One Year


Hard to believe, but it’s now officially been a year since I moved out of my house and embarked on this weird and unpredictable journey of Hashtag Vanlife. Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about what this year has meant to me, how it’s changed me, what kinds of things I miss about house-living, what I don’t miss, what I’ve learned, and what I foresee the future looking like. 


First off, at the one-year mark I certainly did NOT expect to be without a van.  As I mentioned in my last blog, this summer I was involved in an accident which dealt my poor van some unrepairable damage, and in mid-February I finally tore everything out of it (with some help from Rich), put all the stuff in a storage unit, then released the van to my insurance company.  It’s final day in my possession was just after I left for Europe, and I was a bit sad I didn’t get to see it off in person.  Luckily my buddy Joe saw it on the back of a tow truck, sadly puttering down State Street and sent me a photo.  Kinda weird to watch your house get towed away.  It certainly was a trip to remove everything from the inside over the course of 10 or so hours when it took months to put it together.  I got to relive all the agonies and ecstasies of the build with each layer I removed.



When I got my van last year I’d been driving a Honda Element, which I’d partially outfitted for sleeping/traveling for occasional road trips and other adventures.  After moving into the van full-time, I opted to keep the Element for a year just to see how often I felt the need/desire to use it before committing to selling it.  I sure am glad I kept it.  It’s a downgrade as far as space/organization goes, but I can keep my essentials in it and sleep in it whenever necessary.  I have to be a little more choosy about where I park when I sleep in the car, since I have to do things like tooth brushing and face washing outside the vehicle.  But I can cook in it, change clothes in it, and hang out in it enough to be suitable.  Plus I can drive it, obviously.


 So… what has this past year of mobile living meant to me?  First off, it’s meant letting go of a lot of attachment to stuff, primarily.  But also letting go of expectations, letting go of residing in the world of the status quo, letting go of some comfort.  Also letting go of complete independence, which has been an ironic challenge.  I still rely on friends for sporadic kitchen and shower use, and when the van had to go to the shop I had to rely on friends for a place to sleep.  My friends are awesome, generous, and super supportive and always have their doors open to me.  But still, in my head, it’s difficult to regularly show up to someone else’s space and insert myself, however innocuously or briefly.    I’ve had to let go of some aspects of personal and intimate relationships, which has probably been one of the toughest parts of this lifestyle shift. I’m not gonna go into any details about that because it’s pretty personal, but let’s just say that having a space where others can come visit and spend time has a value that I couldn’t have known until I no longer had it.


 As I’d hoped, I’ve been able to travel and see more places, spend a considerably larger amount of time outdoors, and spend time with more people.  Time spent with old friends and new is probably one of my favorite parts of this lifestyle.  I spent so much time voluntarily cooped up in my house for the previous few years, I’m pleased the van living has helped me shift that. 


I get asked all the time (as one does when one travels) where I live, and depending on the person, I’ll still say “Mendocino County”.  If folks dig further, I’ll explain that I live in my van and travel, and for the most part people respond positively.  Some tell me they envy my life and my freedom, and a few have spent time picking my brain because they’re seriously considering making the move themselves.  There have been a few people who kinda look at me quizzically in a way that clearly conveys they don’t get it or don’t like the fact that I live in a van, but whatever. 

There are still times - many times a month, actually – where I’m sitting in my van and have a moment of thinking, “I’m 46 years old and I live in a van.  I have no house”.  I dunno… it’s weird.  Some part of me thinks I’m playing some young person’s game, like… why is a middle-aged dude living some hippie-vagabond lifestyle?  Shouldn’t I be more… conventional?  Then I shake that shit off and get back to doing whatever I was doing. 

Do I miss having a house?  Rarely.  The only things I really miss is that I could set up different parts of my house as a photo “studio” and do portrait work, in addition to hosting people (as mentioned above).  But that’s about it.


