"Not all who wander are lost" is among the philosophies expressed on the side of Anastassia Soltis' van. | Frank Vaisvilas~For Sun-Times Media
Before rolling out for a trip to the Northeast this week, a graffiti-covered van and its driver were blessed by the Rev. Wayne Svida, of Our Lady of the Ridge Church in Chicago Ridge.
The driver, Anastassia Soltis, is living her life of freedom in a way many Americans only dream about.
The 24-year-old Lockport native is wandering the country on a hippy-like journey in her graffiti-covered van.
Soltis was in the area the past week getting some much-needed automotive work for her van after thousands of miles of traveling before heading back out on the road.
“In my eyes, this is the ultimate expression of freedom,” said Mike Lask, who’s engaged to Soltis’ cousin. “Every one of us has that inside of us, but we have too much responsibility to live it out.”
Lask and Soltis’ cousin, Patty Soltis, are parishioners at the Chicago Ridge church and requested the blessing.
In October, Anastassia Soltis decided she had enough of the “9 to 5” lifestyle. She had been laid off from her job with the Illinois Junior Golf Association, but had realized she had been very depressed working and felt like she was stuck in a routine.
“I had almost lost faith in humanity,” Soltis said. “I felt like I wasn’t the best person I could be before I left.”
So she packed a few items in her 1971 Dodge camper van and just drove with no particular destination in mind.
“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Soltis said.
With hardly any money, she embarked on a journey that took her from the Appalachians to the Rocky Mountains and from the Florida Keys to the San Francisco Bay.
“I had a dollar in my pocket for two weeks and I was probably the happiest I’ve ever been,” Soltis said.
Yet she does have a few expenses, such as auto insurance, gas, food and a cell phone bill.
Soltis does odd jobs, such as washing dishes or delivering a car, for a little money to finance her travel, and has even worked at Comic Con, a comic book convention, in New Orleans.
But Soltis also has benefited from the kindness of strangers to help her along. For example, she traded away umbrellas a woman had donated to her in exchange for gas donations.
Soltis’ old van breaks down on occasion, but people whom she’d just met would donate vehicle parts so she could get back on the road.
She believes the help she receives from strangers has everything to do with karma and fate.
“I gave a homeless guy my last $5,” Soltis said.
By her willingness to help people in need, she believes that kindness comes back to her.
“It’s a huge cycle,” Soltis said.
Soltis has met other travelers along the way with similar philosophies.
She parked her van in Colorado for a few months alongside nine other vans driven by wanderers, creating a kind of hippy community.
At first, Soltis’ friends and family back home in the Lockport and Chicago Ridge areas were apprehensive about her living so freely.
Her boyfriend, Steve, was upset with her for a month but now fully supports her. In fact, he even traveled with her for a couple of weeks but has to stay in the area because of work.
Soltis’ mother, Moreen McArthur of Lockport, was particularly concerned for her daughter’s well-being.
“Of course I worry,” McArthur said. “But it’s in her blood. It’s the adventurer in her.”
As a girl, McArthur said, Soltis would go camping and take long road trips with her father, and she trusts that her daughter can take care of herself on the road.
Soltis said people usually either love or hate her lifestyle. She said police, especially, tend to give her a hard time.
Soltis’ van was unmarked before she left home in October. But since then, people from all over the country have left their mark on it via everything from spray painting peace signs, words of wisdom and positive messages to stencil artwork.
“I’ve been getting pulled over a lot,” Soltis said. “Officers assume by driving a hippy van, I do hippy things. They mostly want to know what I’m doing.”
But she said she doesn’t participate in stereotypical criminal activity, such as smoking marijuana or getting high.
Instead, Soltis is simply doing some soul-searching while learning to live free and hoping to inspire others.
She documents her travels online through her website happynomadgirl.org and has acquired nearly 1,400 likes on Facebook through her page “Happy Nomad Girl.”
“I’m hoping to start a movement of some kind and not just by traveling in a van,” Soltis said. “As a society, we’ve lost sight of what’s true and what makes us happy. People work just to work. ... People tell me they wish they could do this (wander freely). People want to live life with no regrets.”