In this installment of Gnomad Homies, we had the honor of Skyping with Josiah Q Roe (@josiahq), a professional travel photographer who bounces back and forth between Colorado and California and all of the gorgeous places in between.
Let me tell you right now – he has got photographs that will literally make your jaw DROP! They are incredible. Anyhoo – he’s a super cool dude and we hope you enjoy getting to know him as much as we enjoyed chatting with him!
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Where are you from?
I’m from a little bit of everywhere. I was born in Detroit but moved to Wisconsin when I was just a year old, then off to northeastern Pennsylvania till I was 16, then Northern California near Tahoe for a few years after which I went to Tennessee for a decade, Chicago for a brief stint, and then San Francisco for 6 years. Recently I also got a place in Fort Collins, Colorado with my partner, but the place that has most felt like home is San Francisco. There’s nothing like that feeling of coming across the Bay Bridge, or the Golden Gate Bridge, or up the 101 and seeing the city laid out in front of you, the fog, the ocean, the hills: it’s magic.
Where are you currently located?
I currently split my time between San Francisco and Fort Collins, Colorado, bouncing between the two in my Westy.
You talked about how you go back and forth between Colorado and California. Do you have a living situation in each?
Yeah, yeah kind of. So, I have an apartment in San Francisco that I have had for about 6 years and then I didn’t want to get rid of it when I started doing the van life thing. I met a girl in Colorado, she’s in nursing school out there so I sort of wanted to keep the opportunity to move back to San Francisco if she’s open to it.
Plus, I absolutely love the city of San Francisco. It’s my favorite city in the country. I really can’t imagine living anywhere else, other than New Zealand. I have a roommate now who is a really good friend of mine (and also travels a lot). I still consider San Francisco my home base and primary residence, and I’ve been here for about a week or two while the van gets a new engine and then I’ll hit the road again.
Back to Colorado?
Yeah, in the nice fashion of wandering about. I have a few photography clients along the way that I will post up at, shoot, backpack and all that fun stuff.
Oh, bummer – sounds so boring!
Haha, right? It’s always the hustle – making a living while doing the van life thing.
Let’s talk about your rig. What are you living/traveling in? And did you buy it prebuilt or did you build it out yourself?
I live in a 1982 VW Westfalia Vanagon named “Barb the Barbarian”, and the interior is mostly original. When I open her up and set up the bar, she goes by “Auto Van Barsmark”.
Tell us more about this bar situation.
One of my sponsors is a group called Blue Ridge Chairworks. They’re really cool. They’re out of North Carolina and it’s this awesome dude that makes all these really awesome chairs for backpacking, camping, whatever. The guy’s name is Allen Davis.We bumped into each other and I basically said, “Hey, I can feature your stuff. I need a bar and some chairs.” So he made me a bar and some chairs.
The bar space is basically a table that’s raised. When I post up, I set up the bar. I think it’s a great way to meet people. It has definitely gotten me into some pretty cool places. Through a security kiosk a time or two. Or you end up at the right campsite where there’s a bunch of people that may or may not work for the Forest Service or Department of the Interior and will tell you what roads to take at what time before any crowds show up. It’s all just about being social and friendly.
One day I would like to own a bar in New Zealand or something like that. That would be my dream.
How long have you been living in your van? Do you live in it full time or part time?
I’ve been doing the Vanlife thing since July of 2016, though there were some mechanical hiccups along the way. I’d say it’s part time, though I just finished a three-week stint and left the van with the fantastic team at Stephan’s Auto Haus in Sacramento, CA, to have a modern 1.8t engine put into it.
What made you want to choose this lifestyle? What was that transition like?
Once I began exploring and traveling, and specifically doing travel photography, Vanlife quickly became something I kept coming back to and dreaming about. Once I realized I could make a living working remotely, it was inevitable. The transition has been anything but boring, and every day is a learning experience.
What is your favorite part about this lifestyle? What is your least favorite part about this lifestyle?
The upsides are the sunrises and sunsets in remote and beautiful locations. The downside is when you forget your heater and temps drop to -14 degrees.
You’ve been in places where the temperature has been -14 degrees!?
Yeah so over the holidays – the girlfriend is in nursing school – so we decided to head south and cut over to the Great Colorado Sand Dunes National Park and didn’t quite put two and two together that it was at 11,000 feet in the dead of winter.
One of the things I’m having done at the shop in Sacramento by Stephan’s Auto Haus is having a modern heating and AC system put into it because the one in there did not work well. I just had like a gas powered space heater, which I had actually left in California.
We were there with basically no heat at all. So of course, the inside and the outside of the windows all freeze, it was just absolutely miserable. We had every blanket we possibly could just piled on top of us. I got out for about a minute and a half to shoot some photos. I was going to do some long exposures of the dunes but uh…hell no, haha. It was silly cold, I was just laughing at how cold it was. And then we wake up the next morning with ice on the inside and outside of the windows.
That was a rough night. Probably the hardest, coldest night I’ve ever had. And I’ve been in colder temperatures on backpacking trips in the Sierras but I was geared and outfitted correctly. Which is funny, you think about that while living in a van and it’s still possible, if you are not in an insulated vehicle without a heat source, I mean — my Goal Zero batteries would not work because they won’t work under a certain temperature. There’s just limitations. Yeah, just praying to get out of those mountains, haha.
