Anthony & Colby, two good friends, started their adventures on opposite sides of the U.S.: Anthony on the west and Colby on the east coast. It wasn't until Anthony drove from Portland to New York that the two of them began their journey together. From there, they took their time to Colorado and now, they are back home in New England, sipping hot tea and watching the autumn foliage.
When we met these two at the van gathering in Colorado, we immediately hit it off, parking our vans in a circle together. Not only does their music make us smile, but it makes us think about why this lifestyle is challenging, yet so worthwhile.
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Press play (or listen online) and enjoy the interview below
How did you two meet?
Anthony: Colby kept bothering me to hang out with him. I joke. Colby tells it well, so I will let him take it away.
Colby: Well we both went to Champlain College up in Burlington, Vermont. I think the first time I met Anthony was when we had to create a film as a group. I was operating the camera and Anthony was looming in the shadows as the “sound guy.” We were always pretty friendly, but it wasn’t until senior year we became close friends. I had just come back from studying abroad and picked up a banjo first thing back in the states. I knew probably four chords and used to sit in the center of campus strumming away in between classes, driving the other 2,000 students who went there mad. But soon other musicians started coming out to join me, and we’d all play songs and do drum circles on a tech-heavy campus. So it really created this new presence at our school. And one of those dudes who showed up was Anthony. After that, we began playing a lot together and eventually formed a band with mutual friends who we communicated with really well musically. This musical awakening, and coming back from studying abroad, awakened some sort of adventure spirit in me, and I think in Anthony as well.
Where did you find your van?
Anthony: I found Sedona in Seattle. This hip couple was selling the van to go live on a boat for three years at sea. I heard of the sale via Craigslist. So I messaged them within 30 minutes of their post, went up from Portland to check it out and a few days later I was on a bus ride up to purchase my new home on wheels. Their send off was reminiscent of parents sending their child off to college; telling me all about ‘this’ and ‘that,’ and not to forget to do so and so things for the van.
Colby: I found Dharma stuck in an ice pit in eastern New York state. She didn’t run, turn over or show any signs of life. A window pane was missing on the bus and a snow drift was piled up on the floor. But she was about the only bus I could afford. My stepdad, Frank, is a mechanic for Toyota, and he felt it’d be possible to bring it back to life. I was very fortunate to have that help. But hey, if I didn’t then maybe I would have gone for an Econoline or something far more powerful and far less expensive.
Tell us what you did to make them your tiny homes.
Anthony: First thing that had to happen was a disco ball... I’m kidding, it was the hardwood floor. There was a rug in there that would have gotten so gnarly, so fast. After that I had to rip out the 35-year-old kitchenette and put in my own cabinetry. This was done with the help, motivation and inspiration from Colby and Dharma. After some sweat and sawdust, Sedona was sporting a hobbit-like pallet wood cabinet.
Up in the mountains I made that dream catcher pyramid thing. I’m not sure what to call it, but it feels good. And I painted the hawk above the captain's chair. She takes care of the house mice. If you look carefully, we made a shelf above the kitchen cabinet using a beautiful red branch that I found around Lake Champlain.
Colby: In between the odd days where I’d be able to work on the mechanical side of things with Frank, I took on the project of gutting the bus and re-doing everything. So I insulated the bus, painted the inside orange, sealed the floor with rust protective paint (POR 15), took the dash out and painted it white/blue, put in flooring, wall panels and the ceiling, built the cabinets and closets, built a pull-out bed that a five year old could have designed better, reupholstered the seats (they were really sticky for some reason), replaced three windows with Frank’s help and built a foot pump sink and a couple flower box shelves for books and plants.
Oh, and my Nana sewed the curtains. I love those curtains.
What inspired you to try out vanlife?
Anthony: For a long time now I have been attracted to the dream of getting into a rig and hitting the road. My family took many road trips when I was growing up and I believe those adventures kind of distilled a vagabond spirit into my blood. And it was after all the talking about it with Colby in college that he revealed to me there is actually this whole vanlife community out here living the dream. It’s beautiful.
Colby: The original inspiration for me was from Emily and Corey of Where’s My Office Now. They were the first people I stumbled upon who opened my eyes to alternative living.
Once I graduated college I decided to stick to my life-long plan of filmmaking and head to Hollywood. I stuck it out in L.A. for about seven or eight months, but in that time I got really bummed out. The culture and atmosphere of L.A. is the polar opposite of Burlington, and I found the change awful. Work was coming in here and there, but the city depressed me, and any day that I wasn’t working I felt like I was in this black pit of despair, desperately trying to fill an entire day with trivial tasks to feel some sort of purpose (like dragging out laundry for eight hours.)
In between loads of laundry, I’d sit on our sticky green pleather couch and look at all these people, digital nomads, roaming around in all of these beautiful places in the U.S. and abroad and just read, read, read. They had videos? Great, I’d watch them. Blogs? Yup, read them twice. During that time, I began to differentiate between the surge of vanlifers, the giants who popped up two years ago, and the secondary wave of folks who were just launching, inspired by the big guys. And then stinks like me, sitting home on their laptop saying “I wish I could do this, maybe in another life…”
That whole process happens to most alternative lifestyle folks, and we all deserve an award, or at least a free round of mini golf, something man. I’m telling you it sucks!
How are you funding your trip?
Anthony: With immense student debt, floating isn’t an option for us. So our main focus was to find work and live in the buses rent free. We worked at a campground in the Rockies as camp hosts. That was the main gig. On the side, we busked on Pearl Street in Boulder. Now we have wedding videos to edit that come from the fruits of Colby’s business in the industry.
