Connected States: Lessons I've Learned from Living in a Van

By Brent Rose on at

It’s been almost a month on the road now.

One of the goals of Connected States was to see what lessons could be gleaned from a mobile lifestyle and then applied to a life more stationary. Well, 25 days isn’t so long in the grand scheme of things, especially if I’m staring down the barrel of another 340 or so, but it’s been long enough to make an observation or two.

I’m hoping this trip may end up making me a better person. Or better at being a person. By that I mean it may help me to address some life-long character flaws that have thus far resisted my best intentions.

Connected States: Lessons I've Learned from Living in a Van

Tidy As Hell

My personal spaces have always been completely disorganized, messy, and covered with junk. This video from my old web-series shows the actual state of my desk and room at the time.

Nothing has been able to solve this problem. Not being grounded as a kid, not being afraid of girls seeing it in my mid-20s, and not even when living with a woman who had her shit together far better than I did. It’s too early to say for certain, but I think living in the van is solving it.

It’s this simple: You can’t leave crap lying around when you’re living in a van. You just can’t. Not only is it a small space where every surface needs to be available, but it’s actually hazardous. If you have clutter it’s going to go flying while you’re driving. It will crash and it will break, and it could hurt you or break into a million pieces. Hell, that happens often enough as it is when a cabinet spontaneously springs open.

Anyway, for the first time in my life, I don’t have a desk covered in papers. I don’t have clothes lying around everywhere. Even more crazy: I actually know where everything is. This is, essentially, a first for me. You naturally organized people can scoff if you want, but I wasn’t born with your gifts, and it’s a big step toward solving a problem I’ve always wanted to address.

Connected States: Lessons I've Learned from Living in a Van

Down Scaling

This brings me to another potential improvement. I’ve long been wanting to scale back the sheer number of items I own. The whole “possess little” ethos has always struck a chord with me, but I’ve always been terrible at living by it. The van is now forcing my hand. I only have so many cabinets and so much trunk space; anything beyond that, I can’t take with me.

I mean, it’s not like when I first moved to NY when I was 19 and I had two suitcases, a guitar, and a backpack with my laptop in it. The van holds more than that. But it’s not far off. It makes me weigh each potential purchase or offer of a gift (or a review unit) and genuinely consider, “A) Do I need this? And B) Where would I put this in the van?” If I don’t have a very good answer for both then I don’t get it. It’s that simple.

Connected States: Lessons I've Learned from Living in a Van

Something Wild

I’m also starting to reconnect with nature in a way I haven’t in years. It’s a slow process, almost as if we’re a little leery of each other, but we’ve had some breakthroughs already, and Northern Michigan was the first staging ground. I had just crossed the Mackinac Bridge into the Upper Peninsula and was driving along the coast of Lack Michigan when I saw a beach. I pulled over. It was hot. I threw some board-shorts on and was in the water within just a minute or two.

I am not a religious person by any means, but I think there’s something interesting about how so many of the major world religious haves rites involving submersion in water. There’s something about it where you re-emerge and feel… what? Good? Clean? New?

Well I was back on the road five minutes later, but I felt changed. It was as if the spontaneity of the moment had reminded me of this trip’s potential, and the thought filled me with joy. I felt (and continue to feel) overcome with gratitude for the chance to do stuff like this. It’s crazy and I strive to be worthy of the opportunity.

Connected States: Lessons I've Learned from Living in a Van

A Lesson in Preparation

I found myself at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore near Munising, Michigan, and I was completely floored by the beauty. Lush forests leading to rough and alien-looking sandstone formations that plunge directly into Lake Superior. It was supposed to be a three-hour hike (a la Gilligan’s Island), but I kept stopping to try and capture waterfalls, vegetation, sunbeams, and the coast.

I saw the sun making a break for the horizon and I knew I should have turned and headed back to the van, but I couldn’t. I wanted to see the sun sink all the way, and so I stayed, despite knowing I’d have to hike back by night. But that wasn’t really a big deal. In my small daypack I’d managed to jam in a little bit of food, a water filter, a headlamp, a knife, and even my sleeping bag. Worst-case scenario, I could just find some soft ground and pass out in the woods.

I ended up hiking back out by headlamp anyway, just because I didn’t know what the bear situation there was, but having all that those survival items with me completely took the stress out of the situation. I could enjoy the sunset, and even the three-mile hike out along a barely marked trail, because I had a backup plan strapped to me.

It was kind of a microcosm of the whole van experience. For the first time in my life I’m pretty much ready to go no matter where I stop for the night. I’ve got everything I need with me. Clothes, food, a means of cooking and washing myself. Since starting, there have been very few days that I woke up knowing where I would be spending the next night. And again, I haven’t really been stressed out about it.

