While doing a Bright Side Bookshop book signing as part of the annual Arizona Trail Day Flagstaff, I had the great joy of meeting Snuggles and her husband, Darwin. The lively duo (plus dog!) are traveling around the country in their 5×8 camper, adventuring and backpacking. They are chronicling their nomadic life through blog entries and short films.
Ever interested in alternative lifestyles or “experiments in living,” I took an immediate liking to Snuggles and Darwin, who are authoring a very unconventional life. While I personally prefer a feeling of routine and rootedness, I have come to love camping. Nothing beats good conversation around a campfire! 🙂 We can all do (on a small scale) what Snuggles and Darwin are endeavoring on a large scale.
Tell us a little about yourself!
I go by the name “Snuggles” for anything I do online, but as you may guess this is not my real name. “Snuggles” is my trail name, given to me within the first week of my thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail in 2015. I was given the name because I was snuggling up with anyone for warmth.
I am originally from Southern Indiana (Evansville, Indiana to be specific). I went to college thinking I wanted to be a Special Education Teacher but left with a BS in Psychology and a Minor in General Art. (This was actually unplanned; I just ended up taking a lot of art electives. Haha!)
I love to read just about anything and consider myself a total bookworm. My favorite author is Helen Hoover. She wrote only a few books, but I feel very connected to her. She and her husband lived a somewhat similar life of adventure, as my husband and I do. She found a home in nature in the early 1960’s when everyone else thought she was crazy. One of my favorite books besides any of Helen’s would probably be Sisters of the Earth: Women’s Prose and Poetry about Nature. I also really like Bill Bryson’s stuff, along with a little Stephen King and Jon Krakauer. I always enjoy a good Jane Austen book, too. Recent books I’ve read: IT by Stephen King; Painted Blazes by Jeffery “Loner” Gray; Outlander by Diana Gabaldon; Stranger In the Woods by Michael Finkel; and (of course) Pedaling Home by Sarah Jansen! Currently, I’m reading The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore and A Walk For Sunshine by Jeff Alt. I am a total bookworm!
As far as backpacking goes, my husband “Darwin” and I hiked the entire Appalachian Trail (AT) in 2016. We did over 1,500 miles in 2015 but had to leave the trail due to Darwin contracting a tick-borne illness and the death of my grandmother at the same time. Before that I had only been out for maybe three or four days.
I feel like it took me doing a thru-hike to find out I am more of a section hiker. I like to take my time and stop and enjoy the scenery, even stopping early in the day if I like a spot. Thru-hiking doesn’t really allow you to do this. I have backpacked a lot in the Smoky Mountains (my favorite place) and Red River Gorge in Kentucky (my second favorite place). I have done some hiking on all three major long distance trails: the Appalachian Trail (AT), the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and the Continental Divide Trail (CDT). I have also been out on the Arizona Trail (AZT) and Long Trail. I love to hike around and explore national parks. Darwin and I are super nerds and love to complete Junior Ranger Workbooks together!
Snuggles hiking on the AT
Why were you so drawn to the Arizona Trail, a trail not on everyone’s radar?
I think Darwin is to blame for the draw to the AZT! He was already talking about bikepacking it before we hit our final summit on the AT in 2016. At first I was kind of just like “whatever.” I couldn’t even think about life without the AT hanging over my head. Then when we got back to Albuquerque, he started actually planning a thru-ride, and I of course did my own research on it, too. I had no intention of bikepacking it, but I wanted to know more about this trail that Darwin was so interested in. Then when I dropped Darwin off to start the trail at the northern terminus, we drove through some amazing terrain, which really piqued my interest. When we most recently stayed in Flagstaff, we had no idea how close our camper was parked to it!
I like the fact that there is not a lot of people out on the AZT, so you’re able to really enjoy it by yourself. It seems like everyone is hitting the big three in the last few years: AT, PCT and CDT. Books and movies have made these three trails popular. This is both good and bad for these trails. The AZT is a beautiful trail and is challenging but is also way less intimidating to attempt than a thru-hike of the AT. I’m not sure I would attempt a thru-hike again, but if I did it would totally be on a smaller trail the like AZT. I like that it has a small hiking community around it and goes through some really cool little towns.
How can you not argue for the awesomeness of the AZT without mentioning the fact that it goes thru the Grand Canyon? Hella Cool!
What is it like to live semi-nomadically? How does your life now compare to your life before?
It’s pretty cool to live nomadically. It is awesome to experience different places or to revisit others. It can be a little complicated, as we do not have a shower in our camper. We feel comfortable not showering every day, thanks to our time backpacking. But eventually a shower is needed! We also have to plan to make sure we are somewhat close to services such as a grocery store, gas, Internet, etc. We have found tons of cool places that are awesome to visit but not really great to utilize for longer stays. We utilize solar power, which allows us more freedom with where we park the camper. We don’t have to depend on plugging in as much, which I have found pretty neat-o. It’s always fun waking up in new places!
