the hearnes » adventure elopement photographers
family session + interview in the desert near moab, utah with Keith and Brianna Madia and the dogs, Bucket and Dagwood
If you’ve been following along for a while, you might remember our interview with Brianna and Keith Madia a little over a year ago, asking them about life on the road, what led them to live in a van, and various other questions. I loved Brianna’s responses so much and I know y’all did too, so we decided to do another one! This interview asks a few of the same questions (with different responses!) and a lot of new ones. If you only read one of our blog posts (I get it, you’re probably here for pretty pictures), I’d strongly encourage you to read this one. Also, if you aren’t following Brianna Madia (@briannamadia) on Instagram yet, go do that right now…you can thank me later. Lastly, we were lucky enough to get Keith to answer a few of these (anyone who knows Keith knows this is a real treat) and I just loooove his responses too. So without further adieu, our buds Brianna and Keith Madia:
How old are y’all? I am 28 and Keith will be 30 in 2 weeks!!!
Tell us about Bertha! What is she? How many miles does she have? Bertha is a 1990 Ford E350, customized with a lift and 4WD and she’s got about 290,000 miles on her but I don’t know if I can say that anymore because we just got her engine replaced, which technically puts her back at zero. So, we now believe she will run for another 30 years haha!
How long have you been living in your van? Almost 2 years now!
Where is home? Brianna: It is a skyline. A particular place in the desert I’ve been spending time for half a decade now. I’ve never pulled up to find another person there...there’s no service and no traffic and there’s a river I sit in all day long and it’s been host to some of the happiest days of my life. If I could put down bricks and mortar in one place on this whole planet, it’d be right there.
Keith: Wherever Bri is.
Where do you love to hike/wander/roam day-to-day? I think people always assume we’re on some new exciting adventure, but we’re really creatures of habit. We have a handful of places in Utah that we spend almost 90% of our year because we know we’ll be alone there...we know we’ll find the kind of solitude we crave. Something folks might not know about us is that we’d choose a vacant field in the middle of nowhere any day over a beautiful overlook with steady human traffic. We *really* love being alone. It’s the number one priority for us 95% of the time.
When you want to explore somewhere new, where do you head? Brianna: Always South, it seems. We’ve been trying to do more northbound exploring but we’re so hooked on the heat that we can’t bear to miss even one weekend of it sometimes. I’m really wanting to go check out some places in New Mexico this year.
Keith: Bri is also really good about planning at least one international trip a year. It’s kind of great because she does all the leg-work and I just get to show up! One day I climbed into the van after work and she looked up from the computer and goes, “We’re going to Nicaragua to learn how to surf.” So, I think we’re good at being more adventurous and breaking our desert mold every now and then.
Where and how do you (Brianna) typically get work done? Do you have a computer, wifi, etc? I have a laptop and a mobile hotspot that is billed through my Verizon phone bill. But I do enjoy working from coffee shops when weather is nice enough for me and the dogs to sit at a table outside.
Why did you start living in a van? The van really offered something unique for all four of us. I wanted to feel more…alive. I wanted to live really intentionally and kind of understand what it’s like to struggle for something because you believe its worth doing. Keith wanted a way to be more mobile and explore more of the places we love after he finished his long work shifts. It was exhausting for him to come out of his shifts out in the desert, drive up to our apartment in Salt Lake, unpack, repack, and then get in the car with me and drive back out to the desert. It was just too much back and forth. Bucket really needed a way to come out of her shell and be a bit more brave, and I think the van helped her tremendously with that. And then, of course, there’s Dagwood…who hates the indoors.
Why do you still live in a van? We truly got everything we thought we would get out of this experience. We really felt the way we wanted to feel. The highs are SO high and the lows are just never low enough to really convince us that we should stop.
If you have to guess, what do you think will be next? Brianna: I have no idea. We go back and forth almost daily between buying a sailboat to live on again and buying property out in the desert and building a one room cabin from the ground up.
Keith: I say both…
What do you typically eat? Bertha is a vegetarian bus, so for breakfast we have eggs and avocado quesadillas. Lunch is peanut butter and apple wraps or CLIF Bars or a nice cold crunchy bag-salad. Dinner is some form of one-pot wonder. Mushroom stroganoff, veggie stir fry, rice and bean burritos, pimped out Mac n cheese, lentil soup with vegan sausage.... I’ve got a few go-to’s.
