Idle Theory Bus

Kit Whistler and J.R. Switchgrass tell their story through captivating photography, cartoons, and poetry. They’re traveling in a 1976 VW Kombi and testing their “idle theory” – namely, what is work and what is play?  There’s a bulk of unassuming creative “work” found on their website; what can come out of leisure. Meet Kit in the interview below.

All photos above and below © Idle Theory Bus



Catch Up With Kit, A Colorful And Creative Woman.

Tell me how your trip came to be.  Are you consistently on the road, or out there in spurts?  

We mostly just went. After graduating university, we ran. J.R. had the bus, I had some cash, and we both had all the time in the world. We lived out of the bus up and down the California coast for a year, on my seasonal server savings. We dumpstered stale bagels and dented boxes of cereal from grocery store alleyways. We found farms that needed help for extra cash, working a chestnut harvest in Mendocino County and haying horses on a redwood grove ranch. We hiked the glamorous wilderness of the high Sierras and the misty, dark beaches of the Lost Coast. After that year, J.R. decided that his film school degree was getting dusty. We stuffed all of our freedom, our dreams, our new ideas, into a small studio apartment on the Venice Beach Boardwalk. After a couple years in Southern California, I felt myself dissipating. I was suffocating in the city. Last January, we moved back into the bus and back home. We’ve been on the road since.

How long have you and J.R. been together?

J.R. sat behind me in sophomore English and poked holes in my hair as the class discussed Beowulf. I was the new girl in a big public high school. He thought he was charming and I thought he was obnoxious. One weekend he saw me at the beach and taught me how to skim board. Over the neon waters of a Gulf Coast sunset, we talked about escaping the world in which we had been raised, about being pirates, about the realism in magical realism, about places where there were no humans. I guess I liked him after that. Plus, he was 16 and had a car. I’ve always craved the forward momentum and endless promise of the road. J.R. has always helped me get there.

Why a ’76 VW Kombi?  Do you ever wish she went faster than 55mph?  

We love our bus. She has very little plastic and gets us on ATV trails and back roads, through rivers and over big rocks. Summiting a pass in Death Valley, a Jeep club approached us in shock wondering how the hell we’d made it up. The engine is simple to work on, and we can do a lot of our own maintenance and troubleshooting, with help from the VW Bible.

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I appreciate and purposely choose technology that limits me, whether that be film cameras, old vehicles, or hand-cranked juicers. In the bus we are limited by both time and space. Time is endless, though it doesn’t seem so to us. The world would be a better place if life moved more slowly. I’ve realized that 55 mph is pretty damn fast; when we drive I always feel the world sliding past my window unknown. Everything we own is inside the bus, minus one trunk in a friend’s attic in L.A. I can’t remember for the life of me what’s in that trunk.

Sunshine [our bus] limits what material possessions we carry and I thank her for that.  Aesthetics are very important and I find the 60-70s VW models very attractive. To be perfectly honest, that’s one of the main reasons we love Sunshine. Some may think that’s shallow, but to be surrounded by beauty is to garden a healthy soul. You must find the physical things around you pleasing to the eye or else your inspiration will wither.

What have you learned about J.R. that you might not have without your adventures?

I am very stubbornly individualistic. Ornery as a mule and I know it. J.R. calls me his hardheaded woman (he’s a big Cat Stevens fan) and he’s absolutely correct.  That considered, he and I are rarely more than 20 yards apart. Our personal space and private sphere have become one and the same. What has surprised me most about my adult life is learning that I could meld my identity with someone else’s. I know J.R. as I know myself. This has been a huge lesson in humility and self-discovery.  J.R. and I have spent seasons apart, discovering ourselves and the universe on our own. But every time we end up back together. There is some sort of law of physics that surrounds us, a gravity, you could say, that pulls us together. We are two ones that are strangely one. We are so different that we have kind of melded into the same being. We are a kind of perfectly flawed Zen paradox, ever changing and right in our two wrongs. Sometimes I think we have been together for lifetimes neither of us remembers.

 Describe where you’re sitting right now and what you can see from your seat.

Right now I am sitting on a dirt patch in the lush spring valleys of the Northern Yellowstone Ecosystem. Wyoming. Bison swat flies from their tails with mild annoyance and brown-headed cowbirds fly up when the bovines paw their hooves. The plains are filled with streaks of deep purple lupine. Mule’s Ears are floppy and yellow. A lone pronghorn antelope grazes a few hills off, graceful and delicate among the many flowers.  An afternoon thunderstorm moves in and the distant mountains are covered in a cold icing of leftover snow. I feel soft and small. A small pond not far off has coots diving under for food and yellow-headed blackbirds that guard their breeding territories with fierce mechanical cries. It won’t be dark for another 5 hours at least and I’ve got nothing to do but ponder the vastness of the valley and my ephemeral existence in the thick of it.

On a recent trip to Zion, you noted “off-season, without the frantic pace of vacationers, you can really settle into the place of a place” – How often are you able to do this while traveling?  Is there an area that you feel you truly know?

We move through country comparatively slowly; it took us a full 7 months to drive from San Diego to the British Columbia border. We travel by bus but always secretly want to leave its speed behind.  I feel I have not been to a place until I have experienced its wild places by foot. We call the wilderness “the real world.” All of these cities we have, this civilization, is just contrived falsity. It is a comfortable illusion that quietly conceals true life and our potentially authentic experience of the world We avoid developed places. We walk. We spend a lot of our time outside, eating on the ground, sweating when it’s hot and shivering when it’s cold. We are surrounded by sparrows and saplings. The universe awes us every day.

