Margo Stoney

Margo lives the dream. She runs her own graphic design company called High Mountain Creative from the road. She’s currently traveling in a 2005 Airstream Safari with her photographer boyfriend, Isaac and his dog Rico. Their ability to work from anywhere allowed them to snowboard their way across the west this winter.

Making that lifestyle a reality though, building her business and maintaining it with spotty wifi and near constant travel, has been a journey in itself. Much has changed since she first set off solo in a VW Eurovan, but her drive to create and adventure are constant.

Learn more about Margo. Interview below!


Meet Margo

How did your traveling lifestyle come to be?

There are sort of two pillars of my lifestyle – remote working and traveling – and in my case, the “ah-ha” moment for each of them came at very different times.

Margo in Mount Hood, Oregon – photo by Isaac Miller

The idea that I could work remotely with my career slowly crept into my head about eight years ago, shortly after I moved from Vail to Lake Tahoe. I was freelancing and doing seasonal work at the ski resort. During the shoulder season, I decided to do a month-long road trip in my Jeep Liberty to visit some friends in Colorado. I realized that while I was on my road trip, I could still do my freelance work from wherever I was.

However, life started to get in the way of my travel dreams. I was working several jobs during the winter, all while freelancing on the side. I was sort of at the “shit or get off the pot” with freelancing, I was almost busy enough to go full-time but I was just not feeling ready. The opportunity came about for me to get a full time, year-round marketing job at Heavenly Mountain and I took it. The stable paycheck, health insurance and team environment was a breath of fresh air at the time.

With making decent money and having paid vacation time, I was able to save up and take my very first trip to Europe in 2013 – I was 27. I met up with a friend from high school who had been working in the Bavarian Alps of Germany and we road tripped through Switzerland, France and Belgium. The minute I got back to Tahoe, I started saving for my next trip to Europe. The next spring, I flew to London and Barcelona. At the end of the 12-day trip, I remember thinking I just spent an entire year of savings and vacation time to sit on a plane for three days and only really explore for nine days. I couldn’t stop thinking about how much more I wanted to travel and how much it wasn’t going to happen with a corporate full-time job.

I couldn’t stop thinking about how much more I wanted to travel and how much it wasn’t going to happen with a corporate full-time job.

So, like a typical confused late 20-something, I quit my job, packed my things and moved into my parent’s house in Michigan. My family was thrilled. They thought that I came “home” because I had gotten the traveling and moving out of my system and was ready to settle down. My reason was quite the opposite. My priorities were: pay off debt, reignite my freelance business, buy a plane ticket to fly around the world.

The whole experience was pretty humbling, but I kept my head down and didn’t lose focus on my goal. After only a year and a half, I had not only paid off my debt, but I was already making more money than at my last job. I left for Tokyo on January 11, 2017, I still remember how excited and proud I was. MacBook in one hand, snowboard bag in the other. I spent four months snowboarding in Japan and the French and Swiss Alps with side trips to Thailand and Spain. It was a trip of a lifetime, and I didn’t want it to end. After meeting van-dwelling girls from Spain and the Netherlands, I decided that when I got back to the US I would buy a van and spend the summer working from the road.

Margo posing with Veruca the Van on the Wyoming state line – photo by Isaac Miller

I made it about 3,000 miles in my Techno Blue VW Eurovan from Michigan to Park City, Utah where the transmission blew out. It took 45 days and $3,000 to fix it (that’s a whole other story in itself). It was while I was broke down in Utah that I met Isaac, a freelance photographer living full time in his Airstream with his border collie, Rico. Between our conversations about life on the road, building a creative business and love for dogs, we had a lot to talk about and spent a lot of time together.

Isaac eventually left for Montana and I was still stuck couch surfing in Park City without a van. After quite a few bad nights of frustration and self-pity, I decided to continue my planned travel route to Lake Tahoe and Southern California via Amtrak, rental cars and flying. I returned to check on the van ten days later and the mechanic had more bad news for me, so I rented a car and drove to Missoula where I started to travel with Isaac and Rico in the Airstream.

Tell us about Trixie, the 2005 Airstream that you currently call home.

I have always loved Airstreams, so I can’t believe I’m actually living in one. I really wanted a travel trailer when I was prepping for life on the road, but after a lot of research, I started to get nervous about towing and maintaining a trailer so that’s why I settled on getting a van for my maiden voyage. When I met Isaac and found out he had an Airstream, I almost didn’t believe my luck.

Trixie is a 25’ Safari. There’s a full kitchen & bathroom, queen bed and dining area – she’s actually not that much bigger than my last studio apartment. Isaac retrofitted a convertible standing desk, so I have a really great workspace where I can spread out and get creative.

I’ve taken little steps to make it feel like home such as hanging mini art on the walls, getting a cactus and lighting candles at night. It’s hard to decorate because every time we move, everything has to be secured or put away.

Snow in Teton National Park, Wyoming – photo by Isaac Miller
Trixie in Revelstoke, an Illustration from the road by Margo

 

You work as a graphic designer and run High Mountain Creative from the road. What’s the biggest challenge of managing a business on the move?

I would definitely say that balancing my time between travel and work has been the biggest challenge. It’s so easy to fall behind on work when I’m on the road. Between finding reliable spots to get internet, staying focused after long travel days and the everyday distraction of wanting to explore the place I’m visiting, work can start to move its way down my list of priorities.