Do you have any daily routines? I make the bed. And I dance. Everything else is a f***ing gamble. 😂
You and Keith have such a strong and sweet relationship, what advice would you give to another couple considering living in a van together? Keep the big picture in mind. I’ve always been sort of acutely aware that I’m gonna be this real old crusty lady one day and I’ll be sitting on a porch somewhere looking back on all of this. I doubt I’m going to remember yelling at Keith because he put the spatula in the wrong bin...so why would I focus so much on that right now?
In a similar vein, do you have any advice for our engaged couples, or any couple considering marriage in their future? Things will change, and that’s okay. It’s been interesting because I’ve been with Keith since I was 19. That’ll be a whole decade next summer. Many of our friends are just now getting married or just now starting serious relationships so sometimes it feels like you’re surrounded by people in the “honeymoon phase” and you’re like....making direct eye contact with your spouse, mid-conversation while peeing into a Gatorade bottle in the back of a van. Sometimes it can feel like the “romance” is gone compared to your buddies who won’t even fart in front of their new boyfriends. 😂
You get comfortable...but that can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it’s incredibly wonderful and warm and sacred, and on the other hand, you can’t let it get too comfortable where you forget that you’re romantic partners and not roommates.
It’s a big long beautiful balancing act with peaks and valleys.
But my best advice for keeping that love alive is to have a shared hobby. Whether that’s rock climbing or kayaking or going to see weird cult-classic movies together or joining a local kickball team… Just something that is yours, together. The fact that Keith and I climb together and bike together and do all these hobbies together has kept us incredibly close and incredibly in love. There’s something so wonderful about lifting the person you love up when they fail and celebrating them when they succeed or comforting them when they’re scared. It makes you feel like even more of a team than you knew possible.
You put so much of yourself and your thoughts on social media, how do you decide what to publish and what to keep private? That’s something I struggle with because even before Instagram, I’ve always been a complete open book. I learned at a young age that when you put yourself out there, you get it back tenfold and you feel so much less alone. Just recently, I decided to share what is - for me - probably the most painful part of my own life, and that’s my parent’s divorce. I was sobbing like a maniac writing that down and I thought, you know, you don’t owe it to anybody to share this if you don’t want to. But ultimately, I did. And the responses ended up being like therapy. There were grown men who shared that they’ve never truly gotten over the pain of their parents’ split either. There were women who penned open apologies to their own children for not being able to protect them from the fallout of their marriages. It was like…truly this incredibly healing thing for me to be able to connect with so many people who share that struggle. And it just completely reassured me that vulnerability is one of the most powerful things about being a human in the world.
But there are, of course, things I won’t share. Because…I don’t know...I think I mainly just want to put things out into the world that people can relate to. I don’t ever want to sound like I’m just outright complaining or outright bragging. I want people to be able to take something from what I write. So, I try to stick to those guidelines in terms of what I share.
- What has been a big struggle for you in being instagram famous? Brianna: Being called ‘Instagram famous.” Haha! No, but honestly, I’m very tough on myself and sometimes this whole Instagram thing just amplifies that. In my lowest moments my self-talk sounds like this: “You’re basically just a Kim Kardashian of the outdoors…you’re just some “entitled millennial”…you’re not making a difference in the world…you’re not going to have anything to show for all this…you’re just going around talking about yourself all day long…”
I mean, seriously, I’m brutal to myself sometimes. I just know that there are so many amazing and inspiring people in the world who will never have the platform I’ve been sort of thrust up onto and that’s hard for me to deal with emotionally sometimes. I just don’t always feel deserving of any of this… So that’s a weird personal struggle I guess. But, that’s what therapists are for? Hahaha
Keith: For me, it’s the fact that I’m a really shy person and I’m just sort of tagging along on this whole experience that Bri has more of a direct hand in. I actually don’t even have social media anymore. I deleted all the apps from my phone because I felt like I was wasting time just staring at it and wasn’t even contributing. I think what Bri does is why social media was invented…to share and collaborate and reach out to people…but it’s also just not something I’ve ever been good at, personally. But on the same token, it’s really forced me to come out of my shell and I love all the opportunities I have to interact with new people because of all of this.
