INTERVIEW WITH MADISON AND DAVID (@THE AMERICAN FIELD TRIP)
Who are you and what is your backstory?
We are the Bowman family: Madison (32), David (31), Graham (7), Margaret (4), and Bill (6 months.) I (Madison) grew up in Idaho, David grew up in Kansas, we met in Portugal, got married in Utah, and had our kids in New York City.
We moved to NYC in 2014 when David got a job as a graphic designer for a little design firm in the West Village. We lived there for 3 years, moved onto the road full-time for 18 months, then went back to NYC.
Since 2018 we’ve been spending as much time as we can on the road and planning for a move back to full-time road life as soon as we can!
Take us to the moment you decided to begin your Vanlife?
We made the leap to van life (or shuttle bus life, in our case) very abruptly. We started thinking about it around November of 2016, bought our bus 2 months later and were on the road full-time by April of 2017.
I don’t want to say that we didn’t think it all the way through, because we definitely tried to be as thoughtful as we could about it! But we also didn’t really know what living on the road would be like; if we’d known everything going in, we might have been scared off! Maybe that’s the truth behind any major life change.
I was at home full-time with our two kids, so my job was easy to transition onto the road. David quit his job at a design studio and transitioned to freelance design work using his contacts from NYC and from his college program. We had no debt, which was an enormous advantage and privilege, and David felt confident about his ability to get freelance work.
First of all, I wouldn’t worry about making your build too fancy.... It doesn’t have to be complicated and it doesn’t have to be Instagrammable. The point is to spend most of your time outside anyway!
One of our primary motivations was for David and I to spend more time doing what the other was doing. I was spending all my time parenting and hadn’t been able to keep up with my previous writing and teaching career. David wasn’t spending as much time with the kids as he wanted to, and also wanted to be more connected to his creative work. We hoped that moving on the road would give us the time to balance these various jobs and also give us material to work with creatively.
Before moving into our van, we downsized a lot, put some things in storage, and rented out our apartment furnished.
Tell us about the advantages to the Van lifestyle?
Our goal in setting out was to visit all 59 (at the time; now there are 62!) national parks in the U.S. This had been a goal of David’s when he was a kid, and having that parameter helped us feel like we had direction and purpose. It also helped our parents and people around us think we weren’t insane ;).
The first hurdle was building out our bus (we detailed the process here.) I had a bit of construction experience and David is a wizard at figuring things out, but we essentially had no idea what we were doing and we were trying to do it fast. We gave ourselves a month to do the build and ended up taking 6 weeks. It was a very painful 6 weeks, full of frustration and late nights, lots of YouTube-ing to figure things out, and many trips to the hardware store.
Relationships in a tiny space bring their own challenges—we learned along the way that we all needed to take time apart from the group..
While it was painful, it was also awesome to know how everything in our new tiny home worked; if anything went wrong, we knew how to fix it, or at least knew we could figure it out. We were so happy with the way our build turned out and that really gave us the confidence we needed to get started on our trip.
After the build, we started visiting national parks. We were not big parks people before this. Both of us had visited national parks as kids, but not that often, and we didn’t do a lot of outdoor recreation. But immediately we felt connected to public lands issues and committed to hiking with our kids and really trying to get to know each park we visited. We didn’t want to treat them like items to be checked off a list.
Our kids really thrived living in the bus. Watching them explore and discover was an absolutely unparalleled experience for us, the best part of road life by far. They are always learning, wherever we are, but as we visited the national parks—as we climbed mountains and listened to rangers and read interpretive signs together, as we watched bears snatching salmon out of the air and touched glaciers and examined tide pools—we witnessed a shift in them, a physical change in the way they relate to their environment, in their ease amidst wildness. They are never more curious, more imaginative and playful, than when we’re surrounded by nature. And that is a tremendous gift to be able to offer them.
One of the national parks is in American Samoa, and we decided that since we’d be going all the way to the other side of the world, we should see some more stuff there! So we also spent 2 weeks van-lifing in Australia and 3 weeks in New Zealand (we talk about that experience in this post.)
Tell us about the biggest challenges and downsides to the Van lifestyle?
During our 18 months of full-time travel, we loved being able to see our family and friends that were scattered around the country. We were also able to meet people along the way that we ended up really connecting with.
But we were also moving really fast to visit all the parks with that 18 months, so we didn’t have as much of a sense of community as we might have had we been moving slower. We also felt like we weren’t very useful to our community back home—if a friend was having a hard time, we couldn’t take them cookies or offer to watch their kids, that kind of thing. We really missed being able to help people.
Other than that, the biggest challenge was probably navigating the pressure we put on ourselves to fully soak up each park, to document our adventure well, and to meet our self-imposed timeline. Doing things so quickly meant that David was doing all his freelance work at night and when he had a lot of work, that was exhausting. We had an enormous amount of fun, but we wish we’d let ourselves slow down. At the time, we were worried about keeping enough freelance work to fund our travels and we wanted to be back home when our renters moved out and not have to find new renters.
