The Free Dwellers

Madeleine Boga is an artist with a wandering spirit. She’s inspired by nature and the way it sneaks into our everyday lives. She and her boyfriend, artist and environmentalist Kyle Bradford, just spent 6 months traveling in an ’86 Toyota Sunrader across the country. Along the way, they met and documented other people living alternative lifestyles in a project they called “The Free Dwellers.”

Learn more in the interview with Madeleine that follows.

Photos above and below by Kyle Bradford

Meet Madeleine

How Did Your Trip Come To Be?

Kyle and I began planning our trip several weeks after meeting. He was finishing up three-year ecological research on a farm and I was soon to be unemployed, so the timing was ideal. It was fall, so we had plenty of time to plan and save money before our summer departure.

Both itching to travel, we figured we’d start by exploring our country. For me, it was about weaving together a tapestry. I was born and raised in California and lived in New York for five years, so I’d flown from coast-to-coast countless times. It’s difficult to get to know a place from a cruising altitude of 36,000 feet. Traveling by land has helped me stitch together the patchwork of cultures and ecologies.

Madeleine in the Badlands by Kyle Bradford
Madeleine in the Badlands by Kyle Bradford

What was your vehicle/camp set up of choice? Why?

We spent the early spring wading through Craigslist ads, mostly for Westfalias and Vanagons. We’d caught #vanlife fever and were eager to join the club.

One day on his lunch break Kyle casually approached an acquaintance on the farm, “Hey, Jimmer, could you tell me about your camper?”

“Why?” he responded, “You wanna buy it?”

It was a 1986 Toyota Sunrader that he’d been living in part-time for several years.

Madeleine and the '86 Toyota Sunrader by Kyle Bradford
Madeleine and the ’86 Toyota Sunrader by Kyle Bradford

It needed a lot of work, so we didn’t pay much for it. We painted the cabinets and walls and replaced the shaggy red carpet with a birch plywood floor. Several experts took care of the mechanical issues.

#Vanlife still sounds dreamy, but I’m happy with our decision to buy the camper. It has everything we need and more: a stove, oven, refrigerator, plenty of storage, two benches, and even a full-length mirror. It’s only 18 feet long, so it fits in a normal parking spot, a key feature. Since the front end of the camper is a Toyota truck, it’s been relatively easy to find parts and mechanics who can work on it.

Your travels centered around a project, The Free Dwellers. You and your boyfriend, Kyle, were on a quest to find people living “simply and alternatively.” Were these people easy to find? Can you name some examples of this type of lifestyle?

In the beginning, we were particular about who we reached out to for interviews. We carefully vetted people who reached out to us. Our initial goal was to profile folks who were really living differently, like off-the-grid. But, as you can imagine, it can be difficult to get in touch with these people. After sending out dozens of emails that went unanswered, we got a little discouraged and decided to broaden our specifications.

We opted to talk with anyone doing anything apart from the American status quo and societal norms. This has ranged from a young man who built and lives in a tiny house in the woods of Vermont; two dads planting an experimental forest garden in the suburbs of DC; the do-it-yourself folks at an environmental education school on a remote West Virginia mountaintop; a couple of Oklahoman baby boomers raising their own chickens and “unschooling” their children; a young couple in Kansas, expanding on their culinary backgrounds through farming; and a mother who’s initiating a natural building program to promote self-reliance on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

In the Smokies by Kyle Bradford
In the Smokies by Kyle Bradford

Many of our participants have been friends and friends of friends themselves. Our first internet interviewees were Hannah and Jesse, who live and farm off-the-grid in rural Kentucky with their son Further. We contacted them via Instagram, so it was especially fun and rewarding to finally connect face-to-face. It broke down some of the stigma for me about meeting people that you get to know online. It was cool to talk with this couple, living alternatively, yet still managing a blog and social media. I’m drawn to paradoxes like that.

How do you think a typical person’s life is separate from nature? Did you find yourself closer on your road trip?

Whether we realize it or not, humans are intrinsically connected to nature. Many people think their lives are separate from nature when, in reality, they’re intertwined. That being said, a lot of people have little to no direct interaction with nature on a daily basis. When they do, it’s often seen as an inconvenience. Even still, when someone chooses to be in nature, it’s usually for a finite period of time or to do a specific activity. It’s not an integral part of their life.

Madeleine in Acadia National Park in Maine by Kyle Bradford
Madeleine in Acadia National Park in Maine by Kyle Bradford

On the road, we’re constantly interfacing with nature and her elements. Our indoor space is limited, so we end up spending a lot of time outdoors. We do a lot of hiking and backpacking. I enjoy taking breaks from the camper and sleeping outside.

