When Kitt Turner lost his job of ten years, he decided to turn the unfortunate event into an adventure of a lifetime.
He and his girlfriend Jenna Balsai left their homes in Hawaii to embark on a climbing trip across North America. This past January, they began their trek in their new home – an emerald green Sprinter van. The lifestyle comes with some unique challenges. But Kitt and Jenna have found a way to renovate the typical dirt bag vanlife in fresh, luxurious style.
White. Tan. Cobalt blue. If you don’t pay attention to the colors, all the Volkswagen Westphalia’s in Joshua Tree National Park start to look the same. The Sprinter’s tall shadow streaked across the rows of campervans as we rumbled down the campground road. A light cloud of dust stirred behind the back of the van, and settled across the pop-up rooftops. Few heads turned to watch our entry. Most were too engrossed in their own activities. It was 2pm on a Thursday afternoon, but not a single soul was doing anything that could be remotely confused with work. Most were climbing, the rest were creating. Their heads were bent over easels and paints, their fingers tickled handmade flutes. Life is a song, and they were busy writing their own lyrics. Restless souls that refused to submit to the bridle of societal responsibilities.
We pulled into the last campsite at the end of the road and came to a stop. The emerald green door slid open to reveal a luxurious mansion in the dirtbag world of van nomads. Enter Kitt and Jenna. The stylishly disheveled climbing bums – proof that you can embrace the van life and still have nice things.
Their van is equipped with a big screen TV, full solar power, running water, hardwood countertops, swiveling captain chairs, a spacious refrigerator, a real bed, a heater at night, even a remote controlled ventilation system. The best part? You can walk around freely inside the van without having to hunch over.
You can only understand their rendition of van life by understanding Kitt and Jenna. As adventurers, they’re walking oxymorons. Savage yet classy.
On Oahu, Kitt was a mild mannered financial consultant, and Jenna was a sweet nurse. But on the weekends, they were rock climbing, thrill-seeking waterfall maniacs, plunging over 600ft drops in torrential downpours. Kitt was always looking for the next first decent, and is responsible for a majority of the development of canyoneering on Oahu. Together, Kitt and Jenna pushed the limits of adventures, but always came out of it looking annoyingly well put together. I’ve seen Kitt charge into a jungle and bushwhack through 12 miles of dense foliage and raging rivers and still emerge with the hair of James Dean.
And while Jenna's personality may initially seem sweet and demure, she’ll suggest trekking across South America with the same casual demeanor a person might suggest brewing a cup of tea.
So when it comes to van life, it only makes sense that they would decide to be responsibly irresponsible. Kitt liked his job, and he didn't have any intention on leaving. But when his firm closed down, it seemed like the opportune time to go explore climbing in other places. Climbing on Oahu is limited, and they had been wanting to check out other areas with more climbing options for awhile. But they spent a while working and saving up first. They spent $10,000 on the van, and estimated they spent another $10,000 on improvements. In addition to the initial costs, they budgeted an adequate monthly allowance and savings to start over at the end of it all. And Jenna is on a year long leave of absence, so she can return to her job if they decide to go back to Hawaii at the end of their trip.
Kitt and Jenna first met three years ago while climbing at the Mokuleia rock crag on the North Shore of Oahu. Jenna distinctly remembers the first time she saw Kitt, viciously chopping down tall California grass with a large machete. Kitt doesn’t have any recollection. “It wasn’t love at first sight!” laughs Jenna. But a spark slowly grew during the first year of friendship, and the climbing partners finally started dating.
Now, two years later, they’re taking their partnership on the ultimate relationship test. Van life isn’t for everybody. Tensions can run high when you’re together 24/7 with another person in a small space. You have to work through problems without taking your frustration out on each other.
Even with all the van's luxuries, there’s still plenty that can go wrong. They have to keep an eye on water supplies. The portable toilet isn’t fun to set up in cold winter nights. Even with an atlas, directions can still be controversial. Sometimes the van has mechanical difficulties. They’re still working out a few details inside the van- like a system for keeping the kitchen supplies above the sink from falling out while they’re driving. And it’s not just van problems – frustrations can rise from things like a rope getting stuck on a climb. It’s a lot of partner work, and it takes a lot of patience, trust, and understanding.
But they seem to be figuring it out. When we met up in Joshua Tree, they had just completed their first month of van life, unscathed. They had been staying at a free campsite outside of Joshua tree, but they shared our camp spot inside the park while we were there.
In the early morning light, Jenna prepared a healthy breakfast. Her kitchen supplies are housed in ample shelves, drawers, and a handy spice rack next to the water tank.
Part of the counter lifts to reveal a deep chest refrigerator and freezer. It’s one of the luxuries that makes a healthy breakfast of Greek Yogurt possible. The device is powered by the internal electrical system, rigged by Kitt and his dad. They have two 155-amp hour batteries that are charged by solar panels on the van roof. They also have a 2000-watt inverter for running anything that uses 120 volts, like their blender, hot water kettle, or crockpot.
Next to the control panel is a switch for the external diesel heater. The inside of the panels along the walls of the van are lined with three different types of insulation to retain heat inside during the cold winter night. But there’s one drawback of their heating system – it smells like diesel when the heater is on. That’s where the remote control ventilation fan comes in handy. Next to the sink is a stack of books – climbing locations, maps, and crockpot recipes for two. The crockpot works well, Jenna explained, because it uses lower levels of power spread out over the day. That way the solar panel can keep up with these energy demands without completely draining the battery.
Entertainment is ample in their new life. At night, their mounted Mac computer swings down and functions as a movie screen. But during the day, there’s no time for movies - they have places to climb.
The back of the van has a second storage compartment, stuffed with ropes, shoes, cams, carabineers, and other adventure accessories.
We loaded up a pack and headed out to a nearby crag to check out the attractions.
Back at the camp site, Kitt and Jenna reclined in their comfortable bed and talked about the transition. So far, the rewards have been worth all the hard work. They’re looking forward to the next 11 months as they continue to check out canyons and climbing crags across California, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Kentucky, Canada, and wherever else their itching feet take them. At the end of the year, their plans are open ended. They’re hoping to figure out where they want to settle down during their travels. But for now, they’re just enjoying the good life on the road.
“The best thing about van life…” ponders Kitt,
“is doing whatever we want,” Jenna fills in.
“Just being able to go anywhere you want and…” Kitt continues,
“…climb wherever you want,” Jenna adds, “Wake up whenever you want.”
“And I think we planned it with enough luxuries so it doesn’t always feel like camping.” says Kitt, “It feels like…”
As if on cue, Jenna and Kitt finish the sentence together.