Our bus ended up being such a trooper. We blew one tire (on a freeway in Nashville—not even one of the many rough roads we took him on!) and the alternator went out toward the end of our trip. But in 60,000 miles, those were really the only issues we had. He is the most reliable vehicle we’ve ever owned. (We talk about why we went with a bus vs. a van or RV in this post.)
Relationships in a tiny space bring their own challenges—we learned along the way that we all needed to take time apart from the group, so David and I would go on solo walks or take the kids out to play while the other took a nap or got some work done. The kids also needed time apart from each other, and we tried to take them out one-on-one as much as possible.
How do you find a sense of community when you’re always moving? How do you maintain and build relationships on the road?
We went to church every week that we were on the road and ended up meeting a lot of awesome people that way. People would find out what we were doing and want to know more, invite us over for dinner or for a playdate with the kids. We also met other travelers, or met up with people we followed on Instagram.
We have family and friends that are scattered around the country, too, and we always made an effort to see people we knew. It was really fun reconnecting with all these people we’d known at different phases of our lives.
How do you support yourself financially?
When we were full-time, David worked freelance. We also relied on the rent we were getting from our NYC apartment. We tried to trade photo and video work for experiences (flying tours, whale watching, etc.) along the way as much as we could. We also ended up getting some one-off sponsorship deals that helped a bit.
Moving quickly was very expensive, because we used so much gas. If we were to do it again, we’d move much more slowly and that would save a lot of money. We only paid for campgrounds a handful of times; otherwise we were always boondocking on public land or at Walmarts. Our bus was completely off-grid, so we didn’t need to worry about hookups or emptying tanks or anything like that. That saved us a lot of campground fees.
We are enormously lucky to have had no debt going into this and some savings that we could fall back on. We also knew that if everything fell apart, we had places we could land, even if it meant moving in with our parents for a few months. I can’t overemphasize how much that helps, mentally, when making a big leap like this.
Now David works remotely full-time. We spend quite a bit of time on the road, but we have to move slowly so he can get hours in and be present for video meetings and such. But having a steady income and benefits is incredibly nice after piecing together freelance work for so long. Now money doesn’t have to be a constant stress, and that makes traveling way more enjoyable!
What is your one piece of advice for people who want to do what you do?
First of all, I wouldn’t worry about making your build too fancy. I think a lot of people pour money into kitting out their vehicles, but you really only need a pretty utilitarian setup—a mattress, water jugs, and a camping stove. It doesn’t have to be complicated and it doesn’t have to be Instagrammable. The point is to spend most of your time outside anyway!
Move slowly. It’s much more affordable and sustainable, plus you can really get to know and dig into the areas you love.
What have been the most influential and helpful books, podcasts, blogs, websites or other resources?
We use AllStays and freecampsites.net for finding boondocking sites or checking which store parking lots will let you stay overnight.
We use National Geographic guidebooks for planning our park visits. We also love starting each park visit at the visitor’s center, picking the ranger’s brains and trying to find both the big, must-do sites at each park and the lesser-known gems.
Our friends Our Vie Adventures and Switchback Kids also visited all the national parks just before we did, and they were super helpful in sharing what they learned at each park!
What does the future look like?
After we finished visiting all the national parks, we decided to extend our goal to visiting every site in the National Park Service System. Right now there are 421! We are hitting them slowly, especially since COVID hit and we added a third kid in March 2020.
We just moved to Idaho and are hoping to be back on the road full-time by spring. Right now, we’re enjoying the mountains of the West and revisiting parks like Yellowstone and Grand Teton.
We are working on building out a new vehicle, this time a Ford Transit Van, and getting our baby to be a better sleeper so roadtrips aren’t miserable!
Is there anything that you need that you can’t find or anything you are seeking help with?
Since we set out on the road, we’ve had a major goal of one day writing and publishing a book. We’d actually love to write a kids’ series that takes on one park per book, has information about the science, nature and history of the park, and has engaging illustrations and an adventure story line. If anyone has any connections in publishing, we’d absolutely love to hear from you!
Rapid fire questions
What are the top 3 Van essentials that you couldn’t live without?
Top 3 favorite places you’ve visited?
- Katmai National Park
- National Park of American Samoa
- The Utah desert
Where are you now?
We’re renting a house in Idaho til we can move back onto the road.
How long do you usually stay in one place?
While on our national parks tour, we tried to spend 4 days to a week (at least) in each park. When we go back on the road, we’d like to move much more slowly.
When did you first start Vanlifing?
Are you full-time or part-time Vanlifing?
Part-time right now
How many weeks have you spent in the Van in the last 12 months?
Because of COVID and a new baby, only a few!
What kind of vehicle/rv/trailer/setup do you have?
We full-timed in our 24-foot converted Ford shuttle bus. Now we have an high-roof, extended-cab Ford Transit van.
Where can we go to keep up with you and your adventures?
Website - www.americanfieldtrip.com
Instagram - @theamericanfieldtrip