'Bertha' by Brianna Madia / by Calum Creasey

My name is Brianna Madia and I have been fortunate enough to call many places home. That is, of course, if you consider ‘home’ a place you leave your heart, not just hang your hat.

My husband, Keith and I called Connecticut our home for most of our lives. We were just ten years old when we met for the first time but, it wasn’t until we were in college that we realized we were each other’s person. In the best possible way he is all the things that I am not. We bonded especially over our desire to head West because the fast paced, stuff-obsessed way of life in New England just wasn’t for us anyway.

And so, after living on a 33-foot sailboat for 7 months, we had saved enough pennies to leave that place in our rearview mirror and call Utah home. We moved into a tiny 400 square foot apartment in Salt Lake City and began our love affair with the mountains and the deserts and the rock climbing and the canyoneering and the miles and miles of space to run around like the wild things we wanted to be.

We carried on that way for a couple years, working long weeks and tearing off on Friday afternoon to go sleep on the ground in the desert, wandering home on Sunday nights all sun-drunk and tired. We slipped into our routine of work and play and it suited us for a good while. But one day, we decided maybe we should buy a house because that’s what married people do. They buy houses and have babies and settle down. So, we went to the bank and stared across a desk at a man in a tie who laid out the next 40 years of our lives right in front of us in numbers and papers covered in words I didn’t understand. We ran out of that bank, and I gasped for air in the parking lot as if I’d been underwater for the last 45 minutes.

It was then that I realized that we were doing something because we thought we were supposed to not because we wanted to. So we began scouring the classified ads looking for our getaway vehicle out of a life of supposed-tos and should-haves. And just a couple days later, there she was my big orange sunshine bus. A 1990 Ford Clubwagon, modified with a huge lift, 4WD and a whole bunch of miles on her. So I went back to the bank, strode right past the man in the tie and up to the counter where I demanded every last penny from our savings account in cash. I walked out feeling like I had robbed the place. And just like that, we had zero dollars and one big orange bus because a mortgage and a picket fence just wasn’t for us anyway.

We named her Bertha—after one of our favorite Grateful Dead songs— and got her ready to hit the road. She had a bed frame built out, but needed full interior furnishing. We bought a rack and ladder for her and did some updating to fix some minor mechanical issues. We found a cheap spare tire and tire mount from a junkyard, installed an auxiliary battery to hold us over until we got the solar panel in place and built a makeshift air conditioning unit that pulls cold air up from a small cooler and through a metal wire-wrapped fan. We just couldn’t part with the bench seat in the back since it was such a great place to hang out, so we do all of our cooking outside.

So we call the road home now, while still making trips back to Salt Lake City to visit our “gear room” (aka our tiny basement apartment) to stock up and leave again. We’re certified desert dwellers, spending most of our time in the BLM land of Southern Utah, chasing slot canyons and multi-pitch climbs often going 72 hours without so much as seeing a passing car. Our life is constantly packing and unpacking and packing again. It’s gas stations and campsites and dirt roads and more gas stations. It’s topo maps and campfires and sunburn and happiness and plucking cactus needles from our feet. And while we love this world, there isn’t anyone who loves it more than Bucket and Dagwood.

Bucket and Dagwood are our ‘kids’ in all the ways that matter most. Frankly, they are the driving force behind all of our travel decisions. It’s never ‘where do we want to go climb,’ it’s ‘where can we go climb where the dogs can run around.’ Many of our friends ask us how we learned to adventure on such a grand scale with our dogs and that always makes me chuckle, because frankly we just never learned how to adventure without them. As we got better at backpacking trips, so did they. As we got better at canyoneering, so did they. Years of weekends spent tearing off down dirt roads together has molded us into a pack in every sense of the word. The most rewarding aspect is the trust the unshakeable bond. Bucket and Dagwood would follow us anywhere. They’d walk down a dirt road for a million miles as long as we were walking with them. Their world is a constant state of wonder a never-ending mystery of where-will-we-go-next. There isn’t a single day that they don’t wake up stoked. There’s never a mountain they don’t want to climb a trail they don’t want to run. There are so many moments where I wish for just one second that I could be as in love with anything as they are with everything. Their pure, uninterrupted happiness is one of the greatest successes of my life and I’m so grateful for that because a life of occasional walks around the block just wasn’t for us anyway.

So the four of us—Keith, Bucket, Dagwood, and I—we call each other home. After all, we are the only constant we know. Our surroundings are ever- changing, our story ever-unfolding. It is gritty and messy and muddy and it is heaven. Even though I don’t know that I believe in heaven. But I do know that one time I was riding shotgun down a backcountry desert road in my big orange van, and the love of my life was at the wheel, and my two dogs were laying on the bed in the back all tired and happy, and ‘Maggie May’ was drifting from the stereo and I thought for just one minute that maybe I had died and this was it. And I thought, well thank goodness because all that white cloud, pearly gate stuff just wasn’t for us anyway.


Interview originally published in The Rolling home Journal - Issue One. Available here

For more from Brianna, Keith, Bertha & the dogs follow - @briannamadia