Living in a van down by the river
Tim is from the warm south of the U.S. and moved to the ice-cold north to realize his dream of living off-grid in a motorhome. Together with his girlfriend Kage he travels on Alaska’s roads, showering in the gym, growing salad in the indoor garden, and keeping warm with the help of a wood stove. True to the motto: “The 1st step to living small, but BIG: move into something smaller!” In the following interview Tim and Kage tell us about the life on the road and in the cold.
Could you give me some information about your personal background? Who are you, what is your profession, where are you from, what are your hobbies, what do you wish for your life?
My name is Tim Johnson, friends call me Timmy. My profession? Metaphorically “living out of the box”… while literally “living in a box.” I guess my main income is based off of teaching driving. I’m nearly finished with a Masters degree in Environmental Science/Isotope Hydrology, so I might not have to continue risking my life with new driving students. There’s something scary about driving down an icy Alaskan highway in January, with a brand new driver that speaks no English and has horrible reflexes… but I supposed somebody’s gotta do it.
I grew up in North Georgia’s Smokey Mountains. Maybe you’ve seen the movie Deliverance? Them are my stompin’ grounds. Spending time in an Alaskan bush cabin as a kid, I always found myself dreaming of calling Alaska “home”. I finally moved to Alaska in 2002, and it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
Some folks have a drinking problem. I have a “water problem”, otherwise known as whitewater kayaking. Kayaking is the backbone of my adventures in Alaska and around the globe. The summer in Alaska is incredible for kayaking, where I can lose myself in deep, remote, and unforgiving whitewater canyons. In the winter-time, I either travel out of the USA to paddle (usually to New Zealand, my second home) or I’ll hang around Alaska and ski, speed-fly, or snow machine. I also enjoy picking the banjo in my free time, and try to do a show every now and then with our band. My girlfriend, Kage, is also a banjo player (she helped teach me a few new banjo skills), so we share the passion for playing and creating music.
What do I wish for my life? Honestly, I wish to learn everything I can from everything around me, and I hope to make a positive impact in the people’s lives I interact with. I also aim to create an environment that inspires adventure (within myself and others), morphs dreams to reality, and leaves a positive footprint and a bit of inspiration behind. I’m always grateful for the inspiration other people give me, so I’m just attempting to return that energy.
Could you tell me something about your camper? Where have you found it? What add-ons have you added since you owned it?
After the decision to live in a motorhome full-time, my old man (Bob) & I were searching the internet for a Toyota 4×4 motorhome, and my old man came across an ad for an extremely rare (only 6 ever made) Toyota Odyssey 4-wheel drive motorhome in Los Angeles, California. We both were looking for a 4×4 motorhome at the time, and since I lived in Alaska (he lives in Georgia) and I was planning on living full-time in the motorhome, I decided to buy the 4×4 motorhome… and he opted for a very rare Toyota Sunrader diesel 2-wheel drive motorhome for his travels.
The Toyota Odyssey 4×4 has come a really long way from its stock chassis. I have installed a wood stove & chimney, along with solar panels, which allow me to live “off-grid” and not be plugged into a power source for heat or electricity. If it’s cold, I simply throw wood in the fire instead of relying on propane or a generator. If I want to watch a movie or charge my phone, the solar panels power the LED TV and recharge my phone. Pretty cool.
I also had to custom-build a kayak rack on the roof to hold the kayaks, and added a couple of rocket boxes to store skis & gear on the roof. I also added an 8-inch lift, 33” off-road tires/rims, and a bull-bar/brush guard to protect the motorhome from a wreck (since the brakes are stock Toyota 4-Runner brakes and are severely underpowered). In the spring, summer, and fall, I have an interior garden where I grow lettuce, green onions, and spices for an off-grid food source.
My girlfriend quickly pointed out that my camper looked like a sporty man-mobile, and even though I thought it looked pretty sexy, she has definitely helped make the inside look a little classier. I grew up in log cabins and always wanted a rustic, but modern-twist cabin-look to my motorhome. Kage has helped envision several interior designs and projects. The latest little project was making ceiling beams using 100+ year old, grey-weathered wood from old Alaskan gold mines. Looks pretty awesome! I sewed some custom, super-thick winter curtains made of oven-mit fabric, which keeps the heat trapped inside the single-pane windows in the winter time. Kage sewed some faux-leather curtains for a little extra attitude in the summer time.
You’ve named your camper “Pittsburgh Nelly”. Where did this name came from?
Ah, I just couldn’t think of a better name. Nelly just rolls of the tongue easily. Watch Chris Farley’s movie “Almost Heros” and wait for the punch-line if you really want to find out…
I’m really enthusiastic about the fitting-out of your nest. What impressed me most is the little in-house garden. How did the first motorhome-grown salad taste?
The motorhome’s in-house garden is one of my favorite features also. There is something about having living plants and edible food growing in your car just makes it truly feel homey. The salad is ain’t that bad either. We’ve had a couple of aphid problems eating the lettuce, but whenever that’s under control it’s nice having free, healthy meals and spices for cooking.
I suppose the winter temperatures in Alaska are really cold and most of us aren’t used to bear those. How do you get through the ice-cold nights in your motorhome? Any special tactics? Or probably longing for a warm shower?