It seems that most Americans are able remove themselves from nature whenever they please. On the road that’s less often an option, which I love.

Madeleine in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming by Kyle Bradford
Madeleine in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming by Kyle Bradford

Some of your art centers on the overlap between the urban and the natural. Which places most inspired you over the last few months?

In the landscape surrounding Mount St. Helens - by
In the landscape surrounding Mount St. Helens – by Kyle Bradford

The pastel colors and textures in the geothermal pools of Wyoming.

The fluorescent petals of wild sunflowers flourishing on the roadsides in Nebraska.

The blackened trunks of scorched trees against translucent backdrop of fog in southern Oregon.

The lava-carved landscape surrounding Mount St. Helens.

The blue and purple Tetons rising from the golden plains below.

The shrubby, fragrant sagebrush growing from the creamy, white clay in South Dakota.

The tiny ecosystems thriving in the folds of boulders that were created by an ancient sea in the middle of Kansas.

The muscular cypress, draped in Spanish moss, steeping in southern swamps.

Take a photo of your five must have items for road travel.

Madeleine's 5 Must Have Items
Madeleine’s 5 Must Have Items

Insulated water bottle (Hydroflask): Water is vital. Having cold water when it’s hot out is awesome.

iPhone: Though I hate to admit it, my phone has been essential. I use it to map, research camping spots, and keep in touch with friends and family. (My LifeProof case is also key for protecting my phone against the elements…and my clumsiness.)

Journal: Kyle and I share just about everything with each other, but having a private place to express myself (or just ramble) has helped me stay sane at times.

Headlamp (Petzl): Hands-free light in and out of the backcountry.

Earplugs: Sleeping in parking lots? No problem.

Did you find it easy to live simply on the road?

In many ways, yes. Choosing what possessions to bring, get rid of, or leave behind was an arduous process. But since hitting the road, life has felt much easier.

In other ways, though, life feels more complicated. For example, oftentimes we don’t know where we’re going to sleep on any given night. While Kyle and I both relish the excitement of “winging it,” we’re planners by nature. This means that figuring out the best, safest, most convenient, and cheapest place to camp can be quite time consuming. Sometimes I get nostalgic for living in one place, knowing where I’m sleeping each night. I never realized what a luxury that can be and how much time it bestows.

What did you learn about Kyle that you might not have without this journey?

I’m not sure that I found out anything that I wouldn’t have eventually learned. I do think, however, that it sped up the process, particularly since we’d been together for less than a year when we left.

Like prisms, people take in experiences and refract them. On the road, Kyle and I see one another in so many different lights, so frequently, that a lot of characteristics are illuminated.

For example, what’s Kyle like when it’s 115° and we’re stuck in traffic with no AC? What is he like backpacking in grizzly country at dusk? Who is he on the shores of an alpine lake under a lunar eclipse? Our personal renderings are constantly in flux, based on the places and conditions in which we find ourselves.

Kyle by Madeleine Boga
Kyle by Madeleine Boga

Do you have any safety tips for the road?

Avoid driving in inclement weather or with tired eyes. Take your time. Keep your schedule flexible enough to allow for delays and diversions. Pull over and rest, if that’s what you need. That being said, be cognizant of your surroundings. Go with your gut. If a place gives you a bad vibe, leave and find another place to crash. Rest areas provide good last-minute accommodations. National Forests also offer beautiful, often free, places to park and sleep.

When we visit cities, especially if it’s for the first time, we generally try to find out-of-camper accommodations. We’ll stay with friends or splurge on an Airbnb or hostel, so we have a guaranteed, safe sleeping spot. Once we’ve gotten a lay of the land, we feel more comfortable clandestinely camping on the city streets.

In the plains of Kansas by Kyle Bradford
In the plains of Kansas by Kyle Bradford

What’s next for The Free Dwellers?

Right now we’re taking a hiatus from the road, resting and ruminating on our experiences. But we’ve still got big plans. We’re going to compile and publish our project findings in a book. We’re still writing blog posts on our participants, teasers of what’s the come.

We have a few more people to interview. After that, we’ll need to organize and analyze our data: transcribe the interviews, sort and edit photos and video, and talk about what it all means! How is this diverse group of people connected through their alternative livelihoods? What makes them stand out amongst so many other Americans? Are they contributing to a heightened awareness of nature and our impact on it? And if so, how?

We’re considering applying for some artist residencies to give ourselves the space and time to synthesize our information and put together the book. We’re looking forward to our next adventures!

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