- What is something you’ve loved about your instagram experience? Brianna: The second one person told me that my words meant something to them, it was all worth it. The second people started sending me photos of the dogs they’d adopted or the poem they wrote or the campsite they’d discovered by turning down some random road like I’d told them to try...it was all worth it. I really try to focus on the impact I’m having on other people since I’m clearly an internally tormented weirdo based on my answer to the previous question 😉
Keith: Seeing how excited people are to meet Bri in person is pretty wild. To me, she’s just…Bri. But to see the impact she’s had on some people or the happiness her stories have brought to people, it just makes me feel really lucky like, wow, I’m married to this woman…
- If you could go back and talk with Brianna pre-REI re-post that first began this crazy insta-fame journey, what would you tell her? Get some thicker skin, girlfriend 😂
- The responsibility of having a huge following can be difficult to manage. What is something you feel like you’ve done really well with this responsibility? I feel like I’ve been honest, and that’s such a weight lifted off my shoulders. I once had someone pull over on a road in the middle of nowhere because they saw the van and she ran up and screamed, “It’s you! You’re just...here! Doing what you do!” And I just burst out laughing because I was sort of like, well...yea? I think when you’re honest about your life and your shortcomings and your successes and your weaknesses and strengths, you can really stand by what you’ve put out into the world. I don’t ever feel like someone’s going to “catch me” being something I’m not, and that’s taken a lot of pressure off from this whole experience. I always joke...if you come up to the van in a parking lot, odds are I smell like shit...and no one really seems to expect anything else.
- What is the most difficult thing about this lifestyle for you personally? The lack of structure. As time goes on, I realize that I am the type that could probably benefit from more structure in my day to day. I don’t have the self-discipline to sit down at my laptop at the same time each day. I don’t have the self-control to not go ride my bike when I know I should be writing. Being your own boss in every aspect of literally everything...damn, I wish I’d known what I was truly in for.
- What is a recent moment/day/memory that made you think “this is why we do this"? Oh gosh, there’s something every day. The way the light bursts through the corners of the windshield cover in the morning...the way my dogs are so absolutely bubbling over with joy ALL the time...the simplicity of standing naked in the dirt and showering with a little trickle from a hose on top of the van. It really is as amazing as it looks a lot of days.
- What have you been able to do/accomplish that you wouldn’t have otherwise? Brianna: A lot of people don’t realize that Keith leaves and goes to work out in the desert for half of every single week. That means that for just about half the year, I live in that van alone with the dogs.
And because of that, I think I’ve learned more about what I’m really capable of than I ever would have. Some days I feel like I should be in some old school Destiny’s Child “Survivor” music video with the shit I do 😂.
Maneuvering this huge van down some of these gnarly roads alone...starting fires and cooking and setting up everything in my camp and doing little van maintenance stuff...
I am SO much more confident as a woman and as a human being because I’ve lived this way.
Keith: I’m like, actually a mechanic now, haha! I’ve learned so much about vehicles and it’s a hobby I can see myself pursuing for the rest of my life for sure.
- What has been a particularly low point for you? October 2017 to April 2018? 😂 sometimes when you spend half your life defending and promoting this wacky lifestyle, it can feel really lonely when you just want to throw your fists in the air and scream, “what the f*** am I doing?!??!” When everyone thinks your life is perfect and all your problems are “great problems to have” you feel like you have to keep certain hardships to yourself. So I struggled A LOT through Bertha’s broken axle and new engine phase. But I think things like that just make me so appreciative of the good times. I mean, just rolling down these roads with no Check Engine light and no weird smell and no weird noises...I just burst into tears sometimes because I’m so grateful that she’s still here and that I get to roll around on our own sweat and tears and hard-earned money. When this life of mine is done, I don’t think I’ll regret a single penny we put into this van. Because she gave us everything.
- Van life can be super glamorized on social media. What is a warning you’d give to someone considering this lifestyle? Don’t do it because you want to be “famous” on social media. That should literally be THE last thing on your mind. I get messages from people all the time who are all stoked about just buying their own van...and the only thing they want to know is “how I got so many followers.” You could have half a million followers...but you’re still gonna have to shit in a hole if you wanna live like this. You’re still gonna have to wash your hair maybe once a week. Cops are still gonna knock on your window at 3am and tell you to move along. It’s a beautiful way to live if you go into it for the right reasons. But if you’re just trying to get sponsors on Instagram, you’re in for a rude awakening.
- Living in a van can seem near impossible to someone living in a home with a normal job. What encouragement would you give to someone considering this lifestyle? Oh my god EVERYTHING seemed impossible when we started this! We bought Bertha and then just sorta stared at her and went....now what?!?? I say it all the time but...you will figure it out. I promise! And the figuring it out part...that’s the BEST part. The craziest things become normal. And the failures make for incredible stories. And the triumphs are so huge when you embrace them as part of the whole process.
