea of not paying rent and spending on experiences rather than things." She picked her hometown of Saint Louis as their starting point, and they flew back.
Hitting the Road
Within weeks, Bionca found a 1989 Ford Econoline camper with a kitchen, a toilet, a shower, and two beds for $4900. "It seemed like a spaceship at first," she says. "There were so many buttons, compartments, and levers."
They set off for a destination in Southern California, with Bionca uploading videos of their travels to YouTube and Instagram. Just a month later, the engine conked out in New Mexico-and Bionca was happily shocked when her friends and family kicked in to help pay for repairs. "I've since learned that by sharing our journey on social media, we've inspired a lot of people to live out their dreams, too," she says.
With the van running, the two explored the red rocks of Sedona, Arizona; toured
Yellowstone National Park; drove through Montana; and had an impromptu science class poking around tidal pools along California's coastline. "So many things he learns about in school are right here at our fingertips," says Bionca. Sometimes they've stayed in campgrounds; at other times they have "stealth camped" on city streets. "Stealth camping is when you park and sleep in a place you're not supposed to be," says Bionca. "Usually there's no problem, but one time we both hid up on the top bunk so nobody would know we were there."
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A post shared by Off The Grid With A Kid (@offthegridwithakid) on Mar 18, 2018 at 1:07pm PDT
While they travel, Bionca makes a point of volunteering in the communities they visit. "We feed the homeless, work in animal shelters, clean up beaches and campgrounds," she says. "We strive to give back and encourage others to do the same." As part of that outreach, Bionca reinvigorated a nonprofit she had started in California called the Bully Barricade Foundation, which uses music and art to talk to students about bullying; whenever possible, she and Carter bring their program to schools they visit.
By now, the naysayers have come around. "Everybody we know supports what we're doing," says Bionca. "My mom thinks it's great!" Perhaps her biggest fan, though, is Carter. "Since we started this, my son has come out of his shell," she says. "He's open to trying new things and new foods and exploring. He's not afraid to get hurt or dirty. He climbs trees, discovers wildlife, talks to new people. He thanks me every day for giving him this experience."
The two might live in a house again someday but don't plan to settle down anytime soon. For now, they enjoy the simplicity and freedom of van life. "We've learned that we should enjoy every moment and truly embrace what life brings," says Bionca. "We're defining what success means for our family."
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