The Fites (Mars & Ashley), on family #vanlife, living dreams now, finding commonality with strangers of all stripes, and authenticity as digital creators (Publication Date: 10.3.23)
The Fites are married digital creators who were early to living adventures on the road before #vanlife became a thing on social media. Ashley and Mars share fantastic insights and perspectives on life, travel, parenting and creativity.
They tell how their van life actually started with a monthslong 48-state road trip in a Honda Civic with their then 2-year-old daughter. They talk about how they came to be featured on HGTV’s show “Tiny House, Big Living,” when they were converting a cargo van into a home.
Adam finds out what Mars and Ashley have learned from life on the road, and from the diverse array of people they’ve met, and how that has influenced their concepts of community, in real life and online. Among other things.
SHOW NOTES, LINKS, CREDITS & TRANSCRIPT
The We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast is a collaboration with the Chaffee County Departments of Public Health and Housing, and is supported by the Colorado Public Health & Environment: Office of Health Disparities.
Along with being distributed on popular podcast listening platforms (e.g. Spotify, Apple), Looking Upstream is broadcast weekly at 1 p.m. on Tuesdays, on KHEN 106.9 community radio in Salida, Colo., and can be listened to on-demand via khen.org.
The Fites (Mars & Ashley)
We Are Chaffee
Looking Upstream Host, Producer & Photographer: Adam Williams
Looking Upstream Engineer & Producer: Jon Pray
We Are Chaffee Community Advocacy Coordinator: Lisa Martin
We Are Chaffee Graphic and Web Design: Heather Gorby
Director of Chaffee County Public Health and Environment: Andrea Carlstrom
Note: Transcripts are produced using a transcription service.
Although it is largely accurate, minor errors inevitably exist.
[Intro music, guitar instrumental]
Adam Williams: Welcome to We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream, a conversational podcast of humanness, community and wellbeing, rooted in Chaffee County, Colorado. I'm Adam Williams. Today I'm talking with Mars and Ashley Fite. [00:00:30] The Fites have some fantastic insights and perspectives on life, travel, parenting and creativity, and other things. They are married, digital creators who are early to living adventures on the road before #VanLife became a thing on social media.
In this conversation, they tell about making leaps of faith, about living now, and not putting big dreams off until well, who knows when? They share about how their van life actually started with a monthslong 48-state road trip [00:01:00] in a Honda Civic with their then two-year-old daughter. We talk about how they came to be featured on HGTV's show, Tiny House, Big Living, when they were converting a cargo van into a home. And how that factored into their launch of a several years long road adventure that still has not so much ended as made space for them to build a home base in the mountains from which to venture out into future family travels.
They also added a son to the family along the way, inspiring all the more [00:01:30] their online followers to know that this life is possible, or whatever life you dream of, even with kids and even with all the responsibilities that come with raising a family, paying the bills and so on. We talk about what they've learned from life on the road and from the diverse array of people they've met, and how that has influenced their concepts of community in real life and online. I really appreciated, also, getting to know who Ashley and Mars are as people, behind [00:02:00] their social media accounts, and to learn about what that public presence means to them and doesn't. We talk about authenticity and connection, and they lay out the three components that they use to guide their path to happiness, among other things. We cover a lot of incredible ground in this conversation.
Now, really quickly, before we dive into it, I want to remind any of you who are listening to Looking Upstream on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, that five star ratings and enthusiastic reviews are incredibly [00:02:30] helpful for this community building podcast. And so is telling your friends, coworkers and family members about it too, of course, in real life and online. Thank you in advance for helping us to keep building on the momentum that we have going and for helping us to keep growing the good in our community and beyond. All right, here we go: a conversation with the Fites. [00:03:00] Ashley, Mars, welcome to Looking Upstream. I am really grateful that you're here.
Ashley Fite: We're excited to be here.
Mars Fite: Yeah, thanks for having us. We're honored.
Adam Williams: I think I'm just going to jump into the van life thing with you two because that's what a lot of people, probably, who are aware of your public presence, know you for. And you're known as the Fites online, your website, Instagram, all those things. So let's just talk about your origin story, right there, related to van life. Ashley, you want to start?
Ashley Fite: All right, so [00:03:30] it kind of started with our 48 state road trip, which was pre van life, this was in our Honda Civic, but this is what started our travels. So Mars came home one day with this idea to travel the 48 states following this map that had kind of gone viral online. And I said yes to doing that and he immediately got out his laptop and planned the whole thing and said, "Okay, well we can leave in six months."
Mars Fite: I think she reluctantly said yes, [00:04:00] and then I took that as an open door and we just ran with it.
Ashley Fite: Yeah, that's usually what happens. So yeah, then we had our daughter at the time, she was two. It took us about three months to complete the trip and when we got back we were-
Mars Fite: We were amped, man.
Ashley Fite: We were hooked on travel, so we started looking at vans because as everyone probably listening knows, a Honda Civic is pretty small and it was hard to travel and sleep in and [00:04:30] camp in.
Mars Fite: We thought if... We kind of strung this trip together and we were like, "If we can pull that off, if we just got a van, man, it'd be so much easier." And at the time we were looking at little vannigans and all sorts of things there. We were actually finding inspiration in tiny homes, like traditional tiny homes on a trailer. And then we're like, "Well, what if you could get a cargo van and just go for that?"
Ashley Fite: Yeah.
Mars Fite: Then after some research found out, oh, there's some other people that have done this. Let's try to [00:05:00] figure this out.
Ashley Fite: This was in 2016, that we started looking at vans. And so at the time it really wasn't this big thing that it's become now.
Mars Fite: It wasn't glamorized, there was nothing, really, for us to... There wasn't a community around it. And there probably was, it was just a very small...
Ashley Fite: It hadn't been Instagrammed yet, I guess.
Mars Fite: Yes, that's a good way to...