Was the van running alright with all of that?
Yeah the van ran great. It was awesome.
Man, can you imagine it like, not starting or something?
Oh, I was imagining! Haha.
What were you doing before you made the move to van life?
I was working as a part-time travel photographer and part-time product designer. I design the software for a startup in the Bay Area called Kelvin, and what they make are a series of devices that you can mount to big industrial equipment to track certain data points.
I did the thing with San Francisco startup-type companies, but I give no shits about a new filter on Snapchat. I like working on the more science-y side of things.
What are your favorite features of your living situation? Anything specifically unique?
I’ve got a killer vanlife solar setup which gives me my own little power grid. It’s a fun feeling of independence.
Oooohhh — tell us EVERYTHING!
I’ve got two 100-watt flexible solar panels that come into two of the Goal Zero Yeti batteries daisy-chained together. I run the solar panels in parallel. The Goal Zero individually can only take about 130 watts in but you are so very rarely getting that with the two panels unless it’s the rare occasion where you are just sitting in direct sunlight for awhile.
Between the two panels, I’m pretty set. I might add some more panels at some point. I currently have them on the right side, which isn’t so great if you are heading west in the winter because the angle of the sun rarely gets on the panels enough. That will matter less once I get my new engine finished. It’s great, it fits in nice. The batteries are stacked in the back.
Goal Zero is pretty rad. They make it real simple so you don’t have to worry about wiring and a charge controller and whatnot. It’s pretty close to plug and play. And the flex panels are a little more expensive but less bulky than the rigid ones. You just get some 3M velcro and they stick great. I like them more than the big bulky ones. It’s a great set up and I can work from anywhere.
What do you do for income on the road?
I’m still doing the travel photography and product design.
How’d you get into travel photography?
I used to weigh 300 pounds. Then I started exercising and running. Then I started running on trails. Then I started taking photos on my runs. Since I was having such a good time I wanted to keep taking pictures and sharing them more and more. I started to travel a lot more and started wondering if it was something I wanted to do.
I did a month in New Zealand, a month in Sri Lanka, and a month in Nepal and shot the whole way. Some people bought my photos. And I love telling stories, so that was that. It was interesting doing a midlife career change. Being a white male, it’s pretty low risk to be able to do such a thing and I say that with humility and gratitude, that I’ve been afforded the freedom to up and try something like the van life. I feel very lucky.
What have been your favorite locations thus far, and why?
Boy this is a hard question. The Tetons are unbelievable, really nothing like them anywhere I’ve seen thus far, and pretty much all of Utah should be turned into a National Park. We all need to be calling our elected representatives to protect the Antiquities Act.
That said, the central and northern California coast holds a special place in my heart.
Is there anywhere you haven’t been yet that you’d like to go?
Oh yeah. I haven’t done Glacier National Park. I’ve never been to Zion or Yellowstone. I’ve never done the North Cascades. I’ve never done the North Peninsula. There’s a bunch of stuff in Eastern Oregon I want to check out. I haven’t done Valley of Fire outside of Vegas. Sedona. Painted rocks. Central and Southern Arizona. I really want to go to Guadalupe National Park. I could go on and on and on and on. All of the places, haha. I literally live next to Rocky Mountain National Park and I’ve never been. It’s right there, I can see it.
I feel like it’s one of those things though, when it’s in your backyard it’s harder to go. You sort of take it for granted.
I’ve been talking with the tourism board about doing a project and I’ve been waiting until then. Which is kind of stupid if you think about it, why would I wait until I have to work?
What are some things you brought with you that you use nearly everyday? What are some things you brought with you that you ended up never or rarely using?
Making coffee every morning in my french press has become a wonderful little ritual. I really didn’t need that bottle of dry vermouth. The first person who asks can have it.
Is there anything you miss from your former lifestyle?
The downside to traveling so much is the lack of feeling like you’ve really settled into a place, letting it get under your skin, and really getting a feel for the rhythm of it, if that makes sense.
What do you like to do in your free time?
I hike, climb, swim, etc., but largely I take photos, then edit photos, then take more photos, and then edit more photos. You get the idea.
What advice would you give someone considering this lifestyle?
All the best things are on the other side of fear. It’s amazing what you can do when you don’t put limits on yourself.
What is your favorite meal to make?
It’s not a meal, but my morning coffee is joy.
Lastly, If you could explain van life in three words or sentences – the community aspect of it – what would you say?
I know it’s cliche but you know that John Muir quote: “The world is big and I want to have a good look at it before it gets dark.” I feel like everyone I met doing the van life thing, believes that on some sort of level.
There’s almost a sense of urgency, like “Man, I only have short amount of time on this weird-ass rock hurtling through space. Do I really want to spend my days in one location?”
If you have that in common with someone, it’s pretty cool. It’s going to create a community by its very nature. I’ve made some really great friends. The Outbound Collective is a great explorers program. I’ve made some great friends through that as well. Out of nowhere I wake up and I’ll be living in a yurt on a lamb farm, eating lamb sausage. It’s great.