Mike Butler – Architectural Photographer

Two toddlers Two Parents One Van, Thirty Days

How we learned the art of small living while exploring the country.

Our Sprinter van is parked for the night at the Arapaho National Forest in Colorado at 13,000 feet, overlooking a pristine lake lined with snow-capped mountains, so close you can hike to the snow line in a few minutes, in August.   My wife is off on her morning run and I am up to greet the dawn and make that requisite hot pot of french press coffee. I open my arms out wide and carefully peek out the window to the grand scenery just outside our little home on wheels. I grab the computer and begin to write an ode to the day or retouch an image shot the day before.

I do all this, like a Comanche warrior moving through the forest stalking his prey without making a sound not a single little sound because any wrong move any hard tap of the keyboard or click of your cup in this van living space no bigger than a walk-in closet and BAAM,  The two little ones will be up. First one then the next, from there it is like the calm pond you were gently rowing a wooden boat through in the early morning mist suddenly drains out and you find yourself falling down class 1 then 2 then 3 rapids. First, they need to pee, then eat but all the while they are crawling around your legs in the 3 x 3 foot space which is the kitchen, living room, and family room combined. Why will they not use the luxurious 8 x 4 foot bed area is a mystery which may never be solved.  You think I’ll let them out of the van let them be free, fly my butterflies fly, but free to a 3 and 1-year-old means making a beeline for the soot-filled fire pit to cover each other with loads of that dry and every so silty ash, at 7 in the morning. Yet what other option is there? So you gently slide the side door open and they fall out in metronome order as troops rush out of the landing craft blindingly towards the rising sun. They gallivant around as their instantly overwhelmed father gulps down the coffee as fast as he can and rushes to get breakfast done like a gazelle running down Husan Bolt.  In the distance we see reinforcements, Sandra moving towards us, fresh from a meditative run. She sees the panic and desperation in my eyes and jumps headlong into the melee. This is about how every morning in the van starts.

The van which we tagged at @elchilivan is our first attempt to learn to live small, with two kids, in a very tiny space, which can be rather difficult but also very meaningful.  My wife and I decided that by using a van as our platform it would give us a template to explore the concept of small living. We could essentially experiment without fully committing.  By design, we would be confined to a 20 gallon water tank, a 1 pound propane tank, and a small mini-fridge. The lighting was low voltage LEDs and the whole chabang ran directly off a 250ah battery. All this was powered by two 100watt solar panels with a battery charger to hook up when we were static.  All this constrained our use of electricity, water, and space. Essential items such as silverware, plates, towels, and clothes were trimmed down to what was absolutely required. This would be a chalkboard of sorts to allow our minds to experiment and get used to living with less while learning what worked for us and what did not.

The whole van build project started in 2017 and was the best version of a van build, two overwhelmed parents with lackluster, no scratch that…no carpenter skills, could muster.  Building the van was a world of dualities, in one hand a power drill and the other a dirty diaper with a very powerful smell. On the driveway next to van lay the carefully wrapped fabric panel with the milk of a shattered baby bottle inching dangerously close to it. Background noise was either a power saw or screaming child, sometimes both and both equally deafening. We sawed, sanded, and drilled day and night in our yard, driveway or back patio, spending what to our neighbors must have seemed like an insane amount of time stuffed at odd angles inside the van while our kids ran wild and often naked in the yard. Savages unleashed in total Lord of the Flies anarchy!

So in our mid 40’s with two businesses to run and a second child just arrived, we designed a 30-day journey to Colorado to continue our living small experiment, all the while exposing our two young children to the world.

Going in we both knew the madness of it all.  Anyone who has a few kids knows the difficulty of keeping the ship afloat on a day to day basis at home, forget while packed inside a constantly moving van the size of a walk-in closet. So there it was, the obvious insanity of our idea, watching us from a shadowed corner of our room ready to pounce, its red eyes glowing in the shadows while each of us pretended not to see it.  We bounced around fantasies, of schedules kept and work done, photoshoots made, rock climbing the glory of it all!

Although we had been on van trips before we had never been on one in July when apparently unbeknownst to us, the whole country is on vacation. We quickly discovered finding a decent spot to park for the night was a difficult task indeed. If you are two single 20-somethings galavanting around the world in your van like two butterflies in the wind this might not be of concern, hell you might not even want a formal campsite. Although with two kids, waking up on the side of the road next to a 50-foot precipice or at a Walmart parking lot next to who knows who is a highly questionable parenting decision indeed.  This morphed into a chronic everyday drain on our time and energy, as we looked for a site to sleep, every day. We managed this workload a bit by using a cool app called Boondockers which allows you to reserve free spots at people’s homes. Essentially you park in their driveway or yard to sleep then move on the next morning often spending time talking into the night with perfect strangers, in their homes. It’s charm quickly grew on us, realizing that soulless hotels had taken over this niche travel arrangement, which I suppose was how things worked before our hyper-paced society took over.