Adam Williams: No hashtags around van life and whatever, all the other words people associate [00:05:30] with that. Do you consider yourselves part of what built that? Made those hashtags and that existence and that way of being out in the world? Are you part of that?
Mars Fite: I think that's awfully dangerous, to try to claim something like that. I'm sure-
Ashley Fite: I can say that we've probably helped some people. I think there's individuals that might say... Who have children that have started out in vans.
Mars Fite: We were particularly the crazy ones with the kid that were trying to do something [00:06:00] like this. And so I think people saw that and said, "Well shoot, man, if they can do it with a kid, I can probably do it without one." Or, "Maybe I can do it with my kids." And so we really loved that aspect of it because we were just trying to figure it out for ourselves. And then in return we're able to help some other people, at least at the very least, find some inspiration to make the plunge.
Adam Williams: I think a lot of people who look from afar at van life or would know your story [00:06:30] at all, might still be thinking, "But I've got to have a job. I've got to be rooted. I've got to pay bills, I've got to save for retirement. How do you afford all this? I can't possibly do it." What do you say to those people who like the idea, they tell you that they're jealous, whatever, but believe, just have this conditioning that it's not possible? "I don't know how you're doing it, but it's not possible for me."
Mars Fite: I'll just first say, that is probably the majority of people that we talk to.
Adam Williams: Sure, I bet.
Mars Fite: Yeah, it's just like how, why, how [00:07:00] do all these pieces come together and you still have any sort of security in life?
Ashley Fite: Well, I was just going to mention before, you go to San Diego and everyone's being pushed out of their homes and they all have to live in vans. And so on one hand, some people are forced into this life. So whenever you meet people in the van life community, they're either coming from this... People have a silver spoon and they have this beautiful van and how do they afford it? Or there's this other group [00:07:30] of people in the same community that are forced into it.
Mars Fite: Yeah, because of the housing crisis, which unfortunately is affected here locally, but it's nationwide. We talk to people from all over the country, in any sort of desirable place to live, it's happening. And so yeah, you have these two groups of people; one group that's choosing to do it and another group that's being forced to do it.
Ashley Fite: But to better answer your question, I think, is whenever you have this established life with your job, your 9:00 to 5:00 [00:08:00] or this very secure life that you're used to, it is scary to make this change. But you can always go back. That's why I tell people, is you can always go back to that. When we did our 48 state road trip, we were like, "We're going to take three months and do this thing." And so we've met a lot of people on the road that take six months or take a gap year. And you can always go back and get a job and get a house and have that very stable, normal life. But it's nice to just see if it's something you want to do. And then if it's not, [00:08:30] no harm. You learn some lessons and then you go back to living life as you did before.
Mars Fite: At the end of the day though, you really do have to just make a decision, I'm going to try this, and it might fail for me or it may not. But I think most people that do, even if they had saved up a bunch of money and prepared really well for it, I think most people don't regret it, that's for sure.
Adam Williams: Yeah, I would guess that for an awful lot of things that we leap into in life, things that [00:09:00] we've dreamt of doing, and we make that leap, how often do we regret that? Something great comes from it. You're always... Like they say, the only things that we worry about, really, when it comes time for that deathbed, is what you didn't do.
Ashley Fite: Right.
Mars Fite: Yep, absolutely.
Adam Williams: But I do think for an awful lot of people, they're held up by the idea of I can't try it and then go back because if I leave my job, my job's not going to give me three months off, six months, a year, whatever. They're not going to care about this big dream I have, to travel and take my family on the road. It is a big leap [00:09:30] of faith, I think, that is, maybe, for an awful lot of people, they feel, a leap too far. And so I think however you can share that inspiration is amazing and wonderful for people to just try their own version. Maybe it's to start small with it.
Mars Fite: We encourage people, "Hey, if this is something you're interested in doing, you should go rent a van for a month or even two weeks, go out for two weeks." Because a weekend or a week is not really enough to understand the full scope of it, but [00:10:00] two to three weeks you're basically getting enough of a taste. And so we generally always encourage people-
Ashley Fite: To do that first.
Mars Fite: ... Unless we know them very well and we know that they would absolutely just knock it out of the ballpark and love it, to do that first to get a little sample of it.
Ashley Fite: And I think 2020 kind of changed things, too, for people with jobs, where now there's so many options for remote work that-
Mars Fite: Yeah, a lot of people are doing it comfortably now.
Ashley Fite: So now you can have... For us, we do contract [00:10:30] work. We've always picked up odd jobs along the way. And so for us it was always... Life was kind of a leap of faith because if anyone does contract work, you're like next month... You can plan about three months in advance, was probably as far out as we'd ever planned. And so after that you're like, "Well, I don't know what's going to come." But then life always shows up for you. I think it's like you put your foot out and then the step kind of comes.
Mars Fite: It's the whole... [00:11:00] We talk about how magic happens when we exhibit faith or any sort of... We just believe, hey, if we believe that we're on the right trajectory in life and we're following our heart, then magic just kind of happens to make it all work out. God or the universe or whatever you want to call it, there is a magic there.
Ashley Fite: And we've also experienced some times when it feels like we're just hitting inertia all the time, and in that I say that's [00:11:30] growth through pain.
Mars Fite: Growing pains. Yeah, exactly.
Ashley Fite: And how are we supposed to grow in life if everything's just magical and everything just happens for you? So you have to look at those times as this is strengthening you. It's like lifting weights. It sucks, but later you look back and you're like, "Okay, that was worth it."
Mars Fite: And we generally grow through challenges. When we're sitting in the comfort of our lifestyle and however that is, you have to challenge yourself during those times. [00:12:00] You have to be motivated to go to the gym or whatever it is, to challenge yourself. But whenever you step out and do something that you're not comfortable with, those growth opportunities just present themselves.
