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I Lived in a Prius With My Toddler Last Summer

"I did not come this far to settle."

That was my thought last July, as I showered and stared out the open window at Pike's Peak, swept up in the breeze from outside and the hot steam around me.

That January, I had moved to sunny Colorado Springs from a Midwest town that didn't fit my personality or ambitions. Now, I was on the brink of eviction and swimming in credit card debt, which I'd incurred to pay for rent and daycare while trying to get established in this wonderful new place.

Even with work pouring in, I just didn't have enough on my own to cover the basics.

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With my chemical makeup and penchant for eccentricity, you could say my decision to move into my car was fated. I am 29 and divorced, with a young daughter. I live with bipolar disorder and choose not to medicate it. I get an extreme sense of discomfort staying anywhere in particular: I've lived in 21 different brick-and-mortar homes in seven different states. In just the past 10 years, I've moved 15 times. It looks ridiculous typing it out. What's actually ridiculous is that it's taken me this long to recognize this pattern and—instead of fighting it—amend my life to fit my nature.

Back to July. I had been aching to try out a mobile lifestyle for awhile, and, for the first time in my life, I was actually ignoring bills as they came in because I couldn't do anything about them if I wanted to. I felt completely cornered. This, combined with the allure of finally living on my own terms, was powerful.

Days later, I made a list and got to work.

The first thing to do, Alex said, was curtains. Alex, my partner, was the only person I knew who had intentionally lived in his car before. He'd made his out of sheets, but I opted for blackout curtains to block street lights and serve as added insulation. I cut up several panels to fit the windows of my Prius and applied Velcro to them for easy removal. Next was my sleeping space. I emptied, wiped down and vacuumed out my car from top to bottom. I folded down the bigger side of the backseat and attached layers of cheap camping pads to the sleeping area.

It didn't take long to whittle down my belongings, because I'd moved to Colorado with only what would fit in my car. I slept in the car alone a few nights, while my daughter was with my ex, to test it out. When the time came for Evelyn to move in, I picked her up from daycare around 5. As I buckled her in and told her we'd be sleeping in the car, her conspiratorial "oh!" expression said it all. We munched dinner in the front and passenger seats in a Walmart parking lot. When it got dark, we climbed into the back of the Prius, and we smoothed up the curtains together.

I snuggled up with Evie under the blanket to read books like always, but it was too dark to see, so I offered to tell her a made-up story.

"Who do you want the story to be about?" I asked her.

"You and me," she said, adding my parents after it, "and Nana and Baba."

We all fell into a routine and our sleep schedules cycled up with the sun.

I invented a story on the spot. I remember the sheen of her eyes in the darkness, how she stared off into space imagining every word I said. It would have been perfect if she'd fallen asleep.

Of course, she didn't.

It took her an hour to stop messing with the curtains and saying she wanted McDonald's (she could see the golden arches just beyond the window). I sat guard in the front seat, attempting to read a book in the pale light, struggling to stay awake, while my daughter seemed hell-bent on keeping the party going. It was uncomfortably quiet in the airtight car. Bits of bright light from the Walmart parking lot seeped in through the cracks between curtains.

It was after nine when she finally dozed off, and I crawled into the back to join her.

One week later, Alex moved into his car too. We all fell into a routine, and our sleep schedules cycled up with the sun. Alex and I would always seem to wake up at the same time, one knocking on the other's window, smiling widely and pointing toward a pastel sunrise in the eastern valley or the heavy blue glow cast on the mountains to the west.

If it was a weekday, I'd drive Evie to daycare, where we'd brush teeth and hair together in the bathroom before parting ways. Then, with my entire office in my backpack, I'd pick a destination with free Wi-Fi and work there all morning. If I didn't need Internet access, I'd drive the car up the mountains, pick a gravel pull-off and work from my backseat with the panoramic Rockies towering around me.

We bathed at the rock climbing gym in downtown Colorado Springs where Alex worked. Evelyn and I would shower together in one of the tiled stalls, shivering a little against the draft that seeped in from the curtains, before getting out, combing our hair and going back outside as inconspicuously as possible. I imagine it all must have been very novel for my daughter, who didn't seem to mind any of it as long as she got to spend time with me.

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We spent more time outside than in. We would often relax for hours in parks with our hammocks and picnic lunches. One day at Boulder Park, we noticed a group who had three slack lines (tightropes suspended between trees) set up around a blanket. We'd brought a line to the park, too, since we'd recently discovered the joy and challenge of balancing on them, and were thrilled to see another group doing it.

The group was huddled around a phone. We greeted them. Offhandedly, one of the women finally said, "Just a minute, we're on the phone with someone in California." Her voice was soft, like that of a guru. We set up our hammocks nearby, thinking that was the end of the exchange. The woman approached us shortly after, inviting us to set up near them. The intimacy in her voice made me feel like she was letting us in on a great secret. Her name was Sam, and she was there with her daughter and a friend.