Staying Humble

After my night in Painted Rocks, I found myself in Marquette, Michigan, based on the recommendations of some folks on Twitter. My friend Rachel pinged her brother Tim who once lived around there, and he pinged his friend Jeremy who said I had to check out the 200+ miles of singletrack in the Noquemanon Trail Network if I had a bike. I did! I’d brought along a Montague Swissbike X90, a folding mountain bike, and I was dying to try it out.

I ended up choosing the Pioneer Loop, which was labelled intermediate. I’m generally pretty confident on a bike, but I’d never taken this one on dirt, I’m pretty out of shape, and I was trying out a new pair of Shimano A530 clipless pedals for the first time. So I was taking it easy on the trail and having a blast. Beautiful, dense forest with some really fun sections.

Right toward the end I was passing the entrance to some sections that were all black diamonds and double-blacks. I just continued past them until I ran into a guy who said, “Have you tried Eh Line? You’ve got to try Eh Line, it’s the best segment here.” So I rode over to the beginning. It was a black diamond jump trail. I balked. I hadn’t done any jumps in two years. The guys said the jumps were all tabletops so I could just roll over them if I wanted. Sounded good.

Eh Line was amazing. Fast downhill with steep berms leading into each other and dozens upon dozens of jumps. But like the guy said, I could just roll over them, which was still pretty fun. I made it all the way to the bottom and was feeling good, confident, proud of myself. There was one final little jump. I mean, it was literally the very last jump, and it was by far the smallest of them. I said screw it, and went for it.

It hit it just a little bit off the middle, and knew I wasn’t going to land straight. Instinctively I started turning my front wheel before I was even on the ground. Big mistake. As soon as I touched the ground my bike lurched to the right. I tried to correct but the ground was soft, powdery dirt. The wheel slid out and I went down like a ton of bricks.

I’d torn huge chunks of skin off, starting at my forearm and extending almost as far as my armpit. More disturbing was that breathing was painful and getting worse. I called my brother, who’s a doctor and he recommended getting an X-ray just as a precaution. Sounded like a cracked rib.

The point is that if I’d just stayed within my limits and been patient as I was getting the hang of riding a hardtail again after many years I wouldn’t be quite so battered and bruised right now. More than anything, I was annoyed at myself. Annoyed at myself for listening to a guy’s recommendation who didn’t know my limitations, and annoyed at myself for feeling obligated to show off, if only for myself. There’s a fine line between going out of your comfort zone and being excessively risky. The precise point at which that line lies can be deceptively hard to find.

Connected States: Lessons I've Learned from Living in a Van[Photo by Jeff Lane]

Lessons Still to Learn

I continue, as I always have, to struggle with finding the right balance between work, life, exercise, and sleep. In the year leading up to this trip exercise and sleep had completely gone out the window. Now I have another thing to factor in: driving. Obviously, considering I’m getting this update in a few days late, I still have a way to go.

I’m trying to take it easy on myself this first month or so. I’ve had to cover more ground, more quickly than I hope will be the norm for the rest of the trip. This has led to many 8+ hour days behind the wheel. Of course I have no one to blame for that but myself. I chose to drive to my friend’s wedding in Michigan, instead of fly. Even when I’m parked, though, it can be tough to buckle down and bury my face in my computer when all I want to do is explore, meet people, try things, take photos. Factor in the summer heat in the van, and it’s a recipe for trouble. Hopefully this will be solved when my pace slows down some and I can start spending more time in places. Hopefully.

There are, of course, many other things to learn on the road, and I imagine they’ll present themselves to me as I go. Either one at a time or all at once in an overwhelming clump. Such is life.

Connected States: Lessons I've Learned from Living in a Van[The dunes on Lake Michigan near Traverse City. Photo by Brett Karis]


I’m way behind here, but here’s a quick recap to start getting us caught up. When we left off I was in Traverse City, Michigan, and heading north. My first stop was Mackinac (pronounced MACK-in-aw, not MACK-in-ACK) for some fudge. The streets of Mackinac are lined with candy shoppes and fudge places. It’s legendary for it. I’d been told Marshall’s was the place to go and holy crap I can see why. Utterly delicious.

Connected States: Lessons I've Learned from Living in a Van

Tourists swarm to the area and, fun fact, I’ve learned that the locals refer to these tourists as, “fudgies”. Love it. But really, between the fudge, candy apple, taffy, and other candy stores everywhere, Mackinac has got to be the diabetes capital of the world.

