Looming tornadoes in the Badlands, a camper van that sometimes doesn't start, and cohabitating with your partner in a space smaller than a king size bed are not the challenges most couples face when they start a business together. But in June, Kelly Shea, a writer/art director, and Brendan Banks, a filmmaker, moved out of their respective NYC apartments and in with each other (for the very first time, no less!) into a 1984 VW Westfalia camper-slash-creative studio-on-wheels, appropriately named West Falls. They're crisscrossing the United States until Thanksgiving, meeting like-minded people and telling the stories of makers and doers. What follows below is a fascinating, honest, at times hilarious, and in-depth look at Kelly and Brendan's United States road trip. Follow along with them on their Vancrafted blog and on their regularly-updated Instagram feed, @vancrafted. And check back here tomorrow for the first installment of their digital diary, "On the Road with: West Falls Studio."
Where are you guys right now?
Kelly: Yellowstone (ed note: Kelly and Brendan have since moved on to the Grand Tetons and are now in Salt Lake City.) We got here last night and it's far more beautiful than either of us could have imagined. After this, we have pretty high expectations. On the map, they tell you about all the wildlife you might encounter just driving to your campsite. We saw elk, a bear, a pack of wolves...
Brendan: Luckily, the bear was very far away. We saw tons of bison, too. It's been wild already.
I'm living vicariously through you. What inspired this adventure together?
Kelly: We were both living in NY and we were just getting to the point where—you know how long the winter was this year, right?
How could I forget?!
Kelly: It was pretty rough. We tried to get out of NY as much as we could, but we felt like we were getting sucked into a certain attitude and a certain way of living that wasn't working for us. The city had been this amazing source of that energy and inspiration for a really long time, but we were getting weary. We wanted more creative freedom and more physical space, too. So we moved into a van...which doesn't make any sense.
There's some irony there.
B: But the van is where you sleep and drive. As soon as you camp, you have endless amount of space. We've always loved the outdoors, so this journey was inspired by that. Also, I've always been a part of someone else's production. I like the pressure of doing my own thing. I perform better that way.
K: Brendan has this beautiful, cinematic eye. It's been fun to combine our strengths and support smaller brands that don't have big budgets for photo and video production.
When did you start thinking about taking off, and how did you execute the whole thing?
K. We went to my hometown in Rhode Island in mid-February. We were out on the beach—it was probably 20 degrees, but we were still out there—and we were talking about having a shift in lifestyle. We knew we wanted a change. Brendan started talking about how he really wanted to build something together, so it all evolved from that idea.
B. Kelly and I had been talking about doing a road trip. About a week and a half after our talk on the beach, I had a frustrating day at work and it was really starting to feel like a grind. That night, I took the subway to her apartment and I was like, Should we do this thing? Let's do this. Are we crazy? We're crazy, but let's do it.
I love it! How did you find a van?
K: The first step was that Brendan thought of a name for us. We feverishly took notes and wrote down ideas. And then we started looking for 1980s West Falls camper vans online. Night and day. We had them constantly refreshing on our phones and on our computers.
Are they hard to come by?
K: Oh yes, especially in the Northeast. It's so hard to find ones that are in good shape.
B: They're very expensive, and they're usually rusted out, or they have a new paint job but underneath they're a nightmare. They have this funny tendency to catch on fire so people will paint over those areas. Kelly was super diligent about finding a good one. She was frantically on Craigslist asking, "How far is too far to drive to one? Two hours? Four hours? Five hours?" We ended up finding one in northern Maine.
That's far! Near Acadia?
B: Yeah, pretty close. The guy had a pretty good asking price and showed us all the trouble spots. So we get there, and Kelly's like, "Can I talk to you for a second? Because the van is disgusting on the inside." From my view, the engine, transmission, exhaust, and suspension were all brand new. So I was like, "This thing is perfect."
K: I had to trust Brandon on the mechanical end, because I was going to do the cosmetic work and I honestly didn't know if I could.
Did it smell bad?
B: Yeah it had a funky smell. The top was totally molded on the inside, and the curtains were basically like crackers. You would try and bend them and they'd crack, and little puffs of dust would fall out. They're 30 years old and they've been across the country multiple times.
