How can we step away from the established patterns of life and choose a path that makes us truly happy? How can we redefine travel to find it in our own country, and choose a home in a place that calls to our soul?
Brianna Madia talks about her unexpected road to an unconventional life in the desert of Moab with her four dogs.
Brianna Madia is the author of Nowhere For Very Long: The Unexpected Road to an Unconventional Life.
- Questioning the established patterns of life — even when that’s hard
- The freedom and challenges of #vanlife
- Travel as an attitude, even without your own country
- Highlights of the desert in Utah
- The power of feeling insignificant in the face of natural beauty and how it helps to find perspective
- Traveling with four dogs — and redefining happiness
- Recommended travel books
Transcript of the interview
Jo Frances Penn: Brianna Madia is the author of Nowhere for Very Long: The Unexpected Road to an Unconventional Life. Welcome, Brianna.
Brianna Madia: Hi, thank you for having me.
Jo Frances Penn: I’m excited to talk to you today. I wanted to start about how you talk in the book about how you feel you didn’t quite fit in the place where you grew up, and then later on you felt that unease again. I wonder because many of us feel unease in our life.
How do we identify that feeling of not belonging and know that we actually do have to leave, because it’s a big step.
Brianna Madia: It is. And this is one of the things that makes me so oddly grateful now for the place that I grew up. I grew up in a place where there was a lot of wealth. It was right outside New York City. It was very like a go-getter type of place.
I found myself from a very early age looking around and wondering why because I knew so many people and I would see so many people who were doing things in their lives, choosing the paths that they were choosing almost as like a performance for the people around them, as opposed to what really called to their spirit, if you will.
I started to just question, whose idea is this? Whose dreams do we end up dreaming? Because a lot of the times I think we grow up and it’s like as kids, we’re almost put on a conveyor belt.
We are told, these are the steps, you go to school, you go to college, you get a job, you get married, you buy a house, you have kids. I think it’s so interesting that we wonder why so many adults wake up one day looking around and wondering, when did I make these decisions? And so I think constantly asking why, and when I grew up, it was a lot easier.
When I was a teenager, it was a lot easier to be rebellious. It was a lot easier to say, ‘Screw this way of life I’ve seen.’ But then I found myself right kind of back into it when I had moved out to Utah and I was working at a software company, and it was a great little company, and there wasn’t anything wrong on the surface with that decision. It just never felt like mine.
I was taken aback. I was like, ‘Wow, I’m really going to have to consistently ask myself, check in with myself, is this what I want to be doing? Who am I doing this for?’
I think a lot of the times when people want to leave a situation, it’s terrifying.
But I like to try to remind people that mostly, it’s socially terrifying. When we say the safe choice, it’s a safe choice to stay in the town that we grew up in. It’s a safe choice to stay at the job that’s paying the bills but not necessarily lighting your heart on fire. I think the safety of that comes more from the social safety.
If I leave my job, what are my friends going to say? What are my parents going to say? I can from personal experience say that when you call to tell your mother that you’re going to leave your job with a 401(k) and a nice salary to go live in a van, it is not the most comfortable conversation.
Consistently questioning your motives and making sure that you’re doing things because you want to do them. Because at the end of the day, you go home from your nice job to your nice house. It might look all nice on the outside, but if that wasn’t your main goal, if that’s not the way you saw your life going, I think it’s okay to ask yourself, even if you have like this kind of traditional, if it looks like you’re very successful from the outside.
I think that’s the interesting thing is a lot of people that I talk to, myself included, I was making really good money. I was very, very comfortable and it’s hard to go from being comfortable to being knowingly uncomfortable.
Jo Frances Penn: So you talk there about being comfortable and I find this completely brilliant because, of course, in the book you talk about going back to the basics of living in your van, Bertha, which there are some brilliant pictures on Instagram.
It’s interesting because in these pandemic times, I think a lot of people have rediscovered a need or a quest for simplicity, but there’s a big difference between downsizing your bookshelf to living in a van.
What are the pros and cons of living in a van because the #vanlife feed on Instagram sometimes looks quite romantic, but your book makes it clear, it’s not always romantic, right?
Brianna Madia: Yes. First and foremost, the cons of living in a van is that you’re living in a van. The pros and the cons to me, they kind of overlap. I guess I should clarify that the thing that was unique about Bertha was that she was very bare-bones and still is. In fact, just at this very moment, I’m finally kind of giving her the internal makeover that you probably see on the #vanlife.
