When Kate’s hard-earned career lost its sense of fulfillment, she planned a six-month road trip in an attempt to re-ignite her passion. Instead, she fell in love with her new lifestyle and the idea that she could spend more time in natural sunlight instead of under fluorescent office lights. The decision to stay on the road until it no longer served her (and without a defined timeline) immediately followed. Read more about her decision to change course and what living in a van has taught her in our interview below.
Tell us a little bit about yourself, including where you are from and where you are going.
Hello, my name is Kate. I was born and raised in California. With the exception of a few longs stints in Europe, and most recently in Alaska, I’ve bounced around the West Coast most of my adult life. I worked as a translator in Italy, in real estate in Hawaii, in finance in London, and among other things, as an attorney in Alaska and California. Not too long ago, I was deeply fulfilled by the career I had spent a lifetime building. Then one day I wasn’t.
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“Some day, if you are lucky, you’ll return from a thunderous journey trailing snake scales, wing fragments and the musk of Earth and moon. ⠀⠀ Eyes will examine you for signs of damage, or change and you, too, will wonder if your skin shows traces ⠀⠀ of fur, or leaves, if thrushes have built a nest of your hair, if Andromeda burns from your eyes. ⠀⠀ Do not be surprised by prickly questions from those who barely inhabit their own fleeting lives, who barely taste their own possibility, who barely dream. ⠀⠀ If your hands are empty, treasureless, if your toes have not grown claws, if your obedient voice has not become a wild cry, a howl, ⠀⠀ you will reassure them. We warned you, they might declare, there is nothing else, no point, no meaning, no mystery at all, just this frantic waiting to die. ⠀⠀ And yet, they tremble, mute, afraid you’ve returned without sweet elixir for unspeakable thirst, without a fluent dance or holy language ⠀⠀ to teach them, without a compass bearing to a forgotten border where no one crosses without weeping for the terrible beauty of galaxies ⠀⠀ and granite and bone. They tremble, hoping your lips hold a secret, that the song your body now sings will redeem them, yet they fear ⠀⠀ your secret is dangerous, shattering, and once it flies from your astonished mouth, they-like you-must disintegrate before unfolding tremulous wings.” ⠀⠀ Geneen Marie Haugen, The Return __________________________ PC: @searchingforsloane __________________________
My goals, passions, and motivations had changed, but my life failed to reflect it. I lived in a state of limbo for eighteen months, analytically (and crazily) mapping out my life and how I would course correct. The first calculated step I took was accepting a new job doing essentially the same thing 2,500 miles away. I found a lot of freedom on the road in the two weeks it took to get from Alaska to California, and ultimately surrendered to the fact that I didn’t need to know what the future would look like.
The impetus to that was on a trail somewhere along the Oregon coast. Taking a break from driving one day, I walked into the woods and almost immediately lost the trail following the call of an eagle. Several hours later I found the eagle resting on a tree above a riverbank and realized I was completely lost, but that there was nowhere I’d rather be. On the second day of the new job I found myself daydreaming about that eagle, and had the realization that I could make that day my every day. I immediately started shopping for a van and hit the road a few months later.
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Who wore it better? My first few months in the van I worked long hours and had to be stationary and thus stealthy in an affluent city with an enforced (no) camping ordinance. I found it much harder than it had been in my first van, a plain white Ford Transit. In fact, I got my first middle-of-the-night knock my first week in this van. I blamed the stripes and considered pulling them off. Thankfully, I left town instead because I’m totally attached to the stripes now.
What was your main desire for buying a van and hitting the road?
Despite growing up in the dirt and under the sun, I spent most of my adult life under fluorescent lights cranking out hundred-hour workweeks. When I moved to Alaska the impact of being indoors all the time really became apparent. I learned to hack my biology to minimize the physical effects of that lifestyle but my soul was left unfulfilled. I’ve been fortunate to have lived in some of the most amazing places in the world, but I never felt like I was really living, unable to realize the opportunities in front of me.