K: We have rough pictures to post.
What about West Falls campers appeals to you so much?
K: We like that it's not a huge RV but that you can comfortably sleep in one and store everything you need for a road trip. Also, 80s vans are pretty analog, so Brendan has been able to fix our issues using this big old manual.
B: You have to start with a checklist of a couple hundred things. Even this morning, the van didn't start, so I opened the engine to find out one of the electrical connections for the starter had broken off. So I had to fix that.
K: I'm so impressed with him every time we start.
B: It went from two days not starting, but now I have it down to about an hour. I can usually get it back up.
I want to hear more about the itinerary that you've created and how you're spending your time on the road.
B: We don't have a full itinerary. We usually don't have more than the next 10 days planned.
You're keeping it loose. It looks like you've connected with quite a few people on social media.
K: We're meeting great people who are reaching out and saying, "Oh you're in the area? We'd love to show you around," or, "We have a VW van too if you'd like to come and check it out." We connected with Sadie of Tradlands who told us to get in touch with her brother Alex, who lives in Pemaquid, Maine. He's turning the barn on his property into a really cool mercantile, and he's also a woodworker—he makes beautiful hand-carved wooden spoons. He and his girlfriend Katie ended up being the most amazing, welcoming people.
Are you spending a lot of time in each place?
K: It depends on who we meet, how we feel about the place, and whether it's inspiring us. So it can be one day or up to three.
Do you ever get tired of being in the van?
B: Absolutely, and I think anyone who tells you otherwise is not being completely honest. When we're feeling weary, we check into a motel. A great example: We stayed in the Badlands and a massive storm rolled through right as we pulled up. There was lightning on all sides of us and 30-40 mph wind gusts shaking the van. We hardly slept at all that night.
B: No, but I'm glad that we didn't look (at the radar) until the worst of it had passed because tornadoes had touched down nearby. The next day I said, "That's it. Let's check into a Super 8 motel, sit in the AC, watch TV, and relax for a day." We woke up the next morning totally refreshed. And staying with friends and camping allows for that extra money in our budget to go toward a hotel room for a night or two.
Are you making all your own meals?
K: We've been doing a good mix. Brendan has serious campfire grilling skills—he has a couple of specialties. One is orange chicken.
That's pretty gourmet, you guys.
B: I can't really cook in a kitchen. My dad took me camping when I was younger and he taught me how to cook ribs, pork chops, and chicken over a wooden fire, so that's the only way I know how to cook.
K: We basically do eggs, bacon and coffee every morning.
That's better than I do most days!
K: Yeah, we know how that is.
B: In NYC, I would do a large coffee every morning, and that would be it.
So you're having hot meals and taking care of yourselves.
K: And we're trying to exercise, too. In the morning, if we're at a nice site, Brendan goes for a run and I'll try do yoga.
How long are you on the road?
K: Our goal is to be back to our families on the east coast by Thanksgiving.
Have they been very supportive?
K: Incredibly. It's kind of wild that we both have such supportive families. When we got the van, we moved out of our Brooklyn apartments and for about six weeks, we lived with Brendan's parents while we restored it.
B: So Kelly and I moved in together for the first time...with my parents. And then the second time was into a van.
That's basically the premise of a sitcom. Has it been easy doing this trip together?
B: Yes. It's had its ups and downs. You learn way more about yourself when you move in with someone in general, but then when you move into a 10 cubic foot space, it's much more intense.
What advice would you give to someone else who's looking to head off on a similar journey?
K: It's important to have an open mind. There's a lot of giving yourself up to not having a plan. It's also helpful to be able to say, "What can we do to fix the current problem?" So much good can come out of it if you're self-aware and you communicate a lot.
B: And if you're extremely open to the fact that you're not a perfect person. It's helpful if you can stay laid back, like, "Oh the van broke down again?" as opposed to," Oh my God, the van broke down!!" That's so much easier said than done, but the first couple of times the van broke down, it felt like the end of the world to me, and now we fix it and move on.