"Naz should be here soon," she said, referring to her son. He arrived on a unicycle, wearing horn-rimmed glasses and a bird-print hat. He was all smiles and rollicking kindness, an old man in a young man's body, with a bubbling laugh that almost (almost) rendered his cheeky sarcasm undetectable. He and his sister, M, were as quick to poke fun at each other as they were to embrace in a hug. It was a kind of honest closeness I'd rarely seen before.

It wasn't all carefree, however. When it rained, we lingered in libraries, bookstores, Walmarts and other mega-stores. There was one horrendous day of extreme heat that we spent dousing ourselves in water and walking very slowly through the Walmart toy aisle for entertainment. That afternoon seemed to last for days.

I still wonder why the manager's default question wasn't first, simply, 'Are you OK?'

One night, we were sleeping near a 24-hour grocery store, and I woke up gradually to the sound of voices. I grabbed my glasses and pulled back the edge of a curtain. There was a cop standing outside Alex's door, his vehicle blocking both of ours from behind. I heard him say the parking was customers only, to which Alex replied, "We bought dinner here earlier." My heart pounded. Before moving in, I'd read up on vagrancy and child abuse laws and knew we were doing nothing harmful or illegal, and that they had no right to remove Evie from me. Your child can only be taken from you if they are abandoned, physically harmed or their basic needs have gone unmet. As for vagrancy, as long as we weren't parked in a no-parking zone, being unreasonably loud or conducting illicit activities, we weren't doing anything illegal.

Still, I watched her sleeping, chest rising and falling slowly, hoping desperately that she wouldn't wake up. Fortunately, the officer left once we agreed to move to a different location. But we saw other wanderers harassed: every day, law enforcement, managers and others in power pushed the homeless out of specific locations into other ones. It was robotic. There was no humanity in it, as if it had been stomped out of these officers after years of doing a job that required them to assume the worst in people.

I was lingering in a grocery store café one morning when a very young man in clean clothes was sleeping upright in a chair. The manager approached him with a rough voice.

"Isn't it time to get up and start your day, son?"

The young man didn't say a word. He collected his garbage and left. Regardless of whether there was more to the story, I still wonder why the manager's default question wasn't first, simply, "Are you OK?"

Our slack line friends, on the other hand, were rife with meaningful questions for us, once they learned we were houseless. It was M who had sensed it first, having said to her mom in private that first night, "I think they were homeless." M became a surprising source of inspiration. She was a jokester, a radiant performer. She played guitar and sang with fervor. She's the kind of teenager you hope your daughter becomes—a little skeptical, a ton bold. My daughter seemed equally taken by M, the girl who must have seemed so grownup as she read books to her on the blanket in the park.

The first time Evelyn got to play with M at her house was the last night of our mobile lifestyle. Winter was coming. After several difficult talks, Alex and I determined we needed to move back to Missouri, where we could afford to rent a house while saving up money. Our friends invited us to dinner at their house, a charming bungalow with guest quarters, a chicken coop and a trampoline.

I remember standing in Sam's kitchen, my palms to the cool countertop, Alex at my side. My daughter was on a stepstool, passively watching Sam, who was cracking eggs and telling a story. Evelyn started sneaking handfuls of shredded cheese and stuffing them into her mouth, which everyone noticed and chuckled about, but no one chastised her or told her to stop.

Living out in the world builds compassion.

We all ate and talked into the evening. Evelyn didn't want to leave that night. To be honest, I didn't, either. It was tempting to pin the feeling on the novelty of being in a house again, cooking together amid curated family treasures, the framed photos and knickknacks—but the real camaraderie was in the people, not the setting.

Everything about living in the car gave a kind of vibrancy to life that I suspect most people feel it's supposed to have. I came to believe adventure and a nomadic lifestyle isn't just for the young and childfree, wild millennials, or the independently wealthy. It's for anyone, and I would recommend it to anyone—even for parents of young children.

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Living out in the world builds compassion. It reinforces reality. As someone who is mentally ill, someone predisposed to delusions and debilitating brain clutter, the reinforcement of reality isn't just a pleasant reminder of "the little things" in life. Staying in touch with reality is life-saving.

I wonder if other houseless individuals feel the same. I wonder what would happen if more people, like Sam, would withhold mistrust and judgment, and would instead treat those on the streets with kind inquisitiveness and real compassion.

When I was young, I was suspicious of those on the streets. I was taught to avoid eye contact. My daughter, I hope, feels differently. Just months ago, we stopped at a red light where a person was sitting with a sign: "Homeless Vet. Anything Helps."

"Mama," she says, with certain matter-of-factness, "are you going to give him a granola bar?"

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Photographs by: Amanda Marie

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