Dirtbag Dwellings: Kaya and Michael of Santa Cruz

Dirtbag Dwellings is a series where we seek to capture the stories of climbers living on the fringe … in their vehicles. This feature was shot in the winter of 2016 in the Alabama Hills, California.


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Quick bites

  • Ages: 24 (Kaya) and 29 (Michael)
  • Occupations: social media manager (Kaya) and designer (Michael)
  • Van type: 2006 Dodge Sprinter 2500, 140in wheelbase
  • Van name: Lyra, named after a favorite painting
  • Miles: 195,000
  • Duration of ownership: since February 2016
  • Birthplaces: Santa Cruz, California (Kaya) and Santa Rosa, California (Michael)
  • Time since last shower: Less than a day
  • Average monthly expenses: $200-$400
  • Instagram: onechicktravels and mbaba3

We’re living in a van because …

Kaya: Before living in a van, Michael and I were living with my parents. This was for the first three years of our relationship because to get a place ourselves here would be $2000 per month. You can barely get a job in Santa Cruz that can pay enough.

We had made a deal with my parents to help out around the house. There were five people and one bathroom—it wasn’t entirely ideal and we’re both adults … we needed to move out.

We can both work remote, so we thought why not get a van and travel and be able to move around. I first got the idea for the van from a friend at Pacific Edge, the climbing gym. That was a few years ago and it has always seemed to be a smart way to escape the high rents and have the freedom to travel.

I’m also really into rock climbing, so it pairs well with that lifestyle—we can have our house parked next to the crag and get up and climb. It also helps me live more simply. It’s a good fit for the person I want to be.

Spending most of your time in Santa Cruz, what’s van life like in a city?

Kaya: I don’t like living in a van in a city because it feels less adventurous and more like you’re homeless. In a city, the only space you can inhabit is public space where there are a lot of people. It’s hard to get away unless you close the doors, block your windows, and basically hibernate.

On the other hand, spending a night in Tuolomne—there’s no one there and you can pull off on the side of the road and it’s just nice. It’s much better than opening the door and seeing a parking lot, which we’ve had to do.

But for the time being, we’re parked at my mom’s house here, behind a gate in the backyard. It’s basically a separate room for the house and we can use the kitchen and showers.

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Can a van really offer enough space for two people?

Kaya: I think so. We just have to be very cautious of our stuff. We each have three drawers, three hooks, and storage under the bed. We were pretty conscious about dividing space up so that we each had half. We also designed it so we could separate our personal items from climbing gear and camping gear.

Michael: I’ve seen a lot of friends building out their vans and they have way more space but don’t utilize it well. You have to take the time to plan, that’s one of the most important parts of the buildout—measuring, doing sketches, mocking it up.

What’s the best part about living in a van?

Michael: Not paying rent, waking up next to her every day, and having the freedom to just go.

Kaya: I really love the simple lifestyle, it fits me perfectly. I never feel that I’m living small and I don’t wish I had more space. I have everything I need and it’s done.

Would you consider yourselves dirtbags? What is a dirtbag to you?

Kaya: I don’t associate myself with being a dirtbag because I don’t like how people feel like they need to define that word. When I first got into the culture, I thought dirtbagging was so cool and I was starry-eyed … and I started exploring it and there seemed to be a lot of criticism and posturing and this attitude that I don’t associate with climbing. I don’t associate myself with the “dirtbag” thing because there seems to be this race to the bottom that I don’t want to be a part of.

I would just consider myself as someone who lives in a van, and I love to climb.

Michael: There can be a race to the bottom with dirtbagging. Like, unless you’re eating cat food and living in the woods, you’re not core enough. And it feels like we sometimes get a little looked down upon for not being true “dirtbags.”

I remember reading an article and people were saying, “I don’t want a Sprinter, I don’t need that,” in a sort of condescending way. And I’m like good for you, but I don’t really want to eat cat food.

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What’s the worst part about living in a van?

Michael: I’m a little bit of a hoarder, and that doesn’t work so well in a van. I’ve had to learn to scale down. As someone that likes to make and build things, I sometimes wish I had more space to do that.

Kaya: Having to pee when parking in a residential area—especially after drinking because you have to pee like six times in an hour. Each time you just hope the neighbor doesn’t open their door …

Michael: Yeah, and I have this fear that I’m going to open the door and dump out the pee jar and someone will be right there. That would be terrible. Also, the fear of having to drop a deuce and not being able to. Or getting food poisoning.

Yeah, sounds terrible. Let’s talk about cleanliness: how do you stay clean on the road?

