The Beginning

September 16, 2020  •  10 Comments

First Light on the Tetons | We were greeted to this fabulous panorama after several days of the valley being socked in. Behind our campsite, a hill rose up opposite the Tetons, affording a wonderful opportunity to get above the fog for first light. 


“Oh no.”

My first words of the day. 

Five seconds of wakefulness had led me the two feet from our bed to our toilet only to discover that the urine jug was overfull. Unbeknownst to us, sometime during night usage, the gallon jug had reached critical mass and released the excess contents into the larger plastic box that contained our solids container. The contents of the jug, urine, had found a weakness in our system (the plastic box), seeping into the wood box that formed the structure of the toilet.


This discovery, of course, came only as a result of needing to use the toilet. Desperately. Under normal circumstances, the great outdoors would more the sufficient. But, on this morning, we were parked in a friend’s driveway in the middle of a residential neighborhood in Billings. Our friends already departed for work, house locked. The order operations was tricky. I needed to go desperately, but we couldn’t drive the van until the spill was contained and cleaned. Frantically, Linds and I disassembled part of the toilet, cleaned the spill, treated the wood, reassembled the toilet, put several fans on it to dry and sped off to the nearest grocery store to take care of business.


In early March, we watched as a big black box on wheels parked in front of our house. My friend Dave was selling us his work van. It was hard to imagine, as we stepped inside the vacant black cavity that, in three months’ time, our apartment lease would be up and we would be moving into this space. Standing inside, 60 square feet was even smaller than I had imagined. What’s more, Linds and I possessed zero practical woodworking (not to mention insulation, plumbing and electrical) knowledge or skills, much less the tools required to convert this cargo van into a tiny home. But, we were nothing if not determined. We reasoned that between YouTube tutorials and loaning tools/garage space from friends that we might have a fighting chance at seeing the project through.

Linds and I had converted the money that we had saved for a down payment on a house into purchasing the van, building it into a tiny home and living on the road for 18+ months. The financial risk was not lost on us. We would be giving up the seeming comforts that full-time salaries - meager, but consistent - had provided us for over a decade. But, once we committed to the path of purchasing the van, the risk of NOT taking this travel sabbatical seemed much more severe. We were loathe to wait until we were 70+ years of age to experience the freedom of retirement. Time vs. money. All signs pointed to seizing the moment and making thoughtful financial decisions as to how we could live rent/mortgage free and travel without working for an extended period. We wanted time. 

We worked tirelessly on the conversion. On top of our full-time jobs, we spent 30-40 hours a week working on the van for the first couple of months. By mid-May it became clear that we were not going to be finished the van by our mid-June move out date. We requested - and were granted - an extension until July 31st. Final answer. A tenant was lined up to move in on August 1. Ready or not, we would be moving into our van on July 31st. As our jobs in the school district began to wane in early June we ratcheted up our van work schedule to 50-60 hours a week. We ate poorly, slept little and inhaled way too much sawdust. Weary, and nearly broken, we “finished” the van on July 29th. The joy of the moment was quickly overshadowed by the reality of our unkempt apartment which needed to be purged, packed, cleaned and vacated in two days time. We had used the space for little more than sleeping during the final month of the build, neglecting all of the particulars of keeping a tidy house. It was a mess.

Miraculously, in the final 48 hours of our apartment life, we culled and organized everything we owned into what could fit in the van and a small shelving unit that would remain with a friend in Missoula. We did it. That is, we had done all of the prep work to arrive at the point of starting what we had been dreaming of for several years. The moment arrived with little fanfare. When I imagined this moment, exchanging the keys of a house for the keys to a camper van, it was filled with joy, excitement, anticipation and freedom. I had imagined blasting music in the van as we hit the open road, windows down, hands setting sail in the wind as we felt our ways into a new dimension of living. Instead, in reality, all I felt was weariness. We had created a lovely, practical and comfortable tiny home that would provide us a sense of freedom heretofore unknown. We had set ourselves up to live the dream! And yet, all I wanted to do was sleep.

