CHADDS FORD — While the pandemic has claimed the lives of more than half-a-million Americans, Michael Burlotos sought to find a silver lining.
Burlotos, 25, of Chadds Ford, had moved to Atlanta for his job in financial technology right before the COVID-19 pandemic. As lockdown began, he felt isolated and had no family or friends, and he began to seek something more.
Unfortunately, shortly after his move he lost his grandfather to the virus. Seeing the impact of COVID, Burlotos knew that COVID reared the head on the fragility of life.
Burlotos, a 2017 graduate of West Chester University and a 2013 graduate of Unionville High School, was living a comfortable stable life working for a Wall Street firm. Before COVID, Burlotos felt that he was living a life of routine and that he wasn’t appreciating the present. He began to yearn for something more.
On a rainy June day, Burlotos spontaneously loaded his car with some personal belongings — most notably his Siberian husky, Bailey. He headed west, without a clear destination or timeline, but knew he could define those later.
Over the next few months, he and Bailey traversed the American West, living a simple life filled with new experiences every day.
He cooked outside, showered in lakes, and worked in coffee shops and parking lots. "I just felt so alive, with all the things I had never done," Burlotos said. "It changed my perspective on what's really important in life. I found so much joy enjoying the little things and choosing to live a life collecting experiences rather than possessions."
This passion fueled his next stage of the journey: traversing Alaska for weeks in a rented minivan. In Alaska, he said, social distancing is often the norm, and people are much more in touch with their natural surroundings. His time here further inspired him to commit to his new lifestyle.
Upon returning from Alaska, Burlotos moved out of his apartment and sold much of his belongings. He found a new home in Washington state and bought a 1986 travel trailer. He and Bailey traveled back across the continental U.S., hitting 25 states over 12,000 miles, visiting big cities, small towns and plenty of natural landmarks.
"I met people not as fortunate as me," he said. "Growing up in Unionville exposed me to a world of privilege. On this journey, I saw those with privilege and those without, and realized happiness is not defined by measures I once thought it was. Chasing the next job title, or a promotion, or a bonus wasn’t where I wanted to focus – I was able to step back and realize how grateful I am with what I have."
"Happiness doesn't come from the things we buy," he said. "Life is delicate. In 2020, it's crazy to think 600,000 people have died from this terrible virus. When I talk to people, the number one thing they say is COVID gave them a new perspective on life. Each day that we wake up, we are blessed, but so many people take their health for granted."
Along the way, he seemed to meet kind people at every turn. When he was in Oregon in a gym parking lot looking for a shower, a man he met invited him to dinner. Burlotos spent the next four days with his family, including their four children. “It was the first time where I felt like I had a family away from home,” he said, “and an amazing experience of kindness and friendship from a parking lot encounter.”
Eventually, he was ready to take his nomadic lifestyle one step further. He sold his car and bought a converted school bus. The bus is a true tiny home. Electricity and Wi-Fi are powered by rooftop solar panels, it contains a kitchen, queen bed, and a couch. There are water tanks on the undercarriage of the bus for eco-friendly plumbing. In his new bus, he can live and work comfortably and take nomadic life to the next level.
"I plan on living in the bus full-time," he said. "I’ve traded in a bit of foundation for the ability to meet more people and be new places, and I’m so excited about it.”
"I want to define success in life as the ability to live life to the fullest, be grateful for the little things and help people along the way and don't live life selfishly. People may think that I’m reacting harshly to COVID, or death, or uncertainty, but I don’t see it that way. Instead, I’m waking up happier than before, and I don’t think anyone can argue with increased happiness."
Burlotos is back in Chadds Ford, but plans to restart his nomadic lifestyle next week. Over the holidays, he started dating another Unionville High School grad, Katie. She supports his journey, and he hopes she joins him at some point along the way.
“My journey has taught me so much. It inspired me to change the shape in which I was living. Growth does not come from staying comfortable. When I got less comfortable with having less, I became happier, and that was one of the most gratifying feelings in the world. Happiness does not lie in possessions, or even relationships. That answer lies within ourselves.”
Burlotos is documenting the next stage of his nomadic life on Instagram via @wanderingbusdude.