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Never Leave the Dogs Behind

By March 03 2017All stories

Brianna and Keith always inspired me with their joie de vivre, their dogs and their unique rig! Read their story here.

How did you guys meet and what was your life before?

Keith and I have actually known each other since we were ten years old. We grew up taking sailing lessons together at the same yacht club in Connecticut (which is the ultimate Connecticut thing to say… *eye rolls for days*) We had a ton of mutual friends all through middle school and high school, but we were both absolutely certain we had nothing in common. Keith was really shy and quiet and I was…not. But one summer night while we were both home from college, we locked eyes at a party and struck up a decade-overdue conversation. The next morning, he texted me and asked if I wanted to go sailing with him…for old times’ sake…and I think I knew within 3 weeks that I was gonna marry that kid. We bonded over the desire to get away from Connecticut and get away from this really materialistic lifestyle we’d been surrounded by our whole lives. We’d daydream about moving west and adopting dogs and traveling. Sometimes I forget I’m not daydreaming anymore…

Is there any particular experience that brought you guys to live small?

When we graduated from college we had about $300 to our names, a dog, and absolutely nowhere to go. Keith’s parents offered to let us live on their old 33-foot sailboat until we had saved up enough money to move out west. I think people imagine that to be some grand, luxurious experience but the reality was that we were living on a 33-foot long boat in the dead of summer with no form of air conditioning…no running water outside of an old dock hose, no bathroom, no internet, and about 3 square feet of storage space. We’d wake up every morning in the tiny little triangle-shaped bed beneath the bow, unstick our faces from the damp pillows and cushions, and get ready for work. Keith would drive over to the place he taught sailing lessons and shower in their locker room, and our dog, Bucket, and I would climb into my jeep and drive over to our storage unit a couple blocks over.

The guys who worked there knew us by name, as I’d show up every day in my pajamas, punch in the code, wander barefoot down rows and rows of little storage doors, unlock and climb up inside ours, and shut the door behind me so I could get dressed for the day. Bucket would sit on the ground outside the storage unit and just wait for me to climb back out. From there, we’d drive over to the house where I worked as a nanny. It was an absolutely bizarre way to live…but I hadn’t felt so alive in all of my life. I felt like everything I did had to be intentional…it had to be well thought out…it had to be planned. I took absolutely nothing for granted…a passing cloud…the sound of rain on the water surrounding the boat…the seagulls in the morning. I was living in a way that made me feel deeply, deeply connected to the earth and to the world outside my window. When you live in such a small space, you cannot shut out the outside world. You cannot muffle the sounds or the smells. The cold creeps in through the cracks and the heat melts down through the ceiling and you are truly present for every bit of it.

When Hurricane Sandy hit the east coast, we had to evacuate and say goodbye to our beloved sailboat. We decided to move to Utah because we heard it was cheap to find small apartments. And I’ll never forget when we walked into our 400-square foot studio apartment for the first time after driving clear across the country. We both walked up to the kitchen sink, turned on the faucet, and just stared at the running water… In that moment, I pictured myself sitting on the edge of the dock with my toes in the water, washing one of two dishes we owned with a hose, and setting it down to dry in the sun. I knew right then and there that I’d be chasing that feeling of for the rest of my life.

Tell us about your rig and what’s the story behind Bertha’s nick name?

Bertha is a 1990 Ford E350 Clubwagon, but she’s far from an “off-the-lot” vehicle. She was customized back in the 90s with a lift and 4WD conversion. I know a lot of van lifers have these pimped out Sprinter vans with gorgeous wood interior and storage and kitchen setups…but our main priority when we bought a van was that it was going to get down our favorite gnarly dirt roads. So the massive clearance and 4WD capability was a must for us. The inside is pretty minimal, with our bed, a bench seat with some storage drawers underneath, and a swivel passenger seat that we installed. We also replaced the floors with vinyl “wood” ones and added a rack, ladder, homemade shower, and a sun awning. We named her Bertha after one of our favorite Grateful Dead songs and because the nickname “Big Bertha” just fit too perfectly for that gigantic tangerine of ours.

