On the road with Noël Russell

If it was possible to have a crush on someone's life, Noël Russell's would be a contender for our hearts. Noël works with California's homeless, devoting her weekdays to helping those in need, and spends weekends in the Sprinter van that she shares with her husband Jonnie, living in the wild and taking some of the best images on Instagram along the way. 

Add to that her love of wine, beer, dogs, Wayne's World quotes and embracing everything that life throws at her, and you'll see that Noël sets a pretty great example of how to live life as fully as possible. 

We had a chat with her about the things that float her boat. 

How would you describe your van travel in three words?

Party Time Excellent

Where are you right now?

Lake Tahoe!

You work with the homeless in the Bay Area; I’d love to hear your thoughts on what “home” really means.

I work at a homeless youth shelter. One day we asked this question to the young people we work with, and one of them answered, “Home is someplace where you know someone is waiting for you.” And I think that sums it up—home isn’t a structure, home is found in community. I think my ultimate goal in life is to help give everyone someplace where someone is waiting for them.

You and your husband Jonnie both work full-time and spend your weekends in the wilderness. Any plans to hit the road full-time?

We get asked this a lot, and the answer has always been “no”, and without hesitation. We enjoy being on the road, and certainly would be able to live in our van forever, but we deeply love our jobs (we both work at homeless shelters) and couldn’t imagine leaving them anytime soon. So for now, we travel on weekends and days off, but weekdays are typically focused on serving the people we care about most.

What are the things that you need to have with you on the road, whether they’re physical objects, states of mind, or anything else?

Wine, beer, dogs, sunblock and duct tape. I think it also helps to make sure we bring a strong spirit of flexibility and peace. You can’t really control what happens when you’re on the road—lots of surprises come up—but I think if you’re willing to be nimble with schedules and environments, and accepting of what comes your way, then you’ll always enjoy yourself. The wine and beer can also help with that. And dogs are important because I can’t go anywhere without dogs.

You guys spend most of your van time in the western states. What’s your all-time favorite spot to visit (if you have one)?

Yosemite. This has been my answer since I could speak. Yosemite, always Yosemite.

Your Instagram is totally envy-inducing. Is van life as perfect as it looks in your shots?

Um… perfection is in the eye of the beholder, I think. I would say that everything is pretty perfect—but not because things always go as planned or because we always get along or because we have endless supplies of resources to ensure that we have a great time—I would say it’s perfect because I think perfection is being content with what you have, gracious with the world around you, and open to change… I think we try to embody these things as best as we can, which is pretty perfect if you ask me. Plus, anything with dogs included ends up being almost perfect because—dogs.

Tell us a bit about your converted Sprinter Van—what do you love and/or hate about it?

We LOVE the build that our friends at VanCraft did for us; they really included everything we need and nothing we don’t need. We also love that she’s a short-wheelbase Sprinter, so we can park anywhere. And the solar power system they set up might be the best part—we can have electricity for three days without a charge! I really cant say I “hate” anything about the van, but I do have a hard time with rear-wheel drive on sandy dirt roads. But other than that, I would say she’s a pretty rad little adventuremobile.

Your posts can be quite philosophical. How do you think your travels have affected your personal philosophies?

What a compliment! I only say this because I am married to someone with a PhD in Philosophy, while I skipped the class during undergrad and had friends take notes for me. I think travel has affected our personal philosophy only so much as it has confirmed a lot of things that we hold as truths in our lives. We get to see humans overcome obstacles due to a sense of kinship which is built on very few commonalities, but more on values. We get to experience our deep need for nature, and affirmation in our convictions to care for it in return. We are confirmed in our hope for the future, and for humanity, because we are able to sit and watch the sunset with a bunch of strangers on a ridge and feel that deep connection with Creation that we know deep down to be true and good and triumphant. John Muir said, “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” I think that’s what we believe in, and I think that’s what we see on the road, and in the wild.

OK, so let's talk about your awesome dogs. What do they add to your travels, and how on earth do all four of you manage to sleep in the van together?

They are the best dogs in the world. I know everyone says that about their dogs, and they’re right, too. They aren’t always the easiest to travel with, but we couldn’t imagine not having them around. The big dog is the master of chill—she reminds us to stop and sit and swim and just be present. The little dog is naughty and mostly adds a lot of dirt to our bedsheets, and muddy pawprints on the seats and floor, and sometimes surprise dead insects or rocks that she likes to hide in her mouth and then toss around the van when no one is looking. But she’s really funny, so she makes us laugh no matter how the trip is going, so I'll give her credit for that.

We sleep together by having the big dog on a dog bed on the floor and the little dog in the bed with us. It works well because the big dog hates cuddling, but Jonnie and I and the little dog are all cuddle machines. 

The images in this profile are but a tiny snippet of the amazingness that you'll find on Noël's Instagram feed, @noel_russ, so be sure to do yourself a favor and check it out!

Gemma PeckhamComment