Bertha was never meant to be a rolling apartment. I think that that’s what can be very daunting about the #vanlife, and that’s why it can look so romantic is a lot of these vans, the buildouts, the costs, it’s like $50,000 to $150,000 if you want. I’ve seen vans with skylights in them and these off-road Sprinter vans and that conversion. It really gets very, very expensive.
I’ve never been here to judge and say that you’re not doing van life right, and I wrote about this in my book that I find the #vanlife so funny because it’s just a bunch of people arguing about who’s breaking the rules. We all kind of set out to find something different, and so that’s okay, but that’s not very feasible for a lot of people.
I treated Bertha and my time living in Bertha, she was a conduit of getting me to the desert because that’s where I really found that simplicity. Bertha was a bed and a couple of cabinets and a camp stove that I would pull out of the back. She was very, very simple.
I liked that because that to me felt like the point of van life was trying to figure it out. And I think that we are brilliant at obscuring the simple in favor of the complicated because that’s just the world that we live in now.
No one ever thinks, where do I get my water? The answer is probably pretty simple. If you look around, there’s a lot of places that have potable water; you go to the gas station and there’s like a sign right there, potable drinking water. It’s just little parts of the world that you never saw that were there because you didn’t need to.
It was just going back to the basics of having to keep yourself alive and not having these little creature comforts.
Trying to figure out a way to stay cool in the summer and stay warm in the winter without these really grandiose appliances and things like that. And it sounds silly. It sounds like, ‘Well, what is the point of that?’
Again, I think it goes back to where I grew up, where it was just such opulence everywhere. And it didn’t feel as human to me just because there were so many people. When I lived in a van, it was still absolute luxury compared to so many people around the world and how they live their lives on a day-to-day looking for drinking water and trying to keep themselves comfortable and cool.
To me, that was a much more human experience than pushing a button on a wall to change the temperature. If that’s what you’re looking for, that’s why I went into the whole van life thing. And I think that it can be accomplished without a van. I think a lot of us are leaning more towards minimalism, which is great, but the downside of social media in that regard is that we’ve kind of made minimalism the opposite of minimalism.
It’s become this like very big, almost unattainable feeling thing for regular people. How could I possibly become a minimalist? Because the tiny houses and everything costs, it’s trendy, it’s expensive now.
I’ve just tried really hard to remind myself constantly that Bertha was a means to an end. My goal was always to be out in the desert. Leaving my job, leaving the East Coast, it was all just a way to get me to, in my mind, the most simple place of all, which was the desert.
Jo Frances Penn: It’s interesting because I do a lot of long-distance walking and so I carry all my stuff, and in that sense, it’s very minimalist because it’s all on my back. If I carry too much, then it really, really hurts.
I feel like part of why I travel to places where I can’t read the language and necessarily, I don’t know where the toilet is or like you said about drinking water, I go to some countries, I can’t drink water from the tap, these are challenges that challenge our sense of what is comfortable and our comfort zone is kind of completely different.
I often feel on this show, particularly, we talk about travelers leaving the borders of our country and going somewhere foreign. But it feels like you’ve defined travel or you’ve experienced travel within the USA, your own country.
Is it because the USA is such a diverse place or have you actively made it somewhere different to where you grew up?
Brianna Madia: I definitely moved quite far from where I grew up, but as soon as I got out here… I mean, gosh, I’ve hung out in the same deserts for like 10 years now. Out here at where I live in Utah, I feel like there’s always something around every corner because I’ve found a place that really speaks to my soul.
However, I will say that I have such regrets because I grew up in New England on the East Coast for 21 years. Outside of going to college in Rhode Island and growing up in Connecticut, I didn’t go much of anywhere.
I think that we get comfortable, and especially now with social media, we look online and we think that travel has to be a week holiday in a tropical place, or you have to be taking a selfie on an airplane in order to be traveling. There were so many beautiful places that I could have easily gotten to over the weekend back in Connecticut.
I’m embarrassed at how little I explored where I actually grew up. I think a lot of people feel that way. You just tend to fall into this routine of like, ‘I’ve probably seen it all.’ I think that that’s another reason that I’ve fallen so in love with the desert is I just know it’s such a classic example of a landscape where it’s impossible to have seen it all.
You can always look and find something new, and I wish I had applied that thinking to the place that I grew up because I believe there are beautiful things everywhere.
I’ll never forget it, I took a trip to Idaho and a lot of people hear Idaho and we picture potato, cornfields, flat in every direction. I’m driving through this cornfield and there’s this little dirt…and I’m following a little GPS pin that someone had dropped for me. I get out and I’m walking down the road with my dogs, this dusty, old, closed-off road.