Adam Williams: You two were on HGTV's show, Tiny House, Big Living, right? With the van conversion to get this going. And I'm wondering what role that played in maybe launching this actual van life beyond the sedan.
Mars Fite: [00:12:30] Yeah.
Ashley Fite: A great question. So I actually went to college with this girl who was working in the casting department for that show. And so we'd just wrapped up our 48 state road trip, we'd kind of been posting about it regularly through our social channels. And so we posted that we got this van, and so she'd been kind of following our journey, and said, "Well, now I work for this show, Tiny House, Big Living, would you guys be interested?" And I was like, "Yes, absolutely."
Mars Fite: We got our van on Valentine's Day. It was the day after Valentine's [00:13:00] Day that we posted, "Hey, we got this van and we're so excited to convert it." And people were so confused. “What do you mean convert it?”
Ashley Fite: Yeah, people did not understand.
Mars Fite: They did not get the idea. But her friend, whoever this gal was, she, right off the bat, was like, "Hey, would you be interested in doing this?" And we're like, "Sure. Let's go for it."
Ashley Fite: And the way that changed our trajectory with the van build, is we really didn't have [00:13:30] that much money at the time. We were younger and had just had this baby who I guess now is two years old.
Mars Fite: And back to the independent contractor life.
Ashley Fite: And we'd just done this three month trip. So he sold his car just so that we could put a down payment on this van. So we were planning on... If we just put a mattress in here for a while, at least we have a bed while we drive around.
Mars Fite: Yeah, that's where we were at.
Ashley Fite: And then we were like, "Let's do it." So then we said yes, and then we started watching the show. We'd never seen the show before. And I looked at him and I was like, " [00:14:00] These are really nice tiny houses."
Mars Fite: These people were coming in with lots of money, doing these big projects.
Ashley Fite: I was like, "We have to do really well."
Mars Fite: We're bootstrapping this thing.
Ashley Fite: Right. And so through all the interview process of them trying to decide whether or not they wanted to choose us for the show, we just kept thinking really big and we were looking at these tiny homes and how they put a lot into them. Because they're like, "Well, what else can you have?" And I was like, 'I don't know, a kitchen." "Well, what else can you have? A bathroom?"
Mars Fite: They wanted seven features for a build.
Ashley Fite: I'm like, "I don't know." I'm like, "It's a van."
Adam Williams: Do they help pay for it, can I ask?
Mars Fite: Okay. So [00:14:30] we didn't get paid to be on the show, but they basically said there's a small budget that we can help you with things that you can't afford to do but it might be a fun idea.
Ashley Fite: They helped pay for someone to do cabinets because we were trying really hard and kept breaking bits. And we'd never built anything before and we'd somehow landed this show because we were like, "Let's just..." I don't know, this is not... We just really hyped up how good we could do it.
Mars Fite: Not even that. It wasn't even that.
Ashley Fite: Really be confident. We were like, " [00:15:00] Let's just be super confident and tell them exactly..."
Mars Fite: We were really confident in our ideas of what we... But not in actually getting it done.
Ashley Fite: Execution, yeah. Right.
Mars Fite: And dude, my dad, he's so awesome. He was going to help us build the van. And then he got a really good job offer a week before we started filming the show. And he was just like, "Son, I don't know." He's like, "Man, I really hate to do this." And I was like, "I get it, I get it. It's cool." So then the person that was going to help us, we kind of...
Ashley Fite: So long story short, we knew what we wanted to [00:15:30] do and what we could do, but we didn't know how we'd pay for it. We didn't know how to build it. We just knew in our brains we wanted it to look like.
Mars Fite: And combine that with this is the greatest... Sarcasm, greatest thing about being on the show is it generally takes three to four months to build out a van. That's kind of the science now, but we had to do it in six shoot days.
Ashley Fite: They wouldn't let us build anything if they weren't there to film it.
Mars Fite: And the crew was flying from LA every single [00:16:00] time. And so they would fly out, we would shoot for one day, sometimes we did two days in a row, and it's like... So our van basically got built in a week.
Ashley Fite: A week.
Mars Fite: And so it was really challenging for us. Well, they did leave behind cameras, so we would do a time-lapse or something, but basically...
Ashley Fite: All the big things had to be done in those seven days.
Adam Williams: Were they scattered, the days?
Ashley Fite: Yeah.
Mars Fite: Oh, yeah. Between a month and a half-
Ashley Fite: Yeah.
Mars Fite: ... Six weeks probably. Yeah.
Ashley Fite: So they'd come out a week and then they'd come [00:16:30] out two weeks later, and so we'd try to paint things beforehand and try to prep-
Mars Fite: Prep as best we could.
Ashley Fite: ... Otherwise, we couldn't actually, physically build anything unless they were there, which was an interesting aspect of this whole thing.
Mars Fite: But long story long, they put a little bit of budget into some of the things that we wanted to do to give the van some quote, unquote "features." Like I said, they're like, "Seven features in a house is pretty easy to do." But in a van, you're kind of limited on stuff."
Ashley Fite: We put [00:17:00] a little music studio in it because we were like, "Well, we can do a studio." And then we did a pullout deck so that we could have a deck space. And then we did a-
Mars Fite: Rooftop deck.
Ashley Fite: ... Rooftop deck. We did a starlit ceiling for our daughter, so we put little lights in throughout the ceiling.
Mars Fite: And then her loft bed.
Ashley Fite: Her loft bed was one of the features.
Adam Williams: I need to go back and see if I remember this episode, if I have watched it. Because watching the tiny home thing and building these things out is something that my wife and I would do, in years past. [00:17:30] I don't remember how many years ago this was. Was it '17?
Mars Fite: ’17.
Ashley Fite: This aired August of 2017.
Adam Williams: Okay. How many years, then, did you end up with this van, living that life on the road and becoming digital creators and storytellers? To keep sharing that kind of life along the way?
