I wake up every morning with a weird sensation and a brief nightmare. In my half awake haze I see Matt Foley from Saturday Night Live standing above me saying “Now, as your father probably told you, my name is Matt Foley, and I am a Motivational Speaker! Now, let’s get started by me giving you a little bit of a scenario of what my life is all about! First off, I am 35 years old…I am divorced…and I live in a van down by the river!”

Matt Foley

I live in a van down by the river! – Matt Foley

I sit straight up. no…no..No…NO….NOOOOOO! It can’t be…that Chris Farley skit…it’s me! As I shake myself awake I take solace in the fact that at least I’m not living in a van down by the river, I’m living in a van down by the Pacific Ocean…that’s gotta be better, right?

So…ummm…I live in my car. Some people call me homeless, but I don’t see it that way at all. I have a home, it just happens to be a 35 square foot 2006 Honda Element. Yes, I am “houseless”, but I’m not homeless. (I’m also rentless, which is pretty awesome.)

Of course, the next question is “Why?”
(This seems to be a common theme in my life. I’m going to hike the Appalachian Trail. “Why?” I’m going to run a 100 mile race. “Why?” I’m going to live in my car. “Why?”)

Well, why not?

I’m reminded of the movie Richie Rich, when the bad guys kidnap the family and get the code to their secret vault at Mount Richmore, only to find that the treasure is merely the family’s precious memories and keepsake items, worthless to the crooks. No gold, no money, no “treasures” as the world would like us to think, just the “stuff” that really matters.

I feel like I’ve taken it one step further. The real treasure is the memories…not the “stuff” that triggers the memories. The real treasures are the stories I have, not the trinkets I bought in China, the race medals I’ve won, or that First Methodist Church sign I stole in college (did I ever mention that I’m sorry about that?). When I take my final breath in life, I won’t care about those items, all I’ll have will be the stories in my head.

I moved to California in 2006 with a 24 foot U-Haul completely loaded with junk. I moved a few times, eventually living in a palatial 5 bedroom house, filling it with more stuff. In 2011 we downsized and moved to a 2 bedroom condo and started giving things away. Then, we downsized again, moving into a 372 square foot apartment, and gave more junk away.

Next, I spent 136 days hiking the Appalachian Trail and living out of my backpack. With renewed commitment I wanted to take it to a new level and live a very simple life. The decision wasn’t all mine though, I was married at the time.  Ultimately, our life paths were too different and I ended up on my own again, ready to make changes to simplify my life.

As I transitioned into the next stage of my life I considered my options. I couch surfed for 6 months. I thought about buying an RV and living in a trailer park in Santa Barbara, but the space was still $850 a month. I test drove a VW Rialta campervan, but it was $20,000. I started shopping for pickup trucks, but instead I bought back my Honda Element from my ex-wife and drove it 2,300 miles to Indiana to build a custom campervan.

I read blog after blog about car camping, urban camping, truck camping, and campervan living. I had a design in my head but no idea how to build it. My step dad Tom had the skills, the shop, and the materials ready to go. Tom and I worked on the car for a few weeks, making changes, measuring once, fixing later, and completing the final product the morning that I left to drive back to the west coast.

I’ve been living in my car now for several weeks, parking it around town, sleeping incognito on the streets, and holding down a respectable professional life at the same time. When I tell people this they tend to fall into one of two camps…the “You’re crazy” camp, or the “You’re freaking awesome” camp. There have been more crazy votes than awesome votes, but I’m okay with that, I take that as an indication that I’m living right.

Living in my Honda Element Camper

So, do you want a tour? Step into (or look into) my humble abode!
(Cue the MTV Cribs Intro…)

Friends, introducing my 35 square foot (75 cubic foot) Home Sweet Honda, aka, The Silver Bullet, my Honda Element Camper.  (I wasn’t going to name my car…most van dwellers name their vehicle, I thought it was silly…but one day I was drinking a cold Coors Light, looked at the can, and thought it looked kinda like my car…The Silver Bullet…)

The Silver Bullet - Honda Element Camper

The Silver Bullet

Here is the exterior of my house…Its pretty standard. The car has 160,000 miles on it and I bought it brand new in 2006. I added the roof racks several years ago for surfing, and more recently I added the window vent shades so I can get ventilation inside my home, rain or shine.

The Silver Bullet - Inside

The Silver Bullet – Inside

When the doors are open the Element looks somewhat normal. Tom and I built the house to be mostly contained in the rear of the vehicle. There is a fold down bed extender, but during the day it can be put away so I have more access to storage and more space in the front of the car.

The Silver Bullet - Passenger Side Door Bookshelf

The Silver Bullet – Passenger Side Door Bookshelf

Part of living simply is to live deliberately and do what I love to do. Right now I want to read. I have a huge list of books I’d like to enjoy, and several of them are in my car now. I used the side pocket of the passenger door as my bookshelf, containing all of the books I own, books that I intend to read and then give away so I can get new ones.

