The Roaming '20s

Meet the Roamer Who Spent 2 Years Criss-Crossing America in an RV

And fell in love with America’s national parks along the way.

Photo courtesy of Matt Kirouac, Design by Grace Han for Thrillist

A recent transplant to Oklahoma City after two-plus years of RV living and 13 years in Chicago, Matt Kirouac is a travel writer with a particular passion for national parks. He’s the co-founder and co-host of Hello Ranger, a national parks community blog, podcast, and app. Together with his husband and travel partner, Brad, Matt has visited upwards of 30 national parks, and countless national monuments and preserves. He is the author of The Hunt Guides Chicago and Unique Eats & Eateries of Chicago, and his bylines can be found in Travel + Leisure, Eater, Culture Trip, and others. 

Kirouac sat down with Thrillist to talk national parks, LGBTQ+ travel, and the pros & cons of life on the road.

Thrillist: Matt, thank you so much for talking with us. It’s kind of mindblowing that, after more than a decade in Chicago, you left it all behind to live in an RV. Walk us through that decision… was RV life always a dream of yours?
Kirouac: I absolutely loved my time in Chicago—especially the years spent at our loft in the Ukrainian Village. The RV thing had long been a fantasy of mine, and for my husband, Brad, but I’d never actually considered buying one and doing it full-time.

Early 2018 was a super busy time for us. I was traveling solo for writing jobs, and Brad was often on the road for work. We missed each other and needed to come up with a solution. It all happened rather quickly—one day we’re floating the idea and fantasizing about buying an RV, and the next day we’re at a dealership, driving one off the lot! 

It was about really LIVING our lives together, more fully and regularly. And it was about immersing ourselves in as many experiences as possible. I didn’t want to sit stagnant in one place for too long, or only return to places I know and love. I wanted to explore and see parts of America that most people never do.

And it was all rainbows and sunshine for the next two years, right?
Kirouac: When we first moved in, I basically had an emotional meltdown. It was a drastic change going from a big city to a 26-foot RV with a tiny stove and shower the size of a dumbwaiter. I had to become comfortable with a lot less, going long stretches of time without seeing family and friends. 

The opportunity to uproot and travel full-time is a dream for so many, that not many people are able to do. So I spent two years pinching myself and reminding myself of that. And at the risk of tooting my own horn, I discovered I am capable of so much more than I ever thought possible. More than anything else, I loved being able to experience so much with my husband and our dog. We did more in two years than most couples do in a lifetime, experiencing the highest highs and lowest lows, coming out of every experience stronger and more loving; more appreciative of the little things, and more appreciative of each other.

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We let go of a lot of norms in 2020: like shaking hands, wearing pants, and (most importantly) working in an office. You’re no longer tied to a commute — so why should you be tied to one place? Enter: Landing, the startup that’s reinventing apartment living. Thanks to its network of fully furnished (and unfurnished) apartments across the country, you can have the freedom to live (and work) practically anywhere. With perks like a 24/7 online member support, fast and easy lease transfers, and waived security deposits, you’ll have more flexibility than ever before, too. 

Matt Kirouac
Photo courtesy of Matt Kirouac

Tiny houses and #vanlife seem well and good on HGTV and Instagram, but it sounds like you faced immense challenges. What should people know before they join the RV bandwagon?
Kirouac: There are just so many things out of your control. Like limited parking, extreme weather, and shoddy Wi-Fi. Gas is dizzyingly expensive. And things tend to go wrong at random, like when our front door suddenly wouldn’t close properly. Or when the propane runs out and you can’t cook. Having to find laundromats and get quarters was a never-ending headache. All that being said, it wound up feeling really good and cleansing to pare things down and get rid of items. Living has been so much simpler and fresher. 

RV sales and rentals went through the roof last summer. Still, there’s a lot of stereotypes about the RV community. Who’s actually out there driving these things?
Kirouac: There’s definitely a prevailing stereotype that it’s a lifestyle cornered by retirees and snowbirds in Florida. And that’s legit, but the RV community is FAR more widespread than I ever would’ve thought. There are families with kids of all ages, single travelers, young couples, folks with pets, LGBTQ+ travelers—all staying connected through online communities. We formed enduring bonds with so many wonderful people on social media. It’s the best part of Instagram! We’d post our itinerary—saying we’ll be in this particular city or national park—and our friends and followers would help us plan hikes or meals.