Ashley Fite: Well, we bought our property here in Salida in 2019, but we were still in the van. And honestly, we've been in the van until last September, [00:18:00] so September of '22.
Adam Williams: More or less full time?
Ashley Fite: Yeah, full-time because we're still trying to build our house out here. It's been a long, grueling process. So we bought a bus, and so we've been in the bus since September of last year, so it's been a little bit more space, but we still have our van.
Mars Fite: And throughout our journey, we've occasionally get a hotel or we'll get an Airbnb or stuff like that. But basically, yeah, it's been since August [00:18:30] or July of 2017 until pretty recently.
Adam Williams: And over that time, your family has grown, you have two kids now.
Ashley Fite: Yeah.
Adam Williams: How old are they?
Ashley Fite: We have Everly who's nine and Atlas is three, so he'll be four in December.
Adam Williams: So they're growing up in this, at least traditionally speaking, would be an unconventional, untraditional sort of way. They're growing up with the two of you being creators, not having that rooted, "Oh, I've worked at such and such company for 10 years." All the ways [00:19:00] that you put this life together creatively and live on the road and live in small spaces and outdoors, and all the things that you do. I will be interested in hearing... If this show is still going in 20 years, I want to hear their perspectives on what it's like to grow up in this kind of creative environment.
Mars Fite: Hopefully they have good things-
Ashley Fite: Definitely ask our daughter, she's more of the adventurous one. I think our son's really into not going on long car trips.
Adam Williams: [00:19:30] You mentioned you still have the van. I saw, recently, some videos that you had put out, Ashley, on Instagram. And rather emotional, the van broke down in a serious way. What is the state of that? Is it going to continue in your life? Am I touching on a sore point here?
Ashley Fite: No, you're fine. So the van is currently at the Ford dealership here in Salida. They haven't been able to look at it and they told us they couldn't until October 3rd. So it's still there.
Adam Williams: [00:20:00] So you don't know what the-
Ashley Fite: We don't know.
Adam Williams: ... seriousness is.
Mars Fite: We don't know. But we have, in six years, put 215,000 miles on this van. And people say, "Well, you're driving it to the ground, yada, yada." And we're like, "Well, we'll just put a new engine in it or whatever." We will most likely just fix it.
Ashley Fite: We'll fix whatever.
Mars Fite: Keep it alive, keep it going. We have decided there will probably not be a time in our life that we just don't have a van.
Ashley Fite: Not having it over this past month has been [00:20:30] not too great. I've realized how much I love having it just for overnight trips and having a place to sleep.
Mars Fite: Or you run into town, you have to go to the bathroom.
Ashley Fite: Yeah, there's a toilet in your car.
Mars Fite: You need to make some coffee real quick, no matter where you're at. Boom. You want a snack, just go to the pantry.
Ashley Fite: Why would you ever have another vehicle? If there's a vehicle that has a bathroom and a kitchen and a bed, then why would you get something else? I don't understand.
Mars Fite: I think some people would argue gas mileage.
Adam Williams: Do you have sentimentality [00:21:00] for the life that you have lived? And as a family, if you have a house with kids and they grow up there, there's a lot of memories there that might be harder to let go of.
Ashley Fite: Oh, for sure.
Adam Williams: Do you feel that with all that the two of you, and then your growing family through those years, all that you've experienced, and the miles and destinations, locations with that van, to let go of it now, is that just something you can't emotionally go with?
Ashley Fite: Yeah, that's a good question. We [00:21:30] actually put the van up for sale back when we were buying the bus. We were just going to take the cash from the van, buy our bus. And we got a cash offer for 55 grand, which first of all, hold on, this is crazy. We bought our van for 31, put 9 into it. So it was about 40 when we finished, drove it for five years and then sold it for 55 cash.
Mars Fite: Or would have.
Ashley Fite: Would have.
Mars Fite: That's not the point.
Ashley Fite: We got the offer and then I got... But [00:22:00] this is answering your question of I couldn't follow through with it. I was like, "Actually-"
Mars Fite: Even for a pretty good deal on it.
Ashley Fite: "... We are just going to keep it." But also, to let you know that vans appreciate, I guess.
Mars Fite: Well, if you've done all the work for someone and they can just buy it and go straight into traveling. This particular couple, they were going to buy it and then go down to Nicaragua, I think, in a couple of weeks. So yeah, it's a great turnkey solution and that's valuable.
Ashley Fite: But we couldn't-
Mars Fite: Couldn't part with it.
Ashley Fite: ... Even say [00:22:30] yes to a really good deal. And as it sits in that Ford dealership, I'm wondering if I should have just said yes to that. But we have a lot of friends who build out vans and are really great at letting go and then letting the new come in. And I think that's a lesson I still have yet to learn.
Mars Fite: Yeah. And we apply that in many different ways in our life, just trying to live minimally, trying to live with what we really need. But the van is a very specific-
Ashley Fite: Special.
Mars Fite: ... Special [00:23:00] thing, near and dear to our hearts.
Adam Williams: I'm kind of that way. I actually have a 1975 Volkswagen bus that I've had for nearly 20 years and-
Mars Fite: Cool.
Ashley Fite: Heck yeah.
Adam Williams: ... Can't let go of, even though I don't use it any longer in the ways that you're talking about in your life. So I guess that's probably why I asked that question because I'm sentimental and see it that way and have a name for it. It's like, well, how are you going to let go of something you've named? How are you going to...
Mars Fite: Absolutely.
Ashley Fite: [00:23:30] Yeah, right.
Adam Williams: So I want to ask about... I'm always interested in what people have learned. What are we learning? What are we taking away from experiences? What are these shaping factors of life? You have several years worth of accrued experience with the van, with the 48 state trip. What have you learned about people or anything else that I'm not thinking to ask in that regard? What did you learn through the several years of seeing all these corners [00:24:00] of this country?