A tangent: one of the more difficult realities of life that I have come to understand is that the more ambitious the dream, the harder the work involved to get there. No surprise there. But when, after months or years of toil, you arrive at the place you have always dreamed of, it no longer possesses the quality of a dream. In the end, the dream, when realized, is simply a more thoughtful version of regular life. It’s hard work. It’s gritty. Sometimes it’s messy, often it’s exhausting. When you dream, you are effectively establishing two points: where you are now and where you want to be. The myriad steps between those two points are yet unknown. To most successfully realize the dream it seems that you have to be fully present within those myriad steps to see through their thoughtful completion. Cumulatively, those steps contribute to the overall fulfillment of the dream. The forest for the trees. 

I am a terrible dreamer. I want it all now and have a difficult time mapping and managing the steps necessary to realize that dream. The process does not come naturally to me. Countless times during the build out process, I would turn to Linds and ask, “this is going to be worth it, right?” She always said “yes” and I believed her.

It took us another week to tie up all of our loose ends - insurance, mail, packing and repacking the van, completing the sales of our other cars, oil change/alignment, etc. - in Missoula. Finally, on August 7th, business done, Linds and I bade farewell to our beloved city. Wearily contented we began. 


On my way out of the grocery store in Billings, I grabbed a couple of donuts - my go-to comfort food - and a coffee and returned to the van. Linds and I smiled at each other. Our toilet crisis that morning had taken us no more than 30 minutes to resolve. A nuisance, but a small one. What’s more, it was another valuable lesson gained as we adjust to living full-time in our van. We headed over to ZooMontana, as planned, where Linds’ uncle and aunt had been waiting for us. The curators of the arboretum at the Zoo, Scott and Nancy had offered us a tour of the grounds. We passed the remainder of that beautiful summer day wandering around the Zoo, chatting extensively about the flora and fauna within its bounds. Under normal circumstances - i.e. working full-time jobs with limited vacation time - such a visit would have likely never happened. Not because it wasn’t worthwhile, but because we simply wouldn’t have had the time. Now, we had made the time. We had taken all of the time in front of us and committed it, for this travel sabbatical, to slowing down and engaging in meaningful acts. We will never be the same.

Not a day goes by that I don’t feel gratitude for our new way of life. To be in good health, have amazing family and friends, and the freedom to roam where we please, as we please, is the greatest gift I can imagine. We, for once, have time. After a month and a half, I am beginning to feel creative energy stirring (hence this post). I am beginning to feel like I have finally recovered from the 6 months of poor diet, limited exercise and stress as we built out the van. The last month and a half have been rich beyond belief. Filled with family, friends, Wilderness, reading, naps, coffee drinking, road tripping, backpacking, hiking, paddling, fishing, running and a wee bit of photography, life on the road has been, in spite of a few hiccups, fulfilling to the max. We’ve bathed ourselves in Wilderness Areas in Minnesota, South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana over the past month.

Now, sitting here, settled into the dream we had schemed so many year ago, photography has regained its allure. I’ve got fall photography on the mind. I will be taking trips into the subalpine in the next couple of weeks and then focusing on valley larch/aspen in October around Western Montana. I can’t wait! The output will include images (of course), regular blog posts (starting now) and a vlog (starting next week). Additionally, I am pumped to finally begin work on my photography book, “Western Montana.” Time: we have it now. Now, it is my charge to use it effectively.


Lando Ewalt(non-registered)
I dare you to take a trip and climb to the top of Mount Everest but you have to promise me one thing and that is not to use anymore drones. lollllllllllllllllllllllllll
Kade Gradwahl(non-registered)
Hello Brian:) Love the pics bro. Would love to see a series of pics from Cooney Dam. Maybe even Lake Elmo in Billings! Those may be a bit extreme but they would sure be a hit.
Lando Ewalt(non-registered)
Send me pictures for my photo class plzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz :)
Lando Ewalt(non-registered)
I love the pictures. I wish eastern Montana was like the western side.
Ziva D(non-registered)
Brian! Wow! So cool! We are a full time RV family! Sold all our stuff and now live in a 40’ Motorhome...not as brave to do it in a van, but still living life on the road (with a toddler in tow) :-). Would love to catch up! Hope all is well! Safe travels!
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