Life On The Road An Interview with Brianna & Keith Madia

Life On The Road

Imagine waking up in a van in the middle of a Utah desert. A cold front has moved in overnight and everything inside the van is covered in frost. It takes a few minutes to muster enough motivation to climb out of a makeshift bed of unzipped sleeping bags and blankets to start the day. The dogs keep warm by curling up next to your partner. The first order of business, once you have emerged from the warmth of your bed, is to fire up a small portable stove to boil water for coffee.

Photography by Chad Kirkland

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As you walk outside, wrapped up in blankets, trying to stay warm, you are met with a scene that doesn’t seem real. The sun rises over a canyon rim that appears to go on forever. Watching the morning light fill the gorge you almost forget that it is 20 degrees outside. Your heart skips a beat as you take it all in. This is your backyard.

These are the kind of moments Brianna and Keith Madia experience on a daily basis. They live out of their van “Bertha” full time while traveling throughout the western United States. Brianna works as a writer while Keith works as a wilderness youth counselor in southern Utah. When most people meet Brianna and Keith, they are curious to know how they can live the way they do. We caught up with Brianna and Keith on a road trip near Moab. Here Brianna shares a glimpse into their world and life on the road.

What inspired you to live in a van?

– When Keith and I graduated from college, we had nowhere to go. We had a dog and some clothes and about $300 to our names. Keith’s parents agreed to let us live on their old 33-foot sailboat for the summer while we worked to save money. That sounds glamorous, but the reality was we had no running water, no internet, no air conditioning and everything was damp 100% of the time. We’d eat dinner out of one pot and then sit on the end of the dock with a hose to wash our dishes before falling asleep in a little triangle-shaped area beneath the bow.

It was such a small and simple existence, and yet I’d never felt more alive. When we moved out west and into an apartment, we always longed to feel that way again. We decided to buy a van…because we weren’t looking for easy or comfortable…we were looking for intentional. We wanted to feel like we had to problem solve and be creative and committed to figure out each day. It felt more human.

What do you consider to be a “successful” life?

– We both grew up in Fairfield County, Connecticut where the concept of success tends to center largely on how much money you have, how big your house is and how expensive your car is. Keith and I bonded immediately over our disdain for that lifestyle. We had no interest in keeping up with Joneses…we just wanted to get away from the Joneses.

What do you and Keith experience living this lifestyle that most couples don’t?

– We spend a lot of time together in an incredibly tight space. We don’t always have the option of walking away or slamming a door. Our communication skills have developed beyond what I thought was possible between two people. When you don’t have the distraction of the TV playing or dishes to be done or a washing machine to be fixed or a lawn to be mowed…you just have each other. You have to be each other’s entertainment and solace and confidante 24 hours a day. And while we pride ourselves on being independent individuals, we’ve both had to admit that we feel a little lost without each other. I think at this point, if we moved into a house we’d just follow each other around from room to room.

You call yourselves ‘Desert Dwellers.’ What is a Desert Dweller?

– Being desert dwellers extends beyond just living in a desert environment. I think that when you love a certain type of landscape so deeply, it actually begins to dwell inside of you…not just you inside of it. We hold such a deep appreciation of every aspect of the desert – even the unforgiving ones…daytime temperatures of over 100 degrees; nighttime temperatures that drop and send you running for your sleeping bag; flash floods, poisonous snakes and prickly pear…Everything that calls the desert home does so with immense intention and determination. Only when you learn how to be comfortable in such extremes and harshness can you fully experience the unrivaled freedom of a space that most people flee from.

Have you ever wanted to stop living out of your van and go back to ‘normal’ life?

– When there’s two feet of snow on the van without a reliable heat source and I’m buried under a couple of -30º sleeping bags and a pile of blankets, knowing that in a few moments I have to get out and use an old credit card to scrape ice off of the inside of my windshield – I tend to mutter, “what the $%#* am I doing with my life?!”

Choosing to live like this isn’t about being comfortable all the time. If you go into this lifestyle imagining that it looks like a Pinterest page 100% of the time, you’re in for a big surprise.

I think what’s more important than being happy all the time is finding a way to be happy when there doesn’t seem to be anything worth being happy about. The van has taught us more about that than I would have imagined.

What do you listen to during the long drives?

– We like to joke that our Spotify playlists would probably be a huge hit at a 65th birthday party. We’re huge fans of the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers, Led Zeppelin, Stevie Wonder, Neil Young, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Stones, Bob Dylan etc.

We get a lot of climbing inspiration from the awesome tales being shared on Enormocast.

You have two dogs named Bucket and Dagwood. How did they get their names?

– I’ve always had a fanatical love of animals and passed that on to Keith when we started dating. We talked nonstop for the first two years of our relationship about the day we’d adopt a dog. Then one night as we sat in a brewery in Oregon in the midst of our first cross-country road trip we decided to make a “bucket list” of things we wanted to do by the end of that summer. All we managed to write on the napkin was “adopt a dog, name it Bucket.” And the second we got back to Connecticut, that’s what we did. Everyone thought it was a horrible idea. We were young and partially employed and living on a 33-foot sailboat. But we never intended to adopt some sort of “house pet”…we adopted a co-pilot. She was going wherever we were going. That dog was our whole world the second we saw her.

When we moved out west to Utah, we went to the pet store and saw this scrawny little dingo digging furiously at the bottom corner of his kennel during an adoption event. We felt this completely bizarre gravitational pull toward him, but left him there. When I called his shelter the next day and heard he’d been adopted I cried. We still couldn’t stop thinking about him so one month later we went to the shelter to see if they had any other dogs. We asked the receptionist if Dagwood went to a good home and she said, “yea he did – but he came back.”

Dagwood had been adopted three times and brought back after each. The reasons listed were that he was “too wild, too mischievous, impossible to train, too destructive.” Dagwood belonged with us from the very start; more than that, he belonged in the van. He was never going to be a ‘walk around the block’ kind of dog. He belongs in the desert where he can be free, which works out perfectly, because so do we.

Do you have a quote that you live your life by?

– When we found the van in the classified ads, Keith was hesitant to give away literally every penny that we had, so as a final push, I called him and recited my favorite quote of all time: “And then there is the most dangerous risk of all — the risk of spending your life not doing what you want on the bet you can buy yourself the freedom to do it later,” by Randy Komisar.

What are some of your favorite memories of life on the road?

– Many of the best moments of this adventure are when it’s just the four of us rumbling along silently down dark highways or when we’re perched up on a desert butte and it’s quiet and the dogs are roaming and there’s music playing and Keith is reading in the shade…those are the moments when I look around and think, ‘we’re really doing this, aren’t we…we’re really living like we said we would…’ Those are always the moments when I feel an indescribable sense of inner peace.

What’s the biggest challenge of living on the road?

– There is something organizationally flawed about living nowhere and everywhere at the same time. There are times we need a bag of things at our storage unit or a bag of laundry at a buddy’s place and we’ve got gear to somehow cram onto the roof rack. I have to pause for a moment and scream internally because I think people underestimate how difficult it is to feel organized.

What comes next?

– Your guess is as good as mine.