Rhaude, Red Rock Canyon
“It was really, really traumatizing. It’s one thing to live out of your vehicle, but when you lose that vehicle, not only do you lose your method of transportation—you lose the house that you live in.”
Rhaude had been living on the road with her dog, Pongo, for about nine months by the time I met her. Her work with public lands takes her all over the country, and her little companion is happy to tag along at her work and at the climbing crag. Somehow, she’s found the perfect balance between working outside in something she’s passionate about, having the freedom to travel wherever the road takes her, and getting time off to climb rocks when the weather’s good.
We met at Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area this past March, where we joined two other strangers in enjoying the area’s perfect sandstone over a day of sport climbing. A couple months later I bumped into her at Camp 4 in Yosemite National Park, where she was spending time bagging multi-pitch classics. I couldn’t climb due to a wrist injury so I offered to dog-sit Pongo for the day while she got on Royal Arches—a massive all-day route.
I was tempted to puppy-nap the cutie and keep him as a van buddy, but I was quickly reminded how much work is required for taking care of a dog while focused on reaching outdoor objectives. Especially when you don’t have a house or backyard to let him hang out—props to Rhaude for making it work. While the other two people in our party were finishing up a route at Red Rock, I asked her about working for public lands, how totaling her minivan-home turned her life upside-down, and what she loves about the outdoors.
How did you first get into the outdoors and rock climbing?
The first time I climbed outdoors, what I would consider real climbing, was with my college outdoors club—the one on my T-shirt. They do a spring break trip every year to Moab, and it’s a big deal because we drive cross country all the way from Virginia. It was also my first time mountain biking, and my first time canyoneering, which is crazy cool. [It was my] first time spending an extended period of time in a tent. I’d camp a lot growing up, but it was Girl Scout camp where it’s like camping, but not really. So that’s where I really got into it, and I instantly fell in love.
Was the idea to live out of a truck inspired by the need to climb?
I knew automatically as soon as I graduated, I wanted to come out west. I wanted to have a job that would give me the time to be able to climb a lot, even if that meant working part-time or working nights. And those things kind of pointed me towards living in the vehicle full-time.
Since I graduated in May and my job didn’t start till August, I had already planned on doing a road trip. And so I rocked the minivan for a bit. The freedom of living in your vehicle, as you can probably understand, is intoxicating. You can wake up the morning and be like ‘Where do we want to go?’. Everything you own is with you and you’re the only one who controls it. Even though I have enough money to pay for an apartment, I could take all of that money and put it towards trips and stuff. There’s absolutely no question for me.
How’d you go from minivan to truck?
I was going down to Santa Fe from southern Colorado to do some climbing and I got in an accident on the highway. It was terrifying. My car got totaled, but I didn’t get injured. It was really, really traumatizing. It’s one thing to live out of your vehicle, but when you lose that vehicle, not only do you lose your method of transportation—you lose the house that you live in. And all my family’s on the east coast, so I got taken to a women’s shelter. I almost stayed in a homeless shelter for a couple days, because that was the only option that I felt I could afford and made sense.
That was kind of surreal. Like I joked about being a homeless dirtbag, and then I was homeless dirt bag. I was chilling out in parks with a backpack—that was me, it was crazy. Really scary.
I had two weeks before my job in Colorado ended and I needed to be on the road again. I was kind of sleeping in the conference room in the office, when I needed to, but I couldn’t do that once I wasn’t working there anymore. So I was on a time crunch. This truck ended up coming into my life at the right time. Having the 4 wheel driving and the high clearance has been game changing.
You mentioned you work for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), what’s that like?
Essentially it’s seasonal work, but I’m technically what you would call an agreement worker. So a conservation organization like Nature Conservancy or ACE or Conservation Legacy, will apply for these grants and get funding to do certain conservation work on BLM land. I got hired by ACE, the American Conservation Experience, they’re the ones who apply for the grant and give me my money, but all of the work I do is for and directed by the BLM.
I have complete control over my schedule, as long as I average out 80 hours every two weeks, that’s all I really need to do. I like the work that I do, but that was one of the huge things that drew me to it. I don’t have to be a weekend warrior, I can go somewhere for like, a full five days. And if it’s rainy and gross, I can go and do extra hours. And then when it is really nice weather I can be like, ‘Okay, I’m going to take a couple days off in the middle of the week for no reason other than to go climbing’.
That seems perfect for this lifestyle. How do you like the work itself?
I’m really passionate about public lands and managing them for the people in whatever way it needs to be managed. And my specific position has always been with wilderness so it’s always something that I’m passionate about. What I’m doing now is super cool and I get to spend so much time outdoors in these crazy places, and I get to bring Pongo with me all the time.
What has it been like to have a dog while on the road?
It’s definitely been an adjustment and sometimes it’s inconvenient and sometimes I get annoyed with him. But then 30 seconds later I’m like, ‘Oh my god, no.’ Pongo just brings so much joy to my life.
Was there anything difficult about living on the road that you didn’t expect?
Well it’s definitely lonely, I mean Pongo fixes that. Other sacrifices are things that you don’t really need, like I don’t need electricity, running water. But when I was road tripping from North Carolina to Colorado, it wasn’t as lonely because I was always going somewhere and meeting new people constantly. When you travel by yourself, it kind of forces you to meet new people, which I really enjoy. But then once I was in Colorado, the area that I was in was gorgeous but pretty remote. There was no other young people my age, there wasn’t many people who were into what I was doing. That was pretty hard because I was doing almost all my work by myself, and even on my time off spending all my time by myself.
So how did you end up getting interested in the Peace Corps?
I saw this particular posting in the Philippines for coastal resource management. The big thing that I focused on in my school work when I was at UVA was coastal resilience, especially as it relates to climate change. And the Philippines is an island nation—they’re super affected by climate change. I’d not only be helping them with having healthy coral reefs and sustainable fishery, but also with resilience; how to protect against flooding and making sure as climate change progresses that entire communities aren’t going to be wiped out, which I’m really passionate about.
And I mean, I’d be lying if I said I did it entirely selflessly. The Peace Corps is a really great thing to put on your resume. So even though it’s going to be a difficult position, I can live like a dirtbag for two years in the Peace Corps, and I get applauded for it. Doing it here, you don’t get applauded for it. So part of it was like, I feel like I could do something with my life and live the way that I wanted to, but also make a much bigger impact than what I’m doing here.
Last question: what do you love about the outdoors?
I like being outdoors, I love fresh air, I love trees. But I think that the thing that keeps me drawn to it is the scope of it. I think that’s why so many people want to go to a viewpoint; to see the massive scope of it. And especially climbing, you can look at something and you’re like, ‘Oh, I think I could get to the top of that’, and you’re getting to the top of that and you’re like, ‘Fuck, this is hard. I’m a little itty bitty ant on this massive mountain’. There’s so much, you know? I’m going to go my entire life and still see maybe like 3% of this world.
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.