Life

Insight About America From A Writer Living The Van Life


Almost two years ago Brent Rose decided to change his life in a drastic way. He was moving on after a long-term relationship ended and didn’t really know where to go next. Rose rolled the dice, took out an auto loan, called in his favors, and chose the open road as his new home. Travel became the cornerstone of his life. He became one of “The Mad Ones.”

We sat down with Rose to talk about the realities and costs of starting life over on the road, living like a 21st century technocrat in a van, what he’s learned about America pre-Trump, and what he hopes to find in America post-Trump.

Oh, and there’s also a story about surviving a mountain lion! Enjoy!

Let’s start off with your story and how you ended up in the van life?

It was basically the result of a big breakup, essentially, which I imagine is probably not totally uncommon. I was in a relationship for six and a half years, and we lived together for five of those years, spanning both New York and LA, and then after kind of decided that we were going in separate ways, so we split. It was a pretty amicable as far as things go, but it was a big one.

I was driving up north in a U-Haul full of all of my stuff trying to figure out what I was going to do next with my life, and basically, I was thinking I don’t know that I want to be married to just LA or just to San Francisco or anywhere. I want to be able to travel. I want to be able to be spontaneous, and I was like, ‘oh, if only I could live out of a U-Haul. I don’t really want to live out of a U-Haul. How could I do this?’ I started thinking about the van thing.

You were already working full time as a writer at this point?

I was writing for Gizmodo, and so I pitched it to Gawker Media’s ad sales department, and they loved it. They pitched it to a major car company, and they loved it. They said, “We’re pretty sure we want it, but just give us a second and we’ll figure it out.” They kept us dangling for five months, and then bailed.

By that point, I had decided that I was going to do it no matter what. I basically sold a bunch of stuff. I took out a loan. I bought the van. I called in a bunch of favors and stuff like that and got it all kitted out with a lot of crazy technology. I finally hit the road.

Let’s break that down a little. Can you give us a quick ballpark of what it means to put a van together and the real costs of living on the road?

There are so many ways to do it. Mine was more on the high-end because I knew I was going to be full-timing it and I knew that my job has a lot of power requirements and technological needs. I knew, honestly, I wanted it to be comfortable and I wanted it to be a house. I think mine is probably a little bit cushier than most other setups. That said, I still got mine used — just one previous owner and it only had 35,000 miles on it.

If you’re willing to and you trust yourself with mechanical repairs, you can certainly get an older van with more mileage on it for well under $15,000. Then it’s just a matter of what kind of additions you want to make. You can get an old camper for $15,000 to $20,000 too.

With mine I knew I was going to be paying more upfront. I average about 19 to 20 miles to the gallon (for gas mileage). Which is pretty light considering the size of it and all the conveniences, whereas if you’re getting an older one, you’re paying less upfront, but gas mileage may be more in the ballpark of 10 miles to the gallon.

If you have the skills, it’s a great hobby. You can build as you go. You don’t have to have everything from day one.

It is. It can be an obsession, honestly. Some people really, really go all out and do lots of very fine woodwork. For me, mine was already converted into an RV, essentially, even though it’s a Sprinter van. Then for me it was more about customizing it for work and play. I really needed to up the amount of available power, and the ways of getting power. I needed to add wifi and a signal booster and stuff like that as well.

How’d it feel going from home life to road life?

I’d been doing this very stable, very nested thing for a while. I wanted to see what the opposite of that feels like — to embrace the chaos and to have almost zero predictability in my life. Let’s see how that feels. Once I know what those two extremes feel like, I’ll figure out where on the spectrum feels like the right place for me.

And?

Mostly, it felt really good. It’s been more than a year and a half now. It was originally supposed to be a one year road trip, and now it’s been coming up on 19 months. Mostly it’s been a really good experience. Mostly I’ve really enjoyed it. That’s not to say that there haven’t been times where it’s been overwhelming loneliness and certainly some existential crises, like ‘holy crap, what am I doing with my life right now? Am I really living in a van here?’

There are ups and downs, certainly, but overall, I’ve really enjoyed the freedom and the constant stream of novelty that it’s brought me.