We traveled a short time in 2015 before and after our AT hike and lived out of a van. Since then we have learned a lot about how to be more self-sufficient. The 5×8 converted camper we have now is pretty spacious compared to the van!
Before our hiking and travel life really started Darwin and I both had really great jobs with great bosses, all of whom really supported us and encouraged us when we told them we were leaving to travel and hike. I still remain really close friends with my old bosses! We also had a house and two cars but found that although we had everything we needed and more, we were never at the house, and we were using the cars to take us other places. Our hometown didn’t offer a lot of things we enjoyed, so we were constantly traveling hours away to backpack and explore. While our friends seemed to take the next step in life (i.e., having children), we felt more and more like we wanted to do the opposite. We were on-again-off-again about moving until the year both Darwin and I lost two very special people in our lives: Darwin’s grandmother and my grandfather. It made us think about our own mortality and what we wanted to do with our lives. Once we made the decision that we wanted something different, the Universe started putting things in motion in order for us to take on the Appalachian Trail.
Darwin and I are accused a lot of being trust fund kids or spoiled millennials, but this is totally not the case. (We just barely hit the generation of the millennial, and neither of us like being considered in this way!) Before we hit the road the first time we saved for two years to make sure we could sustain a thru-hike, travel a small amount, and have a nest egg to come back to. After trail hiking we both worked full-time jobs for almost another two years before hitting the road. We actually seem to work more now than before, just in a different way. We now work remotely doing the things that we could only do on the weekends before. We have turned our passions into a full-time lifestyle.
With all that being said, we also have given up a lot in order to afford our current lifestyle. We don’t have a big screen TV or cable. We don’t have a new car. We don’t shower every day. We don’t have a gym membership or a Netflix account. We don’t have a couch (or really any furniture). We live mostly outside, even in the snow, rain, hail or extreme heat. We don’t have a flushing toilet or a shower. We constantly deal with bugs. We don’t have a washer or dryer, so we re-wear our clothes several times before washing them. (We only have maybe four different outfits each!) We have no electric lighting. We eat a lot of the same things, due to having only a Coleman stove to cook with. We only buy what we can afford to pay for at that time. (No making payments!) We ride our bikes as much as possible to get us places, etc. Not everyone is willing to give up all of these things to travel full-time. I totally have those days where I question my sanity for living the way we do, and I often have fantasies about air conditioning or a couch!
What does an “average” day look like for you?
It changes depending on where we are parked and camping. Right now I get up around 7 am and start the process of making coffee. I am totally one of those people who finds life easier when starting the day with caffeine. I then start looking over emails and check in on a few blogs and YouTubers I follow. Once fully caffeinated, I start looking over our Etsy Account and Website along with a few other ventures we have going. I continue to check in on these periodically during the rest of the day. Once breakfast is done I usually hit the trail for a run, then I go back to work on whatever needs to be done that day – e.g., uploading new merchandise to Etsy, shipping sold items, blogging, brainstorming video ideas with Darwin, planning our next destination, journaling, reading for a current book review/discussion, helping Darwin film, etc. Later in the afternoon we usually go on a hike (usual filming along the way or taking pictures for media purposes) or hit town for any groceries or other services we may need. After dinner we tie up a few loose ends. We then try to chillax before bed, maybe watching a movie or watching a few of our favorite YouTubers. I sometimes listen to a podcast or read before bed, or I journal if I haven’t already. Playing with Bowie (our black lab) is always a constant in my day as well!
Is it hard to travel with a dog? How do you make that work?
I love her (Bowie) to death, but she can be a pain to travel with. Lots of national parks only allow dogs to be on certain paved paths and usually no backcountry trails. This means we can’t backpack in a park with Bowie. On cooler trips when we were living out of our van, we did leave her there (with plenty of air and water of course!). However, she still limited how long we were away. Bowie personally can be a little naughty if left unattended too long. We also have to make arrangements for her, if we want to hike in the back county or go anywhere without her. Sometimes we use boarding facilities. And if she is hiking with us, this limits the length of our hike. She is not as young as she used to be (8-and-a-half!), so we find ourselves accommodating her needs all the time in our choice of everything (e.g., hikes, campsites, travel in general, etc.) When we hiked the AT she stayed with my mom. Now she is a bit traumatized, thinking we are going to leave her and not come back! She is SUPER attached to both Darwin and me. She is also getting grouchy in her old age. Sometimes she could care less about what we want her to do. If she wants to sleep, she is staying put. If she wants to bark, she is barking. She has also started to become aggressive with other dogs, which creates problems with camping, boarding, hiking, etc. She is a great companion, and we love her dearly. But sometimes it would be easier to travel without her!
What do you do when you or Darwin need some space away from each other?