Looking back, I’ve spent a lot of time staring out of windows, marveling at the world that was just outside my reach. I tried to muster the energy to be a weekend warrior and made time for occasional international travel, but living for those few, short adventures left me wanting more. I longed to be outside. I craved a connection to nature. And I needed to explore—both the world and myself.
How long have you been on the go?
I purchased and moved into my first van full-time in June of 2018. I fell in love with the lifestyle it afforded but didn’t love the van itself; I don’t know how to describe it except that it didn’t have the right vibe. A few months later I traded up for the van I’m in now and hit the road. My original plan was to return to my career refreshed after six to nine months on the road, but after six months, I felt like I was just getting started.
At the time I was traveling at an overly zealous pace, one week having hiked nearly a hundred miles in four states. Exhausted, I decided to slow down and found that living intentionally made life on the road less of an adventure and more of a lifestyle. The decision to stay on the road until it no longer served me, without a timeline, immediately followed.
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Time is a precious resource, one that everyone has their own personal relationship with. In my last week on the road, I was extremely generous with devoting my time to what I needed: space. I needed space to get out of my head, to allow nothingness to creep in, to connect with my heart, and listen to its silent wisdom. Right now, the most effective way for me to do that is to walk, specifically to walk alone in nature. This picture was taken on a “rest” day where more time was dedicated to driving than to walking, at around mile 65 of what turned out to be almost an 80 mile hiking week. I took a relatively even and I guess unknown back trail to this spot, listening to not only what my body needed that day but also my mind. I was the only one on the trail for 3 miles in and 3 miles out. Where the trial intersected with the main (and far more rigorous) trail, there were people everywhere. I could immediately sense the shift in myself. I went from the peaceful contentment I had cultivated that week to being caught up in my racing mind. I went from quiet confidence to subtle insecurity. I knew the price for dedicating time to walking 80 miles in three states in a week was that I had to stay stationary to catch up on work. When I reached a point where I could get back on the road, something unexpected forced me to turn right around and back track. In that time, the subtle insecurity grew louder. Caught up in that insecurity I forgot my adopted precept—“Make the plan; execute the plan; expect the plan to go off the rails; throw away the plan.” Fighting the derailment of my plan only exacerbated the problem, wasting precious energy and more time. Acceptance of it allowed me to pivot my mind to gratitude and back into ease. After all, with all this physical rest and time to get work done I’ve surely created the space to hit 100 miles next week. And next week will arrive no matter where I am, so I might as well appreciate the time I do have to be where I am.
What are you currently traveling in and why did you choose it?
I have a 2008 Dodge Sprinter with a 170” wheelbase. I fell in love with the van as I watched it being built on Instagram, and the timing worked out that it was ready to go when I was. What I love is the cleanliness of the space and the incredible amount of storage for all of my toys and hobbies. In a more practical sense, it has everything I was looking for to be capable of being completely off-grid for extended periods of time. I’m also pretty partial to the stripes; it definitely has the right vibe.
One of the biggest considerations was the builder. I didn’t know him personally at the time, but based on word of mouth and having followed his builds on Instagram for a while, I did trust the quality of the build and the time, attention, and love that went into building this van is apparent. When I saw the van listed for sale, I immediately texted the builder, sent a deposit on Venmo, and booked a flight. I met him and saw the van for the first time when he picked me up at the airport, and we filled out the paperwork. Now, the van is my home and the builder is a friend. It could not have been more serendipitous.
Did you build it or make any modifications to it?
Having purchased the van already thoughtfully built out for full-time living, I didn’t need to make any modifications. I still don’t, but there are some upgrades I will make at some point. I didn’t anticipate how much time I’d spend offroad so there are some exterior modifications I’ll make as insurance against the recurrence of a recent run-in with a boulder in the dark. There are also some really minor interior modifications I will get to someday, but its really just adding a clasp here and a few screws there.
What are some of the off the beaten path places you’ve discovered?
