It’s hard not to admire people who take a shot at living the vanlife. It’s also natural to be hyped on extreme athletes finding creative ways to make use of our natural wonders. And who wouldn’t swoon over photographers capturing cultures and lifestyles we all want to know more about? So you can imagine why we were fired up to interview Michael Madsen — a photographer/ videographer/ action sports enthusiast who does all of these things while living the vanlife. The man is a goddamned unicorn.
Madsen and girlfriend Liz Thomas are currently making their way around North America in a 1985 Ford van, known as the Blue Buddha. It’s a part of what they call Project Flowmance, a travel vlog of their “grand adventures, performances, and aerial stunts.” They’re combining their shared loves of highlines and aerial silks with visual storytelling to defy gravity and record some of the most breathtaking images we’ve seen in a long while.
We sat down with Madsen to ask all about the project and what it’s like to be a multi-hyphenate living the vanlife. He told us about the origins of Flowmance, how he came to live in a van, and some of the coolest things he and Liz have experienced so far. We were inspired to find new ways to interact with the world around us. We hope you will be too.
How did you and your girlfriend Liz create Project Flowmance?
Liz and I met three years ago at the GGBY Highline Gathering in Moab, Utah. Liz is always dressed really well and looks really amazing, and she’s such a talented aerialist and highliner. I’ve always gravitated towards capturing images of her while we’re out in the desert. Last year, we met up in Joshua Tree and then I left for the Philippines for about five months this year. When I came back, Liz and I had kind of been talking and wanted to start dating. When I came back into the country, we put up this project together. It naturally evolved ’cause we’re talking about all of the locations we’re gonna hit and what we’re gonna do for just capturing photography.
It evolved into us shooting a video series about it. The series just goes behind the scenes and captures some of these really unique and creative and wild images that we do in these beautiful places. It’s just turned into a fun project for us. It’s already gotten pretty big for us. Our third episode is about us going to Canada for the Squamish Highline gathering. That was a major destination in our trip. We went from Salt Lake City (Liz flew into Salt Lake City, and I picked her up at the Salt Lake City airport) then we headed to the Wanderlust in Squaw Valley. We taught for the YogaSlackers, then we directed up towards Canada for the Squamish Highline gathering.
The idea was to then go all the way to the border of Mexico and get a margarita and reminisce about the whole trip. We’re in California and we started doing some construction for a ropes course building company. We’ve been climbing redwood trees and building ziplines in Santa Cruz for the last month.
When did the trip start?
July 17th. Now that we’re releasing the episodes, I’ve been re-posting some of the photos that go along with the episodes to Instagram.
Did you live in the van prior to this trip?
Yeah, I’ve been in the van for about a year and a half now. As I said, I went to Asia for five months this year. Last year, I also was traveling all over, pretty much that same path. I did Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and then Arizona and Cali, so I was roaming the West all last year.
For the purposes of photography primarily?
No, it was brought out from a divorce. I got a van, finished out shooting at a ski resort, and hit the road. Now it’s hard to stop. It’s very accessible and very addicting to be able to feel at home when you’re finding all these epic places. We can do what we do with highlining and other sports and fly my speed wings. I love the continuous travel, and I’m able to edit on the road too. It’s been able to keep my income coming in. I can work on the road and occasionally swing into a city to do a film job if I need to.
The photographs are unreal. I understand that that’s not like the sum total of your life, but it’s like slacklining, parasailing, paraskiing? Is that a thing? Is that what’s happening in these pictures?
It’s called speed-flying. It’s a paraglider that’s really tiny. We call it speed-flying, and if you’re on snow it’s called speed-riding.
How big would you say the community of people doing these things is?
The community of highlining probably a couple thousand at this point all over the world. A lot of people are getting into highlining. The group of people setting up these big lines is pretty small. With speed-flying, I’d probably put that in about the same category. There may be a few more of them but speed-flying is a very small sport, too.
I’ve seen some slacklining in gorgeous locations on Instagram, but not a ton. I know aerial silks have gotten super popular over the last, what, eight years or something.
Liz was probably the first person to ever rig silks on a highline. She’s been highlining for quite a while and done silks and stuff. We can never be sure what to claim, but she was definitely the first person to do that. I used to shoot for the company AntiGravity in New York City. They pioneered the aerial arts in America, so I have a background of shooting silks.
This has been the ultimate project for merging my two specialties. Scenic landscapes with tiny people doing incredible things I would say is somewhat my specialty.
That is pretty narrow, but you’re clearly killing it. My God these are so amazing to look at. So, the van obviously lends itself to traveling all over to look at these things. I’m actually surprised you have room in the van. In my head, it’s filled entirely with equipment.
Every detail, every space in the van was designed for a specific piece of gear. When you come into the van it is one of the most open vans for a small-sized van that I have ever seen. I feel like I just very strategically put everything in a place and created as much open room as I could while knowing exactly where I needed to fit things. It’s been a little more challenging with Liz, but then we cleared it out and got very specific. It does still feel like a living room. We have a kitchen that slides out in the back, so there’s not really cooking actually happens inside. You open the back doors and this five-foot kitchen slides out with two burners.
We cook every day, every meal. It’s very homey.
I’m excited because, in the first episode of your series, you’re like, “We brought this, and this, and this, and this.” I was like, “Wow, there’s no room for those people in that van.”