What are some downsides to van living?  It can be cumbersome to pilot such a large vehicle into places that are easily accessible by car.  Driving through the city requires pre-planning on the best routes to take, and parking can be a pain in the ass.  I have to drive slow wherever I’m going (which is good in many ways), and my ability to explore more off-roadish areas is much more limited than it ever was with my car.  I like finding out-of-the-way and isolated spots in nature to spend time and the van just isn’t built to off-road. 


 I find myself slightly annoyed by having to find places to refill my water jugs, find places to dump my grey water, find places to dump my trash and recycling, and find places that aren’t in public where I can open the van up and clean/rearrange things. I still long for a spot to park that’s completely private, isolated, and beautiful where I can just be by myself and not worry about being in someone else’s space.  I also long for complete independence, which I think is attainable once I finish building out my kitchen space, maybe get a portable outdoor shower thing or maybe get a gym membership for showers.  And really, all of these things are pretty small potatoes in the big picture.  I have SO much more to be grateful for.


 Now that it’s been a month of living in my car, I’m definitely missing my van.  I’ve been scouring the internet for a new one but haven’t come up with anything yet, unfortunately.  Luckily I’ve been traveling a lot this past month, so I’ve been able to stay in lots of comfortable places and haven’t had to rely on the car too much.  I’m leaving next week to go on tour with Amenra for a month on the East Coast, so the adventure continues with or without a van.


Japan With Amenra, Pt 1

As you may remember, I went on tour with Belgian metal giants Amenra for a week last summer on the West Coast.  In addition to taking photos, I captured a bunch of video footage with the intention of putting together a quick little documentary of my time with them.  After about a month of fudging around with it, I finished the film and sent it over to the band.  The reaction was enthusiastically positive (to my surprise and delight), and talks began around making a full-length film to commemorate their 20th anniversary as a band.  I was invited to join them in Japan for five days to film, which was incredibly exciting.  After a couple months of giddy anticipation, the time to leave for Japan finally arrived.


The majority of advice I got around dealing with a huge time change (Japan is 17 hours ahead of California) was to not sleep on the plane at all and just forge ahead to get on the new schedule as much as possible, which is exactly what I did.  It all started with a two-hour flight to Vancouver, then a 10 hour flight to Tokyo. There had been some sketchiness about whether I was going to be met by someone at the airport that would arrange my getting to the place we were staying or if I was gonna have to take a bus/train by myself. It’s a long story, but after much handwringing, losing WiFi service multiple times, running from one terminal to the other, and praying things would work out in my favor, I found Colin from Amenra, his wife and their friend, and we hopped on a bus headed for Tokyo.  From the bus terminal in Shinjuku, we walked about 20 min to the apartment that had been rented for the band, set all my shit down, then turned around and headed back out into the night to meet up with the rest of the entourage who were having drinks at a tiny little random karaoke bar.  The first things that struck me about Japan were that everything was clean and orderly, all the cars/trucks/trains were shiny and small, and there were tons of people swarming the streets. Tons. After a brief and torturous time listening to drunk Japanese folks shriek over weird pop songs at this karaoke bar, we left to grab some food and head back to the house to sleep. I’d been awake for 29 hours by this point and surprisingly I didn’t feel that bad. 


Managed to sleep about 7 hours or so last night, which was a pleasant surprise. After breakfast and coffee in a cute little spot just down the street from us, we gathered outside the house and headed to the venue.  Since many of the bands wives/girlfriends had joined for the week, we were a giant gang of 13 people snaking through the subways carrying gear, trying to get a feel for how to get around.  We noticed that the Japanese people we encountered were not only unfailingly polite and orderly, but they never made eye contact in public and remained fairly quiet at all times.  Every time we all took a train anywhere (which was a lot), we were absolutely the loudest people on the train, and we were just talking. 


 Like just about everything I saw in Tokyo, the venue was in a multi-level building, narrow and compact and squeezed right next to other buildings.  There were two floors with rehearsal rooms (for bands to practice in), then a 4th floor that held the 200-person-capacity venue, then a rooftop patio where merch was eventually set up.  I realized quickly that filming/shooting in this small of a spot was going to present me with some challenges, so I spent some time trying to get my shit figured out while all the bands soundchecked. 