Connected States: Lessons I've Learned from Living in a Van

Connected States: Lessons I've Learned from Living in a Van

I was also introduced to the wonders of pasties! They’re these light, almost croissant-like pastries stuffed with meat and veggies. I had one lousy one, and then one amazing one at the place you see above.

Each one is a good two meals, though, so be careful.

Connected States: Lessons I've Learned from Living in a Van

Also, video stores are still alive and well in Michigan and much of the Midwest, it seems. It’s like they’re preserved in amber, shielding them from the radiation of internet wires.

Connected States: Lessons I've Learned from Living in a Van

From there I went to the Upper Peninsula I’d been hearing so much about, and went straight to the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Absolutely stunning.

Connected States: Lessons I've Learned from Living in a Van[Pictured Rocks is frickin’ amazing.]

Connected States: Lessons I've Learned from Living in a Van

From there I spent a couple days in Marquette, Michigan. Really cute town and I can tell you, Marquette has the best emergency room I’ve ever been to. Fast, friendly, and clean. If you’re going to hurt yourself, do it in Marquette.

Connected States: Lessons I've Learned from Living in a Van

From there I had to make a bee line to Minneapolis, Minnesota. I had a friend there who was going to a horse race that night at Canterbury Park. I grew up a mile from a race track, and yet I’d never seen a horse race in my life. Today was the day. So I drove the seven hours straight there and made it just in time.

Unfortunately, this meant driving right through Wisconsin, which I feel really bad about. What I saw of the state (out the window) was absolutely beautiful, and it’s now high on my list of places to return so I can explore it properly. I did manage to stop and get some cheese curds, and yes, they did squeak, so at least those were legit.

Connected States: Lessons I've Learned from Living in a Van

The horse race was interesting. A lost about 40 bucks betting or horses I knew nothing about. I had one of the weakest drinks of my entire life there (a mint julep, because when in Rome), and I ate a bunch of friend food. Really, though, it was all about the people watching and the occasional minute of watching some four-legged animals run their hearts out.

Connected States: Lessons I've Learned from Living in a Van[The ladies looking lovely.]

Connected States: Lessons I've Learned from Living in a Van[The fellas (trying to) look tough.]

Fun fact about the Twin Cities: the Ethiopian food is on point! I mean, I’ve eaten a lot of Ethiopian food all over the US (I heart messy stuff you eat with your hands), and St. Paul has the best I’ve ever tasted. This time around I went to Fasika which was very legit. Downtown Minneapolis is developing a nice little cocktail scene, too. I had a most delicious drink at Parlour. Definitely recommended.

Connected States: Lessons I've Learned from Living in a Van

I also got to catch up with an old friend, Marisol, from high school who I hadn’t seen in a decade or so. There’s someone special about that kind of experience. Old friends have the ability to reflect back to us images of who we used to be. We change so gradually that usually we don’t even notice. Big gaps in time make the changes more obvious, and it’s always fun to be reminding of things you’d long forgotten but that left an imprint on someone else. Or vice versa. Her boyfriend was interested in quadcopters so he and I walked to the park and took my DJI Phantom 3 out for a spin. Really cool to see Minneapolis from that angle.

Then something rather wonderful happened. My next stop would be the Badlands of South Dakota, a place I’d been dying to visit for more than a decade. My friend Richard was supposed to come with me for that chunk but he had family obligations and had to pull out. I guess I’d gotten used to the idea of doing that section with someone, so I asked my Facebook friends if anyone wanted to come.

To my amazement, my good friend Jeff (also a homie from high school), said, “When?” I said, “Tomorrow?” Within 20 minutes he’d booked flights. He’d fly into Minneapolis, and we’d start heading west. We’d spend five days in South Dakota, and then I’d drop him in Billings, Montana. I couldn’t believe it worked out.

Connected States: Lessons I've Learned from Living in a Van[More on this part of the adventure next time.]

Those 5 days would be an incredible adventure, but there’s too much to show and tell, so we’ll have to save that for next time. If you want a taste of that now you can check out my coverage of the 75th Anniversary Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, which included a pretty sweet drone shot, if I do say so myself

Anyway, thank you for reading and for contributing to this journey. The advice for places to go and things to see has been invaluable so far, and I hope to meet more of you soon. Until next time.

Billings, MT

Connected States is a new series from Brent Rose about living a truly mobile life. Brent will be traveling the U.S. in a high-tech van, telling stories from the road. New episodes will appear every week on Gizmodo, with more content being released in between. He is currently soliciting ideas for places to go, things to see, and people to talk to. Follow him on Instagram,Twitter, Facebook, and

All photos in this entry were taken with a Sony A7s. Drone footage was shot with a DJI Phantom 3.