I get to the edge of this little cliff and down in the center of this cornfield about 100 feet down is a turquoise Caribbean blue spring that was like this unbelievable oasis. I just said out loud, I was like, ‘Okay, there’s something everywhere.’
Everywhere is something to someone.
I think that that’s the really cool thing about changing your mindset about what travel is, is you’re passing through other people’s worlds and other people’s lives. Even if it’s not a million miles away from your own, that’s still so formative and important to getting out of your own mind because yes, travel, it’s amazing and a lot of us think of it as we’re going to go have this great experience. We’re going to go get a good tan. We’re going to have some great photos to show our family when we get back.
But ultimately, travel changes your mind and changes the way that you see the world, the way you see other people, the way you relate to current events that are happening, the way you relate to other people. I don’t think you need to go to a different country to gain that type of experience and to get that type of benefit from travel.
I have a blast hanging out and going to new little towns in the same state that I’ve always hung out in for the last few years. I find it kind of comforting to know that there’s always something to be discovered not very far from where you are because I think that removes some of the limitations that people feel around the concept of travel.
Jo Frances Penn: I totally agree with you. And again, I think the pandemic helped us do that. I certainly spent a lot more time in my local area than I had done before.
Let’s come back to the desert. You said it’s a “place that speaks to my soul.” I’m an English city girl, but I also love the desert. I feel like I want to go to places like Namibia, which has this enormous desert. Now I’ve never been to Utah. So if I was coming to the deserts of Utah, what are some of your favorite places? And I realize a lot of it would be difficult to get to.
If I was coming to Utah as a tourist, what are your must-see places?
Brianna Madia: I just bought some land a bit way south of Moab. Moab is Southeast Utah and it’s just quintessential desert, it’s Arches National Park. It’s these mind-blowing sandstone formations and towers.
The amazing thing is that Utah has so much. We have mountains, we have plains, we have deserts, we have rivers. The Wasatch Mountains are amazing. There’s amazing skiing outside of Salt Lake City. And it’s right outside, framing the city.
I’ll never forget when I first moved there. If it finally stopped snowing, I’m at an intersection and there’s a McDonald’s arches. And right behind them is this unbelievable panoramic mountain that almost looked like a green screen. It just didn’t look real. The mountains in Utah are amazing, but the desert was really what spoke to me because I had never felt that alone.
I think you can relate, obviously being a city person, I grew up in very much a city environment and it just never felt like there was anything actually left to discover. In Utah, there are just so many dirt roads to turn down. There are so many off-the-beaten-path places to go, obviously outside of Zion.
We have five national parks and they’re all amazing, but the really incredible thing to me about Utah is how many places are not national parks and they’re just arguably just as amazing sometimes, but a lot more remote, a lot quieter, it definitely requires a bit more navigational skills.
There’s the canyoneering opportunities in Utah. If you come to Utah, you absolutely have to go canyoneering. On the Colorado Plateau, we have the highest concentration of slot canyons. So it’s just this really amazing, specific to this area type of activity.
There’s just so many things about it that were so foreign to me, it’s like being on a different planet. There’s a restaurant in Moab that has a list of all of the movies that were filmed in Utah. And obviously, it’s all like old westerns and movies about Mars. So it’s kind of like outer space cowboy-type desert.
Jo Frances Penn: It’s so interesting because you mentioned there about feeling alone, and I also love these massive landscapes where you feel insignificant.
Some people are scared of that insignificance, but I felt like I understood what you talked about.
I relish insignificance. It almost puts my life into perspective and helps with the big questions of life rather than making me depressed.
Is that how you feel when you’re alone out there?
Brianna Madia: Absolutely. It’s very counterintuitive to the rest of the society that we live in, which is like there’s this sense of self-importance and everything that I do wields this great power. In many ways it does, but in so many more ways, it doesn’t.
That to me sounds a little out there, but like that’s a core belief behind why I do most of the things that I do is because I have sat in these canyons that have been formed and shaped over millions of years. There are etchings from indigenous people from thousands and thousands of years ago on the wall to my right that I can very clearly still see. And it’s like, I am but a fleck of dust in the grand scheme of this planet that we’re all on.
What does my mistake mean? I embarrassed myself yesterday at the party. Okay. So? The world turns. The water still flows. The sun still rises. I just think that it has helped me to remove this sense of self-importance because that can be a burden and that can really prevent you from actually doing some of the things that really just speak to you.