There was a brief outing taken to find some food to eat, and we found this cute little Japanese/American food café where I had one of the best hamburgers of my life. No joke.  We walked the neighborhood checking out shops and stretching our legs for a bit, then back to the venue to hang out and wait for the show to start.  We didn’t have to wait long, considering the first (of four) bands was scheduled to begin at 5:30 PM.  Because I’m a grumpy old man, I was delighted that the show was going to be over by 10PM sharp, which is completely unheard of in the States.


 Opener Treha Sektori is a one-man aural descent into the underworld, with haunting images projected over him as he pounds trigger pads and growls over rumbling drones straight from the abyss.  He’s from Paris (and was brought over to Japan by Amenra) and a super cool dude to boot.  It was great getting to hang out with him a little bit.  There was a local band Vampilla who played a strangely interesting combo of doom metal and ambient jazz with strings, plus a Canadian/European duo Nadja whose mix of metal guitars and ambient electronica was soothing and creepy at the same time. All the support groups were eclectic and distinct, but had an aesthetic and vibe that really blended well with Amenra’s.

As Amenra prepared to play, the entire audience (which was filled to capacity) was eerily silent while waiting for the show to start.  No cheering, very little talking, so quiet you could hear the footsteps of the band walking around the stage.  So very different from how shows are in the states.  I stood on the side of the stage filming (which was my purpose for being there in the first place) for most of the show, then shuffled through the crowd to the sound booth to get some shots from there.  Everyone got out of my way as I walked through the crowd, politely stepping aside unlike anything I’ve experienced in the states.  Quite refreshing.  The show ended right on time and everyone hustled to pack up and get out of the venue before 10:30. We walked through the neighborhoods looking for food, but eventually the group split up and I went with Colin and Evie (his wife) to a little curry spot for a nightcap before making the 30 minute walk back to the house for another good night’s sleep.

The next day began much as the first, coffee and food, then the 30 minute walk/train ride to the venue, this time sans equipment (except for me, loaded with two full backpacks of gear and various items).  After sound check we all split off to explore the neighborhood again, this time I meandered alone, hoping I wouldn’t get hopelessly lost while trying to buy some gifts to bring back to Megan and my kids.  There were literally half a dozen hair salons on every street, including pet salons. Clothing stores with hilariously mangled English titles, tons of strange chachki shops and bazillions of tiny restaurants and eateries.  And intertwined with the busy shopping avenues are dozens of quiet, clean residential alleys and walkways.  So very quiet. 

Tonight’s show was a virtual repeat of last night, except tonight Amenra was on fire in a way they weren’t quite last night.  It’s always interesting to consider what makes a band perform one way one night, then on a different plane the next.  A million variables, I suppose. 

 I was able to hop off the front of the stage and right into the front row to shoot video from that angle, and the very polite and quiet Japanese fans that had been standing there all night scooted over and gave me space, which again would have never happened in the states.

 After the show, everyone packed up and said their farewells, took some group photos, then headed across town for a celebratory dinner in a swanky restaurant, where I got to spend some time talking to a Japanese national who’d lived in England for a number of years so his English was really good. He gave me all sorts of interesting perspectives on Japanese culture and I got to explain a bit about American culture, such as it is.


Having finally secured a pocket Wifi hotspot earlier in the day, I had the means by which to navigate on my own back to the house.As I snaked my way through the alleys, streets and boulevards after midnight, it again struck me how quiet everything was.Here in the middle of a huge metropolis, the only discernable sounds were that of the sporadic cars and trucks making their way through the night to unknown destinations


CrucialFest and the Nevada Desert

Feeling the need for a good road trip, I pointed my nose east towards the great Salt Lake City to spend a weekend photographing CrucialFest, an eclectic and diverse two-day music festival boasting a list of well known names in heavy music, plus a bunch of local and regional bands spanning multiple genres.  My friends Cult Leader were performing, as well as Neurosis, Chelsea Wolfe, and Russian Circles, all of whom I love and appreciate. I also looked forward to being in a new place checking out new things, if only to feed my desire for novelty. 


