In August 2014 I put everything I owned into boxes, climbed into a U-Haul, and started driving. I was heading to a temporary location with the vague idea of letting my heart heal and getting my head on straight, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do beyond that. I wanted a home, but I also wanted to explore. I needed a nest, but I didn’t want to be tied to any one place. As I pounded out the miles in that big yellow truck an idea started forming, and that would lead me to this project. I call it Connected States.
Welcome to The Connected States
This project is one part adventure travel, one part gonzo journalism, and one part social experiment. And you’re invited. No, really, you are.
For the next year or so I am going to be living out of a van. It’s a big-arse, kick-arse van which I have customised to meet my high-tech needs. It will be my home, office, and base of operations as I drive around the US (and Canada? And Mexico?) seeking out stories to tell.
I’ll be covering the biggies like NASA and Google, and I’ll be writing about unknown inventors, quietly tinkering in their garages in Smalltown, USA. I’ll be photographing some of the country’s great wilderness, and I’ll be writing about booze in New Orleans. I hope to cover everything from startups in Austin to surfing in Alaska. Stories will appear on Gizmodo, Wired, Outside Magazine, and others, in addition to the site I’ve built for the journey, Connected States, which will act as a repository for all of those stories and more.
There’s no set route or schedule. There’s no solid plan. There are certain events and places I want to hit, but everything in between is improv, and that’s the essence of the project. To fully embrace the mobile life. To find the balance point between being both untethered and hyper-connected. To have home be everywhere and nowhere. To explore this lifestyle and see what we can learn from it.
When I last spoke to Gizmodo’s Annalee Newitz about the project we wondered together if we might be seeing more and more of this sort of thing in the future, as our population rises and as housing costs creep higher and higher. Perhaps the drought-ravaged southwest will take to the road in search of greener pastures. We’ll be exploring the up and downs, ins and outs, highs and lows of that lifestyle. I’m excited. I’m scared.
Where You Come In
The Connected States is also a social experiment. The majority of this country is unfamiliar to me and I’ll be a stranger in a strange land pretty much everywhere I go. I don’t want to miss the good stuff, and that may include some obscure thing you (yes you!) know about. I’ll be hunting for great, off-the-beaten-path science and tech stories, nature and outdoors stories, fitness and booze stories. If you know of something that I’ve absolutely got to check out, please let me know. If it’s near you maybe we can even check it out together. It can be as big as some guy building a submarine or as small as the best burger in town. Actually, I’m very hungry right now.
Part of it, too, is just meeting people in different walks of life and talking to them, hearing their stories, and learning what makes them tick. Basically, I want to find out what, if anything, connects us all. I’ll do my best to organise meet-ups in different cities from time to time, but if you see that I’m heading your way, gimme a shout and maybe we can grab a sandwich and swap tales. If you’ve got a nice, level driveway for me to park in for a night, I may take you up on that too.
As of this writing, I’m in
Nebraska Iowa, making my way up to Michigan for a wedding this weekend. The best way to keep up with my current location is to follow along on social media. I’ll be utilising Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, as well as CouchSurfing.com and sure why not, Tinder.
There kind of aren’t any. Most of the time I’ll be in my van, driving around. Some of the time I’ll have to fly to a place and leave my van behind for a week or two. Yes, I am allowed to sleep indoors. No, not all bathing must be done in my tiny little shower.
Generally speaking, I’ll be posting full updates at least once a week. Unless I’m so far off the grid that I have no service, which will hopefully happen from time to time. Instagram etc updates will be more frequent and the Connected States website will host more travelogue-type and some image galleries. I’m currently thinking this trip will last a full year, but it could be much longer or much shorter, depending how it goes. Time (and mileage) will tell.
I bought this van a little over a month ago, and have been customising it and getting it ready for the trip since then. It’s an ’06 Gulf Stream Vista Cruiser G24. It’s built on a Freightliner Sprinter chassis and it has a mighty sweet 2.7-litre Mercedes Benz diesel engine under the hood, which has been getting me around 20 MPG, which is pretty damn good for a van its size.
It’s 6.5m long, about 3m tall and 2m wide. It fits in most city parking spaces and it’s somewhat incognito, which is good because I’ll be gorilla-camping for much of the journey. Inside there’s a full-sized bed (with memory foam top) and a separate table and chairs which acts as my office and dinner table. You’d be amazed to learn how hard it was to find a class B RV that had a separate bed and table area. It eliminated well over 90 per cent of my choices.
