On Instagram, Johnie Gall’s life appears to be one long endless weekend: paddling in the calm open seas, hiking on an empty trail, bathing in hot springs and sleeping under starlit skies.
It's certainly true—as a freelance writer, editor, and photographer for brands in the outdoor industry, work and play is an overlapping gray rainbow. Exploring every nook of where forests meet open skies nearby her home in Pennsylvania only further kindles inspiration for her writing and producing commercial photo shoots.
But in between the shiny photographs, there are periods of travel that are uncomfortable, frustrating, and exhausted of looking for a place to sleep. Because the bottom line is, living out of your car feels like… living out of a car.
We caught up with Johnie in the middle of her semi-annual stretch of living and traveling for weeks in their Sprinter to talk more about why unglamorous moments are the ultimate test of friendship, and dirty pillows are a small price to pay for feeling free.
All photos courtesy of Johnie Gall. Follow her adventures: @dirtbagdarling.
How long have you had your Sprinter and why did you choose that vehicle?
The short answer is four years, but this is the latest vehicle in a longer lineage. Since meeting my husband, we’ve lived intermittently in vehicles including a minivan, a converted school bus, a shorter Sprinter and our current van.
Sprinters are built for commercial use, so they are reputable to be reliable. Ours was previously a shuttle for an old-age home, so it was well taken care of. Sprinters aren’t as stylish as some vans, but they are really fuel-efficient and heavy duty enough to tow trailers. They have million-mile motors and German engineering, and they are tall enough that you can stand up inside of them. That’s all very boring sounding, but when you’re in the middle of nowhere and your stylish van breaks down, suddenly reliability gets a lot more interesting.
How does it work for your travel style?
We’re not in the van full time like a lot of people, this is our toy chest, vacation home, and office. So, we wanted a van that we could build to be modular—one weekend it’s a camper van and mobile surf wagon, the next we take out the bed and the benches and it becomes a dirt bike hauler. When we are living out of the van, it’s large enough that we can stay out of each other’s hair while we work. It also looks commercial, so we can stealth camp in cities and stay pretty inconspicuous.
What were some of the early mistakes or lessons that you learned the hard way about long term traveling out of your car?
I think we assumed it would be easy to find places to park and sleep for free, but that’s usually not the case. We’ve ended up spending a lot of money for campgrounds, or we’ve woken up to the 2AM knock on the window by an angry park ranger or police officer. If four walls can feel stifling, imagine living in a tin can. Now imagine trying to sleep in that tin can, without air conditioning, next to a noisy bus stop in New Orleans when the mercury hits 98 degrees and there’s no breeze. I think a lot of people are looking for spontaneity by living in a van, but being spontaneous can lead to a lot of late nights, driving around bleary eyed and angry at your partner, just trying to find a place to sleep. That’s been one of our larger struggles, at least! Also, you get mice in a van the same way you do in a house — we’ve spent a few sleepless nights trying to catch mice rustling around in our bags of Sun Chips.
What’s the division of labor and responsibilities while traveling with your husband?
I’m not sure we have a strict division of labor while living in the van; I think we both instinctively try to glean what the other person needs help with. If he’s fixing a mechanical problem, I’ll try to organize the interior of the van. If he’s cleaning out the cooler, I’ll put away the rest of the groceries. If I’m hangry and tired, he’ll pull out the camp stove and make us dinner. Driving is the great equalizer—you make sure the driver has the snacks, podcasts, and entertainment they need to keep us going.
Did you always get along easily traveling together or were there instances that you had to work through problems?
The first time we ever lived together, it was in a van. That was the steepest learning curve I’ve ever experienced. I remember sobbing on the side of a mountain, saying, “I just need the van to be more organized. I can’t do this.” It seems silly now, but we were learning about each other’s habits and quirks and finding a compromise. I like to call it the marriage test: if you can cohabitate in a van, you can figure everything else out.
Do you always agree where to go, what to do, and if not, how are those arguments resolved?
We are currently sitting in a parking lot in Jasper National Park, having an argument about this very thing. Marlin is drawn to the mountains, I prefer to be by the coast. Marlin loves ice climbing and cold weather surfing, I prefer to live in a bathing suit. The biggest thing we’ve learned is that you have to set expectations ahead of time and try to make a plan that makes both of you happy. Sounds simple, is simple.
What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about living/traveling/working in your Sprinter?