Because if you’re so worried about everything else outside of you and the impact that I’m going to have, it’s like we are so, so, so, so small and that is just so comforting because it should take the weight off, it should take a bit of the burden off that it’s okay to mess up, it’s okay to make mistakes because it’s just it’s a great, big, wide world and you are just a very small part of it.
Jo Frances Penn: It definitely helps to get some perspective. I did want to ask you also about Instagram @briannamadia because I also use Instagram @jfpennauthor, but I feel like sometimes there are places and experiences I have where I feel it’s important to share because I know a lot of people can’t see what I can see or experience where I am, but equally, sometimes I feel like I don’t want to share this because this is for me.
How do you balance keeping an experience for yourself or sharing it publicly on social media?
Brianna Madia: I struggled with that a lot in the beginning because I was 26 when I started really posting regularly on Instagram and all these people are arriving on my page and wanting to know this story that I was still writing and it was very overwhelming. I felt like I shared constantly and it got to a point where I felt like I was no longer experiencing the places in the way that I used to prior to this concept of needing to share.
It’s hard. Because like you said, there’s people who don’t get to see these things. The pandemic, perfect example, I felt really guilty in the beginning because I live in a place that I was so fortunate, that I live in a place where I could still go and do all of the…I mean, my hobbies are wandering around in the middle of nowhere with my dogs, it’s a very pandemic-friendly activity. I was relatively unaffected in terms of like my ability to get outside to do the things that comforted me.
I felt bad about sharing that on Instagram. But I would get these messages from people who say, oh gosh, this is just such a nice little escape to watch your dogs running around the desert. I’m stuck here at this. I’m on and off shift. I’m a nurse at a hospital. I would get these messages all the time.
I do try to find the balance. It sounds strange to say, oh, my dog videos are helpful to people, but they are. There’s plenty of people that I follow on Instagram and the things that they show me via their feed do mean something to me and they are nice. They are calming, they’re relaxing, they’re inspiring.
Finding that balance of knowing why you want to share what you’re sharing and then also making sure that it doesn’t completely take away from the experience, and to post a story or two, that’s like 15, 30 seconds. I also try to keep that in mind that I’m out in these places for days on end and I may post a minute’s worth of the time out there.
It’s definitely a balance, but I do love that it means something to people. If I didn’t feel that it was really benefiting people in a way, then I don’t know…I may have just stopped sharing entirely, especially when my own life took a really dark turn and I was going through some really hard times and I was like, why am I still on here?
I do like feeling like people can relate. And that’s the beauty and the hard thing about social media is finding that boundary between what am I giving and what feels like it’s being taken, I guess.
Jo Frances Penn: I get it. I’ve been podcasting since 2009 and sometimes I felt like giving it up, and then you get the email or someone says something that helped them, and you want to carry on. So I completely get the difficulty of balancing it there. But let’s talk about your dogs because in the book, I think there’s three and now you’ve got four.
Brianna Madia: Four. Yeah. Just never enough.
Jo Frances Penn: That is just crazy. Obviously, people love their dogs. You’re a dog person. But they also sometimes feel like it’s harder to maybe go places with dogs.
How do you balance freedom with having dogs?
Brianna Madia: My life truly revolves entirely around them. Obviously, I’ve always loved my dogs, but when I moved into Bertha years ago and I only had Bucket and Dagwood, I had to figure out how to take them to work with me. I had to figure out how to get them the adequate exercise. It was really hard. It was very, very challenging.
And especially Utah is a great example, we have so many national parks and there are really strict dog rules. Canyonlands in Moab is so beautiful, but dogs are not even supposed to be in the car, let alone walking out anywhere in the park. So it was very limiting and yet through those limitations, I ended up finding the type of environment that I prefer, if that makes any sense.
There’s lots of beautiful places that don’t allow dogs. And so I had to get more creative and find further off places that maybe weren’t as breathtaking – it’s not Delicate Arch, it’s not Angels Landing and Zion. It’s not necessarily these places that you’re going to see on a billboard, but these places became more beautiful to me because I went out there to let my dogs be dogs. And I think that that is the ultimate freedom.
It changed my perspective on what is beautiful and we love that about dogs. That’s why they’re the best because they offer such a tremendous perspective on how the simplest things can be so joyful. My dogs could be running through Arches National Park, or they could be running through an open field out in the middle of nowhere with some butte off to the left and they don’t care.
It’s a beautiful place. They’re stretching their legs. Their noses are to the ground. They’re just happy as can be. That is so much more beautiful to me to witness that as a true die-hard dog person. That was the freedom I was looking for. That was the feeling that I was looking for in terms of this lifestyle.
