Work

Road Work: Living and Coding in a Van

Feb 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.

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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.