Fayettechill founder Mo Elliott and his wife, Gracie Elliott, spent 18 months living on the road in their converted Sprinter van. Their experience taught them about themselves and the planet and refined their vision for Fayettechill. Living on the road means spending most of the day doing simple survival tasks like cooking, cleaning, and finding free places to sleep, while also trying to make the most of the place you are. It means constantly driving to and exploring new places, and, for Mo & Gracie, all while working virtually normal hours. With fewer distractions, a longer list of tasks, and ever-changing scenery, their trip taught them many things that all of us might be interested in. After I had a similar experience living out of my truck for a year, we sat down to discuss life, van life, the Ozarks, and more.
What was it like when you finally committed to taking this trip?
Mo: In April of 2015, we made the decision to say, “Yeah, let’s do this for a year.” We didn’t get a van until July of 2015, and planned to hit the road in summer of 2016. At that time, living out of a van was still a relatively new concept for us and there weren’t as many online resources as there are now. But we had two friends who were living in vans at the time who stayed at the Smokehouse for a while and that was the biggest face-to-face connection with it. I’d been in Fayetteville full time since 2007 and I was ready to experience new landscapes for an extended period of time. I wanted to know what the guys fly fishing in Montana were wearing and what mountain bikers in Whistler were sporting. In summary, I wanted to know what the North American landscape of outdoor recreation looked like and to relate to it with each of the various sports taken up by particular regions.
Pre-van, we lived in a tiny 250 sq ft guest house on Mount Kessler for a year, rent-free, with 6 foot ceilings that slanted down at the edges, and an outdoor shower. We did this so we could afford a van and do the buildout, so it felt essentially like we were building a guest house and living in a tiny home at the same time. That was the only way we were able to make it work. We got lucky living on Mount Kessler on Frank Sharp’s property, having the space to prepare for the trip. When the time came, as much as we were ready to hit the road, leaving a company I had worked on for eight years in the hands of our team was a challenge, and we didn’t know exactly what that was going to look like once we were a thousand miles away.
[Initial Van Inspiration in Big Bend, TX with Fayettechill team and friends that started traveling in vans earlier that year.]
[Modus Architecture Firm based in Fayetteville, AR. These guys are some of the smartest and most talented individuals I’ve ever come across. They turned our dream into reality on a small budget with short period of time.]
[Mo & Gracie at Sharpridge. Here is a view of the grounds we lived on at Frank Sharps property on Mt. Kessler.]
What was it like once you actually drove away?
Mo: I remember saying to Gracie, “I feel like we got away with murder.” Convincing our staff, planning the build, & prepping for this was a huge overhaul and very intense. Leaving to explore America in a badass adventure rig that was set up with all my sports, I had this feeling of how did I get this lucky— to be able to experience this with my favorite person, Gracie and our red heeler, Olive. In that van, it was so well-designed that we could go anywhere, and we were finally, actually out there—there was a limitless sense of potential.
Gracie: We were still on I-49 and he asked me to go and fill up his water from the sink while we were driving. It was such a liberating experience just to use the different elements of the van we’d worked hard on for so long.
Mo: We have a mindset in the US that you work your ass off until you’re 65, then you retire and that’s when you do these things like driving around in an RV. But, at that point, you can’t mountain bike or surf the same way you can when you’re in your 20s and 30s, so being able to do that throughout life as you age instead of pursuing a faraway goal or enjoying life in a series of three-day weekends, you get this sense that the world is your oyster and that you should be pursuing the things that matter to you every day rather than just sometime in the future when you have it all figured out.
[Dashboard view of our maiden voyage + Gracie mountain biking in Park City, UT]
[Mo Paddleboarding on Nantahala River in the Appalachians]
What was your relationship with Fayettechill like while you were on the road?
Mo: It’s a weird feeling when all the money you have and all the money you’ve ever had is in the company, but you give the keys to someone else. You are essentially entrusting everything you have to other people while you try to go live life on the road.
