It’s early Friday afternoon on a chilly February day in Las Vegas, and for Yi Liao ’11 that means it’s getting close to quitting time.
The 30-year-old swivels in her “office chair” — the shotgun seat of her 2015 Winnebago Brave 27B — and smiles at her husband, Daniel Pedraza ’13. Seated at the RV’s small dinette a few feet behind her, the 27-year-old Pedraza is still finishing the lunch of spaghetti and tomato sauce he made earlier.
That Friday, as on most weekdays, Liao is working at the flat-screen monitor set up on the RV’s dashboard, behind her laptop. Beyond the windshield is Oasis Las Vegas RV Resort, with neat rows of recreational vehicles of every shape and size plugged into three vital lines: electric, water, and septic. It’s not much to look at, but for Liao and Pedraza, it’s home. That’s because these young Princeton grads are living — and working — on the road full time.
Six months earlier, the scene would have been completely different. They’d be preparing for commutes home to their apartment in Jersey City — Liao from her office in Hackensack, N.J., Pedraza from a midtown Manhattan skyscraper. Perhaps Pedraza, a lawyer, would be pulled into a hastily called meeting at 5 p.m., as sometimes happens in Big Law. Probably, by the time they both finally made it home, they’d be too tired to do anything but turn on a Netflix movie and go to sleep.
Pedraza is lanky, with wavy dark brown hair that his wife cuts for him. Liao is petite, with a big personality. You may recognize them from Princeton Reunions four years ago. They were the ones with the matching orange and white “I said yes ...” and “She said yes at Reunions 2015” T-shirts, bearing a sign in the P-rade that read “#EngagedAtReunions.”
At the time, Pedraza was about to start his third year at Columbia Law School, on his way to an associate’s job at the New York office of Debevoise & Plimpton. Liao had just finished her first year at Wharton following a stint in health-care-industry consulting at IBM.
They seemed destined to have it all — the six-figure salaries, the fancy apartment — and no time to enjoy any of it. They felt pressure from their middle-class immigrant parents to, in their words, continue maximizing their income. Do that now, so you’ll be ready for children of your own someday soon, their parents advised.
Sometimes Pedraza and Liao just had to get away from it all. They found refuge on the open road.
Nothing appealed to the young couple more than sitting beside each other and talking for hours on end as the world around them drifted by. Their first road trip was in 2012, when Pedraza was looking at law schools and Liao wanted to celebrate becoming a naturalized citizen. They decided to make a trip of it, giving themselves 11 days to get from New Jersey to Mount Rushmore and back.
For those 11 days they didn’t listen to music or play any audiobooks; they just talked. And talked. And talked. And talked. “Sometimes you just come across stuff and you learn a little bit about it. It’s such a big country,” says Pedraza, recalling their meandering across South Dakota’s endless expanses of sunflower farms. “If something caught my eye, I’d read out the Wikipedia article,” Liao recalls.
The next summer they rode north from New York to Montreal and Quebec City. Then came a wintry adventure south to Walt Disney World, through Atlanta’s “Snowmageddon 2014” traffic. After that: a whirlwind Southern tour that started in Tampa, wound through New Mexico on the way to Las Vegas, and looped back to New Orleans.
The couple loved being on the road. But schlepping their belongings each day to and from hotel rooms? Not so much.
On their next trip, they drove a rented camper van up the Pacific Coast Highway from San Diego to the Bay Area, with a detour to Death Valley. As they prepared dinner from the rear fold-out kitchen of their camper, they were struck by the beauty of the desert valley’s salt flats all around them.
They upgraded to an RV while visiting New Zealand in 2016. For their honeymoon to Alaska in 2017, they rented a 24-foot-long Winnebago Chalet. Increasingly they found themselves drawn to the RV-auction site rvtrader.com and Instagram hashtags #rvlife and #vanlife. Pedraza would read the social-media posts of travel bloggers and self-proclaimed “RV entrepreneurs.” Some were “skoolies” living in converted school buses. Some were families with small children. And still others were B-list celebrities, like former Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive lineman Joe Hawley, who travels full time in a van with his dog, named Freedom. “One day,” Pedraza thought.