I’ve always found it odd there are so many essays and Instagram posts from people who live in vans warning people who want to live in vans that it’s not as easy as it looks—does anyone actually think it’ll be easy to leave a nice apartment and live in a tin can? A friend once said to us, "A van is a very large vehicle, but it’s a very small house.” #Vanlife as a trend is still at its peak, but #Vanlife as a lifestyle may be as antiquated an idea as vans themselves. It’s a lifestyle that was pioneered by rock climbers and surfers who ate cat food because they couldn’t afford anything else—it’s not a luxe lifestyle. Instagram can put a shiny veneer on it, but you’re still bumming around in your car.
What are the most common questions you get about it?
The most common question we’re asked is for a look inside! People are curious about how we built the interior into a home, and many older couples commend us for doing what they wish they could have done when they were younger. The other big question is what we do for a living that enables this lifestyle. I think people assume we’ve quit our jobs or we just post about products on Instagram, but we both work eight full hours a day, five days a week or more.
What are the unglamorous moments you don’t see on Instagram?
The other night, I woke up in a Walmart parking lot to the soundtrack of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Or some sort of construction that involved a chainsaw running for three and a half hours. We find notes on our window telling us to “Park this behemoth somewhere else!” We get mice shit all over sink. Our clothes start to develop this really distinct funk after a few days by the coast. We’ll drive a mountain road and discover a vent was open, and now our pillowcases are covered in dust.
How does living/working/playing on the road challenge you?
I have a hard time striking a balance between spontaneity and routine. I get depressed when I’m too engrained in a routine, but I find I’m not nearly as productive or healthy without one. I say that my brain feels “fuzzy” when we’re on the road because I’m not working out consistently, eating my normal diet, or working structured hours. A lot of time gets lost in this static between the highlight reel of our trip, and sometimes I wish I could be sharper or engaged in all these little lost moments. It almost feels like my brain isn’t working as well on the road.
Is being on the road ever emotionally and mentally challenging? What are some of the most challenging moments you’ve faced and how did you get through it?
I recently spent three weeks on the road in the back of my best friend’s pick-up truck. We’d had this amazing plan for a road trip that would include epic traverses and summit celebrations, but his dog got hurt, I got sick, and our plan slipped through our fingers. We spent a lot of time unsure of what to do, looking at the Maps app on our phones, and feeling disappointed and depressed about it. But, by the end of the trip, we were inseparable. By calling an audible and learning to deal with the hard shit, we accelerated our friendship at light speed. Mountain moments are great, but I have new litmus tests for friendship now.
How do you get any work done or do you just have to plan/anticipate that you can’t work as much? What’s that balance?
This has been a huge learning process. You can’t rely on finding quiet places to work with strong WiFi. We have an unlimited data plan through Verizon, so we bought a Jetpack to connect to while in the van. Marlin invested in a signal booster, which has an antenna and magnifies cell reception. We have a deep-cycle battery that we can charge computers off of, and we use the bed and sink counter as standing desks. We also bought a swivel so the passenger seat can turn around and open up space in the van. We try to set a pretty strict work schedule for ourselves, and we work East Coast hours so we can be done and out playing by 2pm if we’re on the West Coast. It takes a lot of planning and dedication to make work happen on the road!
What are some unexpected, yet marvelous serendipitous moments that can only happen while living in your van?
Showering under a towering natural arch, my feet covered in red mud, watching the sunset after a rock climb. Stumbling across a blue-grass band practicing deep in a canyon and being invited into their home. Seeing a pod of whales feeding right off the beach on a grey coastal morning. Cooking naked surrounded by yipping coyotes. Sleeping under the stars and crying because you’re overwhelmed by how small you are in this sweeping galaxy. Just that electric feeling of windswept hair, empty places, dirty feet, and no plans — you don’t get that when you head back to your AirBnb at the end of the night.
What do you miss most while traveling? And what do you miss about traveling when you’re camped out back at home?
I miss my family and friends the most when I’m away, some of that comfort I find in routine and clean sheets and a backyard. But when I’m home I miss the simplicity of being on the road, with just the things I need, and all the time in the world. We live in a really plugged-in world where being lo-fi is unfashionable and obsolete, but I like when my life has frayed edges and I can’t record everything, that maybe I’ll lose some memories forever and that maybe that’s okay.
My best friend is a huge proponent of diving into water at every opportunity. I think living on the road is life affirming in the same way. The cold water reaching out, slapping your hide, stealing your breath. You have to fight your way to the surface, suck in air, shake an element out of your eyes. I like sitting in the dirt and staring at the night sky and feeling wild, and that’s a lot easier when I’m in the middle of nowhere with my van. It’s not an easy lifestyle, but who wants to sign up for easy anyway?