Rear seats removed and camping setup installed. Honda Element Camper

Rear seats removed and living setup installed.

The first thing I did was remove the two back seats. We built a flat platform across the entire back area of the car, stretching from the rear door frame to the back hatch. There are three sets of support legs (2×4’s across the width of the vehicle) that the platform rests on. The middle support is secured to the frame of the vehicle where the rear seats used to lock into place, ensuring that everything else we built would be solidly tied to the frame itself.

My closet and wardrobe - I'm a dirtbag, but I still have a real job. Honda Element Camper

My closet and wardrobe – I’m a dirtbag, but I still have a real job.

Above the platform we divided the space in half. The passenger side of the platform is where I sleep. The driver side of the platform has been built to include a closet and 3 shelves for my every day needs, i.e. clothes. The closet is a simple all-thread bar that attaches both pieces to make a solid structure. My suites and shirts hang from custom hangers, we cut off the tops and I attach them to the bar via Velcro or custom bent hooks.

The three shelves were built specifically to hold the three cloth boxes in them. The boxes are ridged and slide in and out easily. They contain my jeans, shorts, t-shirts, socks and underwear, running gear, and hats. During the day my pillow slides between the top bin and the roof, saving more space on the platform.

This piece folds out to complete the full length sleeping platform.

This piece folds out to complete the full length sleeping platform.

The sleeping side is simple, a flat board with a folding extender on a hinge. At night I pull the passenger seat all the way forward and fold out the footer and support piece. They slide into place and are cut to sit in the bottom of the floorboard so it won’t slide out on accident. Fully extended I have 6 feet of space from head to toe.

The bed made and ready for urban camping. Honda Element Camper.

The bed made and ready for urban camping.

A fancy bed? Naw, my mom was throwing out some old glider pads and I grabbed them for myself. Sure, they smell like the outdoors, but that is my plan! I lay them out on the particle board and pull an old twin bed sheet around the corners. It may not look like luxury, but remember, I slept on the dirt for 4 and a half months, this is like heaven!

Rear Hatch Open

The rear hatch open and access to the storage under the platform.

Under the platform I have 5 storage zones. On the drivers side I use 3 plastic bins. One has my kitchen stuff and food storage. The middle bin has my tools and other items that I don’t need very often. In the back I have my running gear, items I need weekly, and my dirty laundry bag. The passenger side has a carry on suitcase with my shoes stuffed in it, and my backpack with all of my outdoor gear, tents, and toys stored inside. My backpack lays on top of a two burner propane stove that I use for cooking, and I have my kid sized foldout chair and a 2.5 gallon jug of water stored next to it.

And that’s about it folks…it’s not much, but it’s my home.

Here are a few logistical questions I’ve received more than once:

Shower:  Gym membership, or the ocean
Bathroom:  Public
Laundry: Laundromat
Charging my phone:  Work, and extra phone battery
Food:  Work, restaurant, friend’s house, or camp stove
Sleep:  On the street, preferably on a city street with a mix of homes, apartments, and commercial buildings…quiet, but not too quite

So again, why would I want to do this? I’ve been thinking about other mobile people, living a different lifestyle away from a house and a foundation. Think about retired Americans who have worked 30-40 years to purchase a million dollar RV to live on the road. I’m essentially doing the same thing, but without the million dollar RV, and more importantly, without the 30-40 years of work it took to get there. I’m saving myself the trouble and living simply now, getting out of the rat race, enjoying the freedom of mobility, while saving money for the future (or for future adventures).

For now I’m enjoying Santa Barbara, working in a dynamic tech startup, hanging out with friends, spending more time in the mountains and at the beach, and trying to get out of town 2 to 3 weekends each month and live on the road. While in town I have the freedom and flexibility to do pretty much whatever I want after work, and since I don’t have a house or a kitchen, a lot of what I do is outside at the beach or spending time at a friend’s house to help cook dinner and enjoy time hanging out. Of course, that is only friends who are happy to hang out with Matt Foley, Motivational Speaker and the guy living in a van, down by the ocean. Be careful if you invite me over…I might just decide to stay!

Now, you kids are probably asking yourself, “Hey, Matt, how can we get back on the right track?!” Well, as I see it, there is only one solution! And that is for me to get my gear, move it on into here, ’cause I’m gonna bunk with you, buddy! We’re gonna be buddies! We’re gonna be pals! We’re gonna wrassle around! Ol’ Matt’s gonna be your shadow! Here’s Matt, here’s you! There’s Matt, there’s you! Me and my buddies! My pals! My amigos! I’m gonna go get my gear!


Matt Foley by James Milliken

Matt Foley by James Milliken

More Homes On Wheels posts here.