Once upon a time I got in a van in Bozeman, Montana and drove it to Ecuador. Actually, that’s not fair. It wasn’t quite that simple. That trip took eight months, amounted to just over 12,000 miles, and entailed me and three other artists photographing families, travelers, and individuals we met along the way. Moments after capturing those portraits the images were printed out and handed back to the individuals we photographed. We called the project and the gang of misfits the Vanajeros.
After many grand adventures and numerous breakdowns, we pushed the van across the border into Ecuador, convinced customs agents that this was no big deal, and called it a trip. Or at least two of us did. Two of our compatriots, Aidan Lynn-Klimenko and Madison Perrins, continued on. Back in South America, they imported the parts, worked tirelessly, and fixed an engine that we’d deemed un-fixable. They made it as far south as Lima, Peru where they discovered that they’d won Backpacker Magazine’s “Greatest Job Ever” and needed to return to the U.S..
Lynn-Klimenko and Perrins packed their lives on a container ship pointed north. There, they met with sponsors and received a Suburu to travel in, visiting as many national parks as they could before the NPS Centennial Celebration this summer.
Through all of their travels, the duo’s mutual support is unwavering and their relationship prospers. So does their creativity: Madison in her writing and photomontages, Aidan with photos and video. They inspire each other and we, as viewers of their work, are left to reap the benefits.
Currently, on the tail end of their Backpacker Magazine gig the couple made time to chat with me this week about life on the road:
Starting with the beginning of Vanajeros, how long have you guys been living the mobile life?
Madison: Since we put home in our rearview, we’ve been traveling for 639 days (P.S. I didn’t know that figure off the top of my head, I had to look it up.).
Aidan: I like to think of the beginning as the last time I paid rent, back in the early spring of 2014, just about two years ago. That’s about when we took the plunge, got rid of most of our stuff and took to the road.
How has the road changed you, if you were to look at yourself in the beginning of all this, what would you say to that person?
Madison: The road has shown me there is no script. The road has shown me there is no shortage of real passion and feeling and friendship left in the world, or people eager to share the meaning they’ve fashioned for themselves. Our personal relationship to this realization is totally up to us.
Aidan: Man, that’s tough. Honestly I’m not sure there was a ton of change as much as there was room for me to be me. The daily 9 to 5 grind doesn’t give us a chance to be ourselves and to me, that seems pretty unhealthy. Now, that’s not to say living on the road is the easiest thing in the world and that this often romanticized lifestyle is carefree or without its stresses, because that would be a lie. But the things that fill our days and take up our mental space are things that I feel good about at the end of the day and are things that I’m still excited about facing tomorrow. Has living on the road changed me? No, it was being stuck in the ruts of a daily grind that was changing me, and not for the better.
What have been some standout moments?
Madison: Searching for memories of standout moments, there’s one that pops up every time: when three of our four Vanajeros got food poisoning in the same week, and the van broke down in the midst of all the queasy madness. The day the van died, I stood on the opposite side of the road from the motionless hunk of metal, and made sure to film our moment of total misery for our web series (while having perhaps eaten one meal in the past 72 hours). It took the rest of the day and a series of tow trucks to get us to the nearest town. Aidan and Parker were afflicted in the next few days while we were stranded and straight up sleeping in a Colombian mechanic’s shop, which I can assure you is about as unpleasant as it sounds. I think it’s what they call Type II Fun.
Aidan: Hmm… The past two years have been broken into two pretty clear chapters: the drive to South America and then coming home to travel the national parks on an extended project with Backpacker and Subaru. Both have been so different and each with their own special moments, but one I often think about was the feeling of starting our engine up after spending five months stranded in Ecuador, figuring out how to import a replacement engine from the states and installing it with the help of some Ecuadorean friends. The feeling of movement after a long period of stasis, and getting back on the road is one I’ll never forget.
What troubles have popped up that you didn’t expect?
Madison: It’s odd — I think that every kind of trouble you can imagine having is described to you in piecemeal by people who have traveled before: the language barrier, losing your belongings, being robbed, car breaking down, etc, etc. But even with this knowledge, you still feel so damn emotionally unprepared when it happens to you, and often react poorly. I wish that that didn’t happen. There’s all kinds of tropes when you look at a travel stories, and they all seem to exclude responding to high stress situations gracefully. : )
Aidan: There’s always something that’s breaking, or that needs to be fixed, that’s the nature of relying on a piece of machinery daily, especially when it’s a 30-year-old van. Our engine failing down in Ecuador was a really big bummer and I’d be lying if I said we saw it coming. We’ve always had the mentality of “when” rather than “if” it breaks, but I think that’s another aspect of vanlife that is slightly romanticized, because as much as we want to like the idea of approaching breakdowns as an opportunity to get to know our surroundings or to learn a thing or two about mechanics, it sucks, especially when it’s something as big as a blown engine.