As we traveled using boondockers, we met many beautiful people, like the old couple who lived on a farm in Kentucky, They lived in a small home that they had built over many years before I was even born. Here, after a long day of travel, the kids frolicked in the cool green grass, ate wild berries, and gazed with the wonderment of real farm animals as only children can. As the kids vanished to quixotic adventures around the backside of the old wooden barn, weather-worn from half a century of use, Sandra and I sat with the couple on their porch drinking sweet tea and talking as the sky gently morphed from a saturated red and magenta into a soothing cobalt blue. Our discourse danced through the decades, in the new night sky lighting bugs sparked alive like magical gods from another world and took their royal place in the sky next to the stars until one could hardly know the difference. With the kids rounded up like the cattle in the pens, we bid our farewells and took our nightly refuge in the van. Then like old-time travelers of yore, we silently moved on the next morning, never again seeing the companions of the night before. We were off to truly unknown destinations!

One can live life in many ways and somehow we all find our path one way or the other. We can make great calculations and high minded determinations as to the best course to chart, plotting every waypoint, but all for not. It becomes like the madness of our current zeitgeist, an over management of the sublime which destroys the ineffable quality that underpins natural life. So we chose another option, to drift like a shanty boat down the great river of life happening upon one destination after another. And so like the shanty boats of past generations our little red van happened upon the shore of the great Mississippi River in a town that hardly exists. We meandered through it’s dilapidated streets, until, like guided by a divining rod we came to the muddy shores that marked the sacred place where water meets the land. A place where great barges floated as if with the birds in the sky. Our family shared a moment of quiet fascination, the children spending time watching the ships, while the mighty river moved towards the Gulf of Mexico with inexorable weight and power. The rivers great spirt all but washed away by the blind frenetic rush of civilized society. Yet if you allowed your mind to sense what seemed to not be there, you could still just understand it’s presence whispering from within the folds of space-time; faded transparent pastel hues as effervescent as last night’s dream. It’s in these moments when time stops and nothing matters that mean the most. The time spent in meaningful nothingness with loved ones. Time to take notice of those things that are often never given consideration for the bonding of souls.

Alas, time sweeps by and we are simple pawns within its shadow, moving as it moves. Our next stop as upside-down odd as the river was profound. A state park in Kansas in which the flooding of recent months had flooded all but the highest campgrounds. A dystopian waterscape of treetops floating on the water and light posts of sunken parking lots barely breaching the surface. How odd it was to swim among sunken trees and round the street lamp as if were buoy floating as it had always been there. The memories of these odd and profound sites piled up in our van, a real pirate treasure one that can never be taken nor spent only given, ever-increasing in value as we grow older.

But that is not how the world works is it? I can not give you my memories to pay the mortgage or the gas for the van, so there was a little matter of actual work.  Neither of us is in an abundance of material wealth and both of us run our own businesses, me a professional photographer and my wife a professional fitness trainer for athletes.  We both need substantial time every day to keep the clockwork of gears greased and running smoothly and found in the van that not unlike home life, any moment the kids were asleep there was a decision to be made, do I take this moment and sleep myself and rest my weary bones so I wake refreshed to be the best most positive parent I can? Or do I work, grind away and push through with whatever quixotic will I can muster? These moments mostly came while driving and mostly we chose to sleep. For the first half of the trip, we were both just treading water with work, doing the most minimal tasks, a certain recipe for future business failure.  By the halfway point we started to get into a grove, we were able to carve out time for one of us by essentially sacrificing the other to the tribe of wild children! It was a tenuous balance but it worked well enough.

And the children you ask what about those poor souls, being trapped inside a van and being shuttled around the country at no request of their own.  Let me explain that we are both big into experiential learning, which can be more powerful than anything you can say or see in a book. We are also free-range parents, letting the little ones roam free, fall, get up, and go again.  So this trip provided both venues. We loved the opportunity to let them roam free in the woods pushing over tree stumps and getting just out of eyesight around that great big boulder. To let them feel confident in their own skills with knowledge that we were 100% there.  We worked skill lessons into every stop, always stimulating their minds with new sights, sounds, feelings, and textures. One day it might be a smooth granite boulder the next we might see moose by the lake in the twilight chill. The kids met new people at every stop and saw with their new little minds there is a whole big ass world out there.  A big ass world that was absolutely beautiful and needs their protection from the evil forces at work to take it away. First, we teach them to enjoy it, then they will love it.

And about all that travel in the car.  With a total round trip of 60 hours, plus all the little trips in Colorado you have a whole lot of time with two small kids sitting in one place. How did we manage it with the kids? Well, we set them down and let them occupy their own minds with their own thoughts.  No movies, ipads or other digital entertainment. The result, it worked. They would fight to get in the car seat but once in they were plenty happy to watch the world go by or pay with whatever doodad was at hand. 

Since we are on the subject of kids, there might be a concern in the reader’s mind of showers and potty breaks. Potty breaks can, as any parent knows, come so suddenly and with such short notice that one may only have a matter of seconds before the paints are soaking in pee or worse.  But before we delve into that, let’s start with showers.

