Mike Brown quit his job, outfitted his van for adventure, and discovered freedom and the power of simplicity in the Pacific Northwest

WHEN YOU MAKE the decision to live in a van and travel the country alone, problems are to be expected: engine trouble, financial strain, maybe even bear attacks. However, the last thing I expected was a case of mistaken identity.

But that’s exactly how my adventure kicked off. Knowing Washington was Number One on my “to-go” list from my home in Houston, I considered driving straight there. But it felt like a direct trip would miss out on too much in between. So I mapped out stops in Wyoming, Minnesota, South Dakota and a couple destinations in Canada, all before dropping down into Washington.

The Backstory: While living in a van built for adventure, I had a life-changing epiphany

As I crossed the border from Canada, the good and faithful U.S. Border Patrol was adamant that there was a felony warrant out for my arrest in Texas. Their six assault rifles corroborated and confirmed their adamance. Five hours and one ransacked van later, I was released. I didn’t even get a “Welcome to America,” let alone an apology for the mix-up. Honestly, the most terrifying part was the number of hands that had rummaged through my underwear.

That was my introduction to the Pacific Northwest. I almost drove straight through back to the South, stopping in Seattle only for coffee. But I just didn’t have it in me to skip hiking to another glacier; or miss seeing the Northern Lights rumored to be visible that far north; or worse, waste gas money on simply driving rather than adventuring.

Wildflowers make for a colorful foreground as the sun sets at Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park. (Mike Brown)

Life has a way of revealing truth through experiences. I came to that realization somewhere between buying an empty cargo van, building it into a “house,” quitting my job and getting lost on several backcountry American roads. These experiences showed me that I’d never get new results with the same calculations. I had to venture into the unknown and expand my palate, despite a few bad tastes.

I suppose it’s somewhat implied that major shifts in any part of life can result in a new perspective. But for those of you who have never created such transitions in your life, let me tell you: The world out there is vastly different from the one you know.

Born and raised in Houston, I knew only city life. The way I grew up likely would provoke frustration in some of y’all. No joke: Just two years ago, my perception of national parks was that they were no different from the nicer parks you found in rich neighborhoods. I wasn’t introduced to the outdoors. I didn’t give special notice to sunrises or sunsets, and I never had the desire to hike.

“Isn’t hiking just walking, but in the forest?” said outdoor-uninitiated me.

Being a product of your environment is a real thing; believe me. This made my life on the road a blind jump. By myself.

During the preparation phase for this jump, I was working a government job in Houston, creating videos and television content. From the outside, I was working with my passion, but my internal desire was for more. I wanted something substantial out of life that didn’t consist of just making as much money as possible. I needed my interactions with people to stretch beyond taking a break from work or trying to make connections to further my career. In short, I felt life had a better way of being lived, one that didn’t revolve around a career.

What I wanted was the one thing coveted by a range of cultures, communities and household incomes: freedom.

A kid runs into the icy waters of the Pacific Ocean at Kalaloch Beach. (Mike Brown)

THE WHOLE TIME I was preparing to quit my job and convert the van, I wondered what all my family and friends were going to think. I mean, my cousins and I never watched orcas tread water in the ocean; none of my friends was trying to backpack through the Pacific Crest Trail; and, to us, if you lived in a van, then, my brother, you were homeless.

But once again, reality superseded perception. My family and friends’ reaction to my decision was one of love and even envy. They not only empathized with this move but could see themselves doing it, in a perfect world — a world where the logistics of where to park/sleep, how to poop and shower, and what to do for money were irrelevant questions.

The reality is: We never will have a perfect world, and we always will have to find somewhere to wash our behinds.

I decided early in my vanlife-planning process that I was going to prepare as much as I could and learn the rest on the road. Additionally, I had saved enough money to where, if I couldn’t find the frequency of video-production freelance work I wanted, I wouldn’t have to transition into panhandle mode.