I had to figure out ways to stay in the office life loop while maintaining all of my professional relationships, because I wanted to remain involved and be able to pick up where I left off as soon as we got back.
[Telluride, CO office]
How did being away influence your relationship with the Ozarks?
Gracie: When we looked back at Arkansas, we saw the Ozarks, these humble, under-appreciated mountains that inspired us and that we were proud to call home. Instead of always looking for outside inspiration from successful apparel companies or another Rocky Mountain brand, we wanted to bring the inspiration and culture of Arkansas to people that didn’t know about it and do it at a high-level of product creation and marketing.
Mo: I fell more in love with the Ozarks and Arkansas from being away. And being away made me realize some of the smaller things that I took for granted about this area, like the Osage Native American tribe and the Ozark Mountain Family heritage of our headquarters. My mindset shifted to the saying, ‘love yourself before other people can love you.’ We’re trying to do that with Arkansas— bring what we love about this unique area to people across the country. I mean, I named my brand after a college town in Arkansas, so I boxed myself in from the beginning and I’m committed to it (laughs).
We’ve always had a lot of amazing outdoor stuff here, but with the explosion of mountain biking trails and culture in the area, it’s been easier to cross-pollinate and help inspire ourselves and others across the country about the area. It helped us to know the brand vision and run full-speed with it as soon as we got back.
[Fly Fishing on the Gallatin River in Montana + 100 year anniversary National Park Service celebration in Glacier National Park]
And how did the trip affect your professional mindset and the brand direction? What’s changed since you got back?
Mo: Every single spot on the van trip, we learned or saw some environmental impact of the industry that really changed our perspectives. Capitalism traditionally has an infinite growth mindset, but the reality is that our planet has finite resources. So, recycled cotton may not be the end game, but until we invest in things that reduce current waste and prove to the suppliers that there is demand for sustainable and renewable products, we won’t see the next major breakthrough in apparel and eco friendly production techniques.
All of that comes from spending time outside. The earth doesn’t mean anything when you’re entrenched in the middle of the city and don’t spend time outside.
Gracie: When we were in Key West, we went to the Florida Keys Eco Discovery Center, and we went into the coral reef and learned about how much it is being affected and how much has been bleached and what’s causing that. When we were in British Columbia, we met a couple from South Carolina, that told us about how many ‘wet days’ they have, where the tides are so extreme that they can’t even leave their property because the water rises so much. When they were younger, they had a couple a year, and now because of the death of the reefs, they have a few weeks’ worth per year.
Mo: I learned from many brands I admire that educating your customer is the most important part. We’re going fully transparent for Fall/Winter 2018, which means that we disclose exactly where everything comes from and what its impact is. There’s been a crazy mindset shift in our generation about health and sustainability—we thought nothing of going to McDonald’s and eating Frosted Flakes every morning as kids!
What were some of the things you saw that impacted you the most?
Mo: We wanted to float the Animas River in Durango, but the outfitters all told us we’d have to take our chance on it because it was oozing out chemicals into the river from an old gold mine.
Seeing the redwoods and internalizing that only 5% of the historic North American redwood population is left on earth. Seeing the Hoover Dam and the bleach spots that show how low the water is relative to where it used to be; Santa Barbara’s water supply looks like a pond where it used to be a lake.
Then you go to the Eco Discovery Center that Gracie mentioned and learn about the scientists figuring out how to re-grow the coral, and it inspires you and re-energizes. You to go back and try to do what you can to make things better at home and in your own business.
Even here, close to home, the Buffalo River is still facing threats after everything we’ve learned and everything we’ve done to save it, and now, save it again…
There are so many things that got me to where I am today, including living outside most all day every day for 18 months. Getting to be under trees and out in the ocean and thinking that one day we might not have them to enjoy if we don’t make changes and inspire change.
[Big Sur Overlook]
What are some highlights of living in the van?
Mo: I had these moments that I called ‘If this is it moments.’ And it was essentially, “If this is it, if I die now, I’m content.” You’d reflect about how much you had to do to get to one of these peaceful alpine lakes that you had to pedal for hours to get to, or catching a wave on a remote break, and you’d think about how many things you had to do to be in one of those places, and that all of your life conspired to lead you to that moment, it was just contentment.
