Perhaps you’ve seen the pair on the road: a Ford Escape SUV pulling a TAB, both painted white and “Chuck’s-Watchin’-Over-Me-Pink” and emblazoned with the motto “Nothin’ But Love.”
Or you might have run into their owner, Alison Miller, at a campground and wondered about this woman who is traveling on her own.
While she isn’t the first woman who has taken to the open road sans travel companion (see our posts featuring solo travelers Joei Carlton Hossack and Marti Wieschowski as well as Women on the Road: The Female RV-er), Alison’s is not the usual “I want to try something new” story. Rather, it’s a tale of heartbreak and hope, of loss and recovery, and most importantly, about the indomitable force of love — a lot to pack into one teardrop trailer!
Her story as a woman on her own began with a devastating loss: the death of her husband retired Master Sgt. Chuck Dearing on April 21, 2013.
The couple set out on a journey through the country in May 2009 after Chuck retired from the Air Force. They hit a roadblock in 2011, however, when Chuck was diagnosed with cancer. The treatment seemed to be successful, and the couple continued their journey.
But their plans took a painful detour when, in 2013, the cancer recurred. In just a few short weeks, the man who had been the love of Alison’s life for 24 years and her husband for 23, died at age 60.
“Even though I knew it would happen — that this cancer would kill him — it shocked and devastated me, and my entire world disintegrated,” recalled Alison.
Barely seven months after her loss, Alison made up her mind to begin her own journey, which she dubbed Odyssey of Love. Alison sought to continue the travels she had once undertaken with her husband but in a different way, to reflect the major change in her life. Although her son Nick shared the first leg of her trip that she undertook with TAB, from that point on with just a few exceptions Alison was driver and navigator, traveling with mementos of their life together adorning the interior of her TAB and tow vehicle.
While her children had been supporters of the couple’s travels on the open road, they were less than enthusiastic about their mother being on her own, especially since she had next to no experience towing a trailer.
“But they also knew that I had a mind of my own and would do my life as I saw fit,” Alison acknowledged. “I was too young to move in with any of them, even if I wanted to — which I didn’t. I didn’t want to become a burden to them. It was ironic in every way; I was determined to show them that I didn’t need them, that I could figure this out when all I craved was to be with any of the three of them and be cared for.”
Documenting her Odyssey of Love journey
By the summer before the pandemic, Alison was ready to turn her personal journey into something visual that she could share with the world. And thus the idea for the documentary, “An Odyssey of Love…in pink” was born.
At the time, she was working at Opera in the Ozarks in Arkansas, as she had during previous summers. But she knew she had to give her new project her full attention, especially given that she had no idea at all how to go about filming a documentary; nor did she know anyone who knew. She decided to rent a room from a dear friend in Arizona who was also a “widow sister” and then, through her daughter, met Emily, a photographer.
After a meeting with Emily and a discussion with her business partner, Alison signed a contract with them agreeing on the project. The film is the first documentary the duo has taken on.
The majority of the documentary was filmed before the pandemic, which worked well for Alison as it kept her in one location amid the coronavirus pandemic and allowed her to be hands-on with editing, narration, and other elements of the documentary. Alison stayed in Arizona with her friend Lorri for a year working on the project.
The pandemic not only temporarily disrupted her travel plans but is also a factor to be considered as Alison decides how to promote her documentary. Alison hopes to take the documentary on the road to show around the countries. She also hopes to host Love Leaves the Way rallies, conduct workshops, and do talks and discussions based on her Odyssey of Love.
The cost of travel has also made an impact on Alison’s plans as it continues to increase during the pandemic. Costs of campsites have gone up as have gas prices, she said. Making reservations requires a lot of planning — both time-wise and location-wise, Alison said.
“I’m waiting to see out this next year and how the pandemic continues or not, and whether some semblance of an ordinary life returns,” Alison said. “I’m more or less in a holding pattern while the country settles down some.”
Not that Alison is much of a planner, as she would be the first to acknowledge.
“Making plans just isn’t my thing and hasn’t been since Chuck’s death. I’ve truly just let my heart lead me as to where I go and how long or short a time I stay in any one place.”
Reflecting on the past eight years
When she looks back on her life after Chuck’s death, she noted that “it’s oftentimes said that grief is a conduit to being stronger and making you more compassionate.” Alison, however, doesn’t agree with that train of thought, adding, “Grief mostly teaches how hard life can be.”
And it’s also a source of life lessons, such as that no one is going to do her life for her.
“People can support me, but at the end of the day, I’m on my own. It’s up to me,” she said. “Determination and grit go a long way in getting things done, even when you want to do nothing more than collapse in a fetal position and scream at the crappiness of grief that reaches into every avenue and layer of life.”
It’s that determination that she draws on each time she realizes that it’s up to her to learn and do whatever needs learning or doing. But Alison has also learned to ask people who have the knowledge that she needs for help.
Like many people who have experienced a major loss, there was a time when Alison wanted nothing more than to, as she put it, “find an apartment, close the door, get under the covers, and forget about life.”
Fortunately, she said, that wasn’t an option for her. Because she and her husband had been out traveling, she didn’t have a home to return to, and she couldn’t afford an apartment. Instead, she painted her car and trailer pink and hit the road.
“I knew it would draw people to me and keep me from isolating myself,” Alison said. “It would enable me to tell my story — an important aspect of grief — and hear other stories. As people around the country responded to my rig, PinkMagic, it reassured me that I really was still alive, even though I mostly felt as if I’d disappeared.”
What was a literal journey was also a metaphorical one, taking Alison through the darkness of her grief and into a space where she learned about the duality of darkness and light.
“I’ve already accomplished more than I ever thought I would in those moments after stepping away from Chuck’s deathbed,” she said. “The fact that I’ve crisscrossed the entire USA eight times and created an entire community for myself around the country and filmed a documentary…when I couldn’t even breathe in the weeks and months after his death; it blows my mind.”
Thinking ahead, Alison said she wants to use her story to “inspire other women to pack up all their worries and anxieties and get out on the open road to discover possibilities.”
She felt led to take the love that Chuck left behind for her and extend it to people she met on her travels — many of whom signed her trailer or left a short message. Spreading love and kindness helped Alison feel connected with Chuck as she continued life without him.
“The one thing I know for certain, and what I knew even at Chuck’s bedside, as I kissed him for one last time, was that I’m part of something bigger than he and I,” she said. “I trust my heart to lead me where I need to be, and I remember what Chuck said about suiting up and showing up. That’s my sole mission every day. Suit up and show up, with and for love. I’ll spend the rest of my life doing this. And I’ll spend the rest of my life still and always loving Chuck D.”