Road Work: Living and Coding in a Van

February 28, 2019 – by Matt

In the fall of 2016, I joined a friend and a group of strangers on a trip to the Red River Gorge. Located in east-central Kentucky, the Red is one of the best rock climbing spots the country. Having climbed exclusively in Chicago gyms, this trip changed my life. For one, my travelmates became some of my closest friends. In fact, I fell in love with one of them (more on her later). It was also my first exposure to climbing culture and the "dirtbag" lifestyle. I saw people living out of their vans, Subaru Outbacks and school buses, traveling around the country from crag to crag to live and breathe climbing full-time. I was inspired.

Back then #vanlife was still a new thing. I researched the hell out of it and it seemed to scratch several of my current itches. Being outside, hiking, camping, traveling, and now climbing—I would daydream about them all. After a trip I'd dive right back into planning for the next one.

January 2017 I started searching for a van and by the first week of February I found one. A 2004 Freightliner Sprinter 2500 I named Susanne (after a Weezer song), she was a beauty. I spent all my free time working on her, either on the street in front of my Noble Square apartment, or in the parking lot of Home Depot. I didn't have much experience with wood working and no experience with cars. But with a little head-start from the previous owners, and a lot of trial and error, I built an interior that I was really proud of and could definitely see a future living in it comfortably.

Early work on the inside of the van, adding Peel & Seal to the wheel wells for sound deadening and insulation.

The next step was to convince Dawn to allow me to continue to work for Firebelly. It'd been years since an employee worked remotely, so I was nervous about the conversation. I'd spent months working towards this big life change, but Firebelly had been such a major part of my life and career. I didn't want to sacrifice my dream job for my dream lifestyle. It turned out that she didn't need much convincing. I don't recall Dawn's exact words, but she essentially said, "I would never want to stop you from pursuing a dream, and we want you here at Firebelly, so we'll figure out a way to make it work."

That was huge for me. It meant I was going to be able to give this thing a try and remain employed, and I had the confidence and support of Dawn and the rest of the team at Firebelly. At the end of April I moved out of my apartment and into the van, but stayed in Chicago for the month as a trial period for remote work. Things went pretty well (except for a minor setback involving Susanne's engine that cost couple grand). On June 10th, 2017 I finally hit the road.

Some dishes drying in the kitchen/dining room/living room/office.

I've been living and traveling in my van with my girlfriend Lydia (from that life-changing trip), ever since, with a couple of months here and there spent back in Chicago. So with almost two years under my belt I'd like to share a few lessons that I've taken from life on the road—lessons I hope to apply to my life even when we inevitably move out of the van and into a stationary home.

Flexibility is Golden

Susanne broke down in the middle of the Mojave Dessert and had to be towed to Barstow, California.

Living on the road means every day is filled with lots of unknowns. Where are we going to park for the night? Is it legal? Is it safe? Where will we work tomorrow? Is there reliable wifi there? Where will we park when we're working? What are we going to make for lunch? What are we going to make for dinner? Where will we take a shower? Where are we heading next? You get the point. If we allowed the amount of unknowns we face each day to stress us out, then we'd always be anxious and probably quite unhappy.

On our way to a trailhead to park for the night in Slade, Kentucky we were stopped by an enormous tree that had recently fallen across the road. Luckily Aaron, the man in the truck in front of us, lived a mile up the road and had a chainsaw.

Remaining flexible and knowing that decisions don't have to be perfect is how we've survived (and are still happy doing it). Most days we wake up not knowing where we'll sleep that night— and sometimes it takes an hour to find a good spot. Living this way has taught me a lot about patience and acceptance. We can't know all that is to come, and the best we can do is approach each unknown with an open mind and heart.

Talk to Strangers

Talking to a man at an REI in Austin lead us to hiking the South Ridge Trail at Big Bend National Park about a month later, where we ran into that same man leading a group of hikers.

