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Inspiring Jackalo Family: The Garofanos

Posted by Marianna Sachse on

Inspiring Jackalo Family: The Garofanos

Jackalo is inspired by many kids and families that are filled with an adventurous spirit, love of the outdoors, and creativity. One family in particular stands out in my mind as a real inspiration: Tara Garofano, her husband Tony, and their two kids Vita and Finch. As we planned our move to the Netherlands, Tara was likewise planning a big adventure with her family— a year of travel throughout the United States. Together, the Garofanos all embody the creative and adventurous spirit behind Jackalo, and something we want to see more families cultivate. In an effort to inspire more families, I interviewed Tara about her family's adventures and how she nurtures her own creativity in motherhood. 

Tell us about your family. Who makes up your wild and wonderful crew?

We’re a restless and moody family of four! There’s me, my husband Tony, our daughter Vita (11), and our son Finch (8). We all have a fondness for adventure and the outdoors, but they manifest in different and often conflicting ways. We have been known to wander, along with our elderly (*over it) Pomeranian, Tilly, and our spirited cat, Bruja.  

The Garofano family
The Garofano family. Tara holds the camera for a selfie while Finch stands mouth agape with long curls in his face, Vita has a strong face with pursed lips, and Tony with a red beard and a crown of curls peaks over the top.

How did you decide to pack everything up and travel for a year (plus)?

I actually remember the exact moment. Tony and I took a solo trip to Orcas Island in Washington State sometime in 2014. We hiked up to this lovely spot on top of Turtle Back Mountain where you can see clear across the Puget Sound, all the way to Vancouver Island. We had been sleeping in a yurt and hiking all week long. It wasn’t extravagant, but we felt more satisfied and whole than we ever did back home. I asked Tony why we couldn’t do this all the time. We couldn’t find a reason, and on our way down we started making plans to pull the plug on life as we knew it.

View from Turtelback Mountain, Orcas Island
View from Turtleback Mountain on Orcas Island. Pine trees over a body of water with islands and mountains in the distance. 

What was your route? Where did you stay and for how long?

We managed to rent our house out for a year, and the plan was to take an extended road trip through the Northern U.S. and end up in Orcas Island for a couple of months. Initially, we planned to stay in the Pacific Northwest for the entire year, but we only lasted until mid-December before we started to feel soggy and cold. So, we headed down to the Mojave and from there we began to plan our destinations as we went.  


Which place was your favorite? Did everyone agree on their top places or did your family members have different opinions?

Ha! I’m sitting here trying to think of anything the four of us agree on! Tony loves the desert. Finch talks about Orcas Island everyday (he’s made some very good friends there). Vita thinks Maui is the best, but New Orleans is more practical. And, I love all of those places, but also think New Jersey, North Carolina and Florida are amazing and beautiful. To varying degrees, all of these places feel like home to me, which is very difficult since I can only be in one place at a time.


What did education look like for your kids while you were on the move?

We prioritized experience.

To begin with, we worked with the kids’ school to put together a set of goals and a loose plan to achieve them. I brought along some of the same materials and workbooks they used at school and tried our best to keep some sort of schedule (not one of my strengths). I had always thought of education as going to school 6 hours a day, homework, with a sprinkling of extracurricular activity. Intellectually, I understood the value of what we set out to do, but it was daunting to practice what we were preaching and scary to take on the responsibility of their education.

It didn’t take long to realize all would be well. Thinking back to the whale migrations, coyote songs, meteor showers, to the thermal baths, the owls, the eagles, the sharks and manatees. Also, to the different cuisine, the different accents, the shrimp shacks and the Beverly Hills boutiques. The conversations with people in the neighborhood in NOLA, artists, UFO believers, tribal elders, people on the street struggling with substance abuse, people on the street hopping into luxury cars, and with people of all different sexual orientations and gender identities. These experiences are worth the academics they may have missed (though I do think those things are very important as well!)

Education on the road
Learning in Yellowstone
Education on the road: (Top) Vita and Finch doing workbooks on a ferry. (Bottom) Vita, Finch, and Tony studying in Yellowstone while sitting on a felled tree.

 

What was your longest driving day? How did the kids handle the long drives? What did you do to keep complaints to a minimum?

There have been some interesting car rides! As a family, we have been doing long trips from the beginning, so the idea of a 10 hour driving day isn’t foreign to the children. Generally, I throw a cooler stocked with reasonably healthy snacks in the back seat, and give them free rein to graze as they see fit. I am also fairly liberal with television when we are taking a trip that’s 3 hours or longer. My kids can get car sick, so reading isn’t a great option, but audiobooks can be fun, individually or for the entire family.