Would you recommend a VW to someone trying to get into the Van life game?
Madison: Not necessarily. I would recommend that those looking to get on the road should find the setup that gives them the most ease of living. For some that’s a VW, because it’s a car created to anticipate your needs for living on the road, but I have seen some really enviable setups in other rigs! Especially interiors that’ve been customized with homey touches like wood paneling. It’s interesting to see how everyone’s tried to solve the puzzle in their own way.
Aidan: I love my VW, but they aren’t for the faint of heart. While they have their charm and insanely utilitarian layout, they’re old, which means they’re always seeming to be in a perpetual state of repair, and people want them, which makes them expensive. But, despite what I said about breaking down sucking (which it does), the feeling of fixing whatever it is that broke is extremely rewarding. I didn’t know how to change my own oil before buying my first Vanagon, and while I’m still nowhere near an expert, I have a good understanding of how everything is working and how to fix a lot of what might go wrong, which is a skill I’m really proud of, and something I likely wouldn’t have picked up if I were driving something a little more reliable, like a Sprinter.
That being said, I had the pleasure of camping out in a Sprinter the other night and that thing was sweet! So much room.
Do you have any words of advice for being a couple on the road?
Madison: I get asked this question often but still feel unqualified to answer every time. I don’t think the wisdom for a good relationship dramatically changes when you’re living on the road with a significant other; you still have to be good to each other and to be honest with each other. Something that’s important to me is to make sure my identity doesn’t become subsumed into someone else’s. Though I love my partner and I think together we kick ass, I make sure to remain involved in and seek out stuff that is to my taste and not our collective one.
Aidan: Madison just wrote a piece on this and I think she nailed it on the head. She talks about giving each other space to make mistakes and sort through fixing them on our own. We already share such a small physical space, so making room for some mental space goes a really long way.
Working from the road requires some more time management than people initially think. How has the process of working from the road changed the way you view travel?
Madison: Working on the road can be exhausting, and it’s hard to draw a line between time that belongs to me and time I should be productive. You’re not leaving an office and going home; going back into work mode can happen at the drop of a hat (or ding of the inbox). However, I think I’ve actually had an overhaul of how I view work rather than travel — Americans are forced to work too hard to achieve or maintain a certain standard of living, and at the expense of mental health. The virtues of travel remain the same.
Aidan: For us, working on the road has meant two very different things, which, like all work, comes down to what the job is and what it requires of you. When we were in South America, we were doing personal work, which meant making time each day to focus on whatever we were working on rather than navigating windy mountain roads, talking to the police at checkpoints, or searching for suitable fields or beaches to set up camp. This was nice because we were able do it without changing much of our lifestyle or day-to-day, but it didn’t pay, which wasn’t all that sustainable.
Changes came with our national park job with Backpacker and Subaru, and we accepted them because to us, the opportunities that came with the gig seemed worth those changes. After nine months, we had our last day yesterday and are looking forward to regaining that freedom we had before, but are nervous at the same time because we know (too well) that a lot of that time, that freedom comes at the cost of certain comforts (mainly money).
So, after exploring both ends of the spectrum, I think we have a clearer idea of what a balance between freedom and comfort looks like. Now, we just have to find the gig that supports that.
Luckily vanlife isn’t terribly expensive, and when times get tough, there’s a roof over your head.
Do you miss traveling on your own schedule as opposed to the fixed itinerary?
Madison: I definitely miss traveling on my own schedule! Seeing a planned-out list of locations affects how I enjoy the present moment in an odd way. It tricks me into thinking I need to budget energy, and I can get distracted.
With the new van on the horizon, what does the future hold for you two?
Aidan: While Madison soaks up some time at home and does a little solo traveling, I’ll be joining back up with Backpacker for, what I’m hoping is that medley of freedom and financial comfort: another tour of the national parks under slightly different terms (mainly traveling and living out of the van rather than a station wagon!). After that, who knows! I’d love to get back down to South America and finish up where we left off last year.
Madison: Ah, the future. Our detour back to the U.S. nine months ago was such a curveball, and a lot of South America feels like unfinished business (as we left after visiting just Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru). Vanajeros is still alive and well and has been tied to so much growth, and I see it continuing to offer that to us, its makers, as we share our journey with everyone.