Our third day on the road we worked from Wall Drug in Wall, South Dakota. If you've ever driven down highway 90 through Eastern Wyoming or South Dakota then you've seen the billboards advertising this legendary landmark/tourist trap. Hopefully you stopped and experienced the magic. I was working on my laptop at a picnic table in the back and an older man with a cane asked if he could sit down on the bench next to me to rest. As he sat and ate one of their famous 89 cent doughnuts we started chatting a bit and when I told him we were heading west, but didn't really know where he said that we had to stop at Sylvan Lake in The Black Hills. We didn't have any better plans, so we did, and it ended up being one of our favorite places that we visited (and have revisited it once again almost a year later). Some of our most cherished experiences have been things that we've done on the recommendation of someone we met while on the road.

Chatting with a thru-hiking named Douglas, on what was supposed to be a leisurely backpacking weekend in Glacier National Park, lead me to joining him in summiting Carter Peak, which ended up being one of the most taxing but memorable hikes I've been on.

Taking a chance on a stranger's recommendation is probably a lot easier when you're living this kind of lifestyle, because you aren't restricted to a limited amount of time like you might be if you were taking a week off of work to travel. But I think being open to the suggestions of people you meet, or even just being open to talking to people you don't know in the first place is a really great practice that in my experience has turned out to be worth it more times than not.

Being Happy Outside of Work Makes Being Happy at Work Easier

Rock climbing in Boulder Canyon, happy as a clam.

And being happy at work makes being happy outside of work easier. It works both ways. I feel that part of the reason I was able to indulge in this fantasy lifestyle to begin with was that I already felt very fulfilled at work. It allowed me to spend energy on things other than how to cope with an unsatisfying job. And now that I've prioritized the things in my life that make me feel the most fulfilled outside of work, most days I start work feeling like I'm refreshed and ready to tackle the challenges that lie ahead.

Lydia climbing at the Red River Gorge in Kentucky, which is one of those places that makes me happier just being there.

Spending more time doing the things that make me happy has had such a positive impact on my energy and attitude towards work, relationships and just about every other aspect of my life. Living this lifestyle has allowed me to dedicate so much of my free time to the things that make me happy, and now that I've been able to see how valuable that is I want to maintain that dedication to those things, even when my lifestyle changes.


Our parking spot for the night along highway 12 near Escalante, Utah.
Susanne in Half Dome Village at Yosemite National Park, California.
Susanne among the Redwoods in Big Sur, California.

Typeforce X Process Vol. 3: The Final Countdown

February 20, 2019 – by Tom

This past week was the home stretch for building out the TFX window installation. With all the wood forms assembled, we burnt through a ton of solder to wire up all the LED strips for lighting. While tedious, the lighting came together without a hitch. 

Everything was smooth sailing until we got to installation. Originally we planned on building pedestals for each of the 20 forms. What were we thinking? That would just take too long. Then we considered building a few long benches, tiered into steps like bleacher seats. That idea too got scrapped—they’d block the view, hold too much visual weight, and failed to reflect the light to our liking.

We finally landed on (forgive the phrase) building a wall. Eight by eighteen feet and painted black, it’d allow us to hang all 20 forms on the same plane. The design required the ability to build it at Firebelly HQ, dismantle for transport and reassemble seamlessly in the gallery window.

Of course, we still wanted to challenge ourselves with how the wall's construction. Not satisfied with a simple butt joint to piece together the plywood, we cut lap joints with the table router. This method blocks light from shining through the seam between the pieces. A few coats of black paint pulls it all together.

Everything's done and ready for opening night, February 22. See you then!

Typeforce X Process Vol. 2: Electric Boogaloo

February 13, 2019 – by Will

This past week we've been in assembly line mode. Our piece for this year's Typeforce involves a wood form repeated many times, but due to its complexity, this means lots and lots of cuts.

After making a single prototype to prove the idea, we spent a bunch of time getting the set-up right: making jigs, building tools and buying way more clamps than we expected. Only after everything was dialed-in did we start production.

We had a huge amount of material to cut—so much we often couldn’t get finished in one work session. In addition to ensuring accuracy, having a strong set-up meant that we could easily hand off tasks, one person jumping in where another left off.

We wanted to avoid using nails or waiting for glue to dry, so we used finger joints locked together with a dowel. Everything went smoothly until we hit the lap joint at the middle of the unit. At first we made the cut with a handheld router, but this wasn’t accurate enough. We solved this by building a jig for the CNC router, which gave us spot-on results every time.