We had a bit of a bumpy start to our road trip life. Turns out, throwing 2 kids used to a modicum of independence from one and other, into the back seat of a car can create tension and bickering. It’s also worth mentioning, that we travel with a smelly old Pomeranian and a cat. We have had our share of discomfort, unpleasant odors, breakdowns, and unspeakable messes.  It’s important to manage your expectations and realize it’s all part of the experience.


I think a lot of families who would be interested in doing something like this wonder about how to make it work financially. Can you shed some light on how you were able to meet your financial needs as a family while traveling.

There are probably as many ways to pull it off as there are families willing to do it. What made it possible for us was that my husband works from home and has been for years (I have been home since my kids were born). By renting our house out, we covered our mortgage (well, almost) and were able to put that money into short term rentals, mostly AirBnBs. AirBnBs tend to be expensive, so we found ourselves roughing it a bit, but we were able to cut down on the cost by visiting places in off seasons and negotiating monthly rates.

We had to remind ourselves often that we weren’t on vacation. There is a temptation to try all the new restaurants, take tours, buy souvenirs etc. We made an effort to keep all of these things to a minimum and tried to enjoy things in simpler ways.  

Tony carrying his daughter on his shoulders, while she holds their cat, with their dog standing next to them.
Two children standing in a small room surrounded by crocheted objects at the Crochet Museum in Joshua Tree
(Top) Vita and Tony with their pets in front of where they stayed in New Orleans. (Bottom) Vita and Finch in the Crochet Museum in Joshua Tree.

What guidance would you offer for other families that are considering the nomad life?

The first thing is, and, I’m sure everyone knows this, there are things that look good on Instagram and then there is the other 98% of your day. We have had sublime and life changing experiences, but we have also had the arguing, illness, and financial stresses we had when our lives were more conventional. So, I would say, if you’re gonna do it, expect it to have the same highs and lows you have at home. Because, while you may alleviate some stress, you also add some you probably didn’t (can’t) anticipate.  

Brace yourself: you are about to come face to face with the reality of your possessions! And, unless your partner is Marie Kondo, this is probably going to be a challenge. But it’s good! In the process of moving our stuff into storage, we were able to clearly see what was worth saving. But, perhaps the bigger test is deciding what to take with you. We left with way more stuff than we needed, and ended up sending bafflingly large boxes to my mom (how did we fit all of this in our Subaru?)  Along the way, there was much squabbling over who had the most, what was necessary, and what was completely unnecessary. This caused a surprising amount of bitterness on my part, and I’m sorry to say, I never came up with any clever solutions. I just fought the good fight and beat back the clutter as much as I possibly could.  

A fully-packed Subaru
A fully-packed car

You ultimately settled (for now) in California. What drew you there? How is the family adjusting to being in one place?

We love being in one place*! We rented a nice big house with spectacular views and we are very happy to spread out and claim some space for ourselves. Tony went to New Jersey and drove all of our stuff out, and we couldn’t have been more pleased to see it. Had you asked us before we left, I don’t think we would have anticipated our attachment to our stuff. Also, since we have been here the kids and Tony have really developed their rock climbing and I have been painting regularly. It is very nice to be able to do these things continuously.

We connected to the desert (we are just about in between Palm Springs and Joshua Tree) immediately. It was nothing like we expected it to be and like nowhere we had been before it. And, while the nature is stunning and we are able to continue exploring the outdoors, we especially enjoy the people. On a daily basis, we meet artists, musicians, writers, and all sorts of people doing random and unexpected things. We decided it was a fitting place to stop.

*We almost stopped before we began! We happened to be on remote Orcas Island during the 2016 election. In an effort to deal with the uncertainty of the outcome, I swore we would stay there and wait out a Trump presidency, if it came to pass. But when it did, after a lengthy period of disbelief (which I never fully came out of), we made the decision to come back to the mainland. We had just seen some of the best of what America had to offer and felt we should claim it, rather than be repulsed by its uglier forces.


We at Jackalo love to see adventuring kids. Obviously your time traveling with your family was a huge adventure for everyone. Now that you are a little more settled, how do you cultivate a spirit of adventure in everyday life?

It’s surprisingly easy to fall back into the prescribed rhythm of school/activities/leisure. And, to some degree we have done that. Part of what made us stop here was this place’s proximity to some other destinations we would like to explore/revisit (Zion, Yosemite, Death Valley, to name a few), and we’re planning some short road trips.  Our biggest change is that we just adopted a big athletic dog, so we try to do things with her. Just last weekend, we brought her to some very tall sand dunes in the Mojave. We’ve visited this spot a few times, but exploring it with the dog was much more fun. So, it’s maybe not as glamorous as the nomadic life, but we are thoroughly enjoying it...for now.

Finch in his Jackalo Ash lined pants in Joshua Tree
Finch in his Jackalo Lined Ash pants in Joshua Tree

You create these amazing walls of natural objects that you’ve found. Can you tell us how you started making these? What are you best tips for finding unusual items like bones and feathers?

