Exploring America in a home on wheels
Inside Mo Elliott’s Sprinter van, there are striped towels slung over the shoulder of the passenger’s seat, an unmade bed, a hodgepodge of kitchenware and cutlery on a tiny wooden kitchen countertop. Inside the van, there is only 80 square feet of livable space. Outside the van, there’s America—a different corner of the country every day. Today, he’s in Key West, or more specifically Smathers Beach, a half-mile stretch of sand and sea. There’s also not much of an internet connection to speak of. When he steps out of his van onto the gravel of the parking lot, the movement tests the internet connection, dissolving the video conversation into a set of broken images. The morning’s shimmer on the surface of the green-blue water. A white orb bursting behind Mo’s head, wiping out his features. Palm trees. Folks sunning. But it’s hard to really share that experience without being there, especially through 10-pixel-per-inch views, which, seen in person, are undoubtedly postcard-worthy.
It’s 11 a.m. in Florida, and Mo says he’s already tried to go out surfing with Gracie Edwards, his girlfriend of five years, but the winds were too strong, so they retreated back to the van. They’ve only been parked near the beach for three hours, and chances are they’re going to have to drive somewhere else to stop for the night and sleep. A day or two here, a day there. The longest they’ve stayed in one spot was all of three days. Aside from occasionally returning home to Fayetteville for Mo’s work, this is how Gracie and Mo have been living for the past nine months or so.
It doesn’t take but 15 seconds perusing Instagram, however, to realize the couple are hardly pioneers in this respect. It would be a stretch to even call this modern-day vagabond existence “new.” In fact, more people are opting for #vanlife as a way to avoid rent, escape the grind and, of course, see the world. (The hashtag generates over 1.2 million photos on Instagram.) Or more of it, at least. There’s also some romance in the freedom it stirs: Wake up. Go anywhere.
Inspired by their vandwelling friends, Mo and Gracie bought a stripped-down Mercedes Sprinter van in July 2015, with the intention of working on it themselves, pimping it out and then hitting the road. The plan? Go wherever it was warm in the winter, head out to cooler locations in the summer. “I wanted to see every state in the U.S. and Canada and really understand what’s in our own turf,” he says in a slow and deliberate manner, which complements his laid-back, surfer-type appearance, his striped white T-shirt, tan skin and wet, salty hair. “I always see people spending all this money, you know, doing a week in these remote places across the world, but they haven’t checked out how much the U.S. has to offer. I just wanted to understand that.” In many ways, the cross-country road trip (or more accurately, road trips) has been about breaking from routine. But it is also about being out in nature, and that’s equally important to the couple.
If you’re even remotely familiar with Mo, this probably won’t come as much of a surprise. After all, the company he founded while still a student at the University of Arkansas celebrates the outdoors, boasting apparel that’s not only trendy, but designed to suit every type of outdoorsman. But being the CEO of a company, especially one that’s as successful as Fayettechill, is a time-consuming thing. Because Mo could never get around to it, he hired a Fayetteville-based architecture firm, Modus Studio, to build the van out. “It’s cramped, and it’s small, but we’re always outside,” he says. “We have all the amenities we need.” In five months, the van was ready—equipped with roof-top solar panels that power satellite Wi-Fi, phones, fridge and shower. In August 2016, Gracie, Mo and their apricot-colored red heeler, Olive, moved in.
Having lived in a 200-square-foot attic (located at the former Ozark Mountain Smokehouse restaurant, a Fayetteville landmark, where Fayettechill’s headquarters is based) with an outdoor shower, Mo and Gracie weren’t completely unfamiliar with living in tight quarters, but the van life forced them to really pare down to the essentials—donate what they could, throw out the rest. And yes, the mountain bikes tucked away in the back of the vehicle are “essential” to Mo and Gracie’s outdoor-inclined hobbies. So are the surf boards. There’s a not-so-subtly romantic quality in that, too—in being so desirous of experiencing everything and, in Mo and Gracie’s case, actually doing it. The couple can park and mountain bike anywhere. Hike anywhere. Fly-fish. Camp. Spend some time in a quiet nook of a beautiful place, like the North Cascades, where Gracie and Mo stopped at every pull-off, and explored a lake that, Gracie says, looks like blue Gatorade. The driving part, too, is something they talk about. There’s the Million Dollar Highway, for example, a sweeping 25-mile stretch of road built by Otto Mears in the 1880s, which snakes and squiggles through the San Juan Mountains in Colorado, or Big Sur, a scenic coastal drive Mo is quick to praise for its beauty.
There’s no normalcy that comes with this kind of life, but there are certain habits that remain relatively the same, no matter the location. Every day, Mo wakes up, eats breakfast, cracks open his laptop and hunkers down for a couple of hours of back-and-forth email correspondence, (he still works remotely in the production side of Fayettechill, after stepping down as the company’s CEO a little over a month into the road trip). That is, if the satellite’s Wi-Fi is working. Otherwise, he and Gracie drive out to chase the internet, in which case coffee shops become his “office” for the day. During the weekends, the couple set out into nature.
“Look, there’s an iguana,” Mo says, holding his phone at chest level, pointing it up to his face, then at the windshield of his van. It’s blurry, but through the glass, there seems to be something iguanalike sitting still on the ground. There is one thing, though, that’s sharp and clear: the couple’s love of the open road, of the freedom to wander, and to live at once nowhere and everywhere.
Check out Gracie’s website to follow along with the couple’s travels: Gracieedwards.com