Jon, Yosemite National Park
“I studied environmental studies. It focuses a lot on your [ecological] footprint and how much you impact the world around you… So I got solar, I focus on how much water I’m using, how much I travel—everything that goes into it. It’s kind of like a tiny home: tiny home, tiny footprint.”
Jon is no stranger to Yosemite National Park, and he’s been calling the valley his home for the last couple months. He drove his self-converted Sprinter van to the park this past May to climb the legendary granite formations and work a short-term gig to pay the bills. For the past two years he’s been travelling around California in his home on wheels, saving money on rent and rock climbing all over the state. He’s hesitant to take his van-home across the country; although it’s a solid van, it’s seen a good amount of mileage and Jon jokes that it only runs on hopes and dreams at this point.
Yosemite is the kind of place where you can quickly find a climbing partner by simply walking around Camp 4, putting up a note on the camp’s bulletin board, or striking up a conversation with someone bouldering. Jon said he climbed with someone new almost every day during his time there and made many new friends. Outside of climbing, it’s difficult to spontaneously become friends with a stranger. One of my favorite things about the outdoors is that it brings people together. It’s a beautiful thing.
When we first met in the Camp 4 parking lot, we didn’t realize that we’d be climbing together each day for the following week. We formed a tight-knit crew with a few others and enjoyed climbing as a group during the day and sharing cheap beer in the evenings. The weather wasn’t terrific that week, but we got on a few classic routes with unforgettable views. One morning, Jon and I sat on the ground of the parking lot and I asked him about his favorite aspects of living in a van, what he misses about having an apartment, and what he loves about the outdoors.
When would you say you first had a connection to the outdoors?
My dad brought me backpacking from a really early age. So I backpack lot, my favorite place for that is the Emigrant Wilderness, because it’s like Yosemite with huge granite domes for miles, just without the crowds.
I got into climbing when I started working at REI. That was the summer after my freshman year of college. I mean, hiking is climbing, just less steep of an angle, right?
Which outdoor activity are you most passionate about?
If you asked me this a while ago, I would say I’d be more passionate about biking; I have a cyclocross bike. I’ve done some stupid stuff on it, but it kind of hurts because your body’s the shocks.
Now it’s totally changed—now it’s all climbing. I rarely get biking, I have a hard time motivating myself to bike alone, but I don’t have a hard time finding at least one partner to go climb with. Plus it’s hard to talk while biking. [Laughs]
What is it about climbing that brings out the passion for you?
I feel like it’s that [feeling of] accomplishment you have when you get to the top of whatever; it doesn’t matter if it’s a boulder or if It’s a long route. It feels really good—kind of therapeutic. Because all your focus is going into that; you’re not worried about the day’s issues, you’re not worried about this and that. You really have to just hone in and focus on your movement and breathing.
How long have you been living out of your van?
I got it in April 2017, my junior year of college, so two years ago. Living in the Bay Area, I can find affordable rent with this lifestyle, and it gets me outdoors more and away from the city. Since I was working at REI, I could get camping gear for pretty cheap. [Van living] is kind of like camping most of the time; you need the stove, all that kind of stuff.
The other thing is I studied environmental studies. It focuses a lot on your [ecological] footprint and how much you impact the world around you. And, you know, living in an apartment and having all these amenities, you forget you have a footprint in that case. So I got solar, I focus on how much water I’m using, how much I travel—everything that goes into it. It’s kind of like a tiny home: tiny home, tiny footprint.
Do you have a favorite part of living in the van?
Having a home you can take with you. It’s like travelling and having a hotel room wherever you go without having to pay for one. It doesn’t matter how fast I’m going, it’s like my little turtle shell. It’s great. Mine at least used to look like a work van, so I can pretty much get away with sleeping anywhere.
Do you miss being stationary and having an apartment?
Sometimes, but I’m definitely still happy [in the van]. Like I have plans to get bigger van, but I see myself going back, I miss it. It’s hard for your friends to visit you if you’re always moving. I’ll be stationary here if I get the job; then I would use this time to say, ‘Everybody come visit’.
Have you spent most of your time travelling all over or staying in a few areas?
I was stationary for a while. I had an internship at a water district after [working at] REI. I was able to have a one minute commute and save a ton of money. That allowed me to get on the road for a long period of time, probably about six or seven months. Then I ran out of money in Bishop, went down to LA, got another odds and ends job just to make money. Then that got me back on the road again and here we are.
So it sounds like you’ve mainly been sticking to like Cali. Was that due to the jobs or did you not have interest in traveling out of state?
I totally do have the interest to travel everywhere. But with a 400,000 mile van, I’m a little nervous. I know where the good Sprinter mechanics are around California. What I really wanted to do was leave LA, go straight up through Vegas, through Utah, do all the climbing along the road there, make it to Colorado and live in Colorado for a bit. But the job that I was looking for there didn’t pan out. So I kind of stuck to Cali, even though I’ve been to Yosemite probably a dozen times. I don’t mind coming back here, but it’d be nice to see something new.
Do you have a favorite trip you’ve been on?
So far, this one. I’ve had a great time in Camp 4, I’ve met a lot awesome people. It’s cool to have new climbing partners every single day. And you go back to the old climbing partners and talk about what you climbed and what they climbed. You share that even if you didn’t climb it with them, but it’s pretty much the same memories, you just might not have been there together. But like, we all remember what the top of the upper spire looks like—how great that view is.
What would you say you love about the outdoors?
I like the outdoors because it’s a way that you can connect with people that are like-minded to yourself. [That’s important] because otherwise you feel too alone in a big world and you don’t care about anything, right? It’s just you against the world. Finding those like-minded people is the best.
The outdoors pretty much provides us with everything. You know, nature provides. It’s where we get our food, our water and everything. I studied Environmental Studies and did business before, and business is kind of like, use it till it’s gone. And that’s how you profit off of it. Nature needs to be protected, it’s a finite resource. I mean you can look at it both ways—the earth will always exist, humans might not.
This interview has been trimmed and edited to fit this format. If you would like to access the unedited interview audio and unposted photography, see my Patreon page.