- How have you surprised yourself in the past year? I think I’ve finally started letting stuff roll off my shoulders a little easier. I’ve finally stopped letting one person’s nasty comment ruin my week. I mean, screw them right?! My friend Cooper even mailed me a little pin recently that looks like a first place blue ribbon and on it, it says “Stopped reading the comments” 😂
- How do you want to push yourself this year? I want to get better at being more structured in terms of getting this book written and sent out there into the world.
- Reading through your interview from last year, do you notice anything that has changed significantly? I think I’m a bit more sure of myself – the good and the bad. That’s why I’ve always wanted SO badly to be in my 30s. The woman I babysat for in high school always told me, “In your thirties, you don’t give a shit what anyone thinks!”
- You mentioned in your interview last year you’d like to write a book one day…how is that going? It’s going! I think Instagram has actually inhibited me a little bit on that front because I’m pretty used to instant gratification now. I have a thought, I write it, then people tell me if they like it or not. But with the book, I write for days and weeks and months and I have no idea if it’s good...if it’s relatable...if it matters. It’s a super heady experience but, I know I’ll be so insanely proud when it’s done.
Most days I just imagine what it’ll feel like to hold it in my hands. And I just can’t think of anything better...
- Do you have a life philosophy? I don’t know if it’s a life philosophy but...I am SO empowered by my own impermanence. At least once a day, I think, “well...I’ll be dead soon.” 😂 and I’m sure at first glance that sounds insanely morbid, but I find it so freeing. Like, why shouldn’t I quit my job and try to cut it out here doing freelance? Why shouldn’t I live in a van?! Why shouldn’t I walk across the room and tell that lady that I really like her shirt?! Why shouldn’t I be super vulnerable and honest on some silly app we invented?!
When you realize that you only have so much time on this earth...when you REALLY take that to heart...I dunno, things start to seem less scary.
- If you could have anyone in the world join you in the desert for a day of canyoneering and a night of wine + campfire goodness, who would you choose? Edward Abbey I think would have to be the obvious choice. But I’d sure of loved to go streaking under the stars with Katie Lee too…
- What are some big dreams you have for the future? Brianna: The biggest dream of my life is to be a published author. And I’d love to live in a different country...probably an island in Southeast Asia. And I’d love to live on a sailboat again.
Keith: To build us a cottage with my own two hands.
- Who are you inspired by? You. (😊😊😊😊😊😊 - Abbi)
- You live in a van in the middle of the desert…how do you make friends? I’m really lucky in that I’ve had a tight knit group of friends for the last 7 years. We all knew each other in college and we’ve all ended up out west together, and they are as Home to me as anything else out here. I don’t get to see them all the time, but the group texts are lit...
- How do you think your good friends would describe you? Don’t be humble here ;) The other day my buddy Connor said I was “acutely self-aware” and I thought that was a nice compliment. I also think they would say I was funny. I have a really dry, sort of self-deprecating sense of humor and I really love to make people laugh.
- What is a favorite quote or saying you often think about? That entire Alan Watts speech about life not being a journey. That life is more like music and dance and less like a pilgrimage who’s purpose is to just get to “the end.” The whole point is not the end of the composition or the spot in the dance hall at which you should arrive, the whole point is the dance itself. I think that might be the smartest thing anyone’s ever come up with.
- What are three products you use on a daily basis? Sun Bum sunscreen (I’m trying to get better about sunscreen even though I really hate it 😑)
Toothpaste (I’m real obsessive about brushing my teeth 😳)
- What is something most people don’t know about you? Brianna: I know every.single.word. to A LOT of old school rap songs. Most notably, ‘Colt 45’ by Afroman. (If you don’t already know it, please don’t look it up 😂 it is SO vulgar.) But I dead serious once stood up and rapped every word in front of Keith’s entire company at their annual winter retreat. It’s a wonder they invite me back every year...
Keith: I used to be a Jazz major when I first went to college. I played the upright bass.
- Is there anything else you’d like to share (advice, an interesting fact, etc)? I wrote all of these answers while standing knee-deep in a river in the middle of the desert and it’s starting to feel like I forgot sunscreen on the back of my neck 😑
The Hearnes Adventure Photography is run by Abbi and Callen Hearne, a husband & wife wedding photography team with an emphasis on adventure. They live on the road as full-time nomads in their big white van, allowing them to serve a large portion of the western US including California, Utah, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Colorado, and Wyoming. They believe love is the greatest adventure and strive to create photos that are epic, romantic, true, and timeless.