We have so many conversations now where we’re talking with somebody and they mention an experience they had, and 9 times out of 10, we’ve been there and can really relate to them.
Gracie: Yeah, I work at our Basecamp store and can always create conversations with our adventurous customers about places they’re going and places they’ve been.
I hate to say that we’re closer than other couples, but we are. (laughs) You really are in survival mode and constantly awed at new places and experiences together. The experience of striving towards the same things made even the tedious aspects of van life worth it.
Mo: We spent so much time off the grid that we just never really had our phones and definitely never had TV. We’d do audiobooks or talk or just sit in silence and observe. It’s crazy going a long time without access to any new internet or random media to distract yourself.
[In awe of Jasper Icefield Parkway scenery]
[Dinner with a view in Big Sur]
[Hornby Island Hiking in Canada]
What about the actual reality of living out of a van? Is it really all pretty sunsets and sweet freedom?
Gracie: Our shower was kind of a pain to set up and get going. So one night we were essentially on the side of the road and I was taking a shower, but the water wasn’t heating up so I just showered anyway in freezing water, only to run out of water! I had a full head of shampoo and had to pour a water bottle on my head to get most of it out.
Mo: When things like that happen, you just have to problem solve together and be content that life on the road isn’t a routine or always easy.
Gracie: I would text the guys at MODUS - (the architecture firm in Fayetteville that built the van) not thinking at all about what day it was or what time of day it was, and I’d ask them for help with the shower from the side of the road in New Mexico, and all the while they’re eating dinner with their families on a Sunday night.
Mo: The mindset of doing a sport or a craft and doing what you need to do to survive, that’s already a full day. When you live out of a van and have to use the bathroom literally in the woods—then you add a full day of phone calls and emails into that, it actually is an extremely full day. You get used to living with so little and it’s ok, but it’s also exhausting at times.
We went five days without showering one time. It gets gross. The mindset of ‘I’m going to shower every single day,’ just goes out the window as soon as one thing goes wrong.
The process of just living with the basics of life takes a really long time. Cooking every single meal on a two-burner camping stove and every dish you get dirty is five more minutes of cleaning and more precious water you use. It makes you aware of how involved the process of existing really is. But, for a year and a half, we literally never missed an experience that we wanted to do outside or in a town. We had to skimp on other things so that we could do everything we could while we were in a new area. You wear the same two outfits for a year but you never miss out on a new adventure.
Gracie: Mo and I literally had one spoon that we shared. It’s so funny when you come back to so-called ‘real life’ and are still totally accustomed to small things like sharing a spoon that other people laugh about and insist on giving you more utensils.
Mo: We knew we could run on 20 gallons of water every 3 days. But it’s amazing what happens when you actually put a number to that and learn exactly what it looks like.
Gracie: We called AAA once because we hadn’t seen a gas station in so long and couldn’t get enough service to find out where the next one was. The guy got there two hours later with a gas can and told us there was one 7 miles down the road.
Mo: With technology the way it is today, you can find out what you want to do that day when you wake up in the morning. Between meeting people and using online resources, we never planned anything more than a day in advance. Whatever you think about technology, it makes it easier than ever to just get out and explore.
Gracie: Being a girl on the road is a little harder because of things like going to the bathroom, it’s just not as quick or convenient. It’s small things like, for a year and a half, my only mirror was the sunvisor in the car.
[What they don’t show you on Instagram - “Dirty Feet”]
[Passing other vandwellers on Highway 1]
[Shaving in the Mojave desert]
What did you learn about life from living out of a van on the road?
Gracie: The best part was getting closer to each other and seeing life more clearly. You see things more clearly about your relationship, your business, what matters to you in life, where you want to be in the future.
Mo: Learning that life is short, so doing things that you don’t like is not a very good use of your time.
[Fireside in Marble, CO]
[One of favorite spots of the trip Hornby Island in Canada.]