You’re self-funded so you have to work on the road. What’s your work day like?

Honestly, in some ways it hasn’t changed that much from when I was working from home. I’ve been freelance for about four or five years, so I was already working from home and setting my own schedule. This is essentially the same thing. It’s just that my home is parked somewhere else every day. It’s all self-funding, and I’m always just selling stories from the road, and some of the stories have to do with where I’m at and the van thing. Most of the stories have nothing to do with it at all, which is what I was doing before.

I will say the one thing that can be a little bit tricky is that because you’re somewhere new every day — especially if you’re really going after it and put a lot of miles under the wheels — then it’s really hard to stay inside and work when you know there’s an adventure right outside your door. You’re in some strange place. There are foods you’ve never tried before out there. There are places you’ve never seen. That’s a constant siren song pulling away from your work and making you want to procrastinate.

More or less, you buckle down and you get your job done like you have to, but every now and then you’re so pulled by some amazing place. When I was in New Orleans, I found it really tough to get much work done just because there was so much going on and so much to do and I wanted to eat the entire city.

Let’s get into a little more of the travel adventure stuff. What’s been your favorite leg of your journey?

I’ve been zigzagging a lot all over the country, and some places I’ve overlapped, and some places have been totally new. I will say the Dakotas were surprisingly wonderful in my eyes. I really love both North and South Dakota, specifically the national parks there. South Dakota Badlands National Park just blew my mind. There’s something about the Badlands, that type of topography, that I found so mesmerizing. It’s enabled me to do a lot of really cool night photography, long exposure type work — milky Way photography and stuff like that.

And then up north, Roosevelt National Park I really, really loved a lot. I saw a lot of wildlife. I had a mountain lion encounter in the middle of the night while I was hiking by myself in North Dakota. That was one of the most frightening moments in my entire life.

I gotta hear that story.

I parked in the north station part of Roosevelt National Park, and there was this trail that looked pretty sketchy. There were all these signs saying it’s one of the more difficult trails in the whole park system. But I was confident, maybe a little to much… I threw a sleeping bag in a backpack and my little air mattress thing, and my plan was to hike down into this canyon, taking pictures along the way. I’d spend the night three miles in by the river, and then hike back out in the morning.

So I’m hiking down starting about 10 PM, and I knew I only had a couple hours before the moon would rise.I’m going down, and I’m taking pictures, but I keep losing the trail every 50 yards or so. It’s really poorly marked and it’s dark. Finally I’ve made it pretty much all the way down, and I can hear the river. It’s very close. Probably a quarter mile away and there are finally little signs marking the trail with these little glowing hiker emblems, and there’s one every 100 yards or so. I say, okay, there’s the next one, and I hike. There’s the next one, okay, and I hike. I pass one, and I see one a lot closer. Then I realized there were two of them right next to each other, and I’m like, that’s weird. I wonder why there are two so close together. Then it turned its head away, and I realized I was looking at a big cat with two eyes reflecting my headlamp.

I just froze in my tracks, and I was like, I need to get big and be loud and slowly back away, because I know cats like chasing things. You can’t run from big cats. Then, this is how stupid I am, I think ‘I need to take a picture of this, otherwise, nobody’s going to believe me!’

I had my wide-angle lens on my camera, and it was a little too far. I’m standing there with my hands shaking, and I take off my backpack, and I switch lenses on my camera, and I tried to take a photo. My hands were shaking so badly that a really blurry video was all I got. You can just kind of see the eyes lighting up and you hear my voice all scared and high-pitched. Terrified.

Once I saw that, I lost all thoughts of sleeping outdoors instantly. That meant suddenly I was hiking back out of this canyon on this sketchy trail in the middle night, now looking back over my shoulder every 10 seconds to make sure a cat wasn’t about to pounce on me. That was some real fight or flight animal adrenaline.

Whenever I’m talking to people about traveling, I always say travel is 50 percent trust and 50 percent pure luck. Sometimes you just get so lucky. You gotta pinch yourself sometimes to realize how lucky you are.

Totally. I knew, intellectually, it’s very rare that they attack humans. But this was a kind of a perfect circumstance for it. It’s the middle of the night. I’m all alone, three miles into the wilderness. I was definitely nervous, but it turned out fine.