Liao had been reading about the philosophy of popular organization guru Marie Kondo and the growing “tiny-house” movement. Proponents of both advocated living for experiences rather than possessions. What if their pursuit of money was getting in the way of their pursuit of happiness? Maybe living smaller would mean living happier. Maybe they could have a tiny house on wheels.
Liao found a kindred spirit in Chenyu Zheng ’12. Also an adherent of Kondo’s organization philosophy, Zheng had downsized her life enough to live full time in Los Angeles-area Airbnbs. During the week, she’d stay close to her work in the technology industry. On weekends, she’d hop from neighborhood to neighborhood and beyond. From each host she learned a new way to appreciate life. She zipped around Hollywood with Aaron and his vintage car, milked goats with Kitty in her cabin deep in a California forest, and dreamed of living out of an RV of her own like Tao in his artist compound in Joshua Tree. Afterward, Zheng wrote a book, 606 Days Without a Lease, which sold about 15,000 copies in China (she’s working on an English version). Whenever Liao saw Zheng promote her story, she swelled with pride. Zheng was redefining the word “home.”
“It doesn’t have to be four walls and a yard; it doesn’t have to be a physical structure in a physical location,” says Liao. “It’s where you feel like you belong and feel happy.” She and Pedraza wanted to prove that, in this information age, there was no need to be tethered to an office or even a well-defined career path.
One evening in October 2017, Pedraza’s brother and sister-in-law dared the couple to act. Why not place some lowball offers on RVs? They wired up a laptop to their TV and placed bid after bid. There were no takers, but the wheels of their future RV were in motion.
The couple decided to live on the road full time for at least a year and began searching in earnest for an RV. They zeroed in on the 2015 Winnebago Brave 27B, a throwback model, and found one for sale on eBay. The seller, an anesthesiologist, had bought it, new, for his octogenarian mother. A couple of years and 7,000 miles later, he was looking to sell. The original sticker price was $100,000; Liao and Pedraza got it for $60,000. They dubbed it “Samwise the Brave,” or Sammy, in honor of J.R.R. Tolkien’s hobbit Samwise Gamgee.
They’d soon have to tell their employers about their plans. For Liao, a product manager at a telehealth company, the idea of working remotely was more accepted. After all, she was designing software that allowed doctors and patients to connect via streaming video. It was a different story at Pedraza’s law firm. One day last July, Pedraza pulled aside the two partners he was working with and informed them he was quitting to move into an RV. And he wasn’t sure exactly how long he’d be living on the road.
One partner wished him well. The other reminded Pedraza that his third year at the firm was important to his development. Pedraza was not surprised; he had expected to take some lumps, he says.
It’s not easy to “tear yourself away from this thing you’ve been told your whole life is what you’re supposed to do and try to live a different way,” says Pedraza. Their parents worried. “They couldn’t fathom the idea of having a high income and then eschewing it,” says Liao. “Like, throwing it into the wind.”
Even now, Pedraza finds it difficult not to feel as though he’s constantly failing, especially as he watches his wife field video calls from their RV’s shotgun seat. Because she is working full time remotely, Liao is the couple’s primary breadwinner. That has allowed them to live on the road without dipping into their savings. For now, at least, it’s plenty.
Their old income was “in the way of us wanting to live our best life,” says Liao. “We wanted to spend more time together. We wanted to live more experiences.”
Now back in Nevada, the workweek over, Liao and Pedraza are en route to one of those experiences.
It’s early on a Saturday, and tourists are lining up for selfies in front of the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign. A hung-over Elvis impersonator steps out of his Jeep and clears his throat. A mother quickly whisks her young daughter away.
Liao and Pedraza are headed away, too. They’re driving the Chevy Spark they tow, leaving the RV behind. They travel through the Martian-looking landscape of nearby Red Rock Canyon, then west to rural Pahrump, Nev., for a hot-air balloon festival Pedraza had heard advertised on the radio. Since August, they’ve made small spur-of-the-moment trips like this one, and explored some of the most awe-inspiring places in the country, including Utah’s Mighty Five National Parks — Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, and Zion. They’re soon heading to New Mexico’s White Sands National Monument.
“Law school is very difficult,” Pedraza says, as he munches on a late breakfast of In-N-Out burgers and fries while navigating Red Rock Canyon’s 13-mile scenic loop. “But it’s a path set out for you. Doing this? No one set a path out for us.”