You mentioned crappy Wi-Fi. Working remotely from the road seems easier said than done. How tenable is a campsite Zoom call, really? 
Kirouac: Before we left, I had this naive assumption that I could just stretch out on the couch and work while Brad was driving. Nope. We purchased a MiFi device to boost our service, but even that was shoddy at best, especially around national parks. It takes a lot of advance planning to figure out how and where you’ll be able to work.

Same with Zoom. In Tucson, the intense Arizona heat made it difficult to do anything. When the temp exceeds 100 [degrees], the AC can’t really handle it, so [the RV] basically becomes a 26-foot oven and devices just stop working, or get SUPER slow. It got to the point where any time I needed to use the phone, it’d have to be early in the morning or after sunset. 

If you’re going to be constantly moving from one place to another and boondocking along the way (aka parking without plugging in someplace), it’s hard to maintain a steady work routine. But if you’re comfortable with longer stints in RV parks or campgrounds, Wi-Fi will be much easier to come by.

trail
Photo courtesy of Matt Kirouac

For people of color and the LGBTQ+ community, cross-country travel comes with a whole different set of fears and headaches. What was your experience traveling as a gay couple?
Kirouac: I will happily say that the vast majority of places we’ve been and people we’ve met have been absolutely lovely, gracious, and welcoming. I was able to make meaningful, sincere connections with so many towns—Albuquerque, Orlando, and Rapid City all come to mind. Unfortunately, all it takes is a few scarring experiences to taint a city or state.

A low moment for me was when a group of teenagers in Cheyenne, Wyoming, shouted some aggressive homophobic language as I walked by. It made me want to crawl back into our RV and never leave. But that same afternoon, at a coffee shop I’ve come to love, the barista gave me a free coffee for no discernible reason. It was pure kindness and warmth when I needed it most, and proved to me that one hateful comment does not speak for an entire community. 

My best advice is, try your hardest to see the good in people. Try your hardest not to stifle yourself or hide who you are. Be you, but be mindful at the same time, and don’t put yourself in situations that could cause fear… or worse.

Visiting national parks became the central focus of your travels. Tell us how the Hello Ranger community got started.
Kirouac: When we set out, it wasn’t our goal to visit as many national parks as possible, and we certainly had zero plans to start a podcast about it. But it became clear that these inspiring places needed to be a priority for us. They provided such enriching, soulful experiences as we criss-crossed the country. 

That said, we were both too distracted by the extreme beauty of these places to realize the jarring lack of diversity within them. National parks are primarily visited by white people. But the National Park Service slogan is “Find Your Park,” indicative of the fact that our national parks belong to all of us. No matter your age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, abilities, or level of experience, national parks should not feel intimidating or out-of-reach to anyone.

After doing two seasons of Parklandia—a more straightforward podcast with iHeartRadio that documented our own experiences in the parks—we wanted to create something that delved deeper and highlighted diverse communities. Hello Ranger put the spotlight on other folks experiencing the parks in their own ways… in their own words. Because our shared lands are for all of us, not just the physically fit thru-hiker or the straight white couple.

hammock
Photo courtesy of Matt Kirouac

What are your all-time favorite national parks?
Kirouac: It changes regularly, but a strong short list of parks that I love and recommend would be Badlands in South Dakota, Big Bend in West Texas, Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, Everglades in Florida, and Yellowstone in Wyoming. 

Among these, Badlands holds a spot near and dear to my heart. It’s mesmerizingly unique and beautiful with a Mars-like landscape. My favorite thing to do there is wake up super early and catch sunrise by the parking area for the Window Trail and Notch Trail. And then, when things are sufficiently sunny, hike the Notch Trail. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed… well, pretty much everything. How did it affect day-to-day life on the road? Where are you now?
Kirouac: We were in Houston, with plans to start this grand cross-country loop through California and the Pacific Northwest, when the pandemic hit. We decided to slow way down and spend longer stints in RV parks to minimize our travel footprint and remain as isolated as possible. We spent two months in Tucson, two months in Santa Fe, then moved to Oklahoma City, where we’ve been ever since. 

We never expected to settle as soon as we did, but it felt like the right thing to do—for safety reasons, and for a sense of comfort and stability after two years on the road. We talked about Asheville, Albuquerque, Richmond. But we’d spent considerable time in Oklahoma City—it’s geographic location makes it a convenient stopover for road trips—and had come to love it for its restaurants, neighborhoods, and affordability. People here are kind and supportive, and deeply proud of their city. There’s a palpable sense of ingenuity and creative energy here. Also, great chicken-fried steak and onion burgers. 

All the stars aligned. The time felt right. You know it when you feel it.

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