Although you probably have never thought about it, and we certainly didn’t, water is being given out at every street corner, so when you run out in an inauspicious spot you are up a creek without any water!  We have found ourselves more than once searching out clean water and at times doing with what we could fill into our canteens at the local whole foods or national park. It was an eye-opening experience in the ways of living with truly limited water. It really sharpens your use of water. More than once since our return I have found myself washing the dishes or my hands with a mere trickle of water.

So this home on the road has a scant 20-gallon tank. To the uninitiated, it might seem like a huge quantity of clean H20 but consider the average American uses 17 gallons for a single shower! Using 20 gallons for all the activities provides very little to spare and essentially none for anything but the most required shower. Use it without thought and that tank, which you filled just that morning, will leave you dry by days end.

I grew up believing as most, that at least one hot shower a day was requisite, sometimes two.  I have moved on since then and on light weeks only take a few showers, with no real issues. This already in the habit of light use of water helped us tremendously, because although we do have an attachment which can be used as an outdoor shower, most places frown upon grown adults taking lethargically cold showers in open spaces. So generally we don’t use the onboard water for showers. We instead stop a few times a week at recreation centers or less commonly campgrounds for a quick rinse off. Outside of the humid south, we have not had any issue with this at all.  That said outside of Colorado which has incredible rec centers in nearly every town finding a YMCA or other center in most of the country is a hit and miss.   

Now to the potty.  Sandra had insisted using her mother bear wisdom that we include one in the build and it has been both a real beast and a real blessing.  There is nothing more reassuring than knowing there is a toilet, close at hand for any emergency big or small! It has saved us so many occasions I can not say enough positive things about it. Yet, with any great oracle on the hill there is a dark demon hidden in the valley.  At home, you flush, and off and away goes the offending material never to enter your life again. But the demon in the valley is that there is no direct escape route out of your life of the offending matter, it simply sits in a rather small container, waiting. It is waiting for YOU to dump it out. I’ll let your mind do the dirty work on this one and spare you the gory details, but let’s just say I have had some very Quintin Teritino Esque moments in bathrooms with this beast. It taught us that simply flushing does not remove the problem it only moves it further down the line.  The ideal situation and one we thought of too late is a compostable toilet, allowing nature to break down the offending material and release it back into nature, to invigorate the soil.

All of this might strike the minds of the reader as kind of quazi-homelessness, I mean all this searching around for water, places to sleep, and good grief showers, not to mention the dumping of toilets.  It seems all so uncivilized. We’ll both admit, it’s not a 4 star luxury of a high-class hotel or all-inclusive resort, you will notice if you follow our IG feed we do shack up at a good hotel once in a while to get one or two nights of easy living.  Yet there is something grounding about it, for the modern mind, you sort of rough it, go with limited resources, live within the confines of what you have. There is a limited amount of power, which is regenerated by the solar panels there is a limited amount of space and of course water as well as propane.  It is if you will, the first tentative steps into our future. A future where we live within the confines of the closed-loop biology of our planet.

I believe that behind humanity is a high watermark of conspicuous consumption, a place where every need, desire, and whim was met without care to consequence or result.  Now the walls of all of our lives are shrinking literally and metaphorically. The future holds fewer resources for more people, the result of that equation is obvious, even for the most math-phobic among us. Everyone is going to need to reduce their use of resources if we are to keep this only home we know in balance. Either we do it voluntarily like a retreating army with dignity and order or we will all rush back in total chaos as the opposing force in this case human-induced climate change ravages our ranks.  So in a way, this is our family’s way of testing those cold waters, getting used to its chill, letting our minds, our children’s minds galvanize around its zeitgeist. So when that day does creep up upon us, its chilly waters will not be totally unfamiliar to us, we will know it’s currents and rocks, we will not at least immediately be swept under by its current.

At the end of the trip, yes we were ready to come home and be in an actual home!  So we left Denver and took a more southerly route through lands of dormant volcanos, dystopian Texan truck stops, and the ragid towns littered through the deep south, stopping only when absolutely necessary.  Overall, “living” in the van was an exceptional experience and we will do it again, although maybe not for 30 days straight.  It was to put it simply, a hard life, at least with two very small kids to look after.  Living in a van like this with small kids you become managers of chaos and navigation and meals and well the list goes on and on.  I often tell people we left with 8 bottles of fine red wine and came back with 4 bottles still with their virgin cork still securely inserted.  Not by choice of course, it’s just there was no time, no time to drink, and when that time did come you were so exhausted drinking a bottle of wine was the furthest thing from your mind.  Imagine that!

Need My Photography Skills?

I have decades of experience in photography and have been hired all over the world for a range of drone, hospitality, architectural and resort photography. If you want to give your marketing a new, fresh and eye-catching look, get in touch with me and let’s start working together!

Leave a comment

Latest Posts

Behind the Scenes

More Posts

Fashion + Jewelry!

When I was approached by the owner of Atteza Jewelry to photograph their campaign I jumped at the opportunity!  Although outside my strick field of

Read More »