A single mom with a thirst for adventure created a brand-new life for herself and her toddler — on the open road.
Two years ago, Jayla Hardimon was taking college classes and working as a McDonald's cashier in the California desert, while raising her toddler son with the help of her mother and sister.
"I thought, 'I can't keep waking up, going to work and school and doing it all over again," Hardimon, 24, tells TODAY.com. "I wanted to show my son the world."
Hardimon had bigger dreams than a vacation: "Financial freedom and the ability to be gone for longer than a few weeks."
Driving through the United States with son Kareem seemed like a fun way to explore.
Hardimon had saved enough money from the restaurant and nanny jobs to make it work financially. But there was one problem: She had never driven a van or a motorhome and she wasn't a seasoned traveler, much less with a toddler.
She decided to go for it anyway. Since Kareen was only 2, Hardimon figured they had time for escapades before he started kindergarten.
"If this didn't work, at least we would have made memories," she says.
In Feb. 2021, a friend offered Hardimon a broken-down 1998 Dodge Ram 3500 van he planned to leave in a junkyard. She accepted, she says, "as if it were fate."
The vehicle needed work and it was certainly not child-friendly, so Hardimon — who had no experience with home or car renovation — learned by watching online videos. "I am not a handy person and have no carpentry skills," she says. "I was just determined to figure this out."
Over the next six months, Hardimon spent $5,000 gutting the van, a trial-and-error project she documented on her TikTok account This Travel Mom.
Hardimon ripped out seating, installed floor boards with peel-and-stick vinyl coating, installed wall insulation and shelving with childproof locks.
The van holds a portable car fridge and freezer that Hardimon stashes in the median console, a two-burner propane stove, a toilet, a full-size mattress with a wooden bed frame, a kitchen pantry, a dining table that doubles as a work space, and space for Kareem's many toys. In the bathroom area, there's a small portable toilet and running water with cubbies for Kareem's diapers and wipes.
The mom and son bathe in community centers, camp grounds or gas stations, and do laundry at laundromats.
Hardimon also decorated with a colorful steering wheel cover, wall frames and cute rugs for a coziness.
In the fall of 2021, Hardimon and Kareem hit the road and, save for trips home to visit family, they haven't looked back.
So far, Hardimon and Kareem have driven up and down California multiple times and visited Nevada, Arizona, Oregon, Washington and Idaho. "My favorite memories are driving up the coast and snowboarding and hiking," she says.
Hardimon balances driving time with extended pit stops so the pair can stretch their legs and enjoy the sights.
"I try to not drive more than 2 or 3 hours at a time and we usually park in paid campsites or on BLM land," she says, referencing public land that's overseen by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and used for conservation, hunting and renewable energy. Ocasionally, the family spends the night in a parking lot.
"When we wake up, I give Kareem cuddles and kisses, and then we get ready for the day," says Hardimon.
Breakfast is eggs with bacon, oatmeal or pancakes, which they eat inside or outside the van, depending on weather conditions.
"After breakfast, I work for several hours, while supervising Kareem playing or watching his iPad," she says. Hardimon earns an income through social media brand sponsorships and a coaching business that helps others launch their own van lives.
Hardimon spends a portion of the day homeschooling Kareem, teaching him the alphabet, numbers, days of the week, vocabulary and fine motor skills. Kareem is also learning Spanish and American Sign Language. During "recess" they visit playgrounds or go on nature walks, climb trees or hunt for flowers.
"Sometimes we travel with other van families," she says. "We have a community through an app and meet at different locations on the road — I met my best friend, also a single mom, in Oregon when she reached out to me through TikTok. Now our kids are friends."
Hardimon acknowledges that life on the road with a toddler can get lonely.
"There are moments when I wish I had a friend to lean on," she says. "But finding (travel) companions, participating in new activities and hobbies, and work helps with loneliness. When I first had Kareem, it took a while for me to find myself outside of motherhood but when I got the van, I discovered my passions."
Spending so much time together means Hardimon is there for each of Kareem’s “firsts," like seeing snow, taking snowboard lessons and building a snowman. "He's basically living his Olaf(from 'Frozen') dreams," she says.
Swimming lessons, spotting dolphins on a boat and riding a pony rank high among their favorite memories.
Hardimon's mom supports her lifestyle, but she also worries about her daughter and grandson.
"My family knows my location at all times and I use a texting code to let them know it's me and not a random person who found my lost phone," she explains. "My mom also tracks our location with Apple AirTags."
For security, Hardimon installed cameras on the outside of her van that connect to her WiFi hotspot, so she can view their surroundings from inside the van. She also keeps her window covers drawn at night and her keychain, holding a canister of pepper spray, is always within reach.
Hardimon says the only time she's ever felt in danger was one time in Reno, Nevada when two cars tried to blocked her van inside a parking lot. She managed to drive away.
Hardimon feels empowered behind the wheel, and like she's leaving stereotypes in her dust.
"I’ve had people tell me, ‘Black people don’t live in vans,’ and it’s been quite a challenge coming across black individuals traveling in a van, although it’s not rare," she notes. "It’s (a space) definitely occupied by white women, however BIPOC people are coming into van life more and more every day."
"I’m breaking a stereotype because I’m not only Black," says Hardimon, "I'm a woman and a single mother showing others this is possible regardless of race and gender."