Vanlife, Geotagging and Preserving the Sanctity of Our Wild Spaces with Idle Theory Bus
Photos by J.R. Switchgrass @idletheorybus
This dynamic duo needs no introduction. We all know Kit & J.R. through their captivating stories, colorful photos and of course, their very photogenic VW Bus, Sunshine. Through their social media, website and book, they share their philosophy of purposeful idleness and how it’s transformed their lives dramatically. In this interview, Kit & J.R. share their views around social media’s impact on the outdoors and give their best piece of advice for anyone visiting wild places.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourselves?
My name is Kit Whistler and I travel full time with my partner J.R. in our 1976 VW bus named Sunshine. We’ve been living on the road full time since 2012 (man, has it been a trip). And since then, we’ve made an annual loop around North America each and every year, living as modern-day nomads. I’m a writer and illustrator, J.R.’s a photographer. Together, we create art about what we found out here on the edges of the old tarmacadam roads of the U.S., which is a dream come true. We swim, hike, camp, and create… and when we run low on cash, we stop to pick up odd jobs or work on farms.
Where have your travels taken you so far?
We base our travels around the wild places of the North American continent, those rare quiet places where you can watch the Milky Way travel across the sky. We have spent extensive time in each of the western states in the US. An inordinate amount of time in Nevada. We love the Plains and the Deep South, and we’ve also dipped down into Mexico as well. Since living in Sunshine, we have visited 45 of the lower 48 states, excluding Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont (which are still on our lists, by the way).
What do you love most about this lifestyle?
I adore the fact that every day is new. I love newness. I’m addicted to it. I simply don’t know how to sit still. I don’t mean to promote or describe restlessness as a virtue by any means (in fact, it may be more of a disease), but that’s just how it is. There is nothing more heart-pounding and life-affirming to me than the sight of a blurred camp spot in the background and a new dirt road ahead. Constantly leaving, constantly going, never arriving.
There are a lot of questions regarding location sharing and geotagging on social media and their impacts on wild places. What are your thoughts on geotagging?
Oooh, this is a big one. Look, I’m not for geotagging on social media, for reasons both philosophical and physical.
Physically, many remote places that are tagged on the internet simply do not have the infrastructure to handle a crowd of humans. Think about it: National and State Parks have many amenities, including trail signs, reinforcements and protocols for how to deal with masses of people. Other spots, wilderness areas included, do not. They are vulnerable in that way. Without guidelines, or active enforcement of rules, they stand a large chance of being ruined.
Philosophically, I have trouble with geotagging, because I firmly believe that the adventure of overland travel lies in discovering new places for ourselves. There is something inherently extractive about hopping from one pre-planned destination to the next. When we do so, we are mindlessly seeking a destination and are unable to focus on what’s truly in front of us. Instead of seeking out end-points from a social media grid, we should aim to find our own way forward. That is the fun in it—and that is where growth occurs.
Have you ever returned to a campsite and found that the area had been negatively impacted by visitors?
Abso-f**kin-lutely. We’ve camped in spots and have returned years later to find an entire area closed to visitation! Outside of Zion National Park, there used to be a wonderful little BLM site where you could camp right under a cluster of cottonwood trees. Due to overuse, the destruction of plant life and improper bathroom use, the road in was closed a few years back. It was one of the first places we encountered like this, and unfortunately, it is something that we find on a regular basis.
What were your initial reactions?
When you find a beautiful place destroyed, there’s a knot in the stomach, followed by a deep righteous rage, followed by a deep, incredible sadness. I think “the person who has done this has no idea what they’ve caused.” It is usually the result of ignorance, not malintent, and so I mostly experience sadness.
Is it possible that geotagging on social media contributed to this influx of visitors?
Yes. Absolutely. Geotagging is at least partially to blame for this problem. I’d go as far as to say that the mere act of sharing a place on social media contributes to a mass influx of visitors. The more beautiful the place is, the more likely this is to happen. I believe that the very wild places, the very sacred places, should not be shared at all in public places. For that reason, J.R. and I have chosen not to share some of our favorite wild places on social media, because to do so would be to undermine its sacredness. I am very conflicted about sharing on social media in general, and am constantly questioning if it is destructive or if it is adding joy and value to the world. Answer to be determined at a future date….
How can geotagging on social media be done responsibly?
I’m not sure at this moment that geotagging CAN be done responsibly on social media, not unless it’s done in a city or in a well-known national park. There are a few reasons why.
First: so much general education needs to be implemented before masses of people can enter and use a place. It’s not that people intend to enter a wilderness area to destroy it or use it inappropriately. It’s that most of us do not grow up in places like this, and there is quite literally no common sense about how to act when you’re outside. For the average American, there is no cultural upbringing connected to the outdoors, and so we need to learn how to exist and recreate and live in these places before we actually do.
The second largest problem I see with geotagging is that the places in question do not have a way of charging money for their use. “Free” recreational sites exist because they are the marginalized places that no one goes. However, with an increasing number of people seeking out free places to camp, the place fails to be overlooked. In my opinion, a solution to this problem is to implement fees that go towards facilities that see heavier use. That financial input may outweigh the problem of heavier traffic, and offer relief to the problem of geotagging.
What is your best piece of advice for anyone visiting your favorite wild spaces?
If you’re going to visit a wild place, you need to show up with a sense of entering the sacred. Act as you would if you were a guest at a friend’s place of worship. Imagine your aunt takes you to temple on a holiday, or you’re encountering the Mona Lisa in person, or you’re listening to a Debussy piano concerto live. That is how you should behave, in spirit, with deference and with room for awe. After all, these places are on the decline and are not within the realm of our ordinary routines. Truly wild places are exceedingly rare and heavily misused. They are misunderstood and then pillaged due to ignorance. Let’s change our attitudes towards them. Let’s learn so that we can realize the miracle.
Is there a particular message you want to convey?
Oh man. Now you’re speaking my language. Though I know that I’m just figuring it all out myself, I don’t mind carrying a little soapbox and stepping up onto it every once in awhile. What we are most passionate about is sharing what we’ve come to call our “Idle Theory,” which states that most modern people should spend more time doing nothing at all, or idling. Living in Sunshine, out in wild places, we have restricted our time spent pursuing something… and we’ve found lots of time to simply be. We believe that our culture overemphasizes the importance of work, and so we urge people to fight back by devoting some small part of the day to doing nothing at all. When you think of this in the context of camping and spending time outdoors, the positive ramifications are exponential. Rather than conquering a mountain, or scaling a rock face, or whizzing past the softness of nature on a mountain bike, we all have the option to sit passively before the outdoors, listening to what’s there. Doing so, we can learn the ways of the wild, and it is from this place that we become more thoughtful stewards of this land we love.
Where can our readers find out more about you?
For our backstory, visit our website at www.idletheorybus.com. For up-to-date check-ins from the road, you can follow me on my instagram @KitWhistler, or on our shared Instagram account @idletheorybus. We send out biweekly emails from the road, which you can subscribe to on our website. We’d love to have you on the bus with us, and we are very excited to be part of The Vanlife App Team.
The Vanlife App is not just another geotagging platform, we are a community organization fighting for the protection of our lifestyle and conservation of outdoor spaces.