Life in a Modern-Day Mystery Machine

An interview with Reed Rombough, a van-dweller, adventurer, and climber.

May 10, 2016

I walk into my friend Thom’s house just in time to inhale a plume of smoke emanating from burning crab cakes on the stove. Some long-haired stranger is attempting to make dinner. There’s a clamor. Thom’s throwing all the windows open. Ryan, Thom’s housemate, chides the guy: “You’ve got that temperature up as high as it’ll go!”

But things resolve quickly and I introduce myself to the crab cake dude. He tells me his name is Reed. Turns out he’s Ryan’s brother, and he’s staying for the week at Thom’s.

We all spill out into the backyard, sipping canned Uinta summer ales and munching singed snacks. Hammocking, catching up. Reed has a wonderful dog named Sadey, a German short-haired pointer. She’s full of energy, chasing sticks and rooting in the bushes for critters.

Eventually, Thom and I have to head out to go to dinner with another visiting friend. As we’re bidding farewells, someone mentions that Reed lives in the van parked in the driveway, a big white Sprinter.

Our Uber is pulling up, but I couldn’t resist asking Reed to let me have a peek.

The interior is well-crafted and the usage of the space is deliberate: There’s room for climbing crash pads in a space behind the bookshelf. The space under the bed houses Reed’s construction equipment. There’s a sink and a seven-gallon drinking-water tank. Solar energy powers the lighting and phone charger. The van is obviously built for long, lonesome stretches on the road.

Reed and I chat briefly and he summarizes his story — he’s a nomad doing freelance construction work all around the country. We have to part ways though, because of my dinner plans.

But I can’t get the van-dwelling lifestyle out of my head. I think it’s because Reed’s setup reminds me that there are solid alternatives to the nine-to-five, forty-year career.

I’m currently part of the majority who live life the conventional, prescribed way: You work 80% of the time, you play 20% of the time, if you’re lucky. You accrue money. You buy nice clothes. You buy a nice car. You buy a bunch of shit you don’t need and put it in a big house. The big house gets full of all the shit, so you buy a bigger house, and so forth.

Reed’s lifestyle doesn’t indict consumerism itself, but challenges purposeless, undirected accumulation, because it weighs you down. It chains you to a specific place. Your purchases become your prison. So, why do it?

“ I have never profited more than $30,000 in a year, I have owned a failed small business, have been a carpenter, a weed sprayer, pulled gigs off Craigslist, and have always worked hard for my money. Through all of this I have found a way to fund transcontinental, multi-national trips centered around climbing in the Patagonian mountains of Argentina and Chile as well as to Nepal and Thailand…

…You have 29,280 days from birth to age 80. You have 1 day until tomorrow. You can’t choose when your book will end, but you can choose what fills the pages.”

— Reed’s blog, titled My Everyman Story.

The Interview

I’m so intrigued by the van existence that, the next day, my girlfriend and I head over again to meet Reed, snap some photos, and figure out how he lives.

The following is transcribed from a tape of our conversation:

How much did it cost to get started?

I got the van itself for $7,400. It had 156,000 miles on it, and it still probably has 250,000 miles more in it because it’s a turbodiesel. And then I put $3,200 into the build. So, a total of about $10,600.

Wow. That’s way cheaper than I would’ve thought.

Because I could do [the construction] myself there were a lot of corners I could cut. If I was building something like this for someone else, and they had an unlimited budget, building something like [what I have] would be C-grade construction for me. There are a lot of other things I would’ve done, like a different way of doing the wood. If I had the choice [now], I would’ve done horizontal, actual siding boards. They’re beautiful. I’d stain them up really nice. I also would’ve gotten a bigger solar generator. Right now, I’m running 400 watts. If I had the 1250 watt version, I could’ve run a fridge. Are you looking to make a business out of these kinds of van conversions?

Yeah so that’s what I’d like to do. I’ve been re-modeling houses for two years and building custom homes. I just recently started an LLC [for the purpose of van conversions].

Some friends of mine own a [climbing] gear consignment shop called the Gear Room. They just bought a Sprinter and want to turn it into a mobile storefront. They wanted some advice on how to do their own build and it me think that this sort of thing would be the dream: to convert vans, campers, cargo trucks, stuff like that, into adventure vehicles for people.

What would you say are the biggest difficulties about van life?

The cooler. I probably put $30 a month into ice to keep my food cold. The goal is to get a fridge going as soon as possible or just get a Yeti cooler.

How much would you say that you’re spending each month on food, gas and living costs?

Between food, gas, ice, and my payments on the van, maybe $330 a month is all. I’ll probably have the van paid off by the end of this year and I’ll be back down to $150 a month.

So are you able to allocate to savings?

No. Pretty much everything goes into the next trip. I’m not exactly a plan-for-the-future kind of guy. The joke is that this [van] is my “pre-tirement” home. My thought is that I’ll worry about [savings] when I’m done traveling. I picture myself in here for at least six more years (I turn 26 in 6 days).

What’s the best thing about living in a van?

Literally everything I do is for climbing. This gives me the easiest access to that. Climbing is what I want to do more than anything else.

Skiers always brag about how they have 100-day seasons. I got 254 days of climbing in last year. Living like this lets me save money to go on trips. Outside of my dog, I have no responsibilities (utilities, rent etc.) to consider when I want to leave the country or be away.

It’s freedom.

What do you do about pooping?

Well, for example, when I was in Fort Collins, I was staying at a rest area and they had toilets. Also, when you’re building houses or remodeling, those people tend to have bathrooms you can use.

I try to plan to stay in a location for two months at a time. So I’ll buy a [climbing] gym membership and shower there. A lot of climbing gyms let van dwellers park in their lots. The one in Fort Collins opened at 6:00am, so I could shower and use the bathrooms there.

Isn’t this a pretty lonely existence?

A little bit at first, but it’s super normal now. I’ve also got Sadey.

In Colorado these past two months, I was entirely alone every week. I worked alone, did my remodels alone, went to bed alone at the rest area every night, but it’s totally normal for me.

What advice would you give to someone looking to plan for this van lifestyle right now?

It depends on your job, and how often you want to move. Structure your van life around what you want to do: see a new city, climb, surf, etc.

If you do it in a way that’s comfortable to you, you’ll be fine. If you feel like you’re roughing it, it’s not going to be fun for very long.

On the whole, it’s a hard trigger to pull [to leave a 9 to 5 lifestyle in a single city], but it’s easy to live once you do.

Many thanks to Fiona Foster for shooting the photos!

Find Reed Rombough at his website, myeverymanstory.com, and his Instagram account @reedrombo.

Written by Nick Roberts