So with that mentality and practice, the logistical part of vanlife came somewhat easily. I already had outfitted my van with a fridge, solar power, a bed, dressers, running water and a compostable toilet. I built it out myself, which took close to six months, working after work in the evenings and on weekends.

The key to vanlife is the same as any other endeavor: You just have to pull the trigger and execute.

Mike Brown’s home on wheels is shown at a pit stop in the Badlands of South Dakota, in the middle of his travels toward Washington. (Mike Brown)

From research into others who’d done this before me, I had a plan to shower and work out at gyms wherever I was. When that wasn’t an option (more often than not), I simply exercised in the open outdoors. Then I showered right there: I would pop open my collapsible shower-tent at the rear of the van, pull out the showerhead connected to the electric pump/water tank combo and get clean (everything was biodegradable).

Hygiene was the biggest vanlife problem. The next biggie was: Where would I sleep? National parks were easy, as there are plenty of campgrounds, and they’re cheap. The real issue I had was the in-between, going from city to city and state to state.

Early in my trip, I was in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and I had found a prime parking location: near downtown, with no restrictions or time limits, and close to all the areas I wanted to visit. The problem was, someone didn’t like it. They called the cops, and I had to leave. The police said it “didn’t look good.”

Lesson learned: It wasn’t enough to find a good parking place. I had to be invisible. That’s how the world is, baby. So for overnight or longer-term parking, I started uses places that were a little less conspicuous, like hotel/motel parking lots, truck stops, Wal-Mart or Home Depot.

This came in handy when I reached Washington, where I knew I’d be spending more of my time. On my first run through the state, I logged a significant amount of time in Seattle and in the North Cascades, Mount Rainier and Olympic national parks. Not very many destinations in the grand scheme of things, but the nature of my exploration, brought to you by vanlife, allowed me to stay at least one week in each of those spots.

As I look back at my vanlife adventure, it blows my mind that I’ve adventured more during the first year of my 30s than almost all 29 years before. Before, I had reached a point in my existence where I had robbed myself of the peace I had had as a bigheaded kid running around outside, carefree.

Vanlife helped get me back out. Not just outdoors, but on the outs of society: outside the typical job, housing, salary, perceptions and aspirations. I found new passions as an outdoorsman, adventure photographer and vanlifer, and as an agent of visibility for those with societal blinders. Social media, you are useful after all.

An overlook of Diablo Lake in North Cascades National Park, where the waters were “a bright, Kool-Aid blue,” Brown says. (Mike Brown)

AFTER THE CANADA/U.S.A. border humiliation, my next stop was in northern Washington, at North Cascades National Park. Here, there’s a little pullout to an overlook of Diablo Lake, a place with water so vivid, it inspired my poetic coining of its color as “a bright, Kool-Aid blue.” This proper reintroduction to the Pacific Northwest hooked and inspired me to discover more of the area.

I think the greatest tug at the old heartstrings came from seeing and photographing the Milky Way for the first time, on Rialto Beach on the Olympic Peninsula. I had spent the day there, hoping for the lingering fog to break so I could witness the huge horizon that had been left to my imagination, via Google, until then.

Instead of waiting on the fog, I hiked a few miles down the beach until I reached a huge cliff that separated the coastline right down the middle. Inevitably, the better view was on the other side. At this point, sunset started to fall, and so did the fog. The vista I was hoping for had shown up, and now I had to make a decision: Keep pushing forward and hike back in the dark, high tide and all, or go back to the van and hope for clear skies the next day. Mother Nature had proved herself untrustworthy before, so I pushed on.

Without swimming out far enough past the cliff to incite this novice ocean swimmer’s anxiety, the only way to the other side was through. There is a reasonably sized opening in the wall to hike through, normally requiring wading through maybe 12 inches of water. But of course, today, the tides were too high, closing off the only easy way in. This meant scaling the cliff about 10 feet and traversing the opening on a small 4-inch ledge.

I decided to wear moccasins that day, thinking water and sand equated to a less-strenuous time outdoors. The huge, rocky cliff I now had to climb spoke to me and said, “Nah.” I’ll spare you all the details of slipping off this little ledge into the ocean and just barely saving my camera/tripod combo by holstering them above my head, looking like a fake Navy SEAL with a rifle. Just know that I had to put in some work.