The Kimberly wood stove is the only reason we are able to comfortably survive the winter in my motorhome. I keep the fire stoked on the majority of the winter. Keeping the fire going cuts down the condensation from cooking and breathing in such a small 110 square foot living space. Even though the motorhome is not well-insulated at all, the wood stove puts out enough heat to keep the home cozy. I do have a built-in, 16,000 BTU propane furnace which we occasionally use to quickly warm things up, but RV propane furnaces are not truly designed to be used 24 hours a day, and have a tendency to fail.
Kage and I use each other for heat (which helps a lot), but replacing cotton sheets with fleece blankets is my best advice to staying toasty warm. We throw a big down comforter on top of those fleece blankets on really cold nights, and although ice forms around your face and pillow, you stay nice and warm. We typically just take showers at the gym (a gym membership is a great thing!) or at friend’s homes.
What happened that you’ve decided to move from the warm south to the cold north of the U.S.? From where came the idea to live off-grid all year in your camper?
After spending time as a kid in the remote wilderness of Lake Clark National Park, I just always knew I wanted to call Alaska home… so I simply acted on my dreams.
I never did like moving into new homes. It seemed I had to move into a new apartment or home at least every year for 10 years straight, throughout Anchorage and Girdwood. Roommates would move in or move out, and I would basically be forced to find a new home. I had enough belongings to outfit an entire house, so every time I moved it was a serious undertaking. I finally grew tired of moving all my belongings around, so I decided to sell everything that was unnecessary, and move into a small motorhome year-round. I was really concerned at first, because I knew I would not have a designated place to park, and I didn’t know how comfortable I would be throughout the cold winter months. As it turns out… if you think “out of the box”, life on the road will more than accommodate you.
In an article about you, I’ve read that the reason you’ve moved to Alaska was the dream of living in the wildest place on Earth. What is the most fascinating thing about this rough nature?
The most fascinating aspect of Alaska is the raw experience of untouched wilderness. I haven’t been anywhere else on earth that feels so remote and wild, even within a short distance of the city.
I could imagine that many people that you meet while traveling are fascinated by your vehicle. What was the most beautiful or unexpected reaction to your motorhome and your unusual lifestyle?
We get all kinds of great reactions to the motorhome. Usually it’s an ear-to-ear grin, or someone beeps their horn and gives a thumbs up. Sometimes people and businesses leave gifts of food on the hood. In the winter, I run the wood stove basically all day, so the motorhome drives around with a fire burning. I always get funny reactions from people at red lights, because of the smoking chimney.
The craziest single reaction I had to the home was this past November. It was about -20 degrees F outside and I had the wood stove going. I went in to get some groceries for dinner, and while shopping the grocery store intercom came on. The person speaking on the intercom said “Attention! License plate “Y-RENT”… your RV is on fire!!!!!!” I finished shopping (knowing everything was fine, as the wood stove is air-tight), checked out at the register, and walked out of the grocery store to see about 70 people pointing at my RV and it’s smoking chimney (from the wood stove). Bystanders and fire fighters were surrounding the motorhome, planning out what to do next. I walked up to them and told them I just had a wood stove, and they all laughed and went their own ways.
I don’t want to keep the new music video of your band “The Shoot Dangs” from our readers. I for one, am already a big fan. How do you combine the tour life with your life in the camper? Are you all living in your camper together while touring through Alaska?
“The Shoot Dangs!” aren’t touring full-time in the camper, but one of our band members is from Fairbanks, so when he comes down to Anchorage for our shows, he usually sleeps in the RV’s guest bed.
We just completed a Southeastern USA tour from Georgia to Texas, but we didn’t bring my motorhome, just a tiny 1989 Toyota Corolla 4wd station wagon. We’re all close friends now, but next time, we’re bringing the motorhome. This is the first real band I have ever been in, and it’s been a lot of fun. We are planning a future tour to play at Octoberfest in Germany (and all over Europe), then head over to Tokyo, Japan next fall to play some shows. We’ll also be playing around Alaska all winter/spring/summer long. Honestly, it’s a lot of fun creating music and sharing it with people, there’s no other feeling like it. Listening and playing music has always been a core part of my life, and it’s awesome to contribute and give back to the music scene.
How many miles have you driven with Pittsburgh Nelly on Alaska’s roads?
I’ve put about 30,000 miles on the Alaskan roads and about 2,000 miles off-road so far, and hopefully those miles will keep accumulating (as long as the little V6 3.0 engine keeps chugging along). I don’t have a real winch yet, but I’ve had to use a come-along hand winch to pull myself out of a couple mud holes and bogs (there are a few crazy roads and trails to navigate up here if you’re playing in the woods or camping).
What are you planning for the future? Still living in a van down by the river and sleep each night at a different place?
The future? I guess a good plan today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow. So today, I’m going to enjoy myself and hopefully do the same tomorrow.
And finally, what does a nest (home) mean to you?
A nest, home, spread, or whatever you want to call it is, more than anything, is an environment to call your own, where comfort and familiarity are status quo. It provides a space to recharge your being, refuel your body, and rest your mind. Everyone should experience the privilege of their own NEST!