Ashley Fite: That is-
Mars Fite: Wonderful question.
Ashley Fite: Yeah. I guess the first thing we learned during the 48 state road trip, which kind of the title of that portion of our experiences is, is that love is alive, is kind of what we've always said. Because during that trip, obviously we're in our Civic, we couch-surfed a lot. So we couch-surfed probably at 20 times, [00:24:30] I'm assuming. And we couch-surfed with all different kinds of people.
We couch-surfed with this guy from India who had just been betrothed to this lady, or had been and had just gotten married. And then we couch-surfed at this hippie community out in Portland, with this guy who lived above a music studio and took us to a dance church. With a Filipino guy who worked for NASA.
Mars Fite: [00:25:00] A total right wing sniper in the military. Every range, it seems like.
Ashley Fite: All walks of life.
Mars Fite: Yeah, all walks of life. And I think the beautiful thing that came out of that was just we found commonality with basically every single person that we stayed with. And of course there's going to be disagreements or whatever, but that wasn't the point. The point is that we were able to connect with people from all [00:25:30] different walks of life. And I grew up in Oklahoma, out in the sticks, so everything was just... This was mind-blowing for me, and it was absolutely life-changing. Absolutely life changing.
Ashley Fite: These people were strangers who opened their homes to us, not knowing who we were. I think there's so much fear in our world and people being like, "You're taking your two-year-old around stranger's homes." And obviously we did our vetting. We were cautious, [00:26:00] we weren't just naively going into random people's houses. But what we found was that there's so much goodness in everyone that we met, and it just really opened our minds.
Adam Williams: I think the key takeaway from something like that, Mars, you touched on there, is let's look at what we have in common. Let's look at what we actually can connect over, when we've really gotten into habits of doing it the opposite, and looking at and trying to identify and stay apart based on what [00:26:30] we think is different. I think everybody ought to have the experience that you did. I'm sure we're not all going to, but I think everybody ought to really learn, get out of the bubble, whatever bubble they're living in.
Mars Fite: Expand. Expand.
Ashley Fite: I'd go back and-
Mars Fite: Wherever you're at, whatever state, wherever you're at in life, there's room to expand, that's for sure.
Ashley Fite: Right. I'd go back and do it all over again-
Mars Fite: Absolutely.
Ashley Fite: ... Exactly the same.
Mars Fite: With a van.
Ashley Fite: With a van.
Adam Williams: So community, [00:27:00] that is a word, an idea that comes up in a number of these conversations that I have here on the podcast. And you guys are describing something that might be a different kind of community. I wonder what your sense of community might be, based on so many years where you're traveling as your own household, and getting to see these different pieces of people and the way cultures across the geography are.
So I guess it's a two-part [00:27:30] question. What does community mean to you, based on this idea of driving around and getting to see these different aspects? But also, how do you retain a sense of community? Because you're always on the move.
Ashley Fite: Right. I think community was something that was really difficult for us, honestly, on the road. Granted, we did meet these people through couch-surfing and we've stayed connected with a handful of them.
Mars Fite: And some of those we visited again since then or met up with.
Ashley Fite: And we try to be there for the big moments with people, [00:28:00] weddings, baby showers, all of the bigger things. We try to make it out to those experiences. But we don't have the cyclical friendships where you meet up every Tuesday or you have your Sundays where everyone comes over for bonfire nights or whatever it might be. We didn't have that.
And so yes, we're going out to these weddings and these bigger moments, but we're missing all of the life in between. And so that was one [00:28:30] of the main reasons for us wanting to plant roots somewhere, is so that we could have those friendships that you grow on a day-to-day basis. In van life, there is more of a community. We-
Mars Fite: There's a wonderful, wonderful community in van life. It's funny, I will start with this, but we have some friends, Travis and Lauren, and they're elopement photographers, they travel all over the world. But they literally saw one day that we were in the same [00:29:00] town that they were, hit us up on Instagram, "Hey, we're here. You guys want to hang out?" And we went and had pizza and some brews together and just became in instant best friends, and now we see them pretty frequently. And we've seen them in eight or nine different states at different times throughout the years.
Adam Williams: By chance?
Mars Fite: Yeah, that we've just both happened to be there.
Ashley Fite: Like Washington-
Adam Williams: And because of your online presence, you could figure that out.
Mars Fite: Yeah. Well, we both... Or I guess they originally saw that we were in... I think it [00:29:30] was Niwot or Lafayette or something, up outside of Boulder, and they were just passing through, and so we connected. But then you stay connected to people and you find out, oh shoot, we're going to be in Phoenix at the same time. Oh shoot, we're going to be...
Ashley Fite: We've seen them in California, Washington, on the East Coast.
Mars Fite: And that's been a really special thing in the van life community for us, is there are other nomads that are out there. We're all kind of wandering around, doing our own things. And sometimes we get to sync up [00:30:00] and just have special times together.
Ashley Fite: And because we're all like-minded, in the way of we all have a little bit of wanderlust, it's really easy to meet back up and to catch back where you left off, where it feels like no time has passed. And honestly, I think one of the things I've learned from those friendships is that even though we are missing those days in between, those mundane, seeing you on a weekly basis, we make the time [00:30:30] that we are together really good. The time is very valuable. And I think we've done that, honestly, even with people that don't travel in a van. If we go meet up with friends we haven't seen for a while, we really appreciate that time we have together. Where I think when you start seeing people regularly, all the time in a town, you don't really take the time to...
Mars Fite: It's easy to start taking that for granted.
Ashley Fite: Correct. Thank you.
Mars Fite: Otherwise, each moment you get, you're completely present and you're [00:31:00] locked in and dialed in with those people and that, it's wonderful, obviously. It's like, "Hey, well it may be months before I see you again or years before we see each other again."