For me, the off the beaten path places are what make life on the road worthwhile. A friend of a friend who did some maintenance work on the van mentioned a place in the desert where big geodes are just lying around for the taking. I found myself in the area with a day to spare so I turned off the highway onto a dirt road, not having done any research into where I was going or whether there were actually geodes there. It ended up taking several days of driving through a maze of mostly 4×4 roads, through a few small mountain ranges and across a rocky desert landscape, to find where I thought I was supposed to be.
By then I was determined to find some geodes but needed to be on a scheduled video conference call, without the time to drive back to the highway to pick up reception. I climbed up the nearest mountain with my phone and some hope, and was able to get enough of a signal to take the call. On my way down, I saw the first vehicle I had seen for days and ended up spending the day with a woman and her pet coyote, learning the ways of the rockhound. It’s having unplanned experiences like these in off the beaten path places that embody the true value and freedom of life on the road.
What’s one of the biggest challenges of life on the road?
My biggest challenge to date has been to find balance—I am still figuring out how to make the most out of the greatest gift of life on the road, time. I tend to operate in extremes. My life as an attorney was one end of a pendulum, extreme rigidity, and structure. Life on the road swung the pendulum in the extreme other end of the spectrum—creating the opportunity for zero structure. I’ve tried travel plans and work schedules but missed opportunities and found myself feeling rigid and exhausted.
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“Once we accept our limits, we go beyond them.” —Albert Einstein I had a conversation this morning on the side of a mountain as the sun rose to reveal the raging river below and the alpenglow above. We talked about balance. Specifically, the balance of community and independence. While connection is one of my highest values, there is no greater stoke than pushing right past your limits, something I am forced to do almost daily on my own on the road. Sometimes I hesitate to do new or hard things on my own, but always end up doing it anyway. Sometimes I fail but never stop until it’s achieved. That’s the beauty of this lifestyle, I’m forced to find my limits and then find a way to push past them. Sometimes it’s pushing my body, sometimes my mind. In either case, I walk away a stronger human in body and mind. Magic happens when we shift our focus from our limits to our potential.
Swinging back, I found myself lingering in places or feeling aimless while waiting for the next opportunity to present itself. The sweet spot is somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. With regular experimentation and patience, I know I’ll get there. For now, I’m enjoying the process.
What’s one of the best aspects of life on the road?
Moving my life into a van and spending most of my time alone has grown my appreciation for the profound impact of real human connection. Ironically, it’s one reason, if not the main reason, I decided to stay on the road. My life has changed because of the people I’ve met and interacted with on the road—people I would never have engaged with otherwise.
It can be a long conversation with a gas station attendant bursting with pride about his son’s football scholarship, spending the day with the rockhound I already mentioned, or the cultivation of a powerful connection with someone I met on an app. It all seems random but also clearly makes the point that the people you surround yourself with determine where you’ll end up.
To show up in complete presence with people outside of my normal bubble, dropping the lens of political affiliation, life experience, social status, and geography, brings me closer to a universal understanding and connection to something greater myself or each of us individually. This is truly the most rewarding aspect of life on the road.
How do you balance work and travel?
Balancing work and play is something that I continually struggle with. The focus for my time on the road has been on growth, so my time is largely invested in play. That said, with the decision to live in the van for an indefinite period, I sought a way to sustain this lifestyle while helping others create positive changes in their lives, as life on the road has done for me.
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I thought living in the van would mean all kinds of free time, time to read more, pick up old hobbies and habits, and tap back into my creative side that crawled into a hole and died in law school. Maybe that will come with the longer days of summer, but right now there is no free time. Granted, I am in a training program and starting a business, but most of my time is spent playing outside. I start the day thinking of it as sunlight exposure, exercise, and experiencing of the places I am in, but once I’m outside I have a freaking blast and the negotiated time easily turns into hours. It’s turned into a daily ritual to reflect on how the day went nothing like I had planned, why, and whether it was the plan or the actual day that fulfilled my needs. Once I get out there I let loose—I lose track of time, laugh, sometimes cry, sometimes dance, sometimes practice handstands, sometimes talk to strangers, run, jump, climb, and stop to look at every tree and try to remember how to identify the species. Sometimes my mind is racing, sometimes it’s completely empty. Sometimes I follow game trails in the wilderness and sometimes I run circles around tourists. I still never feel like there is enough time in the day, but my body and mind are engaging like they haven’t in years, and probably in ways I need more right now than could be brought about by any of my intellectual hobbies. It turns out there is science behind this, allowing time for play actually increases productivity—check out my recent post @bristlekone for more.