While part of me is okay with loosening the reins on my work schedule, the hard-working, career-focused Midwesterner in me still feels guilty and unfulfilled if I’m not revolving my life around my business.

Escaping the 9-5 desk job was always my goal, but the alternative takes a ton of self-discipline, organization and time management skills.

Another challenge that I’ve quickly learned to overcome is the routine of not having a routine. I can never rely on working the same time or place every day. Deadlines are deadlines, but when and where I do the work is up to me. Escaping the 9-5 desk job was always my goal, but the alternative takes a ton of self-discipline, organization and time management skills.

“Working on a pow day in Japan” or a typical desk scene for the digital nomad

Vanlife and the idea of being a digital nomad are both romanticized. What are some of the not-so-glamorous parts that get glazed over in media, but that matter a lot? 

I feel like the amount of time and effort it takes to plan and execute life on the road and working remotely seems to get looked over on social media.

My life didn’t happen overnight, and a lot of risk was involved. Deciding to give up 90% of my possessions, a permanent address and any sort of stable community or lifestyle as I knew it was tough shit. Building a business where my clients trusted me enough to work with me while I was on the other side of the planet took a lot of strategy. Even little things, like the anxiety and uncertainty of showing up at someone’s door with every dollar I had to my name to buy my big blue van.

Social media seems to only show pretty landscapes and toes in the sand. If you’re building this as a sustainable lifestyle, these moments can feel few and far between; they’re just little rewards for years and years of hard work.

On the clock in the outdoors, before the snow started to fall. Badlands, North Dakota – photo by Isaac Miller

Cold weather camper travel has unique challenges. What’s hard about winter camping? What’s nice about it?

Our coldest night in the camper clocked in at -30*F in Lake Louise. It was so cold in the Canadian Rockies, but the camper always stayed warm. Luckily, a lot of the Canadian National Parks stay open for camping in the winter with electrical hookups so we were able to supplement the propane-powered furnace with small space heaters. This saved us a ton of propane and generator use. 

With summer camping, we’re not really living inside the camper, we’re out in nature and spending as little time inside as possible. In the winter, it’s not as easy to ward off cabin fever, especially when the temps are below zero and dangerous.

Escaping cabin fever, but not the cold. Margo snowboarding in Whitefish, Montana – photo by Isaac Miller

Weather can really affect travel plans too. Big storms and extreme cold caused us to modify our trip plans on several occasions. If a storm was in the forecast, we always had to decide if we wanted to beat the storm and leave before it came in, or plan on staying 2-3 days after when there was a break in weather and the roads were clear. After our first bad weather experience of driving out of Teton National Park the day after 12” of snowfall, we both vowed that it wasn’t worth it to drive through bad weather just to stay on schedule.

The best part about winter camping is that many of the places we visit that are teeming with tourists in the summer, are pretty mellow during the winter. Spots like Glacier National Park, Lake Louise, and Southern British Columbia.

Margo’s map, ski town to ski town with stops to see friends along the way

What’s been your favorite place to wake up? What places do you still long to see?

My favorite place to wake up was on the Blackfoot River in Missoula, MT. I remember waking up there after my first night in the Airstream, it was my birthday and Isaac had taken me to his favorite camping spot. We woke up at 5:30am to a crazy sound outside in the meadow behind us and it was a hot air balloon taking off for a sunrise ride. It was so cool.

I love life in the camper, but I still have a lot of trips abroad on my list like New Zealand and Norway. But on the road, I’m definitely dreaming about making the drive to Alaska.

Vanlife drawings that capture some moments of life on the road

You mentioned feeling homesick on the road, but not necessarily for one place. In those moments, what is it that you’re longing for? What helps to soothe that feeling?

I think I’m longing for feeling connected to the people close to me in my life and the places that have felt like home to me during my travels. This gets complicated but increasingly more important to me the older I get.

There’s no easy cure, but planning my route to include stops for friends and family helps fight off the isolated feeling that tends to creep up after months on the road. I’m very close with my family, so I’m super grateful for the ability to route myself back to Michigan anytime I want to visit or be around for holidays.

Isaac and Rico (the dog) are my traveling family, which is so much better than traveling alone. I appreciate them every day.

Take a photo of your 5 must-have items for van life. Why can’t you live without each one?

  • Mouse + mouse pad – if I can only have one design accessory, let I’d be this disgusting old IKEA mouse pad and this (newly upgraded) basic mouse.
  • To-do list – I’m lost without it. Must be complete with fancy pen, notebook and highlighter.
  • Basic art supplies – multimedia pad, markers
  • Noise cancelling headphones – for crying kids on airplanes, noisy coffee shops and sleeping in WalMart parking lots. They’re also compatible with my iPhone so they’re great for FaceTime meetings and phone calls.
  • Black beans – I don’t eat meat, so beans are a staple food for me. From vanlife to Airstream glamping to scouring the aisles of Japanese grocery stores, beans are essential!

Where will you be one week from now? One month?

Next week, I’ll be in Lake Tahoe. I lived there for five years, so it’s definitely one of those places that feels like home. I’ll get to spend some time with my “Tahoe Family” and reconnect to one of my favorite places in the world.

In a month, interestingly enough, I’ll be on a cruise to Mexico celebrating for one of my best friend’s bachelorette party.

 

Photos courtesy of Margo Stoney and Isaac Miller Photography.

See more from Margo at highmountaincreative.com and follow along with her journey on Instagram @mountainmargo


 

Do you dream of taking your life on the road?