We started road-tripping often when we moved to Pennsylvania. We really did a nice job covering the entire Eastern Seaboard. I noticed that we were amassing a respectable collection of natural specimens. It occurred to me that I had never given much thought to the variation possible in pine cones, or the range of colors found in the same species of seashell. And so, I thought displaying them on a cork board would be a great way to show my kids what I had only then begun to realize. It was supposed to be a project for all of us, but it never turned out that way. I take great pleasure in these compositions. There is something about the juxtaposition of a mouse and seal vertebrae, that is very satisfying to me.  So, I don’t really let my kids help, but I do let them look at it. :)

If you are into beginning a collection, it’s as easy as taking a walk and looking down! It helps to be in nature, but I have found some pretty cool insect specimens in city parks and surprising array of feathers in my backyard. Bones are another story and can be a nasty business. They only come to you clean and bleached about half of the time. Thankfully, Tony will do some of the more disgusting tasks associated with collecting bones, such as picking up a freshly hit fox off the road and letting it decompose in the yard or cutting the skull of a rotten seal carcass from the spine (that was an unpleasant smell). At the moment, there is a bull skull in my front yard, which needs its desiccated hide removed. But, I have found plenty of other bones that only needed a surface cleaning. For instance, I found a possum skull under a tree while visiting a relative at a nursing home. Another time, I found a full deer skeleton while taking my daughter for a nature pee outside of a New Jersey flea market.

In the summertime, when I was a little girl, my mother brought me to the beach everyday and had me help her look for sea glass. We would look for hours, but finding a piece, especially a frosty blue piece, felt like a huge accomplishment. In my lifetime, with so much of the environment corrupted and destroyed, I have always found it comforting to see evidence that it perseveres.

Wall of natural objects: bones, feathers, pine cones, sharks teeth.

One of Tara's walls of found natural objects: bones, shark teeth, feathers, pinecones, and more.

 

Tell us about your art. What has your path as an artist looked like? How has parenting fit in with this?

I have always expressed myself creatively, and ended up going to art school for college. I wasn’t a very serious student in high school, and ended up having a tough time learning how to apply myself and do serious work. Eventually, I found myself as a fibers major and ended up making some decent work. Art school can be demoralizing though, and I was intimidated by the idea of being a fine artist. Especially as a person who has no talent for self promotion. From there, I went into an interior design program, figuring this was a more practical application of creative skills. Before I finished I became pregnant with my daughter. I graduated before she was born, but preferred to stay home with her, rather than pursue a very demanding career as an interior designer.

When Vita was a baby, I went on making art as I always had, but found it increasingly difficult to fit it into life. I started to make and sell little felt flower barrettes, until my son was born less than three years later. It was then that I practically stopped making art.

For me, creative expression and mothering come from the same well and there just wasn’t enough to do both. I made a conscious decision to forgive myself for this, sure that when the time was right, I would come back to it.

For me, creative expression and mothering come from the same well and there just wasn’t enough to do both. I made a conscious decision to forgive myself for this, sure that when the time was right, I would come back to it.

My kids are reasonably self sufficient at ages 8 and 11, and I have been able to begin painting for the last year or so. I was pleasantly surprised at my level of ability, having never been a serious painter (most of my earlier work was embroidery). It was as if my capabilities had matured with the rest of me, even if they hadn’t been exercised. And, I was very grateful for this and for the time that I have been able to dedicate to watercolor recently. In moments of self-pity (of which I allow myself a good deal), I wonder what sort of painter I might have been had I been had I been practicing all these years, rather than doing the sometimes dreary work of mothering and wifing, But, obviously, that’s a futile activity, of which I hope will remind me to stay dedicated going forward.


What are you working on now?

I get to spend the next three days at a botanical watercolor workshop! Besides that, I’ve been trying to hone my skills as a watercolorist. It’s a challenging medium in that there is really no going back to fix mistakes or things that don’t turn out as intended. So, it’s necessary to really know technique. I’m interested in painting crystals, plants, and little creatures. I’m trusting that doing the work will lead me to where I need to go, but one of my goals is to paint a wine label. I love wine label art! I think I should start putting that out there (if you or someone you know is a vintner, hit me up). Is there anything more satisfying than when things you love converge?

Watercolor of an animal skull with crystals, roses, and greenery.
Watercolor image of an animal skull with crystals, roses, and leaves.

Where can people find you and learn more about your art? (And, when can I buy some?!) ;)

Instagram is the most likely place to see more of what I’m up to. The plan is to produce some reproducible work in the immediate future; perhaps cards or small posters. I really appreciate the support and nudges of the people who like what I do!    

***

Know an amazing family that we should hear from? Shoot us an email at hello@hellojackalo.com!


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