Wanting to empower others to find and live their own potential, I dove into professional training last year and still continuously work to build my toolkit with the techniques, tools, processes, and products that prompted my Human Potential Coaching practice, called Bristlekone. The freedom in this work is that it is location independent and I can set my own schedule and client load to serve my needs.
More importantly, it is deeply gratifying and doesn’t feel like work in the traditional sense. Even so, I struggle to dedicate the time to make my way to areas with enough service to sit in front of a screen all day with enough frequency to grow the business. For now, I am happy with where I am—the time I continue to invest in myself has been paying off in dividends in allowing me to show up presently every day and create meaningful change in the lives of my clients.
What’s been the most magical spot on your trip thus far?
There is so much magic out there. There is, of course, a long list of the must-see landscapes—mountains, vistas, waterfalls, cities, lakes, rivers, and oceans—the list is long. It surprises even me to say that I’ve experienced the most magic exploring Phoenix, Arizona. After having traveled so quickly for so long, I made a conscious decision to slow down in the new year. I happened to be rolling through Phoenix when I doubled down on that effort by shifting gears to focus on new faces rather than places. With that intent, I immediately began making new connections, some of which I can genuinely say changed the course of my life.
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Those that know me well are aware of my tendency to be verbose. Sometimes though, in the quiet moments, I am at a loss for words and am grateful to borrow from others. ⠀⠀ —————————— ⠀⠀ Sometimes if you move carefully through the forest breathing like the ones in the old stories who could cross a shimmering bed of dry leaves without a sound, you come to a place whose only task is to trouble you with tiny but frightening requests conceived out of nowhere but in this place beginning to lead everywhere. Requests to stop what you are doing right now, and to stop what you are becoming while you do it, questions that can make or unmake a life, questions that have patiently waited for you, questions that have no right to go away. ⠀⠀ —David Whyte
I could talk for hours describing the magic I experienced in the nearly two months I spent in the greater Phoenix area, but one example from my last day there makes the point. I woke up remembering a hike in the area I hadn’t yet got around to. I set off in the opposite direction of where I had originally planned for the day. A few hours later I was carefully maneuvering the van along the edge of a cliff, admiring the rapids of the Salt River below.
After a couple of miles of crisscrossing a creek on foot through a narrow canyon, the roar of an eighty-foot waterfall signaled that I had reached my destination. Three other hikers had arrived just before I did, one of which scaled a wet and extremely slick rock wall and jumped into the pool below the waterfall. He then guided me, a jumper but not a climber, to do the same. On the hike out they invited me to join them and their friends that evening. By midnight I was decked out in glow sticks, sitting on the edge of a raft in the middle of the rapids I had admired earlier in the day, with two guys I had just met teaching me how to raft as we maneuvered around boulders in the water under the light of the full moon.
Every single person on the river that night matched or even exceeded my level of stoke that my first rafting trip was so incredibly epic. I woke up in the morning to the roar of those rapids in a borrowed tent and borrowed clothes, so grateful for one last dose of magic before moving on.
As I described above, the real magic is in the power of connection—sometimes it is absolutely the connection to places, but in my experience, it can be more powerful with people. The magic I experienced in Phoenix was both.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I honestly don’t have typical days. I occasionally get into routines that last a few days or weeks at a time, but they are ever evolving and so dependent on where I am literally and figuratively. I’ve spent most of my life caught in the cycle of repeating “typical” days, so I intentionally created the space for the freedom and energy to break the cycle.
I do have things that I usually do every day, but they don’t always follow a regular schedule. That said, I like to start my day with meditation and recognition of how grateful I am for the life that I built. Next, I put together a morning tonic—essentially a Bulletproof coffee with a mix of herbs and/or mushrooms depending on how I feel that day and what I have planned. That’s where the routine ends.