How do you guys manage to keep your full-time jobs while living in a van? 

When I tell people that I still have a “regular” job, I think they imagine that I must work for some really hip, cutting-edge outdoor company that’s just totally cool with my lifestyle. But the fact is, I work for a regular old software company in a regular old office building in Salt Lake City. My coworkers wear ties and high heels and I wander in wearing socks and sandals with my two dogs in-tow. So it is an absolutely hysterical juxtaposition. I had one coworker stare in disbelief one morning as I clamored out of the van in my pajamas at 7am outside the building and he walked over and sort of stuttered…”D-d-did you sleep here last night??” To which I responded, “…..yea?” And while I do occasionally get an odd look for washing my hair in the bathroom sink or changing out of pajamas in the parking lot, my coworkers and my boss have been incredibly supportive. When we first moved into the van, I was able to arrange a schedule that allows me to work mostly remote so that I can travel south while my husband works.

Keith’s job is a lot cooler than mine. He works as an Adventure Programming Specialist for a wilderness therapy company. So, his work day consists of taking at-risk youth out into the desert and going rock climbing and canyoneering. He works three 24-hour shifts in a row and then has the rest of the week off, which allows for our travel schedule. And while neither of us are very clean at any given point, we do have access to showers through our rock climbing gym and good friends we have throughout Utah. In warmer weather, we use the shower system that Keith built for the top of our van. It’s basically a black PVC pipe that we fill up with water and release one side to slightly pressurize the water coming down out of the hose nozzle. It’s bare minimum, but it works for us. We use that method when we’re out in the desert, mostly, as I think it might be really pushing it if I start taking showers in the parking lot outside my company building.

How do you feel about your huge following on Instagram? 

The Instagram following consistently shocks me. I know it’s probably hard to believe for the case of someone who posts photos of themselves and their life on the internet all the time…but I am humble, almost to a fault. I have a hard time wrapping my mind around the fact that anyone besides like…my mom…cares what we have to say. I have no experience with photography. I shoot on an automatic setting on a beat up old Samsung…I have no social media or marketing experience. I have literally just kinda made this up as I go. Some days it’s overwhelming, but then I read comments from people who say that we’ve inspired them to change their lives or inspired them to try writing in a more public forum or inspired them to take their dogs camping…and I just collapse with gratitude. I don’t think people realize how tremendously humbled I am by each and every comment. I never in a billion lightyears would have imagined that I’d be in this position…and I feel like it’s important for me to stress that we’re just regular people. When people say that they feel like we’re really genuine and honest with what we share, it’s the highest compliment in the world.

I think Instagram can make van life look like this really glamorous endeavor filled with a bunch of hippies who are always happy or never pissed that they can’t get a wifi signal…and that’s just not the case. I think people appreciate honesty. I think people appreciate when I say, “holy s**t I’m living in a f***ing van in Salt Lake City in the middle of the winter and I’m freezing my a** off,” because some days that’s exactly how I feel. Van Life culture on Instagram is this amazing way to capture the spirit of a movement that’s taking place where people from all walks of life are basically telling society that they’re not buying whatever it is that’s being sold anymore. This picket-fence idea of happiness…this one-size-fits-all concept of success…it’s a scam. I think people want adventure…they want simplicity…they want to feel free. Van life is this beautiful blending of all of those things, and we’re super stoked to be a part of it.

Can you share a Utah secret spot with us? 

Utah has the most National Parks of any state in the country which is funny because we don’t ever go to any of them… We stick mainly to BLM land where our dogs can roam free and we can avoid the crowds. But if I had to suggest one amazing spot that’s appropriate for all travelers – it would probably be Little Wildhorse Canyon. It’s an incredibly photogenic slot canyon that isn’t technical so it’s appropriate for most anyone. It’s dog-friendly, and it’s one of the few places in the world that you can just walk through an easily accessible, completely gorgeous slot canyon without paying a guide or an entrance fee or needing ropes and technical skills to access. With that being said, it IS still a slot canyon…so appropriate weather measures should be taken into account, and you might still be looking at wading through some stagnant water…but that’s the best part!

Follow Brianna and Keith here