After a day of barreling through CA into Nevada and a night spent alongside the river, I woke eary and drove the remaining few hours to Salt Lake City. Spent the day at the fairgrounds wandering from stage to stage, photographing bands and mostly just keeping to myself.  I managed to find ONE person I knew there, which was a treat.  The day consisted of mostly uninteresting (to me) bands, though things only started getting interesting when UK phenoms Slaves played the smallest stage to about 40 or 50 people.  In Europe, these guys sell out theater-sized venues and it was great to see them playing with maniacal energy and abandon despite the small crowd.  Of course Russian Circles and Chelsea Wolfe were great, as always.  I especially enjoyed the gorgeous sunset that accompanied the end of Russian Circles’ set.

Day two of CrucialFest was longer, but more relaxed and enjoyable.  Got to hang with my Cult Leader buddies a bit and catch up, and ended up having fewer bands I was actually interested in seeing.  Pig Destroyer (more a fan of the name than the music), Mutoid Man (because they’re funny) and Neurosis (because they’re fucking Neurosis) were the standouts amongst a blur of bands who had their own things going but nothing that grabbed me. 

Happy to be done with wandering the hot and dusty festival grounds, I loaded up and drove to Temple Square in downtown SLC just to check it out.  Any time I think about Mormonism, I remember the fantastic book by John Krakauer called “Under the Banner of Heaven”, which is not only an excellent outline of the history of Mormonism (and fundamentalist Mormonism) but weaves in a story of a faith-based murder of a Mormon woman and her child by her fundamentalist brothers-in-law.  Mormonism is crazy, and the area around Temple Square is a gargantuan citadel dedicated to the Empire. 


I got the hell outta there and headed out of the city, through the flat Utah desert and back into Nevada, ending up in Winnemucca, a tiny town with a rich history woven into the westerly US expansion in the late 19th century.  I found a spot nestled into the foothills on the eastern side of town and thoroughly enjoyed an amazing sunset before making dinner and settling in for the night.


I woke well before the sun came up and decided I wanted to spend the day exploring Nevada a bit.  I hadn’t been to the Black Rock Desert area in many years and thought it might be enjoyable to visit there before heading to Pyramid Lake.  Google Maps said I could take the boring old Interstate, or I could take a back route that would be 10 minutes faster, which was a no-brainer.  I always choose the back roads whenever possible. 


Long story short, I found myself going from well-maintained gravel roads to bumpy and rocky roads to deeply rutted and sandy two-lane tracks through a massive expanse of open high-mountain desert.  No cell service, no sign of humans anywhere and clearly no one had been on these roads for many days.  My poor van had to crawl its way through washes and over rocks, rocking and rattling the whole time.  My stress levels went up enough to where I couldn’t maintain the presence of mind to photograph much, even though the Black Rock Desert is an amazingly gorgeous place.  I couldn’t help imagining the van dying or getting stuck in a rut and leaving me stranded way out in the middle of nowhere.  Ultimately I’d be fine, since I had plenty of water and food and clothes and such.  But it sure would fuck up my schedule for the week if I had to hike 30+ miles to find cell service or a helping hand.  All for nothing too, since I elected to take this road without any good reason to do so.  Luckily I made it through fine, though the last 20 miles was an endurance test over severely washboarded roads that just about shook the fillings from my teeth. 

Black Rock Desert

Black Rock Desert


I limped back onto the gloriously paved highway outside Gerlach and headed south towards Pyramid Lake, where I found the parking lots and shoreline packed with people fishing.  I’d never seen so many people at the lake at once, and wondered if there was a special event or something going on.  Decided the crowds were more than I wanted to bear, so I bailed westward, stopping in Tahoe before heading back to the city by the bay.

Sweet, sweet pavement

Sweet, sweet pavement

Pyramid Lake

Pyramid Lake