The other factor was storage space. I knew I wanted a surfboard and bike with me at all times, and I wanted to keep them inside the van. When I added that to the requirement of a separate sleep and work area, there wasn’t a single modern class B RV that fit my needs, and a full custom job would have been way out of my budget. This is after literally hundreds of hours or research.
And then one night I got home after having a few drinks, and tipsily went reading through some forum or other, and WHAM, there it was. This obscure van than hadn’t been made in nine years. It was the perfect layout. It also has an onboard propane generator, blackout and bug-screen shades, a two-burner stove, a fridge and a microwave, and outlets all over it.
I bought this one off an 82-year-old gentleman in Oregon named Dick. He was awesome, and he regaled me with stories of his own travels. A classic character. I’ve already met other interesting people via of the van, including a young Sasquatch enthusiast in Portland who believes giants still roam the woods of Mt St Helens. I may have him take me there.
[Possible route for the next month]
The voyage officially began in the San Francisco Bay Area on Wednesday, July 15, 2015, but really it began the moment I bought it in Oregon. I’d already taken it to two weddings (it’s amazing to have at weddings, by the way). Once down to LA and once back up to Oregon for some of the customisations I’m being tight-lipped about until the next episode.
The second day I had it I blew a tyre while going about 120km/h on Highway 5. It was extremely loud. It uses light truck tires, and the tread had just torn completely off. Luckily the inner-tube was still inflated. A few weeks later, driving up from LA. suddenly I didn’t have any power when I accelerated. Turns out the turbo resonator had cracked, which gave me a top-speed of about 70km/h while going uphill. Pretty scary on the grapevine.
More recently, on the very day I set out for all points east, the water pump went belly up. So for the first week of this trip my morning showers have consisted of me holding a gallon jug of water over my head and pouring. Humble beginnings. I’ve since bought a new pump but I haven’t had a chance to install it yet.
This trip has started off in a bit of a rush. Most of the time I hope to be floating from place to place without a major time crunch. Currently, though, I have to get to one of my oldest, bestest friend’s wedding in Michigan this weekend, so I haven’t been taking as much time as I would have liked. That said, I’ve seen a lovely thing or two.
I got to spend a night in Twin Falls, Idaho, where a friend showed me some of the sites and I got to watch the sun set over the waterfalls the town is named for. That was the end of my second day and it was the first time it really sunk it. It’s really happening. It’s finally begun. I’d been waiting for the moment for a long time.
One night I pulled into a KOA (Kampground of America) in Brigham City, Utah. I found it utterly depressing. All these RVs and tents squished right up against each other. I was filling out the paperwork when I checked in with myself, realised that I didn’t want to be there, and just took off. I ended up spending that night in a Walmart parking lot, and strangely, I didn’t find it depressing at all. Walmart has never been my steez, but if I were a betting man I’d wager than there will be more of those parking lots in my near future.
Other highlights included visiting a friend and her family in Laramie, Wyoming. Just stunning, almost haunting landscapes. There are so many places there that are so desolate you can almost feel what it was like hundreds of years ago. From there I continued east on 80 and met a very interesting fellow in Omaha, Nebraska. Expect the full story on him soon. From there it was on to Iowa City, Iowa, where I spent the night writing and editing on an old friend’s couch until the sun came up. And now here I am.
Next up is a quick stop in Chicago, then Detroit, and then up to my friend’s wedding. After that, who knows? I’m currently thinking I’ll make my way back west, through the Dakotas and Montana, but that’s to be determined. Everything is.
It still doesn’t quite feel real, that this journey has begun. I still have so much to do and so much to figure out, but then, that’s part of it, isn’t it? If I had all of the answers already then I wouldn’t really need to do this in the first place. So for now I’m just trying to breathe, stay present, and keep my eyes and ears open.
I’ll leave you with this thought. Before I was a writer, I was an actor. The life I fantasised about consisted of travelling from town to town, doing plays and connecting with the local people there. I wanted to be a travelling storyteller. A troubadour, really. Well it’s taken almost twenty years for me to become that wandering storyteller, but I guess it’s finally happened. Except now I’m a tech-writer, so maybe I’m a trouba-dork.
Regardless, I’m looking forward to sharing my stories with you.
Connected States is a new series from Brent Rose in collaboration with Gizmodo about living a truly mobile life. Brent will be travelling the US in a high-tech van, telling stories from the road. New episodes will appear every week on Gizmodo. He is currently soliciting ideas for places to go, things to see and people to talk to. Follow him on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and ConnectedStates.com