“You always know you’re going somewhere cool when the pavement ends.”
Those words come from Tom Green — comedian, movie star, TV host, podcaster, and recent #vanlifer — and were spoken while wandering the Chaco Canyon ruins. They get right to the heart of why travel feels eternally significant and why we love to talk about it. Even when many of us are still mostly homebound.
Green, of course, is best known as a cult comedy legend. The power of The Tom Green Show and Freddy Got Fingered in the mid-1990s and early aughts was so seismic that you either became a ride-or-die fan or you turned away. But Green was always more than a shock comedian. He dropped his first rap album back in ’92, spent the early 2000s popping up in blockbusters (like playing The Chad in Charley’s Angels), and has been interviewing people/doing comedy on the internet since long before anyone knew what a podcast was.
By the time the 2010s rolled around, Green had become a comedic institution — underscored (for me, at least) when he popped up playing himself on the Canadian cult masterpiece Trailer Park Boys. Add in decades of stand-up touring, filmmaking, podcasting, and traveling the world and it’s clear that the man has had one hell of a career. Better yet, one hell of a life.
Over the past year, Green has been finding a way to bring all his loves together in one place while on the road. After the pandemic hit, the Canadian-turned-Californian found himself going stir crazy at home. To break the tension of life in lockdown, he set out into the wilderness to follow his twin passions for travel and photography. Green fitted out a van for podcasting, loaded up a few cameras, got himself a dog, and set his sights on the American Southwest.
On his trip, the multi-hyphenate documented his #vanlife adventures on his Instagram feed, Twitter, and adapted his YouTube channel to specifically highlight his travel videography while shining a spotlight on some of America’s wild spaces. He also scored tons of material for a podcast on Audio Up, aptly titled Van Life with Tom Green.
Last week, with Green back in his L.A. home for a short spell, we got a chance to talk with him about his adventures. The conversation dove deep into the practicalities of life on the road, taking photos, and what it’s like out there during a pandemic.
What was the thing you were least expecting when you first started? Something you maybe had to overcome living on the road?
Well, I can tell you the thing that I was least expecting, but it’s not something I’ve necessarily had to overcome. It’s been a positive thing that I was least expecting. I would say that any of the things that I’ve had to overcome, I’ll be honest with you, I anticipated those things before I left because I’m a pretty meticulous planner when it comes to stuff like this. I’ve spent enough time out in nature over the years that I pretty much knew what the pitfalls and problems would be: Whether it was getting stuck in the mud or not having cell service or getting lost or running out of food or whatever. So I had all those contingencies planned for.
What I really was not expecting was the sheer amount of mysterious and amazing places in the American Southwest that I had no idea existed and did not know were there and had never heard of.
As soon as I started really traveling over the last six months, out into the desert, and really zooming in on the Google maps and looking at different wilderness areas or national forests and national parks, I started realizing, “wow, there’s just so much country. There are so many back areas of this country, in the world for that matter, and they’re just not heard of.” And I thought I heard of everything, but then you really look between all the places that you’ve heard of, and there are other places between those places that are incredibly huge forests, incredibly huge deserts, unbelievably mysterious and unexpected archeological sites, Native American ruins, ghost towns, all sorts of incredible pieces of history that are out there in the middle of nowhere, just waiting to be explored and photographed.
And for me, being somebody that loves photography, it’s been a real eye-opener. I thought I knew a lot of this stuff to begin with and I’m finding myself surprised every day. “Whoa, what’s this? I’ve never heard of that!”
Right. Can you give us an example?
So a good example would be Chaco Canyon. I don’t know if you’ve seen that video on my YouTube channel, but I went to this called “Lost Ancient City” and it’s an American Pueblo ruin from the Pueblo people. It was built in the year 750 and was inhabited until the year 12- or 1300 or so. It’s a pre-Colombian stone city in the middle of the most beautiful canyon you’ve ever seen.
