Noel, aka @noel_russ, is a community organizer for California’s largest homeless youth shelter, a first generation American, and a lover of all things wild. With roots in a tiny logging town, she spread her wings in Los Angeles and found success as a clothing designer – but after year in the industry, she wanted more. So, she quit her job, found work helping the oppressed and underprivileged, and spends her free time in a Sprinter in the Sierra and Southwest.
Along with her husband Jonathan, a founding member of Cold War Kids, and their dogs, Fin and Lhotse, Noel lives a part-time van-life, but carries that spirit with her always. Interview below!
All photos courtesy of Noel Russell
First off, congratulations on the Sprinter! Why did you decide to switch from a 1997 Eurovan to a converted Sprinter Van? What do you like about it so far?
It was a hard decision, one that we considered for a long time. The VW was so fun, and we LOVE pop top vans! But we spend our winters doing a lot of snow sports and mountaineering, and with those adventures come some pretty harsh winters. After a couple gnarly storms and lots of cooking on our knees (pop tops can’t be up during rain or snow storms) we decided that we had to move to a vehicle that worked better for all four seasons.
We love the Sprinter because it’s warmer – the guys at VanCraft did a great job insulating it – and it’s completely off the grid. Every appliance is entirely self sufficient, i.e. the fridge can be used as an ice cooler if we lose power, the stove can be pulled out and used to cook outside, the sink pump pulls from five-gallon jugs which can be removed and used on their own with a screw-top spigot if the pump fails, and when the solar system is fully charged, it can power the entire van (outlets and all) for nearly three days without sun. It took my breath away the day I watched a stranger drive away with our VW, but we knew it was the best decision… We still swoon when we pass a Westy or Eurovan on the road though.
You quit your job in the fashion industry to become a community organizer for California’s largest homeless youth shelter. What drove your heart to make that change?
Several years ago Jonathan and I had our eyes opened to the struggles faced by kids living in the foster care system. As we learned about the trials and trauma that kids and families endure, and the lack of resources available to support the needs of our community – we both decided that we had to make some big life changes in order to act on our convictions. I loved my job in fashion, but the thing I loved most wasn’t the clothes – it was the people. Hearing the desires and feedback of buyers and merchandisers, and then trying to create a product that met that need – that is what got me stoked. So I thought: hey, if I can compel people to buy yet another pair of pants, maybe I can also motivate people to support kids and families experiencing homelessness. Then I took a deep breath, and jumped.
Would you call yourself a weekend adventurer? How do you split time between Los Angeles and the road?
Absolutely. I think my weekends could beat up most people’s vacations. We typically work Monday – Friday, and they’re always long days, so we usually leave work on Fridays and head straight into the mountains. This isn’t new for me though – I was raised by some real O.G. camp lifers. Growing up, my parents would often pick me and my sisters up at school on Fridays with the car packed for a camping trip. We could do our homework by lantern light and be back at school on Monday, our clothes smelling like campfire. I’ve gotten really good at never unpacking. I always keep the van stocked – sometimes better than our fridge at home, I often run out to the van to grab an ingredient we need to make dinner.
What do you love about backpacking?
What do you loathe about it?
I love the twenty minutes before sunrise, when everything is silent and the mountains glow pink and orange, and the reflections are so perfect that it seems like you’re seeing double.
I loathe the weight of wine. I wish there was such a thing as dehydrated Cabernet.
You’ve grown a social media following highlighting your van travels in the Sierras. What draws your and Jonathan to those particular lakes and mountains?
The Sierra Nevada is so diverse. On one side you have lush conifer forests with thick beds of pine needles, and on the other side you have rocky granite slopes with aquamarine glacial lakes. I love the sagebrush scrub at the base of the Eastside and the Oak Woodland at the base of the Westside. I love the way the Sierras wear their snowcaps and I love the wildflower show that the alpine meadows put on in Spring. I love how you can go from climbing a snow-covered peak at 14,000 feet to soaking in a 102 degree hot spring at 6,000 feet – all in one day. There’s also really good microbrew in that neck of the woods.
Does your relationship change at all on the road (Subtly or otherwise)? If so, how?
Yes. We don’t talk as much – and we move slower. We each have our roles on the road really carved out. We don’t have to ask about who does what. We don’t have to discuss plans. It’s not like we have a routine, but more like a sacred ritual.
Take a photo of your five must-have items for life on the road.
Have your van trips helped you simplify?
YES. We realized how little space we need, and how if you have one jacket that you really love, that’s kind of all the jackets you really need. The outside is our living room, and it makes for pretty roomy accommodations – as long as you’re wearing layers. We’re comfortable sharing tight quarters and have recognized how “personal space” can be a privileged value. We’ve also gotten really good at contorting our bodies in bed, to fit around our dogs.
Does travel invigorate you creatively? How do you feel when you return home?
It does, because I always come home hopeful. In my everyday work – it’s easy to lose hope. But on the road, and on the trail, you not only get to see how beautiful the world is, but also how beautiful people are. Everyone says hi, they help, they share food and pet each other’s dogs, you split campsites with complete strangers and get along like old friends. I met an old-time van man at a gas station once – he was filling up next to us. We got to talking and he invited us to crash at a water park he managed and use their facilities, he said to me, “I’ll give you a key to the park and you guys just make yourself at home. I trust ya. I’ve never met an a-hole who had a camper van.”
Where to next?
Mammoth… always Mammoth.
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