The Modern Nomad
Our guide to living on the road and spending more time outdoors—without quitting your job.
Road crew is a monthly segment of Modern Nomad that profiles the characters and their adventure rigs that we meet on the road.
It’s easy to think that road life is too expensive or out of reach, but we met up with some friends a few weeks ago who reminded us that it’s about attitude and approach, not trappings. Macky Franklin and Syd Schulz, pro mountain bikers for Jamis and Vittoria, have been living on the road for the last 2.5 years, as they race and camp and gallivant through exceptional lives. And they’re doing it all in a late-model, AT&T Ford Econline 250.
The beater van is an improvement. Up until December 2014, the couple was living in a Chevy Aveo, nicknamed the Rockmelon for its cantaloupe glow. “It was a bit tight,” recalls Syd Schulz. “But we didn’t realize it until we got the van.”
The upgrade came when Macky bought a 250cc 2012 KTM dirt bike while visiting family in Ohio. Friends and fellow racers told him that moto was perfect skills training for enduro racing. So he traded for the bike, which cost him $500 plus a Pivot Mach 429. In the Midwest with a dirt bike and a compact car, he and Syd realized they needed a bigger vehicle.
“We didn’t want to spend a lot, and we saw an ad for a cheap van on Craigslist, but they sold it by the time I called. The guy said they were getting another in a week, and, without seeing it, I told him we’d take it,” says Macky. It turned out to be a reclaimed AT&T work van, complete with telecommunications electronics and equipment. The couple paid $1,400 for the vehicle, with 168,000 miles on the odometer, and sold an antenna that was inside for $170 on eBay. They have less than $3,000 into their new home, which includes $500 all-terrain tires, a $200 swivel for the front passenger seat to face the cargo bay, and a homemade, four-bike rear rack that they picked up for $150 when the previous owners upgraded. The rooftop tent came courtesy of Syd’s parents, who upsized to a camper and gave it to the couple “on permanent loan.”
“Syd’s father and uncles laughed at us and told us all these stories of old vans dying. We spent the first few months expecting this one to just stop. It would have been humiliating,” says Macky. Eighteen months and 14,000 miles later, the van is going strong.
The couple have transformed the vehicle, which they showed us at their campsite west of Santa Fe in advance of the first round of the Big Mountain Enduro, into what they call “the ultimate dirtbag toy-hauler.” They ripped out the telecom kit with a Sawzall, patched some of the leftover holes in the floor with wine corks, and set about building the roof rack system for the Airtop tent. The biggest disappointment came while removing the ladder rack when they broke the rooftop, orange flashing light, which they’d hoped to keep. The square Thule box, the only shape that would fit, was another deal on Craig’s List ($100) and provides extra capacity for a screen tent for cooking and other sundries.
In addition to their four bikes out back—Jamis Defcon 1s for enduro events and Dakar XCT Teams for trail races—the van fits a pair of dirt bikes (Syd got one, too), which they haul using bolt-in chocks and tie-down straps. They’ve built a cabinet system on one side to house the pads, helmets, cleats, and gear for riding all those bikes and motos, as well as all the mandatory camp gear for living on the road. Favorite unexpected piece of gear: a fold-up tumbling mat, good for stretching, yoga, napping, lounging, and a makeshift table in a pinch.
The two have made the rounds of all the major enduro circuits in the western half of the U.S., but they say their favorite spots are Sun Valley (“Best example in the country where bikes and motos coexist,” says Macky), Moab (“The classic,” says Syd), the Mojave Desert for its solitary emptiness, and Crested Butte, with quiet campsites beyond the ghost town of Gothic. In winter, they take the batteries out of the van and fly to the Southern Hemisphere for a few months of warmer weather and racing. Last season it was New Zealand; this year they went to Chile.
The couple say they can’t imagine a life in a fixed home right now. “I sleep better on the road, have fewer allergies, and am just happier,” Macky says. Syd agrees, though she says it’s not always easy life and mystical sunsets. “Multiple days of rain can wear you down,” she says. “We had four in a row last year in Moab, and not only do you have to pee in the rain at night, but you have to climb down that ladder. I was definitely starting to question all of my life choices that night.” She laughs.
The next morning, the sun came out, the trails dried, and the couple had the ultimate singletrack playground a ladder’s climb away.