Everybody always loves talking about how great things are. What are some of the things that aren’t great, that get you down?

The things that can get you down, those can happen anywhere. Honestly, I think a lot of it is really internal. There’ll be periods when suddenly I realize I’ve been traveling and I realize I haven’t spoken to another human being face to face outside of a transaction, like, ‘yes, that’ll be $5’ in three days. Suddenly that makes me motivated to go out and try to meet somebody and have a real conversation just so I don’t get all weird and hermit-y living in a van.

It can be tempting, when you’re in a unfamiliar place, to just stay inside, especially when you’ve got the internet and you’ve got your whole little setup and you’re comfortable and safe inside your van. It can be tempting to just stay in there sometimes. I’m pretty split between introverted and extroverted, so I sometimes have to talk myself into actually going out and doing stuff like that and forcing myself to engage with strangers, just to keep myself sane. That’s certainly part of it.

Are there any places you’re not rushing to get back to?

There were some places that just didn’t totally do it for me. To be honest, I had an okay time in Miami, but it just wasn’t really my kind of town. Same with Vegas, even though I was there with a good friend who lived there — it’s just not really my kind of town.

Sometimes it’s a surprise. Sometimes you show up somewhere like Memphis and you think it’s going to be great, and you kind of end up not really connecting to that city at that time for whatever reason. I’ve been places where I went and I didn’t connect, and I came back and I had a great time. Memphis was one of those, but then just a couple hundred miles away, suddenly Nashville was this surprise wonderful city where I made some great connections with people. You kind of never really know what you’re going to get.

Does turning travel into work defeat the point of travel?

Good question. I don’t think that work defeats the point of travel. After all, if I wasn’t able to work from the road then this whole trip wouldn’t be possible. It does change it, though. It’s hard to force myself to sit down and edit photos or videos when I know there’s more fun to be had just outside my door.

Indeed. A generation ago, we had the luxury of not even having to take photos most of the time, much less curate a gallery online. That time is largely gone. Do you ever find it exhausting everything you have to do to maintain the vagabond life these days?

I think it’s important to have some outdoor experiences just to yourself and your friends who are there. There’s something special about that. So sometimes I’ll take a side trip and intentionally leave my cameras at home. I think it’s important to go off the grid, where the cell signal can’t get you, and just connect with nature. That’s one of the things I love about surfing and camping in the backcountry. Gets me back in touch with our wild side, and makes me feel more human.

You said you stayed on the road. You’re an extra six months in. What’s the plan?

That was funny. I was away over on the east coast when the trip turned one year, and I had a little existential crisis when that happened, to be honest. I’d been telling everybody for so long that I’m on this one year road trip, and then suddenly one year was up, and I was like, well, what is this then? If it’s not a one year road trip, is this just my life now? Am I just the guy that lives in a van now? How do I feel about that? It took some deep breathing and just a lot of thinking about it.

So I ended up going to Burning Man this year.

Did you find some answers in the desert?

I decided to just say yes and just keep going until I decided it wasn’t what I wanted anymore.

What does that mean for you now?

I’m currently spending most of my time in Los Angeles. I’ve been bouncing back and forth between LA and San Francisco a lot this winter. Part of that is just because the weather. Then from there I’ll probably start heading east again in the early spring or late winter. I’ll probably start tracing the southern route while the weather’s still cold. There are a lot of places in the south that I felt like I didn’t get a chance to see, and I’d like to hit that a little bit more. Honestly, some of that is politically motivated, at this point.

Can you go into that a little bit more?

I’m calling this upcoming trip Connected States. I am driving around the country, and even though I’m in a van and very mobile, I’m very much connected to the internet and the grid and figuring out how to make that work, because I do a lot of tech writing. I have a high-tech lifestyle, and I wanted to see if there’s a way that I can maintain a high-tech lifestyle while being totally mobile.

The other part is — and this started in mid-2015 for me — I could sense that the United States were very, very divided along political lines. And politicians certainly were fueling that. And I thought the media was fueling that as well. It seemed that everybody was focusing on the differences, and the things that divided us. I had this strong belief that we had more in common than we had different. I set out with this subgoal to prove that.

