When the editor of Leadbread asked me to interview a couple that tours the country in a Vardo stylized after the wagons used by the Romani people, I saw it as an opportunity to learn how you can be comfortable without “comforts”. These alternative models of living – vanlife, tinyhouses, earthen homes, – all trace the edge of convenience and necessity – and force us to question what is important in our lives. After a visit to their Vardo, what I’ve realized is that a nomadic life or a life untethered from exorbitant living expenses through alternative homes, can perhaps be a way to create a kind of freedom and self-sufficiency that people think only money can buy.
I met them in Napa, California, where they are based and from where they operate their wellness company “China Rose Wellness.” China Rose is a certified nutritional therapist, clinical herbalist, and yoga teacher; she focuses on natural holistic remedies, while her partner AJ is a functional fitness trainer and wellness coach. They pushed open their dutch doors at the back of their wagon to welcome me, leaving the top portion ajar to hear and see the row of the trees on the property that their Vardo helps fertilize by composting waste produced by the wagon.
China Rose and AJ Zamora’s 175 sq ft home was a type of comfort that didn’t stem from a lack of things, but a richness of spirit. Their virtue didn’t lie in their ability to go anywhere, it was their ability to be rooted everywhere. It may have been the golden hue that illuminated the Vardo as the sun peeked through the wooden exterior, or the soft wind that kept it cool in the middle of August, but there was a lightness that determined the time I spent with the couple. Not as if they were without care but as if they were without worry.
China Rose and I sat across from each other on the bench where she and her wife often share their meals. Between us is a sprawl of fresh fruits and nuts on the table. AJ offers me a cup of hot water from the kettle buzzing in the background. She serves me a mismatched cup and saucer set with loose tea and wild honey, and then props herself up onto the counter. The three of us grazed and sipped until a scheduled hour-long interview rolled into an afternoon of conversation.
They told me of their lives, China Rose born-and-raised in the Bay Area, AJ making her way up from Southern California. They spent their earlier years building businesses and raising children. The aspect that struck me about the two of them, as they regaled their personal journeys, is that together they seemed grounded in the now but also rooted in their past. Each story was tied to a lesson that led them to where they were that day and for this interaction. Meaning was woven into the fabric of their being.
“I spent much of my life doing what needed to get done,” AJ says recalling her years in construction and bartending while raising her son. She spoke very matter-of-factly often ending her sentences with an expression that said “and that’s that.” China Rose sat back in her seat, while still maintaining perfect posture as she delicately braided her hands through her words, punctuating her stories with the wave of her hand, grabbing at grapes from the table. She recalled a lifetime of accumulating things: clothes that became treasures, furniture passed down like heirlooms, and shoes that could hold the weight of her footsteps no matter the occasion. Her identity, intrinsically linked to her possessions.
“We tried to downsize,” China Rose said smiling at AJ as if there was a saga behind what she had just admitted. “It wasn’t until we found mold in the house that we were renting that we were finally able to start letting go.” That was the last push in a long line of signs. Their home was broken into in 2013, where computers and family heirlooms were taken. And in 2014, Napa experienced a 6.0 magnitude earthquake that broke many of their possessions. “The mold was merely the final message we needed in order to start making drastic changes in our lives. The universe gave us many signs that we didn’t need so many things,” said China Rose and AJ.
The Vardo became a symbol of their life experiences, synthesized into material form. AJ’s previous work experience helped in building the wagon out of the most sustainable materials available, and China Rose was able to convert many of her antiques into functional items for the space. An old wooden table and a buffet that belonged to her Great-Grandmother were transformed into the kitchen table/desk area and a storage unit. Sustainability as well as entertaining were paramount factors for the couple in the design process, and the efficiency of their new found minimalism allowed them the room to create a comfortable, rustic space that doesn’t forgo modern conveniences.