Yeah, we’re gonna add a roof rack this week so, big improvements for the van.
How do you wind up in California building a ropes course as part of your journey?
Liz had a background in teaching at ropes courses and was connected with this company. My client-base for film is in Salt Lake, so as a way to re-up on some funds, she had an offer to come to build some rope courses, and I have a long construction background. They took both of us. This company Challenge Works is amazing. They accommodate us in ski resorts when we’re in any town, and it’s kind of a traveling job so we’re still able to live our van life and do this work, which is really fun. It’s just construction — rapelling off ropes and building rope swings. It’s a good combo for us. Actually, it worked out perfectly.
It’s a fairly unconventional life to lead. How do you maintain relationships?
It’s hard to say. I’ve kind of always been a traveler, so I have really close friends in Salt Lake and all over the rest of the country ’cause I’ve lived in so many places. We’re just good about seeing people in person when I’m there. I’m a very in-person socializer, so when I come into town, we meet up and that’s it. I don’t feel like my friends have high expectations of me always communicating, but we have very close relationships. Then, with Liz, we did long distance for a couple of months. Now, we’ve been able to work out how we can be together and do this. It’s been amazing for both of us.
If you are part of a small community that has little hubs, and you’re visiting all those hubs, you’re continually socializing with the same people every couple of years.
Yeah, the highline gatherings are the social events for all the highliners. We all look forward to getting to the festivals, and there’s a lot of festivals now. Also, people in the highlining world will find this beautiful location here there could be a highline rig. What will happen is one of us will call a crew and tell people that we wanna highline with about it, or who have the gear to do it. Some of these lines can be 500 meters long or something. It’s like thousands of feet, so you don’t always have the gear, and it takes quite a few people to do something like that. The lines actually bring a lot of us together for the highlining social aspect.
That makes sense because I’ve interviewed people who do cliff diving and waterfall diving and they do kinda the same thing, that they travel in like crews and they all go together and hang out for the day and jump.
In Salt Lake, there’s probably 50 speed flyers, and about 15 of them are really active. When we know the weather’s good, our friends will post online. We have a group chat, and that’s how all the speed flyers get together. We go climb a mountain, and then we all fly off together. All the sports kind of have their little social gatherings. I don’t really spend much time with people outside of the sports area that we’re actually participating in.
You’ve been on all of these really amazing adventures. What have been some of your favorites? I’m sure they’re all amazing and it’s like picking your favorite child but just a couple.
In the second episode in our series, we are at Sahalie Falls. It was a beautiful location, and it was so easy to rig. It was with three girls who’ve all been friends for a while, so it was just an easy day and a beautiful location. That was one of my favorites of this trip. Just to have the small crew. Sometimes the gatherings can be pretty wild, and it takes a lot of energy to be around so many people sometimes.
For people who haven’t seen the episode yet, can you explain just a little more about what happened at Sahalie Falls?
A Sahalie Falls, we went up to the waterfall and rigged an 88-foot short line that went right over the crest of the waterfall. Then, we rigged a 180-foot line out from that. We basically were able to both walk and play on the different lines. Then, Liz rigged her aerial silks off of the short one, right beside the waterfall. I rolled out onto the long line, so I could get this vantage point of her right beside the waterfall. We were able to capture these beautiful shots of her on the silks, and she had her gorgeous white silks with the white waterfall. It was just so green from all the vegetation. It made a really nice color palette.
I did split my shin open really bad. I slipped on the rocks while I was down shooting. That caused me some pain for quite a few weeks. It went all the way to the bone. I think I chipped my bone in my shin. It took some serious recovery, and Liz had to massage my leg almost every day ’cause I was in super bad pain. My leg was seizing up. When I did get to finally walk on the line, you can see that my shin is covered in blood.
That was one of the favorites. If I was to pick another two, after Canada we were driving down the Pacific Coast Highway and Liz saw a possible spot in Oregon. She just looks out the window and was like, “I think I can rig a highline there.” I just pull over and we walk out on this trail for about a quarter mile to the coast and there’s this perfect gap that’s about 400 feet. It’s probably 100 meters or 100 yards off of the water. It’s this beautiful cover called Devils Cauldron, and we ended up rigging a highline there. It was just so beautiful.
Then, we were there a few days. We got more beautiful silk shots with the sunset. On the last day, a gray whale came into that cove, right under the highline. It goes and feeds in the sand and pulls up the sand and then goes to the surface and blows all the sand out of its blowhole and feeds on sand crabs. We watched this whale feeding in there for like an hour right under the highline. Whales are Liz’s favorite animal, so she was so stoked on that. That’s in episode five. We have awesome footage of the whale. You see a shot of the whale in the trailer.
How much longer are you guys gonna be on the road doing this?
There’s really no end. We’ve got our festivals. We’re gonna be around California working, then we’ve got our festivals at Thanksgiving and New Years. Sounds like we may go to Brazil in March, but yeah, we’re just going with it. Just going with the flow.
And you have a Patreon, right?
Yeah. People have actually reached out to us and wanted to donate to the cause, ’cause it’s a lot of work. Liz’s mom is our biggest fan, so she’s tried to help at any time. People have offered, so we kind of created this as another way to keep doing it.