It’s not easy at all to travel with 4 dogs, or to find an Airbnb that will let you stay with 4 dogs, or to live in a 22-foot trailer with 4 dogs. But ultimately, my day-to-day is creating space and freedom for them, which has in turn given me the life of my dreams.
All I’ve really tried to do is make them happy. In turn, I am so happy because I’ve learned so much about being able to see the beauty in places that a lot of other people might drive by because my dogs think everything is beautiful. They think every day is beautiful. It doesn’t take much to impress them. And I think that that’s such an enviable quality nowadays.
Jo Frances Penn: It really is. Do you feel that they helped you when you were traveling as a single woman because I know a lot of people feel scared about going out in the desert, for example, and yes, you were alone. I think you pretty much always had dogs with you, right?
Brianna Madia: Yes. And definitely that’s something that has always made me feel safe for certain, like I drove and I wasn’t always alone. I’m recently divorced. Got divorced in the midst of writing this book.
And so that was very startling to me because I say I used to think I knew what it was to be alone. I really didn’t.
And still I’ve never been as alone as I could have been because my dogs are my company, my family, you know, I have conversations at them. I won’t say with them because they certainly don’t say anything back. I don’t think I ever would’ve had the courage to spend a month in Mexico.
I drove to Mexico. And like you said earlier, I don’t speak Spanish. I can absolutely beg and borrow my way through one conversation, but I don’t think I would’ve felt as comfortable, not even just in terms of physical safety but emotional safety.
There’s something so lonely about not even being able to understand the conversations that are happening around you. Just the small talk at the coffee shop or overhearing what two people are talking about at dinner, these are little things that are comforting that you don’t realize until you are in a place where you don’t understand anything that’s going on.
That’s so humbling and important, but also, I think I would’ve been really intimidated if I didn’t then have my tent to crawl back into with my dogs. You’d have to be nuts to come up to a woman with four big dogs, but I’ve not ever deterred them from barking if someone comes up to the car quickly. So that was sort of helpful is just kind of feeling that sense of safety and comfort and companionship.
Obviously my wish for every human being on earth is that they could get a dog because I think it’s all kinds of benefits, but especially traveling and being a little nervous and just having that consistent source of comfort and familiarity and safety.
Jo Frances Penn: I love that. I did feel that your book was often a love letter to your dogs. It was lovely to read that. But talking of books, this is the Books and Travel show.
What are a few travel memoirs or travel books that you recommend?
Brianna Madia: To Shake the Sleeping Self by Jedidiah Jenkins, that’s one of my favorites. He is such a tremendous writer. He had never even ridden really a road bike before. And the first chapter in that book just punched me right in the gut.
He talks beautifully about what we talked about at the beginning of this podcast of how do we end up where we end up, how do we wake up one day and wonder where it all went and where the time went. And so that was a really motivational book for me that I really enjoyed.
My friend, Steph Jagger, her second book is coming out, Everything Left to Remember, and it is about a camping and a cross country trip that she took with her mother after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. I’ve had the privilege of reading an advanced copy, and it’s really just astounding. I think it’s going to be a really tremendous book and that comes out late April, just after mine.
Pam Houston is an author that I absolutely love. I don’t know that this falls squarely under travel, but her book is a collection of short stories called Cowboys Are My Weakness.
Jo Frances Penn: Good title.
Brianna Madia: Yeah. I love the title. She had a series of when she was younger, she would date cowboys or these really rugged outdoorsmen. And she would go on all these adventures with them. She’s a tough and an amazing woman and an amazing writer, but also, it plays on the things we do for love and the places we go literally, physically, and emotionally for love.
I loved that book just because much of the adventures and the types of adventures I started going on were because they were things that my ex-husband was interested in. I fell in love with them because he introduced me, and I think there’s this very cool power in, yes, I’ve been introduced to something, but then choosing to continue it on your own, even in the wake of the end of those relationships that might have formed that interest. She discusses that really beautifully and so that really speaks to me a lot.
Jo Frances Penn: Fantastic.
Where can people find you and your book and everything you do online?
Brianna Madia: My Instagram is Brianna Madia. Just look for the orange and the dogs. You can’t miss it. My website is briannamadia.com. You can purchase the book through there. You can also find it anywhere that books are sold, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million.
I’m offering signed copies. I think there’s a handful left from a little independent bookshop in Salt Lake City called The King’s English. And all of these things are linked on my website.
Jo Frances Penn: Fantastic. Thanks so much for your time, Brianna. That was great.
Brianna Madia: Thank you. So nice talking to you.