Ashley Fite: Right. And so I think that's an important lesson that we've taken away from traveling. When it comes to community and friendships, is to definitely dial in that time and focus and be present with people. Get off your phone, have a conversation.
Mars Fite: And have experiences together, too. We'll go out and do [00:31:30] something, not just sit around necessarily.
Adam Williams: I've brought up your online presence in that you do have a public audience, a following, and that brings in a different concept of community. So you can connect with people from afar, who have an interest in van life, but live who knows where around the world, following a hashtag, following your account, whatever it might be.
So I wonder what your thoughts are in regard to that kind of community. And what, [00:32:00] over the past several years, you've done in building, how intentionally or not, you can share with me, but to build that audience online and be able to connect with people that way too, no matter where you're roving at the time. Mars, you want to give your thoughts on that?
Mars Fite: Yeah, I'll say first that we kind of happened upon getting a following. I think it was just really-
Ashley Fite: Timing.
Mars Fite: Yeah, it was just timing was everything. [00:32:30] And we tried to be real and just authentic as people. And so I think that's... Obviously, I guess people really appreciate that. But in terms of... Yeah, I would say it's wonderful thing. We have friends online that we've never met, but we've connected with because of our love for travel or our love for minimalism or whatever it is.
And some of these people have been with us through really hard times and vice versa, and [00:33:00] we've maybe never even met before. So I think it's a wonderful tool and obviously it can be used as life draining as well, the same tool. Social media, obviously, is what I'm referring to.
But for us, it's been something where we will use it and we'll be a part of the community and whatnot. But sometimes it's good to take a break, and if we don't feel like it's really [00:33:30] feeding our soul, being on social media or whatever, we'll just kind of back off for a little while.
Adam Williams: Is that hard to do? Is it hard to back off? Because I think for any of us who have a smartphone in our pockets or within reach, find it very difficult to put it down, stop, whether it's social media or anything else. I can be watching a show and it can be some sort of noble intent, that I'm curious. Well, they just mentioned some historical figure in this show. I'm going to look it up, I'm going to Google... [00:34:00] I can't stop grabbing my phone, no matter what the intentions are.
Or if it's just a scroll on Instagram, and I can get sick of it with myself. And still it's like an addiction. Do you find it difficult as creators, as people who have an audience, maybe expecting, demanding, wanting you to be putting out something of your story? Is it hard to set it aside and play with your kids instead?
Ashley Fite: I think honestly... So 2020, the world shut down. We moved back here to shelter in place on our land. And we had [00:34:30] no cell service or internet or anything, and so for months we didn't know what was happening in the world. And honestly, it was probably a good thing because I'm sure we could have gone down the rabbit hole of getting sucked into the media and what was being said about COVID, but we were really isolated during that time. So I think whatever... And Atlas, at the time, our youngest, was an infant, he was three months old. And so I think it really gave us time to put all of that into perspective.
[00:35:00] And so we really don't post as much anymore. In order to grow your account at this point in time, you have to be on there always, every second it feels like. And so it's not something that interests me a lot. I think I'm a storyteller at heart, and so I love storytelling. I love photography, I love videography, I love all of that. And so I do do that, to the point where it brings [00:35:30] me fulfillment, but I don't go past that. I don't like my kids seeing me on my phone, reaching for it all the time. And so I will post occasionally, but I'm not going to sit there and feed into the beast.
Mars Fite: Yeah, I'll take that further by saying, it's like when we start to realize, oh, we're doing this for content. If we ever say that to each other, we basically... It's like, "Actually, let's hold up. [00:36:00] Are we going to appreciate this content when we're older? Is this, in some capacity, self-serving? Or are we doing this just-"
Ashley Fite: For everyone else.
Mars Fite: Yeah, for everyone else. And no offense to everyone else, but that's not why we started our journey at all. We love, absolutely... I mean, it's so fulfilling to maybe inspire people here and there or to be able to speak in other people's lives on things that we've done, but as long [00:36:30] as it's healthy.
Ashley Fite: As long as it's a real it's connection.
Mars Fite: Exactly.
Ashley Fite: As long as it's a real connection with people. And the thing is, I don't feel like a lot of times it is. And if it's a real connection, we have real connections through that tool, they're not sitting there waiting for us to post. I don't feel like the world is waiting for me to put something on the internet.
Mars Fite: Absolutely not.
Ashley Fite: And so I'm not going to sit there and try to make people wait for me to put something on the internet. I don't care that much, and I don't think people care that much. I don't think anyone really cares.
Adam Williams: [00:37:00] I'll guess that that's why you have the following you have then, is because what you're posting is something that you feel compelled to share as sharers, which maybe it's obvious, but because of my doing this podcast, I believe in the value of sharing, of connecting through story, of being vulnerable and truthful with our stories. And that's a point of connection for us.
Ashley Fite: Right.
Mars Fite: Absolutely.
Adam Williams: I wonder, then, what you value in sharing? We're talking about authenticity, we're [00:37:30] talking about connection, and sharing only when it feels right to share, not because you're trying to somehow boost your following with just entertainment that is, perhaps, hollow. So what does sharing mean to the two of you? And I'm also curious, how do you decide... You've already spoken to it some, Mars, but how do you decide what is worth sharing and why you're doing it?
Ashley Fite: Well, currently we're building an A-frame cabin [00:38:00] and so-
Mars Fite: And we're developing our property in general.
Ashley Fite: I want to be able to look back... I've spoken about this before, but there's periods of my life where I didn't share stories, where I didn't make videos of what was happening. And it kind of turns into this blob of a memory where maybe a couple of things stick out. And I want to be 80 years old and look back on this period of time, of building out our cabin, and really have those memories there. And so for me, sharing [00:38:30] is like how do I want to remember this story when I'm older? And for friends and family who live far away, what are they interested in? They want to see, "Oh, you have your flooring in now, and your windows." And, "How are the kids?"