After a bunch of nights and part of the weekend, we’re finally done constructing all the forms. We’re feeling good that things are on-schedule so we can avoid emergencies in the final hour. Next step: fire up the soldering irons for the lighting elements.

Typeforce X Process Vol. 1: A Gorilla Walks Into a Bar...

February 4, 2019 – by Will

A creative idea (whether writing a gorilla joke or a creating a design) often starts with a premise and then thrives within constraints. That gorilla in the bar—what if she’s carrying a dozen eggs? Now we have to incorporate the eggs into the joke. Maybe she’s really into pisco sours, who knows, it’s a constraint that also gives us direction.

Client work is like that gorilla in a bar: it comes with its own premise and constraints. But when we design something for the annual Typeforce show it’s a very different animal. It’s a blank Illustrator artboard staring back at us. We can do anything, we have no constraints, which can really send us designers into a panic. So what do we do? We make up our own constraints.

This is the tenth anniversary of Typeforce. We’re always looking to outdo our previous work, but given this milestone, we’re looking to go all-out. This piece has to somehow represent both this show, and the accumulation of all the past shows. A decade in, we also want this Typeforce to be future-oriented: what ideas are still to come?

Clearly this thing has to be big. One lesson we’ve learned is that when scaling up, precision is key, otherwise at some point you might realize stuff won’t fit together. Add a material with unknown properties and you can end up with more problems, like the plaster that wouldn’t dry for Typeforce 8. This year, we’re developing a scalable system that we can reproduce consistently.

Typeforce 8 Making
Typeforce 8 was right down to the wire, waiting for the plaster to dry

Here’s another goal: produce a well-made artifact. We admit to solving last-minute problems with gaffer tape in years past. However, we saved the best of those same pieces and they now grace the walls of our office. So this year we want to make something beautiful but also solid—an heirloom piece. Luckily, we have some sweet new tools in our shop to assist us.

Introducing: the Shapeoko XXL CNC router. This handsome devil is many things, but we’re attracted to its power and accuracy. We've already tested its capabilities with some personal projects and we’re excited push it further. You know that saying, when you have a hammer all your problems look like nails? Well when you have a new CNC router, all material decisions look like WOOD.

We’re not sure exactly what we’re building yet (client work always comes first). But we’re confident now that we’ve committed to a few choices it’ll all work out by February 22. We’ll keep you posted on any progress here.

Feeding the Firebelly

January 4, 2019 – by Emily

Food is love. What better way to show we care than with food? We offer it in times of need: to new neighbors, to the sick, to parents of newborn babies. We gather over meals in the midst of grief and celebration alike. And we reconnect at the end of a long day of work or school around the table with our loved ones.  

Here at Firebelly it’s my job to cook freshly-made lunches to our staff (and sometimes clients and lucky visitors including my 8-year old on occasion) every day. Free meals made by an in-house chef is a unique perk for a company of our size, so why do we do it? From a practical perspective, feeding our employees saves them time and money and takes a basic need off their plate, freeing them to do their best work. It’s a way to care for the whole person. On a deeper level, sharing our midday meal together brings us closer. It makes us more of a family. And when we invite clients and guests to our table, they too become part of our Firebelly family.

Folks here occupy a wide spectrum of dietary choices: omnivore, vegetarian, pescatarian, flexitarian, vegan, gluten-free, mushroom-free, even raw onion intolerant. To accommodate everyone, the meals I make are always vegetarian with a vegan option (with offending mushrooms, raw onions, etc on the side). I’ve found even the most passionate of carnivores can enjoy a plant-based meal, but you can’t flip it and expect everyone to be happy.

Cornmeal crusted tofu po' boys

I am not vegan or even vegetarian, but my culinary values and skills align with what I get to do in the Firebelly kitchen every week: whole foods, lots of vegetables and everything from scratch. I love learning new culinary techniques and tricks, and vegan cuisine is chock full of them. For instance, I had never made seitan, vegan ricotta, vegan peanut butter cookies or cashew sauce before coming here. Now not only are they staples in the Firebelly lineup, I make them at home for my family as well.

