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Meet Greg Balkin

The Seattle-Based Photographer Tells Us the Tales of His Life on the Road

Posted by Gestalten—07/2016

For photographer Greg Balkin, 2015 was a life-changing year during which he packed up his life in Los Angeles and hit the road. Living out of his car, which he affectionately named Walter, Balkin took full advantage of his newfound freedom and traversed the West Coast for around 10 months. We spoke with Balkin to learn more about what he learned living as a contemporary vagabond. Read the interview below and find out more about the generation of travelers who are giving up a life in four walls to live on the go in our books Off the Road and The New Nomads

What was the breaking point? What was the final push to get you out of an apartment and into a van?

Not much of a fairytale story to this one: my girlfriend of a few years and I decided to split ways, so it seemed like a logical thing at the time. I was living just outside of Los Angeles and didn’t feel like moving back into the city, and my friends up in Seattle weren’t available to renew the lease until later in the year. So, as all good adventures start, I made a blind decision to leave my apartment the next day and not return until it was time to move my belongings into storage. For the first two months, I loaded a bunch of stuff into the back of my car and mostly camped and slept on friends’ couches. Eventually I put the plans together and built a small platform in the back of my 2011 Honda CR-V and my new home got way comfier. I still can’t sit up in there and I don't have back seats, but I wouldn't change it for a thing. That’s #compactSUVlife.

How long have you and Walter known each other? And how long were you two on the road together?

I got my car back in January 2014, which was conveniently the day before I broke my wrist skateboarding—my first broken bone in over 10 years of skating. It wasn’t until around February 2015 that I pulled the back seats out and started the transformation. I started paying rent again in September, but we were on the road together from February until the beginning of 2016. 

What did you learn while living on the road? Where there any unexpected challenges?

Living out of your car has its ups and downs, but it’s certainly not a glamorous life, though my thoughts might be different if I could stand up inside my car... The hardest challenge for me was overcoming how lonely it can get. You’re by yourself with neither the space to stand up nor decompress. It feels like you’re constantly on the go or have to hop from place to place. You have no shower and no dependable bathroom; your friends have their own lives and you don’t want to inconvenience them. It’s an odd feeling, but it hit me hard when I was back in LA earlier last year. I was also shooting weddings full time last year, so managing my camera, work, and security while trying to look like I didn’t live out of my car on a wedding day was always a fun challenge. Most of the time, though, it was great. I learned how to get rid of the clutter in my life (but I was sort of forced into that one). Mainly, I learned to be okay with unexpected problems and how to avoid getting overwhelmed. I learned how to stop planning so much and just wing it—and how to be okay with not showering all the time. 

 While you traveling with Walter, there must have been some moments that took your breath away. Can you tell us about a few?

One night I was driving down towards Lake Tahoe from Oregon. It was getting late and I found some public land on my map, but it was out in a field. I spotted some car tracks through the grass and pulled a U-turn so I could head back down. As the sun set, I sat in the back of my car and watched the sky change from blues to reds and oranges, and all the while the grass was lit up by the setting sun. It felt like this moment was made just for me.

Later that night, I got back out of my car to pee and the entire Milky Way was high up in the sky, clear as I've ever seen it. It was hard to fall back asleep that night knowing how beautiful the sky was outside my windows. There were plenty of moments that made me stop and smile while out on the road: driving along the beaches under the sunset in central California; seeing elk for the first time as I drove through Southern Oregon; camping out in the middle of a field with friends near Mammoth, California; early morning hot-spring dips before the crowds showed up; dancing and singing to the same song on repeat for hours. There are so many little things that happen and it's easy to forget them, but it makes me so happy to spend time thinking back to my favorite moments.

Do you have a favorite place in the world?

I’d have to say my favorite place in the world is New Zealand. I spent a semester of school there in 2010 and it was my first real experience of backpacking and what it felt like to live outside. I’ve been back twice since then—most recently two months ago for a 30-day-long road trip with a few friends. We spent a few nights camped along the shores of Lake Pukaki and watched Mount Cook light up during sunset from the far end of the lake. We danced along the beach, cooked out of the back of cars, roasted marshmallows under the stars, and ran up the hill to take it all in. There isn’t a day where I wouldn’t transport myself back to those moments if I could. 

What are you currently up to? What’s next for you? 

I'm currently back home in Seattle, gearing up for my next series of trips and planning future ones. I’ve transitioned out of photographing weddings and instead focus on commercial work within the outdoor industry. My goal is to take the more narrative approach to photography that I've developed and put it to use in the outdoors by sharing stories of people who make a difference in the outdoor industry, creating imagery that’s compelling and relatable, and continuing to share my own story. I want people to see my work and feel inspired to chase the things that they dream of and help people realize that it's not difficult to make them happen. 

Images © Greg Balkin