And you sit there and you look around and you say yourself, “How the hell did I not know this was here?” This is insane that I did not know about this. That I’ve not heard about this. That it’s not talked about as much if not more than Machu Picchu or the Mayan pyramids we hear about that all the time — why are we not hearing about this all the time?
And there’s a lot of other stuff like that out there in the American Southwest, certainly. It’s just so incredibly interesting and beautiful. That’s what surprised me the most: The number of places that I just had not heard of. And every time I find a new place, then three more things get alerted to me. It’s interesting when you’re posting this stuff online as I travel around, you’ll have people regionally say, “Well, have you been here? Have you been here?” And then it’s like, “Oh geez, I didn’t even know about that.” So the audience online is really helping point out some really unique and interesting places for me that I haven’t been to yet, that I now have on my list to go next.
You’re about to go out the road again. When you are getting ready to go, what are the sort of things you’re looking at? Are you planning an end destination and an end time for your trip? Are you just letting it be and going with the flow?
Well, so right now my home is in Los Angeles. I’ve lived here for 20 years. I’ve been in this house for 18 years. I’ve done Webovision here. This is my home base and I got this van last year because I wanted to go do some photography of the wilderness and find a way to occupy myself during this pandemic and do something and get out of the house, basically, as I live alone. I’m single. I don’t have kids. I was getting a little bit, as it is for everybody, it was getting really weird for me. I needed to do something to occupy my mind in a way so I wouldn’t basically go crazy.
Not sure if that’s worked, but time will tell whether I’ve gone crazy. But the point is, it’s been an amazing experience and I’m loving it.
Let’s talk a little bit about your photography because it’s really engaging and, as you said, you’re going places that a lot of people haven’t heard of. Has photography been a passion for you for a long time, or was this something new? And what are you using out there?
It’s been something that I’ve loved since college, actually. When I was in college, I studied television broadcasting in Ottawa, Canada, and there was a photography course. Part of what was helpful in learning about video was learning about the basics of photography. And we did a basic photography course, and I excelled in that course. My photography teacher really encouraged me because they realized I had a real eye for photography and I was pretty excited about that, because I found I really enjoyed it. But then also I found that I was okay at doing it.
I’ve always had a love of film as well. So I’m shooting film photography as well. I’m shooting on a Leica M6 and I shoot on Kodak and Ilford film out in the desert and black and white film. And that’s been cool. And with the drone, I’m shooting video, but it’s very cinematic like I’m composing jots of landscapes and unique places and wilderness areas and mountains, deserts. So for me, I’ve been thrilled to be able to go find these photographs.
As I’m driving around or traveling around or hiking around, my eye is always looking around for interesting shots and I get a lot of pleasure out of that. I’ve always liked documenting my travels with a still camera. I have done it for a long time. At my house in Los Angeles, I’ve got certain rooms where I display a lot of my photography that I’ve done over the years that I’ve shot in Africa or Canada or the Middle East.
And now, these newer mirrorless cameras that are really beautiful and have interchangeable lenses, they’ve been around for a while. But in the last year or so, they’ve come out with cameras that are really a game-changer for somebody like myself who wants to film themselves because of certain autofocus features and functions. It makes it much easier for me to be able to turn the camera around on myself or put it on a tripod and stand in front of it because it’ll focus on my eyes and things like that stuff.
This is the first time really in my career as a video/TV comedian that I’ve been able to really truly combine my love of photography and my love of storytelling and my love of traveling and all of these things, because I can actually film myself with a lot fewer complications than if I didn’t have some of these new functions that are on these cameras that are really, really pretty amazing. So it’s been a lot of fun learning about it all.
Can you talk about the companionship of having somebody with you out there on the road, in your case Charley the dog?
I absolutely would not be able to do this if I didn’t have Charley with me. It would be impossible. It would just be too lonely. And it’s amazing how the companionship of a dog actually really does make a big difference.
I got Charley about four months ago, I suppose, maybe five. I didn’t have Charley for the first half of this pandemic. I had two Huskies for years, but they passed away four years ago. I’ve been petless, dogless for the last four years. And I was very isolated and it was not, I think, very healthy to be completely alone. So I rescued Charley. She’s a rescue dog who’s from The Bahamas.