Mongolian "beef"

I get a lot of questions about how I put together the weekly menus. Planning daily meals for 17 people can be a juggling act, so I made some tools and strategies to help me. Spreadsheets organize and track everything: ingredients I’ve stockpiled, who’s in the office on any given day and a calendar of every meal I’ve ever cooked here. I try to rotate the star ingredients and mix up flavors and cuisines so we aren’t having Mexican three days in a row or tofu in every meal for a week. Sometimes I have to switch it up when my grocery delivery is late or subs the wrong ingredient, but that’s part of the fun of cooking—being creative and adapting.

Squash soup

For inspiration there’s an ever-changing stack of cookbooks on my desk. Veganomicon, Food 52 Vegan and the Moosewood cookbooks are some of my favorites. I very rarely follow a recipe exactly—I use them as a starting point to tweak and edit to make something that is my own. But if I’m in a slump I flip through the pages and usually find something new or a reminder to bring back an ingredient I haven’t used in a while. I also flip through plenty of non-vegan cookbooks for recipes I can imagine veganizing, as well as restaurant menus and of course, the internet. Culinary inspiration is everywhere if you are open to it.

I feel incredibly lucky to be the person feeding the Firebelly—it’s the perfect way to express appreciation for my colleagues. And I’ve noticed how everyone responds to eating a homemade meal together. There’s an emotional connection when someone puts the energy, thought and time into providing you with delicious sustenance. And when you eat a meal with your coworkers, you can’t help but grow closer. Every day we sit around the kitchen island, taking a break from client work to talk about our lives and share stories as we break bread and serve each other seconds. That’s the magic of food: you put love into it and it makes more love.

Hungry? You can see everything we ate on our Feeding the Firebelly Instagram account.

Vegan Peanuttiest Peanut Butter Birthday Cookies

Makes about 4 dozen cookies

Prep time: 15 minutes

Baking time: 12 minutes

If you are lucky enough to work at Firebelly, you get to choose which kind of freshly baked vegan cookies to have on your birthday. This recipe is one of our favorites.


  • 1 ½ cups dry roasted unsalted peanuts, divided (dry roasted is important for a super peanutty flavor!)
  • 1 ½ cups all purpose flour
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • ½ tsp baking powder
  • ½ tsp kosher salt
  • 1 cup all-natural peanut butter, room temp
  • ½ cup vegan butter, room temp (I use Earth Balance Vegan Buttery Sticks)
  • ½ cup granulated sugar
  • ½ cup light brown sugar
  • ¼ cup unsweetened almond milk (or any other non-dairy milk you like)
  • ½ tsp vanilla extract (you may also use vanilla almond milk and omit the extract)
  • flaky sea salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line two cookie sheets with parchment paper.

Roughly chop 1 cup of the peanuts - you want varying sizes of peanut chunks, including some whole nuts for the peanuttiest texture and flavor.

Combine flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt. In another bowl, cream together the peanut butter, butter and both sugars until smooth. I use a rubber spatula and press the mixture against the side of the bowl to incorporate it thoroughly but you could use an electric hand mixer or Kitchenaid for this step if it pleases you. Add the almond milk and vanilla (you could also just use vanilla flavored almond milk and omit the vanilla extract) and stir thoroughly to combine. Next add the dry ingredients, one third at a time, folding with a rubber spatula. Once all of the flour is incorporated, fold in the peanuts.

Using a tablespoon, portion the dough into 1 tbsp portions and roll with your hands balls. Space the soon-to-be cookies two inches apart on the prepared cookie sheet and press each ball down slightly with your palm to flatten. Sprinkle with flaky sea salt and press an extra peanut or two on top if you’re feeling extra nutty.

Bake the cookies for 12 minutes until the cookies look dry and the edges just barely start to brown, rotating the pans halfway through. Remove from the oven and let cool for 2-3 minutes before removing from the sheet pan.

Enjoy these warm love filled cookies with your colleagues, friends and family within 3-4 days, if they last that long.

Tip: You can freeze the slightly flattened balls of dough for the future and bake straight from the freezer! Just add a minute or two to your baking time!