In this interview series we talk with people who spend their time traveling and climbing, while still holding down a steady income. From nurses to coders, writers to outdoor guides, we want to show that you don’t have to go full dirtbag to live the itinerant life. Because contributing to your 401k while seeing the world doesn’t sound so bad.
Name: Gili Keselman
1) What do you do?
I’m an architect who designs buildings and spaces in Tel Aviv and its surroundings while living in a van named “Air Force Bum” deep in the beautiful Canadian Rockies.
I specialize in 3D modeling and visualization. My work requires powerful hardware that I [carry with me] and move around inside robust pelican cases. When I go to work it looks like I’m carrying a sniper rifle. You’ll find me sitting in random cafes and bars at all hours of the day, which may or may not lead to some weird Halloween experiences.
“Architecture doesn’t necessarily mean a life of adventure. I had to work hard and make scary choices to build the situation I’m in today.”
2) How did you first learn about a career in architecture?
As a teenager I was curious by every topic possible. From economics to math and physics to computer science and art. It was impossible to choose only one thing, so I chose to study architecture which combines a bit of everything.
I studied at the Technion (Israel Institute of Technology) in Haifa for five years, and then worked in Tel Aviv for Bar-Orian Architects, a typical 9:00-19:00 office job.
Architecture doesn’t necessarily mean a life of adventure. I had to work hard and make scary choices to build the situation I’m in today; combining my passion for the mountain lifestyle with architecture, and most importantly, feeling free and in control of my own schedule and life.
Right now I’m in the process of building a company that will allow its workers the same freedom.
3) What are some of the perks of working remotely?
I get to ski and climb mountains. Before being a “professional ski bum,” work took the majority of my focus. It would take over any discussion with my friends and it seemed to be the center of my life. We lived to work.
Today, work is just something I do between adventures.
I work to live, so the daily focus is shifted to discussions about epic adventures instead of salary and concerns about retirement. Working for 9 hours straight from a bar in the middle of the night seems like part of my adventure, and I love every minute of it.
4) What are some of the challenges?
I still have a full time job. Getting to choose my hours and location is awesome, but I still have to make sure all deadlines are met. Israel is 9 hours ahead, so often it means I need to work in the middle of the night. Living in a van means I have to work from the only place which is open at night – a bar!
There might be a Halloween party going on around me as I struggle to finish a tight deadline, and my clients are counting on me. It’s serious enough that if you screw up once you might never get work again. These are multi-million dollar projects we’re talking about.
One time, a beer spilled on my laptop causing it to shut off for days. My little laptop shutdown caused delays, and can never happen again. Today, I have two super powerful laptops and several backup drives, just to make sure work never stops. And that’s part of the challenge: work never stops.
I need to be available and ready to work, without distinction of weekends or nights or overtime or the security net of being an employee. I’m a freelancer, so work [may be] good today, but might not be here tomorrow. All that said, it’s a small price to pay to be able to play in the mountains.
“I didn’t want to wake up one day at age 80 to look back at my life and be disappointed by not going after my dreams.”
5) What motivated you to pursue this role? How did you decide to take things on the road?
I felt like life must have something more to it than security. I felt numb in the office and eventually got to a point where I chose adventure over security, and I paid for it with harsh results in the beginning.
I quit my job without having any plan other than going to live in the mountains and try to find a way to get by. I didn’t want to wake up one day at age 80 to look back at my life and be disappointed by not going after my dreams. This perspective helped me see life as a daring adventure and not as an experience to be cruised through safely.
I lost all my savings pretty quick without a job (not having the ability to work in Canada without a permit). I left the comfort of a house, a job, a routine, security, and I ended up tearing my ACL in a bad ski accident. I was left broke, injured, having to come back to Israel for surgery and a year of recovery. Despite it all, I kept positive.
I remember thinking, “If this is the worst it can get… I’ve got this!”
There was nothing to really fear. I kept appreciating the fact that some people have cancer and I don’t. That’s a real problem in life, not losing a job or some savings. So after recovery, I did it all again!
This time, I had experience in regards to what to expect. I approached my old boss and asked to work remotely. I also got a van and transformed it into a home. Having the ability to sustain myself financially within my adventures changed my life. I wasn’t making a lot of money, but I was living life to the fullest.
6) How has your life changed since you started this?
I could die tomorrow, and I’d be okay with it. Because I feel like I’ve lived.
Every day of the past 3 years has been the best day of my life. I found love in the mountains, I got permanent residency in Canada, and now I’m building a life of adventure here. Looking back, there was no risk. There was nothing to lose and a life to gain. Taking risks pays off.
7) What does a “typical” week or month look like?
It’s hard to find a typical month these days. Life keeps evolving, changing and moving places. I’ve spent the last 6 months living in a dry cabin in Alaska with no running water or a toilet, but with fast Wi-Fi that allowed me to work.
Now I’m in Canmore, Canada, living out of my van as I combine work alongside rock and ice climbing. In two months, I’ll be in Golden, BC, for ski season. Living out of a van in winter is pretty extreme up here, where temps get down to -40C. Me and my girlfriend live together in my tiny van and have this tiny wood burning stove we named “rusty.” We [make sure to] find time to chop wood, to keep us alive during the freezing nights. And we have to cuddle to survive. I think it’s very good for any relationship: forced cuddling.
To answer your question, in a typical day we might start by skiing or climbing and then get back to working from a bar. It’s pretty simple actually.
8) What do you wish you knew when first starting out?
I wish I knew about Van Life! It’s the single greatest adventure and way to live cheaply anywhere.
9) What is one lesson learned from your journey so far?
Big risks pay off. Whatever you think you have to lose, is nothing really. You have your legs, and your immune system, and your eyes. Those are the real valuable things in life. Anything else is just a story. And why live in a boring story?
Every day I work to make my story an epic adventure, and it got me to places and people who will be in my heart forever.
You can follow Gili and his van-based adventures on instagram @freegili.
Feature photo courtesy of Eva Capozzola.