Colby: We couldn’t just coast out in Colorado, so we looked for campground host jobs that pay (turns out, that’s actually not a given). The company we worked for is called American Land & Leisure. They staff campgrounds all over the U.S., and you get paid state minimum wage.
On top of that, I’ve been keeping the filmmaking thing going and partnered with a DJ company in Massachusetts to shoot wedding videos/DJ promos and other promotional bits. That’s really what allows me to keep going with this thing. And here and there I work as a grip/electric on sets or a drone operator from time to time.
Tell us about your music. How has it evolved from your travels?
Anthony: I feel like our music has an eclectic mix of inspiration, but it can all get thrown into a folk rock category in terms of its sound. Our name, Sophie & The Midway Tanglers, is some crazy mash of words that came from our goofing minds up in the mountains. I believe that was Colby’s doing, and once we figure out what it means, we will share that with our listeners.
Traveling and music pair nicely together. Constantly changing our environment allows space for new connections and growth to come through the music-making process. Traveling decompresses time in a way that allows me to feel relaxed when I play and write. I am very grateful for this. We also wrote a song that is literally about our vanlife experience that is a direct result of our travels.
Colby: The biggest evolution I think is this sort of gypsy American sound, and this adventure in our vans has really solidified that direction for me. Also, positive vibes and happiness have been really added to the mix. I used to be very sullen and weird on stage or performing, like this thing is so serious. I think going out and having fun, performing for the people and for ourselves is an important lesson we learned, because if we’re able to give a genuine performance and have a laugh, people listening will feel that and respond similarly. It’s all been very eye opening.
What's the most memorable moment from your trip so far?
Anthony: No doubt the van gathering in Colorado. That was the pinnacle of my summer for many reasons. The beautiful people. The beautiful scenery. The weather was easy and there were so many dogs. Everyone was so righteous and welcoming. I had so much fun there.
I think Santa was there. He lives in a VW bus too.
Colby: The van gathering hands down. That event just brought all the people together I’ve been following for years. The folks who know about vanlife in the Instagram framework are in it for a lot of different reasons than the street people I’ve met along the trip who live out of cars or vans.
The folks at the gathering were into vanlife for reasons similar to Anthony and me. Searching for something they didn’t find in their apartment in L.A., and not running from 15 arrest warrants in all the northeastern states. I was really impressed with all the businesses people ran out of their rigs and how they brought it with them to be shared at the gathering. Would it still be vanlife if we started a commune?
Have there been days where you've questioned vanlife?
Anthony: For me it was the days leading up to vanlife. I had my share of doubts and anxieties. The one that bothered me was, “Is my bus going to explode?” There are a lot of war stories from people who have owned VW buses, and they all end in broken somethings and emptied bank accounts. This spooked me a bit because money is certainly a factor, and I didn’t go to college to be a mechanic. But once we set sail, the road magic was strong everyday, and that really helped me realize that the vanlife is the life for me. Hardy har har, ho hum hum, free as a bird and having much too much fun!
Colby: One of the first nights on the road to Colorado we parked at a state forest in Pennsylvania, free of course. It was during this cicada molting thing, so there were huge locusts everywhere, and their dried carcasses crunched between my open-toed sandals. Anyway we met Hobo Dave, he was parked a few lots down, and he showed us his coin engraving set-up where he makes hobo gold. Very interesting stuff. So we pass a pipe around and when we head back to our camp I suddenly, and with a new perspective, take stock of my surroundings. Apocalyptic bugs everywhere. Two vans in a muggy forest. Bugs crawling around in our pots and pans where we were cooking rice. Yeah, not quite the Glacier National Park picturesque idea of vanlife I’d been obsessing over for two straight years.
That was a bad spot for sure. But over time I got used to the small space, as I knew I would and as I’m sure everyone does, and now it has become totally normal. Actually there were many times we were in Boulder hanging out in our friends apartment and I actually looked forward to heading back up the mountain to our little patch of dirt with our buses parked sliding door to sliding door.
What would you tell someone who is just starting vanlife?
Anthony: If you are dreaming of it, take action! Leap and the net will appear. No doubt! If you are packed and leave tomorrow, let the magic of the road take you there, wherever that may be. Kansas is a caricature of Kansas, so laugh when you have to go through that, and be sure to inspire your friends to hop on the bus.
Colby: First off, congratulations! You did it, pushed through the tough stuff and came out the other end. I recommend learning to open yourself up to the unexpected. Someone on the street invites you to grab a beer? Go for it. New friends are gonna go dancing at girl’s night downtown? Get out of those PJs and put on your most comfortable pants—you’re dancing tonight. Vanlife is about saying yes to the crazy things that will definitely come your way. After all, you do live in a van down by the river. Embrace it and go with the flow.
What's next? Any news?
Anthony: Music times! Us Tanglers (has that caught on yet?) are heading to Burlington to record our tunes and play, play, play. After that, we are thinking of putting our flip flops to the test for a long endured winter in Portland East. We do this not for the beaches and palm trees, but to nourish our musical avenues and see what comes of it. Wool blankets are a prerequisite.
Colby: I’m on a brief bus hiatus, for about two weeks, so I can get back on top of some editing I need to catch up on. Then I’ll be joining Anthony in Burlington, where this whole thing started years ago, to record some of our own music. After we’ve got some of our tracks down, we’re off to Portland Maine for the winter to really have a go at our musical careers. Unfortunately we’ll be looking for an apartment from December to April or May, or whenever the snow and ice melts, but then it’s back to the buses. Ideally we’d find a group of people who wouldn't mind us parking it on their property outside of town, for rent or a work-to-park arrangement.
But really it’s all so up in the air.