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“Big doors swing on little hinges.” —W. Clement Stone ⠀⠀ We often overlook how seemingly insignificant decisions and behaviors influence our lives in big ways. It’s easy to see the impact of big decisions—letting go of attachments and moving my life into a 110 square foot van changed everything. The truth is though, the trajectory of my life has been equally influenced by small, seemingly insignificant choices—asking the right person the right question, showing up authentically in any situation, talking to strangers, practicing presence, saying yes when I wanted to say no, staying one more day … I could go on and on. ⠀⠀ From an outsiders’ perspective, this simple life may appear to be a yawn of perfection. Indeed, many days it absolutely is. I am grateful every day for each of the small things that got me where I am today. The reality though is that it is far from perfect, but it is exactly what I make of it. ⠀⠀ Ironically, what I frequently neglect to acknowledge is the big doors I had to walk through to get here. The tipping point was the realization that I was the only thing holding me back; the inner turmoil of my mind was the lock on the door. Finding the key was simpler than I could’ve imagined at the time—it was choice. The realization that my mind was the only thing I had control over changed everything. Relief was immediate, and I bought my first van a few days later. ⠀⠀ From then on, every event in my life has stemmed only from my own creative capacity—the culmination of each small, seemingly insignificant choice. The result … it feels like magic.
Sometimes I’m on calls, sometimes driving, sometimes hiking, sometimes sitting in the sun with a book, sometimes working out either outside or at a gym, or any other host of random activities. While I do struggle with balance, I am able to get done what I want and need to without the rigidity of a schedule.
What are your 5 must-have items for van life?
My must haves are the things that enable me to maintain the positive aspects of my former lifestyle, centered on health and wellness. The number one must have then is the X3Bar. It’s a pretty simple, and small, variable resistance training system that focuses on muscle tension in load bearing positions. The short of it is that I can get a meaningful workout in less than 15 minutes, everyday and anywhere—in the park, forest, or inside the van.
Similarly, another must have is the EmPack. It’s a backpack with four water bladders that each holds fifteen pounds of unstable water weight. I use the pack like a barbell, dumbbell, or kettlebell, or even just hike around with the weight on my back.
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The park ranger told me it’d take 2 to 5 hours to get to the top of the second highest dune, looking at my plates and assuming it’d likely be closer to 5 because I’m from California, due to the elevation. I must’ve hit that dune in 30 minutes because I kept going until there was nothing higher to climb … in less than an hour. Feeling like I could go on forever, I proceeded to the top of the next 5 highest dunes I saw before heading out for the day, hitting that second highest dune a second time for good measure.
Next would be the GembaRed light panel. It’s a red and infrared light therapy panel that has a host of benefits, but it is a must have for me because it rapidly speeds recovery. This is how I can push my body past its limits on a regular basis without really changing anything else.
In the productivity realm, getting a personal hotspot, one that is on a different carrier than my phone, was a game changer. It provides the freedom to work from most places I already am (within reason), instead of having to make my way into a town and sit under artificial lights all day.
Finally, I could not live without my paddleboard. I learned to paddleboard in Alaska so I’m constantly on the lookout for a challenge and put it to use pretty much any time I see water, whether it’s in the middle of a whiteout in the Sierras or on a sunny day in San Diego.
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Happy Alaska Day! Today (and most days lately) I’m thinking about the people and places in Alaska that I love. I found myself in the wildness of it and can’t wait to get back. I also worked with some of the most dedicated public servants in my entire career as we grappled with important issues and managed to have some fun in the process. *Alaska Day marks the anniversary of the formal transfer of the Territory of Alaska from Russia to the United States in 1867.
Rapid Fire Q&A
What book could you read over and over again?
The Alchemist by Paolo Coelho
Favorite quote to live by?
“How long are you going to wait before you demand the best for yourself?” Epictetus
Sunrise or sunset?
Desert or the ocean?
Route planning or spontaneity?
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