In this full-time travel venture, Pedraza has the more entrepreneurial role. A spreadsheet he keeps open on his MacBook plots the couple’s route from campground to campground, along with sites of interest. The detailed list even includes a theater where they plan to catch the debut of Captain Marvel.
Pedraza drives and maintains the RV and keeps track of expenses. With an 80-gallon tank that gets just six miles per gallon, he is constantly looking for ways to save. Sometimes that means shedding a few pounds off Samwise. When traveling between campsites, for example, he always keeps the fresh-water tank empty.
Pedraza also maintains a blog, a YouTube channel, and an Instagram account — all branded “RV Leaguers.” The couple insist they’re not looking to turn RV Leaguers into a book or business, and they haven’t accepted any corporate sponsorships, though they say they’re not opposed to the idea if the right company makes an offer. Winnebago and Kampgrounds of America have both shared their social-media posts, for free.
The blog, RVLeaguers.com, is a hodgepodge of history, geology, and practical tips for future RV Leaguers. “How to Find RV Campgrounds and Save Money!” is the enthusiastic title of one post from November. Another reads, “How to Establish Residency in South Dakota as a Full-time Traveler.” There, Pedraza, speaking as the lawyer he is, walks readers through the process of becoming a South Dakota resident and setting up a mail-forwarding service.
“South Dakota explicitly allows and facilitates full-time travelers to become residents and voters and has these great perks: (1) No state income tax, (2) Relatively low vehicle registration fees, (3) Relatively low cost of insurance, (4) You only have to return to the state once every five years to renew your license (though we think it’s worth spending more time there!),” he writes.
On YouTube, Pedraza shares scenes of the parks the RV Leaguers have visited in “Explore and Learn” videos, complete with quirky sound effects he’s fond of adding when his wife appears. More recently he’s taken to posting “Reels on Wheels” movie reviews. And on Instagram (@rvleaguers), Pedraza posts a daily photo along with a caption that he says helps him reflect on the couple’s journey together. The captions almost always include the hashtag #rvlife.
Now in Pahrump, Pedraza stops the car for a quick visit to a campground named Preferred RV Resort, where they stayed for three weeks the month before. Preferred RV Resort is the best campground they’ve stayed at so far, Pedraza insists. He snags quick iPhone videos of the campground’s mildewy indoor pool and a game room full of half-completed jigsaw puzzles. It’s for an online review, he says. From an adjacent cafeteria, graying Baby Boomers stare silently at the millennials, perhaps impressed by their enthusiasm.
There are not many folks this couple’s age here, says Chris, an older Canadian woman they encounter in the campground’s arts-and-crafts workshop. Then she launches into an apparently oft-told tale involving a crooked financial adviser, a lawsuit, and the loss of her life savings. The couple politely excuse themselves after Pedraza captures more footage of the workshop.
They continue on to the fairground where the Fourth Annual Pahrump Valley Chamber of Commerce Balloon Festival is being held. The smell of funnel cake reminds Pedraza of the annual fair in his native Sussex County, N.J., and he buys one. It’s all so familiar: the sign for the local Lions group, the PTA fundraiser, and the young families out for a good time. Flames dance in time to a rendition of “Dueling Banjos” as the hot-air balloon pilots rhythmically burn their propane and the crowd oohs and aahs.
Then Liao and Pedraza are on the road again, driving the 54 miles back to their campground and their RV. They don’t know exactly how long they’ll continue as nomads. Their journey will last at least 17 months, taking them through 2019. It may be longer. Someday — later — Pedraza will return to law and they’ll find a house in a midsize city with a wraparound porch, they tell themselves.
But first, they want to hit all 50 states. California is next. Then they’ll probably head back east toward Missouri: There’s the newly minted Gateway Arch National Park in St. Louis to see. They’ll end with a flight to Hawaii. Of course, it would be nice to visit every national park, though they’re refusing to stress about it.
Suddenly Pedraza points out the window.
The young couple stop talking for a moment to stare. There, out of the darkness, the shimmering lights of Las Vegas beckon. Liao and Pedraza speed toward them.
This is an updated version of the story that ran in the April 24, 2019, issue.
Alfred Miller ’11 is an investigative reporter at the Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky.