Originally posted on April 16, 2018
It was right around this time a year ago that I bought my van and said goodbye to my Subaru. I don’t know if the people around me had faith that I could build it out and transition completely to life on the road, but I knew I could. In fact, when I finished the van I was slightly surprised by how many people said things to me like, “Holy shit! You did this all by yourself?" Or "I can’t believe you actually did it.” And while I agree, it is definitely my biggest accomplishment to date; I also always knew I was going to do it. It’s one of the few projects I knew I was completely capable of finishing because it was a project that Ethan and I had begun to dream up nearly three years ago. And that probably made all the difference.
The Birdhouse. 2008 Dodge Sprinter 2500 bought with 172,000 miles.
Summit selfie courtesy of Ethan’s long arm. June 2015.
I don’t talk about Ethan as much as I used to, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t think about him every day. In fact, almost every decision I’ve made since he passed away I’ve made because of him. I think grief makes you lose control of your own life in some ways and alters your basic decision-making. I found myself making decisions based on what would make him smile if he were still alive. After we had moved in together, we decided to put a certain amount of our savings from our shared rent towards buying a van. After he died, it suddenly became my number one priority.
Fast forward to two and a half years, and here I sit in my new home. During that time, our dream has turned into just my dream and I’ve done my best to carve out a new life without him. A lot of people applaud me for taking such a risk and creating an alternative lifestyle for myself. Recently a friend asked me how I overcame the fear of dropping everything and going for it. The truth is, I felt I had nothing more to lose. It was never a giant decision for me. Nothing really mattered to me anymore, so living on the road felt like a nice place to drift around for a while. Before I knew it, my routine had evolved into a very different life, but one that began to interest me again. I’m pretty thankful for that.
The Birdhouse aptly got its name from the bird pattern around the walls. A small child gave me an origami crane for 10 cents in Squamish and I thought it fit nicely.
The process of building out a van by myself was as every bit overwhelming as you can imagine. I had no prior building knowledge and spent hours pouring over dumb online tutorials. For the first two weeks, I just drove around with random tools, packaged insulation, and planks of wood in the back because I didn’t know where to start. And then one day I just said, “Fuck it” and went to work.
Left: When I didn’t think I would buy a van, I converted my 2008 Subaru Forester into a home for 8 months. Photo: Drew Smith. Right: Inside of the van when I bought it.
A day and a half of insulation.
Floors, walls, and ceiling installed.
Bed frame going in.
I lived in the van for almost nine months with no real kitchen because I was tired of building and wanted to hit the road.
Kitchen finally going in.
Since then, it has been a blast. I’ve lived in Colorado, Utah, Nevada, California, Canada, Idaho, and Wyoming. I’ve cooked dinners for 6+ people, baked cookies and brownies, hosted friends for several nights, served as an aid station for my cousin running the Zion Traverse, watched all six seasons of Downton Abbey, and edited thousands of photos. I shower regularly despite the lack of a bathroom and am pretty proud of the life I've built, both physically and figuratively.
Most of the time, living on the road can be extremely exciting, but it can also be mind-numbingly boring. My photography work gives me a rough outline of the places I need to be, and then it’s completely up to me to decide where to go next. Done shooting in Bishop, CA? I think I’ll head to Moab, UT for the next month and try to find some work there until the weather gets good in Yosemite. It kind of feels like I’m constantly on vacation with no end in sight.
But then there are the days where I’m all alone. Friends have packed up and gone back to work, or I arrive to an area days before anyone I know will be there. I have nowhere to return to and nowhere to go, plus I live in the van by myself. I’m incredibly introverted to start, so instead of seeking company I’ll just hole up and watch the world go by out my front windshield. It’s those moments where I’ll miss Ethan the most and wonder what my life might look like if he were still alive. I see so many of my friends getting married, having kids, buying houses and I wonder if we were on the same trajectory.
Sometimes the view is a brick wall.
Perhaps we were. I’ll never know. Instead, I know that I’m learning to love my new life. I like to think that Ethan left me this one last gift. He made me feel capable and I like to think that I’m still making him smile.
Self-portrait taken 24 hours after finishing the van.