Michael: I’m clean but not tidy and showering is important. I don’t have to have a shower every day but it really makes me feel human. If I don’t shower I feel like a gross subhuman creature. Getting over this was a bit of a challenge.

Kaya: You get by with baby wipe showers but there’s nothing like a real shower.

What would you be doing if it weren’t for van life?

Michael: Working like five jobs to barely make ends meet—what everyone else in Santa Cruz is doing. I’d still be doing design and illustration work, but also holding a steady job instead of just freelancing.

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What’s your favorite feature of the van?

Kaya: I love that you can just open the back doors while laying in bed—it’s like half your house goes away and you’re suddenly in nature! It’s sort of like having French doors in your bedroom and they open up to your backyard. When you feel like you’re living in a box, you open your doors and that quickly melts away.

Michael: My favorite thing is our countertop, it’s such a unique piece of wood. It also has a really cool history, coming from a fallen madrone at my buddy’s place in the mountains.

How much did your van cost?

Kaya: We bought it for $11k and put $5k into it. The details are on my site.

If you had a magic wand and could do anything, how would you improve your vehicle?

Kaya: Add a hot tub.

Michael: I’ve wanted to build an app that turns on and off the lights, tells me about the state of charge on the battery, controls the stereo, and gives me feedback on the systems of the van.

What has surprised you most about van life?

Kaya: It has surprised me how easy it is—I feel so comfortable.

Michael: I think it’s interesting how varied people’s reactions are. I get the full spectrum: people like What? and they have no idea why anyone would do it; they think it’s insane. Other people are like Holy shit, this is amazing. How’d you do this? I want to do that …

Talk about your van’s travels.

Kaya: We went from Santa Cruz to Vermont, then to Toronto and back into Chicago. Then to South Dakota and through Montana to Calgary and then Squamish. From there, down to California.

East of Boulder, I didn’t always feel comfortable or even welcome … until we came back to the mountains again—then I could breathe. Something about the air and the people. And the mountains on the west coast—they make me feel alive.

Going up to Squamish, you could pull over anywhere and light a fire. Try to do that in California and they’ll arrest you! Squamish was a camper’s wonderland.

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So is Squamish your favorite spot?

Kaya: I like all of the west coast, but yes, particularly Squamish.

Michael: I absolutely love Smith Rock, it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve been. Just being able to walk out, set up a tent, wake up and look at these beautiful rock formations sticking out with an amazing river running through … it’s spectacular.

The climbing is good and there’s great beer right around the corner (Bend).

What do you do to stay entertained, particularly if the weather is bad?

Kaya: Books on tape and we read to each other. We listen to podcasts: This American Life and Dan Savage.

We also both play music, so when he’s driving, I’ll play the ukulele.

I draw a lot and we’ve been taking a lot of photos lately. We’ll even cook while we drive. He’ll head into the back and make a sandwich. It’s probably not the best idea. We’ve done the hot swap while driving. (Put it in cruise control on a straight road and switch drivers!)

Michael: No, we’ve never done that.

Kaya: Yeah it’s nice having two people. You never have to stop driving. And sometimes when he’s driving I’ll go do pushups in the back or do yoga. It’s kind of nice when you’ve been driving for so long. I’m yet to pee while he’s driving.

Michael: I’ve peed while she was driving.

Kaya: Yeah, out the window.

Michael: On a dirt road …

Interesting. Tell us a bit more about the books you’ve been reading.

Kaya: We’re reading the Cormoran Strike series and we finished Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series. We also listened to The Stand by Stephen King as we drove across the US. That was really cool because the book talks about all these places we were driving through. We kept intersecting with spots he was talking about in the book. It’s like a super-flu and when you’re driving through tiny towns in Nevada with no one around, it can sort of feel like the apocalypse.

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Would you recommend van life?

Kaya: Totally, 100%. For someone who wants to live simply, spend more time in nature, and have more freedom, it’s a great lifestyle. But figure out how to make money on the road—it’s a much more sustainable way versus saving up, hitting the road, and then having to save up again.

Michael: There are so many ways to live out of a van that you just have to find what works for you.

I think living in a van is doable if you’re excited to explore, see nature, and be out there. It’s a great experience. But I don’t recommend it if you’re super OCD and a clean freak. Or if you need the security of knowing where you’re going to sleep that night.

It’s not for everyone, but a lot of people that are like, “I think I could do that” should explore it. You’ll learn a lot about yourself and who knows—you may hate it, but at least you tried. And you can do it a lot cheaper than $15k.

When will you move out of Lyra?

Michael: We may get a place at some time, but we’ll always have the van. We don’t have any intentions now—we’re pretty content—but I have dreams of some day having a house or tiny home.

Kaya: Never.

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