When husband-and-wife duo Keith and Brianna Madia decided to end the lease on their apartment and move into their van, “Bertha,” they had the overwhelming sense they’d discovered some kind of “life loophole.”
“Sometimes I feel like we’re perched off to the side watching all the hustle and bustle of people worrying about mortgages and money and how big their house is,” says Brianna. “How expensive their car was, and how fancy their vacations are.”
Their new lifestyle was vastly different from the one they’d grown up in back in their native Connecticut, where the quiet, panicked culture of “keeping up with the Jones’” practically saturated the air.
“For us, the feeling of having figured out how to be stupidly happy with a minimal life is a huge source of joy,” she explains. We caught up with the duo—and their dogs, Bucket and Dagwood— to discuss other secret joys of living in a van and taking advantage of their backyard: Utah.
What career moves have allowed you to live in the van?
Keith is an Adventure Programming Specialist for a wilderness therapy program and I work as a writer for a software company. When we moved into the van, I pitched the idea to my boss about working remote and he thought it was a great idea—mainly because he thinks Keith and I are fascinating little adrenaline junkie dirtbags and he likes listening to all my stories. There are still days where I go into the office, and when I do, I’m able to bring Bucket and Dagwood with me.
Keith on the other hand, works three 24-hour shifts in a row down in the San Rafael swell, taking at-risk youth rock climbing and rappelling. His three-days-on, four-days-off schedule has allowed us to expand on our weekend travels to the point where we are now on the road or out in the desert for more than half the week.
Do you stay local or are you on a longer trip?
We stay local, for the most part. I’d argue that our “backyard” extends from Salt Lake City straight on down to Moab. Bertha has taken on some bigger trips though, like the time we got her all the way up to the Oregon Coast so Bucket and Dagwood could swim in the Pacific Ocean for the first time.
What can feel like a drag about this lifestyle?
The looming feeling in the back of my head that howls, “You’re driving a 26-year-old vehicle with like 200,000 miles on it.” It’s habit to wonder when her next mechanical issue is going to happen. When we rented apartments, if the furnace breaks or the fridge stops running, you call the landlord and they fix it. But if your house breaks down on the side of the road in the middle of fuckin nowhere, you just kinda live there now! Fortunately, Keith is the Macgyver of mechanics and will just pop out from underneath the hood and say things like, “I used this pile of cowshit to patch the leak and this juniper twig to twist the bolts back on!”
What are some of your favorite features or customizations of your rig?
Bertha was customized with a huge lift and 4WD all the way back in the ‘90s, so she’s been kicking ass pretty much her whole life. The 4WD and high-clearance was a huge selling point for us. If we bought a van that couldn’t make it down a dirt road, we’d never use it. We sprung for a nice roof rack and Keith bought and hooked up a solar panel that powers our auxiliary battery and outlet strip. We also found a ladder and a spare tire mount at a junkyard pick-n’-pull for 12 bucks because we saw some wackos on the Internet trying to sell one black ladder for 400 friggin’ dollars.
What’s been the biggest bump in the road so far?
We literally hit a rut in a dirt road doing 40 and I, swear to God, we must have looked like something out of a Dukes of Hazard episode. That little stunt cracked our leaf spring so Keith had to spend about four days fixing the entire rear suspension. Other than that we haven’t hit too many bumps. We’re fortunate to have an incredibly close-knit, supportive group of friends, so we’re never short of places to do a load of laundry or take a shower if we really want to. Our families have also been super supportive. My mom has seen firsthand how happy that big bus makes us and shortly after making the decision to move in to the van, Keith’s dad sent us a text that said, “You two are an example of truly sharing a life together.” I think it’s one of my favorite things anyone’s ever said to me.
What should everyone considering a van or a life in a van prepare for?
Disorganization. I’ve always been a super messy person, so maybe our van looks worse sometimes than other people’s, but when you live in such a small space of any kind, everything is bound to be everywhere. You can’t exactly just pull off your jeans and toss them on the floor, because those jeans are now taking up half of your house.
Campsite or roadside camping?
We usually aim for campsites, but just little areas off the beaten path that have clearings for fire pits. We stick almost exclusively to BLM land because I despise having Bucket and Dagwood on a leash. There’s nothing better to us than sliding the van door open in the morning and letting the dogs just take off while we fall back asleep. We couldn’t do that if we were close to a road.
Do it yourself or call AAA?
Keith is one of those people who can watch a YouTube video once and then 35 minutes later, he’s successfully built an entire new vehicle. Every single thing that Bertha has had done in the time we’ve owned her has been done by Keith. It has probably saved us close to $8,000 at this point.
Grocery shopping or roadside food shops?
So many of the little towns we end up rolling through don’t have a Target or a Smith’s, so we do usually end up at tiny little food shops. What’s been so interesting is how eye-opening it is to shop for food in some of these places. They are considered “food deserts” because it is nearly impossible to get fresh produce to these towns out in the middle of nowhere. [People there] can only eat what is available to them and I don’t think people around the country realize that this is a reality for so many. It’s just another example of how traveling and experiencing different places helps to expand your thinking.
Under or over the speed limit?
One of Bertha’s many theme songs is “Slow Ride” by Foghat, so that should tell you that we won’t be hitting hyperspeed anytime soon.
Dry shampoo, solar shower, lake dip. What’s your method?
We store seven gallons of water in a huge black tube on top of the van and hope the sun warms it up. We are super minimalist when it comes to fancy van add-ons. When we run out of water up there, I fill up a little bowl with water and soak the ends of my hair in it, then spray my hair with leave-in conditioner and comb it through with my fingers. When you have hair as curly as mine, it’s just kind of important to make sure the ends don’t become dreadlocks. Since we spend so much time in the desert, finding water that isn’t filled with wading cattle can be sort of tough. But when we’re anywhere near a lake or a river…that’s my go-to for sure.
Best tip for staying awake on long drives?
I firmly believe that it is the copilot’s duty to man the Spotify and keep the driver entertained and awake. There have been times where one of us goes in the back and goes to sleep, but it’s pretty rare. We’re in it together, so we should have to suffer through those late night drives together right?!
Go-to driving outfit?
Bertha doesn’t have a working air conditioner, so during those deep summer months, it isn’t uncommon to find us literally driving in our underwear because we’ve stripped down out of desperation. And no matter what we’re wearing, we both prefer to drive barefoot.
Road kill tally?
My bleeding heart would like to believe it’s zero. But when you drive as many dirt roads at night as we do, the likelihood of hitting a rabbit skyrockets. As I white-knuckle-grip the dashboard and watch their little tails dart out into the headlights, Keith usually assures me that they’ve made it across in time…whether that’s true or not, I just don’t know.
Best driving snack?
Kettle brand Pepperoncini potato chips.
One must-stop, roadside attraction you’ve hit up?
I’m kind of a sucker for all roadside attractions. We were driving around southern Utah near the border of Arizona and we saw a sign that said “Coral Pink Sand Dunes TURN NOW.” We just did as we were told and booked it down this little dirt road to find these huge pink sand dunes in the middle of nowhere. We ran around out there for hours. So my advice: If even the slightest part of your head is whispering “Go check it out”….go check it out.
—As told to Dirtbag Darling