What did you find out there?

The idea was that I could talk to anybody about anything except for politics and religion. I wanted to see whether or not people could get along that way. For the large majority of that trip, I found that was in fact the case. As long as we didn’t talk politics or religion, you could have laughs with people, you could joke about things. You found a lot of commonalities. People had similar goals with their lives and with where they wanted to travel and it was amazing. It gave me this real sense that we’re much more similar than we are different.

I have a feeling there’s a really big “but” coming soon…

Yeah, I really didn’t think that Trump would be elected, to be totally frank. I thought that we were too similar and that we would come together and realize that that’s not a good idea and that reason would prevail. I was a little bit blindsided by the election results. I thought how is it possible that I could be driving around and spending all this time in the south and in Texas and talking to so many people and yet not see this coming?

I think it ended up being because I was isolating myself intentionally from talking about politics, that I didn’t necessarily have my finger on the pulse of what was going on out there. Maybe I needed to spend more time in small towns as well. Different communities are affected differently by different economic and sociopolitical factors.

So how are you correcting for that?

Part of me wants to go back out and do another lap and this time really engage on the political front and see why people feel the way they do and what people’s political hopes and dreams are. Because right now, it’s extremely polarized. It’s even more polarized than it was before the election. Or at least that’s how it seems form the outside. Part of me wants to spend more time in the Rust Belt and in the smaller towns in the south and see what they’re thinking.

Also, I have to admit that I’m coming from this from a place of privilege. I’m a straight white man driving around the country, so there’s another reason why maybe I was like, oh, we’re all fine. We all get along. Everything’s cool, but there’s a possibility that there’s some people who would have been more hostile if I were a Muslim lesbian woman. It’s something I have to factor in.

I think it’s interesting because your first lap, you laid this foundation and found the common ground. That has given the perfect springboard to go out and dig deeper.

I really think there is. I think we generally laugh at the same things and mostly we want our country and our families to be safe and we all want the opportunity to thrive. I do believe that it’s mostly a process disagreement. We disagree on the best way to go about achieving that. I don’t want to discount the possibility that there are other people who do feel more hostile toward minorities. I don’t think that that’s the majority of the country at all.

When you look at the hard numbers, at the end of the day, only 26.3 percent of voters voted for Trump. If you want to be positive, that’s only a quarter of the voting population. That’s a minority. It’s not everybody.

No, for sure. But it’s also pretty disturbing to me just how the low percentage of Americans that did vote, period. I think it’s such a privilege and I think it’s such a sacred duty. You have to vote. This is your country. You have to make decisions. You’re paying taxes.

There should be a day off for voting that way no one has an excuse not to go.

Part of me thinks that would be a better way to do it. Give everybody the day off, make sure everybody gets a chance to vote. But yeah, that’s not where we’re at right now. I don’t expect that to change… certainly not under this administration.

Since you’ve traveled the United States extensively, can you tell me what makes America great?

What makes America great? Honestly, I think it’s the diversity. That spans everything. The types of different people I’ve met who believe different things and have such vastly different lives, that to me is what’s so special. Even getting into the terrain… We’ve got high Alpine and we’ve got these low deserts and we’ve got rainforest and just incredible topography. We have an incredible diversity of foods. The incredible Ethiopian food in St. Paul, Minnesota, all the way to the amazing Southwestern food in Santa Fe, and the buttery deliciousness of New Orleans, and the incredible fish on both coasts. Getting to listen to the diversity of music, and seeing the diversity of art. All of it is really special.

I think it’s the fact that we’re not monochromatic in any way is what makes America so interesting. It really is that melting pot. I think it’s so cool to see that and that you can experience so many different cultures and so many different flavors and so many different types of scenery and just that there’s every kind of experience within this one country’s borders is really special. I think that’s something we can lose track of.

You can follow Brent Rose’s travels on via his Instagram or on his new blog Connected States. You can also take a full tour of Rose’s Van here.


The Mad Ones is a reference to a famous quote from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road: “…the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’”

Watch this series for interviews and profiles with people doing big, wild, bold, creative things with their lives.

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