Mars Fite: Virtually get to see the kids grow up. That is our main driving force for sharing our story, either for us to have later in life or for connecting with others.
Ashley Fite: [00:39:00] And also, as far as the traveling goes, really inspiring people to say yes to things and to see you can do something-
Mars Fite: You can do it.
Ashley Fite: ... A little crazy and you're going to be okay. You're going to have difficult times, but also, it's like-
Mars Fite: You're going to have difficult times with your regular life.
Ashley Fite: Right. But you get a bigger spectrum of experience. A lot of times, the internet glamorizes everything, and you have to remember, as glamorous as [00:39:30] it is, it's the other side of the coin as well. Especially with van life with, I don't know, compost toilets or whatever else you have to deal with.
Mars Fite: Finding parking all time.
Ashley Fite: Finding parking. There's the other side of the coin with the glamorous lifestyle. But you do get that wider spectrum of experience, which is something... We just get this life, so let's just experience the highest of highs, even if it does come with really low lows.
Adam Williams: [00:40:00] So talking about the property, you've described the A-frame, but also that there's more to it. I think you have a vision. Again, I follow you on Instagram, I see at least some of the videos and things that you share. So I'm aware of this larger, more creative vision. I know that Mars, you have a music studio built there as well. What is this vision and timeframe and whatever is going on with this?
Mars Fite: Yeah, so I guess I'll start by taking it [00:40:30] back to right before our 48 state road trip. We were trying to be really intentional and setting a vision for what life could be. We look at life as like, if we could do all the things we actually wanted to do, somehow by magic, what would it look like? And so even before our 48 state road trip, I started praying and meditating on what is life really going to look like?
What kind of purpose can I bring to life that's more than just me and [00:41:00] traveling for my family and blah, blah, blah. And after about three months of continually asking that, I felt like it would be a really fun idea to build out a property, preferably in the mountains, that had creative resources for creatives, people in music or film or whatever. And have kind of a retreat of sorts, that creatives can go to, have the resources they need, have a breath of fresh air and hopefully [00:41:30] create some really meaningful stuff in life. Life. And so-
Ashley Fite: It was a lifelong goal. When we're 60, we'll do this.
Mars Fite: Exactly. When the kids were all grown up, when we have grandkids, we'll do this. And then so fast-forward a few years later, throughout our travels, we realize, man, might as well just do this now. It was the same thing with the 48 state road trip, right? We're like, "Oh, we'll do this in five years," which turned to, "Let's [00:42:00] do this next year." Because obviously it's something we want to do and it's a way that we feel like we can contribute, and something that's more than just ourselves.
We try to follow... The path to happiness, first is experiences, on a shallower level, and then growth as a person, and then contribution as the last bit of that. And experiences, obviously we've done 48 state road trip in our van [00:42:30] and everything, and we've had a lot of growth through those experiences. And this is our way of doing something that can help others. And maybe it won't, but at least this is a way that we think we can.
Ashley Fite: Giving it a shot.
Mars Fite: Giving it a shot. So yeah, so far, we are, 2020, stuck at home that summer. Our project was to build a little tiny studio to kind of get things rolling. And so we have a great singer-songwriter, [00:43:00] basically tiny studio or podcast room. We edit all our videos in there. And then in the very near future, we've already done one, but we want to have live music sessions from singer-songwriters or duos in that space. And that's the forefront right now, we're really, really excited about that. But we're allowing this to be something that kind of develops a life of its own as the timing is right. So right now we're finishing up our house, which is a really, really big thing. So we're kind [00:43:30] of just... As soon as our house is done, trust me, we'll have the next thing right there, or on the horizon.
Ashley Fite: I really want to create an art space. Currently, we have a vintage camper that's full of art supplies. It's covered in paint, which is really fun. But I want to have a bigger space that has plexiglass garage doors you can open up to view the mountains, cement floors, all the paint supplies where you can just go out there and have a good time.
Mars Fite: Well, ideally, in a perfect world, we [00:44:00] would host little retreats for small groups of people to come. And maybe hire a well-known songwriter to come teach a songwriting class or hire a wonderful painter to come in and teach a course on that or something. And maybe even taking all those things digitally as well. But really, the focus is to have a place away from the noise, as a creator, for creatives to come out and express themselves.
Ashley Fite: Yeah. We do have a girl coming out the end of September, who's going to host a wellness [00:44:30] retreat next summer. And so it'd be for five people. And so smaller groups like that, that can come out and get away from the city and find healing through art in some way.
Adam Williams: You obviously traveled the whole country, 48 states. Why here, in rural, central Colorado? How did this come to be the place that you chose instead of anywhere else, which I have to believe you would've been just as motivated to make your dreams [00:45:00] happen?
Mars Fite: That's a great question. Many of our nationwide friends asked that. Why a rural town in Colorado? But honestly, we came to Salida a long time ago for a weekend, and it was over [inaudible 00:45:14] and really-
Ashley Fite: 2014.
Mars Fite: Yeah. Really enjoyed our time. And so it's kind of always been in the back of our mind, we've always really liked it. And we came back when we got the van and continued-
Ashley Fite: The first weekend we had the van, actually.
Mars Fite: Actually, yeah, the first week when we got the van, we came down to Salida, not [00:45:30] even thinking about future stuff. We just came down to Salida, had a really wonderful time. And then over our travels throughout the states, we've always kind of had in the back of our head, where might we land? And I will never forget this, I told my mom when I was eight years old, I said, "I'm moving to Colorado when I grow up. I'm moving to Colorado." But we were open.
Ashley Fite: We were open to other-
Mars Fite: We were open to other places.