Solar power and propane allow the couple to enjoy all of the amenities, including their full-sized tub and shower, while they travel. They can live off the grid for up to three days with their current battery packs. Their bed hangs as a loft and can be raised or lowered within the wagon’s 12-foot high ceilings. Their countertops are made from recycled paper, they have a composting toilet system, the floors are made from formaldehyde-free bamboo flooring, the windows are made of recycled fiberglass, the Vardo has Rockwool insulation, and the materials for the bed and are all organic and sustainable woods and wools. Their kitchen boasts a three-burner stove and an oven that the couple uses to cook meals for themselves and their friends. “We love being able to prepare and share meals,” said China Rose.
“Being a nutritionist, I see that a lot of the imbalances and physical symptoms my client experience are stress-related,” says China Rose. “The root of that is that the more things we have, the more things we feel like we need or we have to think about. It creates a physical burden! The moment we begin to alleviate that stress, that burden starts to fall away,” she says.
“But that is only a piece of the puzzle,” interjects AJ.
China Rose and AJ’s ultimate goal with their company and the community they are curating is to empower people in their healthcare. “It’s about creating real wellness,” says China Rose, “it’s not about getting everyone to give up their belongings and move into a tiny house.” For them it’s about taking meaningful steps in their own lives to show their clients, followers and friends that you can not only survive without the parameters of a consumer society, but live in a meaningful and intentional life of your own design. A person’s power isn’t defined by the type of lifestyle they are living, but instead power lies in the ability to take charge of one’s own life.
“My focus is functional fitness,” says AJ, “I have people with back issues, hips, knees who just need to recalibrate and get back in touch with their bodies.” It’s more readily accepted in our society to take remedies for your pain than it is to seriously consider how you move in the world. Or how the alignment of your hips and knees when you walk, or go up the stairs, will affect your neck pain at the end of the day. “We live in such a rushed society,” offers China Rose going off of what AJ was saying, “sometimes the best thing you can do is…” she trails off lifting her hands to her chest with a long, soft breath through her nose, and a heavier breath out of her mouth returning her hands to her lap with her palms raised and eyes closed.
I spoke with them once more in October over the phone when they returned to Northern California for a retreat. Their journey took them through the Pacific Northwest of America. I asked them what their mission was for this trip. They bounced between answers for themselves and for their company, but ultimately began describing what the Vardo allowed them to do: interact face-to-face with people all around the county.
“Wherever or however long we go, our goal is always to connect with the people we know or to build our community,” says China Rose, “I love so much to be able to connect with loved ones and friends in person.” One of the properties the Zamoras stayed on during their loop of the PNW was owned by Dan, who recently had lost his father to cancer and (due to a wildfire) a part of his land. “He had the wind taken out of his sails,” says AJ.
Maintaining land can be laborious under any circumstance. While responsible land management can assist in healthy biodiversity and can afford a self-sustaining lifestyle for some, regulations and expenses often make maintaining properties of land too difficult to manage for those who live in the vasts of Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Northern California.
Dan had lost his motivation. The Zamoras housed their Vardo on his property, both offering resources for the health of his land and themselves to assist with any tasks during their stay. “To have someone work side-by-side with you,” China Rose says, “there’s a renewed rejuvenation.”
“I think we are growing further apart as a society. We’re living in big cities, but everyone is on their phones.” It’s a lack of connection and community that stifles the growth of the individual. “Being there next to someone…” she trails off and then concludes with, “it feeds your soul.” Suddenly that conclusion leads to a thought, “that’s our mission,” China Rose asserts, “establishing the foundations of, and offering tools to achieve, real wellness. No, not everyone needs to live in a Vardo, but something like volunteering,” she pauses, “giving something back… It’s our connections that keep us going.”
AJ and China Rose speak what they believe and the Vardo is also an expression of those beliefs. “It’s an opportunity to walk the talk,” says AJ. The Zamoras have determined that wellness doesn’t come from how strict your diet is or how many squats you can do. Real wellness comes from the self-determination to make your own decisions, and the intention to make those decisions strengthen both your own foundations and also the health and balance of those around you.
Their Vardo was built to be as ethically and sustainably sourced as possible. And this 175-square-foot wagon allows them to manifest their ethos of care – to empower people in their healthcare, so they can achieve wellness of the mind, body and soul.
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