It’s 8 am in Vegas. The neighborhood dogs have been yapping since daybreak, when city trucks rumbled through to collect the week’s leftovers, and an uncaffeinated Michelle Craig is feeling a little blurry.
It’s not because she just came stumbling in off of the Strip, though—the adventure photographer, her 13-year-old son Noah, and their “65-pound cuddle puddle of a dog,” Moe, arrived at a friend’s house last night after spending the previous few days ensconced in the warm embrace of Navajo sandstone at Snow Canyon State Park about two hours northeast. The vibe here is just a bit…different. “We’ve been in Utah for two months,” says Craig. “Rolling into Vegas in the nighttime with the lights exploding was sensory overload.”
The “Roamschool Family,” originally from Indiana, haven’t just been on the move for two months; they’ve been living in their juicy red 1995 GMC Rally STX for over a year, working, studying, playing, and steadily building community across the country.
Their weekend at Snow Canyon was a prime example of the latter. It was the third gathering of Craig’s Modern Village Project, an initiative she launched after a brainstorm session with Justine Nobbe of Adventure Mamas (Craig is an ambassador). The mission is to provide opportunities for moms and kids to gather, share their stories, connect with others, and enjoy time outdoors together. During each gathering, Craig facilitates a group discussion and an outing; she also photographs participants, creating images that burst with joy and love while showcasing the beauty of the land where these connections are both formed and strengthened.
It’s all a very powerful experience for Craig. “I cried driving away from La Verkin [Utah] yesterday just because we were there for three weeks, and we connected with so many amazing people,” she says. “I’ve been a single mom since I was five months pregnant. I could not have done that without the community that I had, and that I still have. It’s been really beautiful.”
Year, make, and model?
1995 GMC Rally STX.
Does the vehicle have a name?
His name is Jerry Lee. Noah named him because he decided that “Great Balls of Fire” needed to be his theme song.
How did you get it?
I applied for a creative renewal grant that was a $10,000 grant to do whatever you want with, and I made it pretty far down the line, but ultimately didn’t get it. What I was going to do with that grant was basically what we’re doing now, which was fix up a van, convert it, and drive us around the country to all of the places that I traveled in my early twenties that inspired me to be a photographer and share that experience with Noah as a part of his learning experience. When I didn’t get the grant, I was just crushed.
Literally the day that I got the notification that I did not get the grant, I was notified that we were going to have to move out of our place because they were renovating it to sell. This is the universe telling me that I need to just continue on and follow through with my plan. And so I did. The next day, I went and looked at this van and walked away with it
I had no idea how interested [Noah] was in doing this until I didn’t get the grant. I mean, when he was little, at bedtime after we would read and we’d just lie together in bed, he’d talk about, “Mama, when we travel the world when I grow up…” When I didn’t get the grant, he was so incredibly disappointed. That was a motivating force for me. I need to take advantage of the fact that this is what he really wants to do, because this is what my heart is called to do. I mean, when he was a baby, I’d sit and nurse him to sleep while Googling converted school buses.
How did you modify it?
I took both of the seats and the rear heater out because it didn’t work and I didn’t need it. The whole interior was already finished out, so I just built out around that. I wanted to keep it simple because there are two people and a dog living in there. At first I got all complicated like, Oh, I’m going to make a pop-up table so that we can turn our bed into a table and chairs that we can work and eat at! And then I’m like, What’s the reality of us actually doing that every day?
The back of the van is a queen-size bed with storage underneath. Next to the bed is a bookshelf that holds our books and we have a Goal Zero Yeti 400 power source in there. I tried to preserve all of the windows, but I realized that I don’t really use the long back windows that don’t open, so I think what I’m going to be doing is building that shelf up to the ceiling for more storage because I find that we need it.
There’s a bench that I built right behind the driver’s seat that is basically our pantry, our kitchen, and our cooking space. That’s where I’ve got a Camp Chef two-burner propane stove and I have a backpacking stove, too. We have a Yeti cooler between the front seats and the cooler also serves as our dog’s seat when we’re driving because he likes to be up front.
I took up the carpet, insulated, and then laid three-quarter-inch plywood as flooring and painted that in a geometric mountain shape. It’s this labor of love in every direction. One of my best friends helped me get the van. Another one of my friends gave me all of the wood to build it out and helped me build a little bit of it. Another friend gave me the wood for the flooring. Other friends made the curtains and another upholstered our mattress for us. I mean, it was literally my community saying, This is what you need to be doing. This is how we’re going to help.
What do you get up to out there?
Mountain biking is one of the things we love doing together. Hiking is just amazing. Exploring areas that [Noah] really wants to explore, finding places that are exciting for him.
He’s such an introvert. I’m an extrovert and I have to find and build community—that’s important to me, so I do that. For him, it’s like, okay, I’ve tapped him out of socializing, so now it’s time to fill his cup. We’ll go explore BLM land somewhere; he likes to find places that are off the beaten path.
I feel like when he’s grown, he’s going to be like, Alright, “real life” is boring! I mean, he’s 13 and he’s already talking about how he wants a Ford Ranger with a camper shell.
How do you handle Noah’s schooling while on the road?
He turned 13 in December and we’ve homeschooled for all of that time except for five months in first grade.
This is such a simple life for us and homeschooling him while doing all this is so easy because he’s 13, he doesn’t need a ton of guidance, and a lot of what we do is based around experiential learning. I mean, I’ll have him sit down and do math, he has workbooks, he has math online, he has grammar books, he reads tons, we listen to podcasts and audio books and NPR, and all that stuff. It’s just a full experience instead of just sitting at a desk and in school. I see other people doing it differently, which is totally fine. It’s whatever works for your child and your family. But this is really what works best for him. It’s just experiential, child-led learning, and my job as his parent and his educator is just to facilitate that, to find ways to nurture and foster his love of learning.
The two things that I miss being in a van are my plants and my art, because I had tons of plants and I had tons of art from dear friends that are amazing artists. But, you know, plants are everywhere we go. And then I look at my van—I mean, it’s very simple. It’s not this fancy, super high-end designed rig like a lot of people have, but it is home and it’s beautiful to me. And it is, it represents the community that I have built up around myself over the years because every single person that matters to us has had a hand in this van.
I actually did some comparisons, looking at how much we spent on gas and what our mileage looked like when we lived in Indianapolis compared to now—it’s not more, it’s the same. Except now, I don’t have the overhead. Everything is with us at all times.
I think that living in Seattle, then living in Colorado and traveling around doing adventure sports photography, and photographing mountain bike events when Noah was younger—all of that kind of set us up for this lifestyle. I spent the past 20 years of my life making connections around the country without even realizing it, and without even thinking about how that was going to benefit us now. Between that and the work that I do, we’re just meant for this. I don’t know what other cons there could be for us, to be honest.
What advice would you give other families who are considering some form of nomadic living?
Don’t be afraid to do it how you need to do it. A lot of people are going to judge, a lot of people are going to question, a lot of people are going to try to tell you what they think you should be doing. When you’re starting out, it can be overwhelming. You can get sucked in really easily to researching the hell out of something to the point to where you don’t actually activate. It’s easy to overthink it all. Really, just do it.
All photographs: Michelle Craig