So, we basically have to deal with each other! We had “those moments” several times on the AT, so we just hiked without each other, but we had to resolve the issue at least by the time we got in our tent together… . Long distance hiking is a great way to really find out who a person is, because you get them at their most raw state of being, and it forces a couple to communicate. We had a really strong relationship before the AT, but afterwards we really knew we can rely on each other for anything and what we are both capable of together and apart.
While living in the trailer, we can take a break from each other by going into a town or on a hike around the area we are parked. Sometimes my working outside and Darwin working inside the trailer is enough distance for us, if we are having a disagreement. Regardless, usually by the end of the day we have resolved the issue just because the small space that we live in forces us to communicate.
Darwin and Snuggles backpacking the AT together
Do long stays in national forests enable you to disconnect from mainstream media and social media, or do you remain pretty connected?
I feel a lot a lot more connected to nature and the natural cycle of things when out in the forest. The time we spent out in Coconino National Forest specifically was amazing. I think I personally could be a lot more disconnected, if I chose to be. Unfortunately, since we work remotely now (Darwin more than I!), we have to be connected to mainstream media in some way at least once a day.
Darwin (primarily) makes money off of YouTube by the monetization of his videos using ads. Very, very little money comes in from this specifically, so we also use affiliate links in both videos, websites and my blog. This means that when I give a website link for a product and you buy the product (from the link I presented to you), I make a small commission from your purchase at no extra fee to you. We have a few other small income sources, like Etsy, and we sometimes do consulting for companies.
I am actually totally against social media, but I must admit I find myself sucked into it and living off of it. I hate Facebook and refuse to have a page of my own. I do utilize Darwin’s page to post the Snuggles Diary or some of Darwin’s videos, but he usually has to show me how to do this. I do have my own YouTube account in order to learn from others who inspire me. I do occasionally leave comments on videos (but not very often). Our current lifestyle centers greatly around social media, as much as I hate that. I think it’s great to connect with family and to share media with others, but I prefer a phone call and in-person interaction more. I think social media has allowed us all to be lazy with personal communication, which causes problems. I may read even a text message one way (because I can’t hear the tone of your voice or see your facial expressions), when you actually mean something totally different by the message. I also think social media gives people the feeling they can say and post whatever they want with no appreciation of the consequences. We don’t allow ourselves time to think about something anymore. We simply get pissed and tell the world we are pissed off and how much we hate so-and-so, along with their address and phone number! The emails and comments Darwin gets are insane. We understand that not everyone is going to like our media, and we are fine with that. But some comments are just hateful and insulting. Things you would never say to a person’s face somehow seem okay via social media. There are simply no boundaries when it comes to social media.
Darwin is in front of the camera for a reason. He gets recognized a lot. I prefer to be a little more undercover.
Do you have plans for the future, or do you live day by day? Or a combination of both?
Maybe a combination of both? We do live day by day, but we make plans for things like how long we can travel for, stops we want to make, our next destination (if not already planned), etc. As far as the long-term goes, we have discussed buying some land at some point and putting a small structure on it. We had talked about putting some roots down close to a long-distance trail even before we left our hometown. Other than that we have no other plans for the future. Usually when we do make plans we only change them later. Our current lifestyle may change depending on the current trends of the time. If you would have asked us a few years ago if we thought we could go full-time as YouTubers/Bloggers, we would have laughed and asked whether people really do that.
When you choose to stay in a community what features do you look for? What features do you avoid?
Typically we first look for a BLM area or campground where we can park the camper. We then look at how far away amenities/services are in the area (in particular, showers and Internet). We try to avoid bigger cities and camping in popular areas.
Do you have a good network of friends across the country? How do you stay in touch with them?
Yes! We have friends and family spread across the US and even a few outside the US. A lot of this is due to the trail community, which is big, loving and supportive. I love sending postcards to friends and family when we hit neat-o places and (of course!) shooting out an email and a phone call to stay in touch.
Ending on a big note — What do you want to make and do in this world, and how do you see your lifestyle enhancing that?
I think what Darwin and I show with the media we produce is that you don’t have stay in one place and work a 9 to 5 job to be successful or happy. There are lots of ways you can do this! Darwin gets emails all the time from people saying that they feel he has helped them to rediscover old passions of hiking or find new passions for the wilderness in other ways. He has even had someone tell him his videos saved their marriage! No Joke! As for me, I play secretary a lot to Darwin, helping with forming emails, letters, mail, etc. In my blog I think I provide a little humor to the small group of people who follow me. We both have been told we inspire people by sharing what we are doing. When we are in town we try our best to support the local business and donate to local charities when we can. All this is a very small contribution to the world and totally not as meaningful or impactful as what others are doing, but it works for us, and again we try to do more when we can.
I want to experience what the world has to offer. By living a little more on the nomadic side, I do this. Because of the media Darwin and I produce, we allow others to share in the adventure and encourage them to experience the world for themselves, too. Social media can be evil but it can really be a beautiful thing, too. Thanks to the Internet and social media I think the younger generations now not only know what else is out there but can see it, which makes them want to experience it for themselves.