Josiah in a VW Vanagon

Josiah is a photographer and designer who solves product problems on behalf of users and explores on behalf of his soul. He believes that how you do what you do is as important as what you do. So he chooses to document people and places with tourism boards and magazines. And he does all this in a green Westy.
Often times he brings his girlfriend, Brittany, but a lot of the time he travels alone. It can be hard to leave her behind, but he hopes what he does inspires others and that the happiness he feels when exploring is felt in his work.

Square Feet: 80

I call her Barb the Barbarian.

Make, Model, Year: 1982 Volkswagen Westfalia Vanagon

Why vanlife? What made you buy a van?

Vanlife had been a dream of mine for at least a decade. I think it might run in the family, as my mother is (in)famous for her restored vintage trailer she calls the "BettyLou." I had been saving for when the right vehicle came along, and then in July of last year, I came across this ridiculous lime green Westy on The Samba and that was that.

After the van was given the green light by Jay's Bugg House (an auto repair company), my Dad and I jumped in the car and blitzed out to Colorado Springs from San Francisco.

The rest is vanlife history.

Now I bounce between San Francisco and Fort Collins, Colorado (where my girlfriend Brittany is in school), going where the photojournalism projects and wanderlust take me.

The western half of North America is something special.

What changes have you made to your van?

The single most significant improvement made to Barb was a conversion from the original air-cooled engine to a modern, water-cooled 1.8 turbo VW GTI engine, done by the awesome crew at Stephan's Auto Haus in Sacramento, California. Stephan pioneered the 1.8 turbo replacement, and after more than 150 waterboxer conversions, Barb was his first air cooled to 1.8 turbo. It is remarkable how fast she is now. They also added a new AC and heating system from Vintage Air.

Other improvements include upgrading to 15" wheels and tires and a better suspension from the gang at Van Cafe in Santa Cruz for greater stability and control, which was needed for off-road travel.

The increased weight of the van due to the engine meant I needed greater stopping power, so I picked up the Big Brake Kit Burley Motorsports up in Redding, California. Finally, Mike and the amazing engineering and fabrication crew at Rocky Mountain Westy did an incredible job adding a ladder, Twin Peaks bumper set, front grill and spare tire carrier with a storage shelf.

I put in more than $30,000 that I had saved for a very long time.

What are some of your go-to items?

My power grid is two 100-watt flex solar panels, which run into two daisy-chained Goal Zero Yeti 400 batteries, along with an auxiliary battery, which runs into an inverter. The interior lights are all made by Power Practical, and the furniture was handmade by Alan Davis at Blue Ridge Chair Works, for which I'm an ambassador. Their stuff is beautiful.

Can you go off grid?

I don't go off the grid very often unless I'm on a multi-day backpacking trip somewhere in the wilderness, of which my favorite place to do so is the Eastern Sierra. I'm hoping to do a trip this year in the North Cascades which looks to be otherworldly.

How do you fund your travels?

I'm fortunate to be able to fund my travels through photojournalism projects for convention and visitors bureaus, and destination marketing organizations, along with product design work for a couple companies back in the Bay Area.

What activities do you do on the road?

Vanlife has been a great way for me to explore the outdoors and to pursue photojournalism projects with tourism boards and magazines. Trail running, mountain biking, kayaking, hiking— they're all things I love to get into as I travel.

Where do you store your gear?

For storage, I use the standard storage available in the Vanagon. Up until recently, I had a Yakima RocketBox that blew open and disintegrated on the highway. Mark at Rocky Mountain Westy has some great ideas about storage. He is an incredible engineer, and I look forward to seeing what he comes up with.

Favorite place to travel?

If you drew a line from Denver south to Austin, and then another north to the Badlands, South Dakota, and from there northwest to Glacier National Park, everything west of that line is my favorite place to travel.

What's been the most memorable experience?

I'd be hard pressed to pick a most memorable experience, but arriving at the Grand Canyon right at sunset was pretty wonderful. But if I had to pick one from the last few months, it would have been being deep in Monument Valley at sunrise.

That was remarkable, even if I did break down.

What are the challenges of road life?

The hardest part of life on the road, unsurprisingly, is being apart from Brittany, my family and my friends. I do take a measure of comfort in knowing that the hurt I feel at their/my absence is because those relationships are real and meaningful. I hope that what I do—exploring and telling stories—is inspiring and makes their lives richer, and that the happiness I feel when exploring is felt in my work.

Is there a difference between traveling solo and with a partner?

The difference between traveling with a partner and being solo is the increased sense of isolation with the latter.

The solitude can be therapeutic and clarifying, but after a while I just miss the people I love.

What if it breaks down? Are you able to fix it yourself?

I love feeling a deep sense of awareness with the van and how it's performing. The way the engine sounds different if it is running too rich or too lean, or being able to tell when I need to change the brake pads.

There are some things I can fix myself, and I look at any mechanical problem as a learning opportunity. Those first few months, especially breaking down deep in Monument Valley, were really humbling. Fortunately, the vanlife community is so kind and helpful, and the van's previous owner, Harold, has been absolutely crucial in helping me diagnose problems. He still knows her better than I do.

What one piece of advice would you give someone thinking about vanlife?

I'm not sure I have advice to give to people who want to do the vanlife thing, except perhaps to say that in my limited experience all the best things in life have been found on the other side of fear.

It is a big world; go have a look at it before it gets dark.

Also, get the AAA Premier Membership. Best $125 you can spend.

What's next?

Right now is crunch time for planning for the summer project season for many of the tourism boards I work with, so I'm up to my eyeballs in logistics. I'm probably most excited about a project I'm talking about with a couple magazines of photos of the lone RVs I come across way out in the middle of nowhere, which I'm sure anyone traveling backroads of the Western US can attest to. I always wonder what their story is and how much of an expression of the American dream they are.

I’m really excited to be out on the road to explore and meet some other vanlifers.

Follow Josiah and his adventures

Produced by Kathleen Morton.
Edited by Kate MacDougall.
Photos courtesy of Josiah Roe.