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: Erik Howes
Job: Seasonal labor + creative work
Erik and I met at a get together at Thee Off-Width, a V4-5 boulder problem in Cape Ann. When I arrived at the parking lot there sat an old trolley which extended from parking lot edge nearly to the road. It looked like the cable cars of ‘Frisco, all nostalgic chic with an aura of party bus. If that was the case, I cautioned, this night might get a little weird. At the boulder there was a throng of people bedecked in various stages of costuming. Erik was dangling from the roof, his wild hair Doc Brown splayed (he was wearing a wig) as he grunted through the crack. We chatted briefly, and I left that night thinking, “I bet he has an interesting story to tell.”
1) How do you describe what you do to others?
Unless you are hiring me for money, I don’t have any intent to ‘do’ anything for other people.
But if you are hiring me; then I will do whatever you want! Hah.
I suppose there are some people I do more for. A few months ago I gave a big presentation in front of an entire middle school, sharing the message of “writing your own story.” Their view of me will be much different than that of a climbing partner and that of a coworker.
2) What are some of the jobs you’ve done as you’ve traveled and climbed?
The jobs I have worked on the road can be divided into two different categories: “skilled seasonal” and “unskilled short term.”
The jobs that require skill pay well and usually last 3-6 months (i.e., Scuba diving or any of the working trades, such as carpentry, masonry and bartending.)
Then there comes the miserable category of unskilled labor. You name it, I’ve probably done it. The pay is garbage and you are disposable. But, if you need $100 to pick up some groceries or get money for a climbing trip, you can always wash dishes or help move a few boxes in just about any city of the country—no matter the season.
3) How do you learn about these gigs?
I asked for them.
Most of the jobs I have worked weren’t because I saw a ‘help wanted’ sign, it was because I went up to the owner and said: “I work hard and I need money.”
4) Can you talk about STAY WILD?
Stay Wild is a personal mantra of mine.
Those two words are something I draw on most of my gear and look at when I need a boost of stoke. Whether that’s on a ski mitten before dropping into a line or on the cuff of my work jacket before I start in on an engine repair.
Most people know Stay Wild from the stickers I make, which started by being hand-drawn on USPS Priority Mail slips that I took from the Post Office.
For awhile I was just handing them out to friends and travelers I met on the road. I still do this, but now I also get them printed professionally and sell them to help fund my adventures.
5) What are your plans or hopes for STAY WILD?
It will grow and transform with me through time. My only hope is it never becomes something that detracts from my personal pursuit of adventure, instead of inspiring it, as it does now.
Being a full time ‘businessman’ isn’t my style. I’ve had to devote a lot of time towards learning how to start a website, what an EIN is and how to manage money… You know, ‘adult’ kind of stuff.
I use Stay Wild as an outlet for my photography, art and a way to tell my life’s story. That will continue to evolve alongside some long term projects I am working on. My artistic pursuits are starting to shift towards making movies and books.
6) What are some of the perks of your lifestyle?
As of right now I am not ‘tied’ to anything. I could walk away from this life at any point. I don’t have any significant bills or locking obligations.
If I wanted to hop on a plane and not come back for two years, I could. That sounds kinda awesome. I just may do that!
I’d say that kind of freedom is a big perk.
“It seems the most rewarding experiences in life feel impossible at first.”
7) Do you see this as a long-term thing?
There are certainly some days I consider folding it all in; going a different direction and finding some sort of comfort in a routine.
It’d be easy to stop. Stopping is always easy.
Following through and building the life I dream of is not easy. But I like difficult things. It seems the most rewarding experiences in life feel impossible at first. Conquering the impossible is fun, and I haven’t stopped yet.
8) What are some of the challenges?
I’ve mastered the art of job hunting. It usually only takes a few days to find a new job.
But I’m typically unemployed for around 4-6 months out of the year.
That’s not to say I am not working; I am hustling side work. But that flux of income makes for a roller-coaster of bank account statements. I’d say I have less than $500 in my bank account for around half the year. That’s pretty stressful.
Not to mention those times when I spill my pee bottle in the van or wake up to a completely frozen food storage. Without having the amenities of a ‘real house’ daily life gets a bit harder.
9) What motivated you to pursue this path?
In 2016, I took my first cross-country road trip to Joshua Tree. It was there that I met a group of wanderers who showed me the lifestyle.
They taught me the ways of the dirtbag: We danced naked under the stars and climbed rocks without ropes.
The spirit of adventure I felt on that road trip has consumed my entire life and I’ve given up countless opportunities in a constant desire to recreate those wild feelings of adventure.
10) I know this is a silly question… what does a “typical” week or month look like?
Do you have a home base you come back to?
There is no typical week in this life I live. Month-to-month, I live entirely different structures.
My home base was my van. That died last year.
I am currently working on developing a new home base: An old trolley that I am restoring into a mobile basecamp.
(Editor’s note: You can read about Squally the Trolley, “a 1994 GMC P3500 chassis with a Big Larry 7.4l gas engine that has a big round tail light that says ‘STOP'” and was used to shuttle people to/from the Cape May-Lewes Ferry in New Jersey.)
I have friends and family who welcome me into their lives: My mom’s driveway and friends’ backyard have served as temporary basecamp over the years. Without them, I would not have had the space to create all that I have!
11) What do you wish you knew when first starting out
Nothing. Being naive to what I was doing, in the beginning, is the only reason I’ve gotten to where I am. Having to ‘figure it out’ from the beginning has given me the ability to achieve all that I have.
12) What is one lesson learned from your journey so far?
In life, we are only given so much ‘time.’
During that time you get to do ‘things.’
Some of those things will give you meaning, and some of those things are done purely to enable you to do that which does give you meaning. Be aware of the difference.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Stay Wild!… and buy more stickers!
You can buy more stickers on his website, and follow along with his adventures on instagram at @staywildnevermild (business) and @smellybagofdirt (personal).
All photos courtesy of Erik Howes.