I Bought a Van (and a Puppy!) - My Trip Across America in 50 Images
My photography season changed dramatically in 2020 when many of my couples had to cancel their wedding day. Honestly, I wasn’t sure if I could continue working this profession that I love. Fortunately, many couples decided last minute on smaller elopements. I was already an established elopement and family photographer in the Traverse City area. And so my calendar started filling up again. After all the cancelations and reschedules, I ended up capturing 51 families, 19 elopements, 27 engagements, and 12 proposals in Northern Michigan in 2020. And I have never had a more enjoyable photography season! I loved hanging out at the trailhead and capturing these smaller adventures.
2020 had an interesting start when exactly a year ago this March a worldwide pandemic was declared. I know at that time, Nicole and I raced home from our west coast travels. We headed straight to Northern Michigan to quarantine at Nicole’s house in Mancelona. We took Covid-19 very seriously and still do. Our travel plans for the year quickly dissolved. I thought I would be trapped in a house for 2020. Nicole and I weren’t sure about our photography season in Traverse City, but we had it easy. We saw this terrible disease take thousands of lives. It’s unbelievable to think that millions have died worldwide now. A year ago I was beginning to lose hope when I became preoccupied with the news and daily death tolls. Then I decided to shift my focus. I began to journal everyday and focus my attention on my relationships and photography business.
One good thing that came out of 2020 was that I finally listened to my grandpa’s advice, I found a way to put away money. I simplified my possessions and overall lifestyle and even with the uncertainty managed to save. I wasn’t eating out as much which helped. I also kept myself busy with my photography business. Apparently I’m not the only one who started saving. In 2020, Americans doubled their savings accounts despite the unemployment, which is crazy when you think about it. It makes me think anything is possible. I personally set up an emergency fund and pushed forward with my investment goals. I have never saved more in my life.
If there is one thing I learned in 2020, it’s to be prepared for anything.
I also satisfied a lifelong dream. For a long time, I have wanted to live and travel in a van. Obviously, it’s a big investment and so I had to save for a long time. In 2020, I was finally able to buy a renovated 2019 Dodge Ram Promaster. Our mobile setup was built by Kara and Cole with Happy People Vans (now in Colorado, but at that point they were in lower Michigan). We dubbed our beautifully constructed home on wheels the Smooth Operator Van, named after my favorite beer from Right Brain Brewery in Traverse City. It is exactly what we were looking for and it was so exciting to see it being built on Kara and Cole’s instagram. Check out van build 6 in their stories.
With solar panels, a composting toilet, a fridge, running water, and plenty of storage, I felt like a king in our new van. I lived on the road previously and so the transition to van life was pretty easy. Nicole and I had everything we needed to live offgrid for a few days, which has helped us to travel and be away from people at the same time. Last fall we picked up the Smooth Operator Van and spent October in Empire, chasing the last of the fall color. Mostly we park at the trailheads, friends driveways, our favorite venue Nature Michigan in Glen Arbor, and occasionally campgrounds. We were still adjusting to our new home on wheels. We didn’t even have internet set up or a toilet installed. We did eventually get our Nature’s Head composting toilet (I highly recommend one by the way) and great internet through our Pepwave, which allowed us to park in the middle of nowhere and still get our computer work done.
We were just missing one thing in my opinion. And that was a dog. It took quite a bit of convincing to persuade Nicole to get a puppy. I eventually discovered that Nicole had a dog name all picked for her future hypothetical dog. That name was Kovu, a character in Lion King 2 (who is the son of Scar and turns from bad to good if you’re wondering). Honestly, I didn’t even know there was a Lion King 2. So after watching the flick and approving of this character, I began using this name on our hikes into nature. I would jokingly call to our imaginary dog and it took only a few weeks of this to convince Nicole to get a dog. And after lots of research, I found the right breed and a local breeder in Jasper, Michigan.
So on our way out of Michigan in our new van, we picked out our new puppy Kovu from a litter of 10 texas heelers. We couldn’t take her home until she was 8 weeks and so we had some time to kill. So we traveled around West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina in our new mobile home. We drove the Blue Ridge Parkway and down the coast from the Outer Banks to Charleston to Savannah, Georgia. We then returned north through Ohio to Jasper, Michigan to pick up our new 8 week old puppy Kovu.
Raising a puppy on the road was not as challenging as you might think. Nicole and I were consistent in our training and we were able to spend a lot of time with Kovu. Our pup had already been to 12 states by the time she was 3 months old! I like to joke that she has never peed in the same place twice. Our first stop after picking up Kovu was to visit family in Chicago. Then Nicole, Kovu, and I drove west through bitter cold Colorado towards Wyoming and ended up in sunny Northern California. We stopped for plenty of potty breaks and walks along the way. Kovu met a lot of dog friends too. We spent a lot of time in Santa Cruz, where I studied yoga actually. After Nicole’s wedding in Aptos, we drove down Highway 1 through Monterey and Big Sur and parked in Southern California for awhile.
We explored Joshua Tree with friends and spent our Christmas in Palm Springs. By New Years we were in Lost Dutchman, Arizona (which is where I am now writing this actually). We have spent the last couple months hiking Sedona trails and parking under the saguaros in the Phoenix desert. We visited Page for this first time, checking out Horseshoe Bend and Lake Powell, Arizona. I highly recommend you check out this beautiful area of the country. I also really enjoyed Prescott, where we explored around Watson Lake and found an amazing dog park for Kovu. Fun Fact: Prescott has the most amount of dogs per capita in the country.
By the time we return to Northern Michigan, we will have put 16,000 miles on the #SmoothOperatorVan. We will have explored both east and west coasts and traveled across the country from North Carolina to California. Truthfully, Nicole and I can’t wait to return home for another photography season in Northern Michigan.
And yes we still plan to live in the van. Where will we park in Northern Michigan? Well, we don’t like to make reservations, but you will find us parked in Empire, Glen Arbor, and Traverse City. We will be hanging out at all of our favorite trails.
On our way back home, we plan to visit New Mexico, Colorado, and my family Chicago. See you soon Michigan!
Josh Hartman ~ Nomad and Northern Michigan Photographer