By Rachel and James - © Idle Theory Bus
By Kit and J.R. – © Idle Theory Bus

The more I learn of a place the more I realize my ignorance of it. It takes many lifetimes, many generations, to know a land. Each ecosystem is so varied and complex it blows the top off your skull. As soon as I’ve identified the soil type of a lodge pole pine forest, the mysterious way its reproductive cycle relies on fire, how the Clark’s Nutcrackers cache their food among its undergrowth, the edible succulence of pineapple weed, I’ve only begun. I go observing and learning more about the nature of different wild ecosystems every day. Every day I am humbled by the place of a place, and leave a place with more questions than I had for it at the start. To know a place is to know both its human and nonhuman ways, its myths and energies and cycles. I am a student of our great vast world.

You describe your “Idle Theory” on your website – a questioning of the lines between work and leisure.  Your idle time (seemingly) inspires you to create, whether it be art, photography, video or writing.  Because you are left with a tangible product, some would call that work.  Would you?  What have you learned in testing your theory?

Sometimes I think the site should be named “leisure theory bus.” Part of the theory is a do-nothing attitude that connects me to the nature of the universe, because the universe is comprised of mostly nothing. Though the art of idling, or doing nothing, is a very crucial component of a well-balanced life, J.R. and I do do things. Many things. Moving into a state of leisure theory is to stop working at the world in order to control it, but instead accepting what the Earth provides.  Aristotle discussed the idea of being not at leisure only so that we can be at leisure. Leisure is the basis of culture. Leisure is the motive of work, not vice-versa.

Cartoon by Rachel Goldfarb, Idle Theory Bus
Cartoon by Kit Whistler, Idle Theory Bus

Josef Pieper states that “The inmost significance of the exaggerated value which is set upon hard work appears to be this: man seems to mistrust everything that is effortless; he can only enjoy, with a good conscience, what he has acquired with toil and trouble; he refused to have anything as a gift.”

If we begin to accept what the earth gives, the cool of clouds instead of air conditioning, the heat of hot springs instead of petroleum-fueled showers, the simple foods of the earth instead of those from the machine, the stark beauty of the desert plains instead of the Hollywood-generated television show, we work less.

My life has have become increasingly less comfortable as I’ve given up luxuries that most of our culture takes for granted as an average “quality of life.” Through testing my theory, life has become less comfortable, but so so much better.  I have begun to Passively enjoy the earth, to take the gifts it gives, to stop expecting so much, and have found increasing joy, satisfaction, growing authenticity and connection to reality. Our earth is endlessly generous. It gives us such abundant pleasures, and the intense pain we need to appreciate these pleasures fully. We have lost so much in gaining comfort.

Related to the question above, how do you and J.R. sustain/support a life filled with travel?

We spend little money on a high quality of life. Moving slowly helps with this. We eat good food, real food, directly from farms whenever possible. Sometimes wild. Half or more of our budget is food. What you eat is what you become. This is why we do farm work. For every three months on the road, we spend one living on a farm, working the land in exchange for room board, and occasional cash when there’s more work. We love farming. It pays you spiritually and physically, transforming soil into animals and vegetables, transforming animal and vegetable into ourselves.

Spend time on life and don’t waste your time on money. We have gained skills to entertain ourselves instead of paying someone to entertain us. Walking is free. Playing an instrument is cheap. Cooking from scratch is always better. No one needs a shower every day. No one needs a shower every week. Have only one of everything. Fix things when they break. Do not give in to disposable culture. Refrain from getting things new. What is old is many times of higher quality. Learn to need less. Stay out of cities.

How do you and J.R. work well together creatively?  What are you (potentially different) strengths?

I think in abstractions and J.R. is firmly anchored to physical reality. I am an idealistic dreamer and J.R. is a doer. I write the script and J.R. tells me which parts of it are humanly possible to create, given our gear and monetary limitations. I am the hot air balloon and he is the thick rope holding me to ground.

I studied English in school and J.R. studied filmmaking. So naturally, I write poems and thoughts and cartoons and J.R. takes the pictures of them. He is a good editor. I tend to ramble.  He is always challenging my cynicism towards technology, usually rightfully so. Without Photoshop, our blog and style wouldn’t work. Without practical shots, our film would never tell a coherent story.  We constantly sharpen each other. We argue a lot, and usually enjoy it. J.R. always reminds me that’s it’s a debate, not an argument, dammit Kit, and stop being so melodramatic.

We make good life together. We only create things when it flows. We try not to push it. Life is the best art, and how you live every day is more important than a film or a poem or a picture.

Snap a photo (or draw a cartoon 🙂 ) of your 5 must-take items for the road.

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Look to the right ————————>

Any “oh crap” moments?

Just about a month ago, we tried an ATV trail and ended up with our bumper under the sand. That deep. It was sunset and I was hungry. J.R. and I fought and sat digging hopelessly for an hour. An ATV passed and fruitlessly tried to get us out. A kid on a Jeep came by and freed us; I hugged him so hard he coughed.

Once, hitching a ride south out of Yosemite, we were dropped on the side of the freeway and slept right off the median. The noise from the traffic almost drove me mad. I was convinced that every third vehicle was a cop and we’d be busted. But in the morning we woke, perfect dirty beings in a Sierra Nevada sunrise, and walked into a sandwich shop where the owner gave us free egg and cheese sandwiches because, I guess, we needed it.

People are good, and out of the darkness always comes some sort of small miracle.

What’s next? 

Next, we hike! The last 4-6 weeks of the summer are reserved for the wilderness. Last August we walked the state of Oregon, south to north, using the Pacific Crest Trail as our foot highway. This year is Montana. We’re going to start at the Canadian Border, in Glacier National Park, and hike 800 miles south to Yellowstone in Wyoming. 800 miles of glacier, river, grizzly, bison. Been dreaming a long time about this. We hitch north next week, no time to waste. Time only ticks on by and summer is ripe for the taking.

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