Mike Brown photographed a hiker gazing at the Milky Way above Rialto Beach. Shooting the Milky Way inspired Brown’s passion for photography. (Mike Brown)

I shot all the compositions of the Milky Way over the Pacific that I could find. I must’ve stayed out there until at least 3 a.m., with another photographer from Belgium who also was shooting, just as miserably and excitedly as I was.

That set of pictures, and the adventure attached to them, inspired me to make photography my new passion. This heightened my desire to explore even more; more adventures meant more ambitious pictures. I came back to Rialto Beach three more times before leaving the Olympics.

AFTERWARD, I WENT to Seattle to restock at Costco and figure out a game plan for maximizing my exploration in the Northwest. Living my entire life in a city led me to think I knew all major cities and what they had to offer, which was mostly true. But after realizing that all my internet searches for the best hikes in Washington resulted in several outdoor destinations only 30 to 90 minutes outside the city, I started to realize this place was different.

Not to mention, almost everyone I met here was born and raised someplace else. Now, that easily could be attributed to the global phenomenon that is “Free 2-day shipping for Prime Members,” but I won’t give them all the credit. This place is magnetic for the outdoor culture, the mountains behind the skyline and the proximity to variety: sea, mountains and coffee (that’ll be my last Seattle/coffee reference).

Mount Rainier during sunrise from the viewpoint of the Sunrise Rim Trail. (Mike Brown)

I ventured beyond Seattle to the Hoh Rainforest, Whidbey Island, Deception Pass and Rattlesnake Ledge, and eventually came to my favorite destination of all: Mount Rainier. Among Glacier National Park in Montana, Yosemite in California, Valley of Fire in Nevada, Custer in South Dakota and Big Bend in Texas, Rainier always stood out to me. As I traveled on from Washington, Rainier was always the place I compared other mountains, hikes and pictures to. That’s saying something.

LIVING ON THE ROAD and traveling thousands of miles creates so many experiences that it’s hard to know when to call it quits versus reaching for more, because there always will be more. My constant pervading thought was that I was developing an entirely new view of the world around me, and so I needed more of it. I was traveling into a life metamorphosis and started to consider that it was because of the experiences themselves.

This, however, was simply not true. It was the opportunity, not the experience, that led to realizing my freedom. The main lesson I learned from being on the road was the power in simplicity, in both a mental and physical sense. I soon foresaw myself chasing that next high of a better experience, rather than appreciating my newfound strength of being content with less, with keeping to the necessities.

The truth was, I loved the fact the Pacific Northwest had much left to explore as I ventured into other terrain. All of that potential was enough for me to sit down and recognize what I had created for myself: the ability to opt out of what wasn’t adding to my freedom.

The sun peeks through the thickness of Hoh Rainforest on one its most popular trails, Hoh River Trail. (Mike Brown)

So, at the end of spring, I ended (or paused?) my countrywide vanlife expedition and found a parking space/home in Seattle. Well … several parking spaces, since vanlife in Seattle means moving every three days or getting towed. I’ll be getting an apartment soon, though, after enough of you buy prints of my photography.

I could’ve settled down in any other city, even back in my hometown. But this whole adventure was about re-envisioning how to do life. And there was no better way to start than in the place that kept tugging at my passions.

Now, I can drive an hour in either direction to kayak Lake Wenatchee, hike Wallace Falls, snowboard Snoqualmie or taste wine in Woodinville. Recently though, I’m getting used to the Seattle gray and have been sleeping a lot, catching up on my revolving schedule of hiking with the rising and setting sun.

Everything that makes life seemingly successful and important for most people — the jobs, houses, cars, clothes, vacations — are all fleeting and temporary. Eventually, we all come back home and deal with the reality that is life. For all the reasons that affect my mind, body and spirit, for me, that home is the Pacific Northwest.