The internet provides an outlet for expression, a platform for community, and so much more.
Sometimes, it can be an overwhelming place with a lot of negativity. However, some people use it as a setting to spread inspiration, encouragement, and kindness. How you use the internet has a massive impact on positive versus negative experiences. Noel Russell is the perfect example of an individual that uses the internet, more specifically, social media, to spread honest and beautiful stories as well as advocate for the amazing work she does. She is uplifting to her peers, transparent with her experiences, and overall, a wonderful person to know. Here is her story!
-Introduction written by Katie Larsen
Please briefly introduce yourself. What is your story? What kind of adventure vehicle are you driving and are you full-time or part-time?
My name is Noel Russell and I spend about 2 – 3 days/nights each week living out of my van. I work at 3 homeless youth shelters in Oakland and Berkeley, and when I’m not working, you can find me on the trails of our local mountains, all year round. I travel with my husband, Jonathan, who is the director of a shelter for families and adults in nearby Richmond, and our two rescued mutts – Fin and Lhotse. Our van is a 2009 Ford E-150 high-top, whose name is Francis Ford Campola.
How did you decide to start living on the road? What was your process in finding a vehicle, converting it, and minimizing to move into your adventure rig? Do you have an end date in mind for your travels?
I’ve dreamed of traveling in a camper van ever since I was young. My aunts and uncles always owned various conversion vans and VW buses, and every time I would step inside, I would swoon. I grew up tent camping and continued the tradition with Jonnie for years until we purchased our first van (a 1996 VW EVC) about 6 years ago. Since then we’ve spent nearly every weekend, rain or shine, hiking, climbing and camping around the Sierra Nevada – soaking up all the beauty our state has to offer.
We found our most recent rig online. She was a former Medical Transport vehicle and it was love-at-first-site the second we spotted her. We worked with our friends at Runaway Van to realize our dreams of making her into our favorite adventure mobile yet. Aaron from Runaway Van constructed a build that provided us everything we need – and nothing we don’t. Minimal features and lots of storage was our focus – with beautiful craftsmanship that reflect Aaron’s natural gift for design and woodwork.
My understanding is that you work stationary at a homeless shelter during the week and adventure on the weekends. Can you tell me a bit about your work, what it’s like to have both experiences (stationary and explorer), any challenges this brings, etc.?
Though Jonnie and I love our life on the road, our truest love is for the work we do and the communities we are blessed to support. We both work full time (read: usually more than full time, because: nonprofit work) at the shelters we serve at, and we’re both very grateful for the opportunity to do so. Jonnie manages a shelter dedicated to serving families and adults – his passion is helping people recover from substance use issues and realize their full potential and their innate worth. I work between 3 youth shelters, serving young people ages 13 – 24 years old. My heart is completely consumed by the potential of each of our young people, and I am truly honored to champion each one of them as they reach for their dreams and truly recognize how lovely they are.
We are stationary during the week and travel on weekends and holidays, and sometimes weekdays when we can swing getting to work on time. Challenges are small, yet abundant…trying to squeeze everything in and make sure we’re adequately allocating capacity for the things that most deserve our time and energy, will always be a challenge. But it is one we welcome – because what’s better than loving both your work and leisure time equally?
One of the reasons I wanted to interview you is because you are such an inspiration in the online world and your words are continuously beautiful, raw, and honest. How did you get into writing? Is this more of a hobby or also considered work for you?
I have loved writing ever since I was a little girl. When I was young, my grandmother encouraged me to submit my poetry to a local small publication that focused on young writers. They liked my pieces and paid me 40 bucks to publish 2 of them. That will still go down as one of the greatest highlights of my life – seeing my words in print and being affirmed in something I deeply enjoyed. I re-realized my love for writing thanks to Instagram…I noticed that when I put longer pieces out there – people seemed to respond with appreciation and encouragement. So I just kept sharing.
It’s truly an honor to be able to put little snippets of my heart out there for the world to see, and its been such a gift to connect with so many lovely souls along the way. I cannot imagine writing ever feeling like work…It feels like a practice, for sure – something that I dedicate time and energy to, but the word “work” makes it seem like something I HAVE to do, versus something I yearn to do, from the deepest corners of my soul.
You seem to really wholeheartedly embrace the culture of vanlife and all it encompasses. Can you talk a bit about the community you’ve built, your experiences within vanlife culture, and your favorite aspects of it?
