Their home is the road

Alison Miller and her husband Chuck Gearing, who are "happily homeless" with their Ford Escape at a friend's condo in Lumberton where they're staying briefly on May 1, 2012. APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer
Alison Miller and her husband Chuck Gearing, who are "happily homeless" with their Ford Escape at a friend's condo in Lumberton where they're staying briefly on May 1, 2012. APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer
Posted: May 26, 2012

If you saw them on the street, you wouldn’t peg Alison Miller, 53, and her husband, Charles “Chuck” Dearing, 59, as homeless.

In fact, you’d probably guess they were conventional types, married (for 20 years), with kids (a blended family of four) and a house in the suburbs (in Westampton, Burlington County, where Miller redecorated about every two months).

Instead, they can claim only a bright red 2010 Ford Escape and a couple of suitcases to hold their worldly goods — with no dreams of pulling up a driveway.

It all started nearly three years ago on May 29, 2009, when they began “state shopping” for a new, permanent residence, and ended up defining home as the road.

Therein lies a tale they love to tell, which they did during a recent stay with local friends this month.

Miller met Dearing when they were both newly single and living on the same street in Willingboro. He was in the Air Force, stationed at what is now Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst. She was struggling to support herself and her three kids by running a housecleaning service.

They married in 1990, settled in Westampton. Dearing eventually left the Air Force as a master sergeant and worked in a civil service job at the same base involved in logistics, planning, and antiterrorism until he retired in 2008.

Miller became a bereavement counselor after losing in close succession her mother and her adored brother, and founded Tapestries of Hope in South Jersey, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping any woman in the community grieving the death of her mother or mother figure.

So they were just a typical two-career family who loved home and hearth when they decided to move to a new part of the country where Miller, who hated New Jersey winters, might find some soothing sunshine and warmth. The kids were grown and gone, so the couple sold their house, put their furniture in storage, and set off to explore their next address, probably in the Southwest.

“But about five months into our travels, we woke up one day, looked at each other, and said it out loud: ‘This is just about the best time we’ve ever had. Why not just keep on traveling?’?’’ Miller recalls of that momentous conversation.

Say what? What about roots, furniture, a kitchen for home-cooked meals, a laundry room? What about a “normal” life?

“We suddenly realized that for us, this was normal. It felt right. It felt freeing. And we found that we were happier in our marriage than we’d ever been.”

Because they were doing this on the cheap (see “The Economics”), stopping at inexpensive motels, and as often as possible, Air Force bases or with friends, the budget worked.

And there was still a whole country to see and explore.

A fairy tale? A happily-ever-after ending?

Not quite.

Just as they were settling into a nomadic life on the road, reality bit. One day in November 2010, Dearing noticed a bump on his forearm. Initially, he wasn’t concerned. But the bump kept growing, and rapidly.

Dearing drove back to South Jersey from Oregon to consult with physicians — Miller happened to be back there already for the funeral of a friend — and suddenly, this couple was plunged into the surreal world of serious illness.

Dearing’s diagnosis was a peripheral nerve sheath tumor, a rare form of cancer that led to presurgery radiation, a 10-hour surgical procedure, and follow-up treatment and surgeries.

“I had him dead and buried,” Miller admits. “It seemed the end of the road.”

Dearing, characteristically, took one day at a time. “I don’t jump to conclusions,” he said.

And five months after that first sighting of “the bump,” they were traveling the country again. Dearing is cancer-free with an excellent prognosis. Still, the experience left them sobered and with a new perspective.

“We both realized that life was to seize and to savor, and we were going to continue to do just that,” said Dearing.

They’ve covered all of the lower 48 states once, with brief detours to have Dearing checked semiannually by doctors at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. Now the goal: 20 more years of happy homeless travel.

When one of Miller’s daughters, Rachael-Grace Aganad, first learned that her mother and stepfather were choosing to be homeless, she thought it was great — and worried just a bit. “But ironically, I actually get to see them more now than I did before,” said Aganad, 29, of Phoenix. Because they’re always on the road, the couple tend to visit more, plus Aganad speaks to Miller daily on the phone, and occasionally they Skype.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen Mom and Chuck happier. They’re definitely in their bliss.”

Still, the questions keep coming in.

No, they don’t miss holidays in a home. “One year at Thanksgiving, we got turkey platters from Boston Market.”

Yes, they get home-cooked meals now and then, and when they house-sat last summer for one of Miller’s daughters on the West Coast, Miller cooked up a storm. “Suddenly, food became very important again, but on the road, it’s not,” Dearing says. “On the road, we eat to live, not live to eat.”

Exercise? Everywhere they go, the couple, both devoted to fitness, take walks that are more like hikes. They’ve climbed mountains, scaled hills, discovered trails. Miller has her no-nonsense exercise hula hoop and hand weights as her porta-gym.

News is never farther away than their laptops.

Laundromats, they say, are wonderful places to connect with people, and nearly every town and city has them. And when they feel the need for quiet retreat, they visit cemeteries, wonderful places to pause for the lunches they stashed in their cooler.

But what about tedium and frayed nerves from too much car-time togetherness?

Car fights are hardly rare, as so many couples know. And Dearing and Miller remember one classic.

“I had said something to Chuck about his driving, and he really blew up. He stopped the car, slammed the door, and walked away.” It was on a Vermont road during their first few months of travel.

So Miller sat in the car, alternating between fury and worry. It was a very long hour before Dearing returned and things simmered down.

“We hadn’t yet learned to let things go,” Dearing says. “Now we have. And that’s been very important in keeping the peace.”

For the record, Dearing now does almost all of the driving — and Miller keeps her opinions to herself.

Are there rules of the road? Only one: They can’t drive more than 200 miles in one day.

Other than that, destinations are planned, but never etched in stone. A “wrong” turn is ignored unless there’s a pressing reason to follow a route. The roads not taken are turnpikes, freeways, and major highways. Back roads, the slower the better, are sought. Music played as they roam has been burned into laptops at libraries along the way, so there are thousands of options. Some days, the total distance traveled may be covered in 45 minutes, depending on what they discover.

They do occasionally take separate small excursions, from walks to simple timeouts for shopping or just meditating.

And wardrobe?

Miller loves to visit thrift shops wherever they are.

Her favorite items: fringed boots, jeans, funky shirts, often emblazoned with rhinestones. “Why be conservative when it’s more fun not to be — and I’m free to just please myself.”

Dearing has an “extensive” wardrobe of exactly three pairs of casual pants — jeans, cargo pants, and fatigues — along with six sport shirts, one pair of boots, and one pair of sneakers.

“I happily gave away 50 ties when we started our new lives,” he says, beaming. “And I don’t miss them.”

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