She was brought into San Diego by a rescue there, and I was lucky enough to get her and she’s been the best dog, and she’s really a great travel companion. She loves it out in nature. She loves going on our walks. She loves sitting up in her booster seat in front of the van and looking out the window and it’s just been great.
And also, she’s a funny dog. She’s a great character. People love Charley. So she’s also somebody for me to document myself, another character in our little journey. And my whole journey is themed in some ways after John Steinbeck’s novel, Travels with Charley in Search of America. I named Charley after the dog in that book — in which John Steinbeck went and traveled around in the sixties in a camper van before people were doing that. And he and his dog went off on the road and went on a series of adventures and discovered America and explored America. So that’s what we’re doing now.
I really dig that. So let’s talk a little bit about the podcast. You were way, way, way ahead of this game obviously. You’re doing it from your van, right? You have a studio built into the back?
Yeah, absolutely. I’ve been building the foundation of everything technically. So starting next week, you’re going to start to see more of the visual side of the podcast too. Obviously, when you watch a lot of podcasts, you just watch people on video doing their podcast. So I wanted to do mine from the van so that I could make that more of a visually unique experience, as opposed to me just sitting in front of a wall or whatever.
I’m heading back out into the desert tomorrow and I’ll be gone for another month or so. I’m going to begin filming myself doing the podcast, which up till now, I’ve just been doing the audio side of it. But you’re going to be able to start watching some of that clips on the YouTube channel. And then you can go to Van Life with Tom Green and listen to the entire interview on Audio Up and on all the other podcast platforms.
Right on. There’s always been a fairly big community of people traveling around in the way that you do. With the pandemic being what it is, have you been able to dip into any of these communities of van lifers or RVers or just nomads out in the Southwest? Or has it been more standoffish and separated given the current situation?
Yeah. I definitely had some great conversations with people out there, just when you’re in a unique isolated place and you see another van similar to yours or an RV, and they’re camping out in the area. I’ve had moments where I’ve had lots of nice talks and interactions with people.
I haven’t really been filming it so much yet. I’ve been more focusing on just the audio side of the podcast where I’ve been basically talking to people that have been calling me and talking to me on the phone while I’m in the van. But as things start to improve, then the intention, for sure, is to start talking to more people that I encounter along the way and making that part of the journey as well.
There are so many cliches around travel. I am a travel writer. I’ve been traveling for most of my life and blah, blah, blah. In that world, you hear a lot about “people finding themselves on the road” or “searching for some truth or something or other.” But cliches are cliches for a reason. You do find truths on the road and you do learn about yourself out there. My question is not so much what have you learned but more about what do you think you are going to be able to impart thanks to these travels?
Well, I think that even though I’ve traveled the world and been very fortunate to have seen so many amazing places in my career as a stand-up comedian and doing television and films over the years. I’ve been to… I forget. I’ve lost track of how many countries I’ve been to.
That’s a good number. “I lost track.”
Yeah. I think it’s something like 60 or something like that. I forget. I could count, but I always forget how many it is.
It’s all good.
But it’s enough. And I love seeing new places. To me, it’s a big part of the enjoyment of my life, just to see new places and discover new things and travel is such a great way of doing that. So finding myself on this van trip in our own backyard here in America, being able to get in a van and drive four, five, six, seven, ten, 12 hours out into the middle of the country, I am finding myself consistently surprised every day by all of these amazing things that I’m finding. And if I’m surprised, then I think that the audience is going to be surprised too.
I really have a strong attachment with the people that come along for the ride with me: My viewers, social media followers, friends and fans, and all the people who are following along with what I’ve done for almost 30 years now. And I really want to show people some cool shit. I want to go explore and discover some amazing and magical things myself and then I want to share that with the audience.
That’s what really makes it worth doing because I’m not out there all alone. I’m bringing people along to these really cool places.