I would love to think I built a community of some sort, but I truly have been welcomed-into and embraced-by a community that is as loving and inspiring, as it is challenging and grounding. The vanlife community is like no other – people who share the same spirit and sense of wonder, combined with a deep appreciation for wild places and the people they encounter around them. I have been endlessly blessed by connecting with the creative and complex friends I’ve met on the road (and on the trail) and am utterly grateful to call them my own, and be called their own in return.
My favorite part about vanlife culture is the instant kinship that is sparked with folks in the community. We’ve pulled up next to vans on backcountry roads and parking lots, and the experience is always the same – hours of conversation seem like minutes, and next thing you know your sharing a meal and starting a campfire. This community gives me renewed hope, and reminds me that people are kind and good things will always be worth fighting for.
Something that surprised me after moving into my van full-time was the amount of prevalent challenges I faced right off the bat. It honestly took me by surprise since living in a van is currently so glamorized. What’re your most annoying tasks or challenges you’ve found when living on the road?
So, being really sick in a van sucks. That was surprising to me for some odd reason….its colder at night, there’s not a lot of space and when you’re hacking up a lung (or worse) its hard to do so with another person hunched right over you, or a dog, or two dogs. Breakdowns suck, but what else is new right? But when a brick-and-mortor home has issues, you typically don’t have to move ALL your stuff out before a handyman fixes it…so that part was also something that took some adapting when we’re out on the road and have issues.
Also 2 dogs take up a lot of space…I feel like we’re always playing a perpetual game of human/doggie Tetris. But I wouldn’t have it any other way – because issues on the road still beat any issue in the city…and shoot, I mean we’ve broken down in some of the most beautiful places on earth, so there’s always a silver lining.
As you said, you have two, very adorable dogs with you when you travel. Did you ever travel without dogs and, if so, how does that differ from your style of travel now? If not, can you just elaborate a bit on living in a small, confined space with animals?
We’ve had Lhotse since we were married, and had traveled without her a couple times and always lamented leaving her at home. Then we got Fin and found out she has a couple special conditions that make it nearly impossible to leave her with anyone, so nowadays we just don’t travel without them. Its just not the same not having them around anyways, and what we treasure most about our adventures is soaking up time with one another. Traveling with dogs does come with its own set of challenges – but like with any relationship, the work is always worth it. We built our latest van to accommodate sleeping space for the big dog (who takes up the whole floor), and thanks to our 6 inch lift and bed height, we are constantly lifting Fin up and down from every part of the van.
Additionally, we quickly got used to dust and dog hair covering our living space, even seconds after we wipe everything down – and have established the well-tested theory that we always just need to be as dirty as the dogs are – then we never mind. We rarely leave them alone in the van, unless it’s the dead of winter, so we’ve gotten VERY good at learning where they’re welcome. National parks are typically only seen from paved dirt roads and dog-friendly walkways, but we don’t mind – there’s so many amazing wild spaces that aren’t designated as parks. We love national forests and BLM land since most of these areas allow dogs off-leash (if under voice-command) and they’re always less crowded. We love quite spaces and the trail less traveled – so being outside park boundaries allows us the ability to spread out, be silent, and rest.
Something I’ve experienced is a bit of pushback from going against the grain or not doing what society views as “normal” at my age. Have you experienced this? Do you have a specific philosophy or way you describe this to people who sometimes struggle to understand your lifestyle?
I think, in the communities we’re connected with, our lifestyle is more readily accepted and affirmed. Working in homeless services gives us a perspective on commodities and consumption that is as much of a blessing, as it is a curse. A blessing because we strongly value utilizing only what we need, and a curse because it does go against the grain of what commercials and companies tell us we should want. We say less is more, and always try to not take too much. We believe in traveling light and softly and leaving places, and people, better than we found it. This life has gifted us constant opportunities to squeeze ourselves where we need to be trimmed, and stretch ourselves where our perspective needs to be widened. We learn more by simply living, and that’s something we never take for granted.
What is your absolute favorite place to travel to and camp at?
I could be specific, but that would spoil half the fun of finding it right? I will tell you this though, there’s a long highway that runs the length of my favorite mountain range on earth. And at the base of these towering peaks, are numerous unnamed dirt roads that wind their way along little creeks swirling with melted glacial water.
And if you park here right before sunset, you can see the crowns of coyotes bobbing through the sagebrush while the canyon wrens sing the sun to sleep.
The mountains turn purple, before they go black, and the sky glows in cotton candy hues before it settles into a deep blue abyss sprinkled with stars.
And if you ever catch the glow of a campfire at the end of one of these dirt roads, there’s a 50% chance you’ll find us.