Ashley Fite: We honestly, we'd get on LandWatch, I don't know if you've ever heard of LandWatch, but you can look at land for sale all across the US. And we [00:46:00] would look at Colorado, we'd look at Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. I have family from Washington state, I love the Pacific Northwest. We love the outdoors, so we wanted a place where... And also a van friendly place. The amount of vans that come through Salida. Anyone who lives around here, you see so many converted vans. You go out to the East United States-
Mars Fite: Eastern US, that is not the place-
Ashley Fite: ... You don't really see vans. And [00:46:30] so for us, it felt like home just driving through here. And we're also like, "We want a place where friends that are in vans will travel through." And it's like this is... I mean, this is a van life heaven. And so-
Mars Fite: But I think, obviously, really important for us, was finding a place that had a heartbeat, that had a real heartbeat. And we didn't want a big city, we wanted to be removed a little bit. And each time that we visited here, it just felt so wholesome and homey, and [00:47:00] groovy and funky. There's so much personality to the valley.
Ashley Fite: It didn't feel like a cookie cutter place. Every house here is different. It's weird, it feels alive.
Mars Fite: Obviously people are wonderful. If you live here, you know exactly why.
Ashley Fite: We all live here for probably similar reasons.
Mars Fite: Right. It's a wonderful place.
Adam Williams: Or those who are listening who don't live here, can be all the more jealous at the things you're describing.
Ashley Fite: [00:47:30] Yeah. It's horrible. Don't come. Just kidding.
Mars Fite: Come visit.
Adam Williams: I wonder, with you setting down these roots, obviously you're talking about a longer term vision. What is the role of travel then, as you see it in your future?
Mars Fite: So basically this is... We've kind of decided this is going to be our launchpad. This is going to be where home is in the heart of our kids and for us as well. But we have lots and lots of travel planned, that's for sure. Well, we're going [00:48:00] to spend an entire year just living in our house and letting our kiddo finish fourth grade. And then she'll probably do a little bit of fifth grade and we are going to... The plan is right now-
Ashley Fite: Rough plan.
Mars Fite: Rough plan is Central America. Get down in Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and definitely revisit Guatemala, one of our favorite countries.
Ashley Fite: I love Guatemala so much. It's the country of eternal Spring and I'm really into 70 degree weather.
Mars Fite: But yeah, we basically [00:48:30] always want to travel and then come back here and connect with our community and connect with those that are around us, those that we love. And then kind of get refilled and then jump back out.
Ashley Fite: Right now we're planning, hopefully, maybe 2025, doing a three month trip, possibly in a van. We've kind of dabbled in the idea of what we're going to do exactly, but we know that we're not done with our travels yet.
Adam Williams: Mars, what is music for you? [00:49:00] You have a music studio, you have this life, very creative and expressive through music. And I'm just curious, as somebody who has played some instruments but not been in a band, not been that creator with it like you are, I think... Help me see through your eyes.
Mars Fite: Yeah, man. I mean, music, for me, has always been... Well, first off, I'll say I'm not a phenomenal musician or this God gifted [00:49:30] to the earth, but it's always-
Adam Williams: Ashley, is he downplaying that?
Mars Fite: It's always been... No, I'm not.
Ashley Fite: He had a band that was pretty good.
Mars Fite: Okay. Thanks to the other guys in it.
Ashley Fite: Oh my gosh.
Mars Fite: No, it's always been the thing in my life that's been steady. It's always been no matter what happens, no matter where I'm at in life, it's always just been something that brings me fulfillment and brings me happiness. And so to me, it doesn't matter if I'm the greatest musician. What matters is [00:50:00] that it's something that really means a lot to me, and it's something that is obviously good for my soul and good for... Hopefully the things that I create are good for others or help others in some way. But it's really just been the most consistent thing in my life, and that means a lot.
Adam Williams: It's an amazing commitment to say, "I'm going to build a studio." You described it, Ashley, as being in the van, that was part of what you had there. Now you have one that you've built on this property. That's, I think, [00:50:30] probably a little bit extraordinary. People can play in their basement, they can play in their bedroom, and that's all good. But you've taken it the next step and said, "I want to make this environment to foster this thing that means so much to me."
Mars Fite: Yeah. It really happened because Ashley said that I had too much crap around.
Ashley Fite: Yeah, he calls himself a minimalist, but he's not minimal when it comes to music equipment.
Mars Fite: Not with music gear. No.
Ashley Fite: So I was thinking-
Mars Fite: But I will say, we sold our audio production company, or we sold our equipment and everything in Oklahoma when we hit the road. [00:51:00] So I did pretty darn well-
Ashley Fite: He got rid of a lot of stuff. I can't even imagine. What did you have? We have so much stuff, still.
Mars Fite: Two full PAs... A bunch of stuff.
Ashley Fite: It's okay. He has accumulated more since coming here. He's been running sound around town, so he needed more stuff.
Adam Williams: Ashley, what's sort of an equivalent, I guess? So what is your creative form that is not necessarily for online, but what is just part of your creative daily life, in a sense?
Ashley Fite: Honestly, I've always liked songwriting, [00:51:30] and so I think that's connected Mars and me through the years. We have written some stuff. We do need to utilize our recording studio to record it.
Mars Fite: Right now we're in the building, fundamental stage, but very, very soon it will be in building our music stuff.
Ashley Fite: And then I also really enjoy video production. I kind of found that out my junior year of college. I was a broadcast major, and so you don't really get [00:52:00] into your major until the end of school, which is crazy. But I was like, "You know what? I really enjoy filmmaking and creating videos and telling stories in this more documentary style way rather than a news story."
I started working for a TV show, a local TV show called The Rock and Road Show, and so we would film bands coming through and interview them and kind of tell their story and then film their live shows. And so I enjoyed doing that. And then when I met Mars, [00:52:30] I did videos of our weekly life, but I didn't put them on YouTube. I think I just did it for myself, just because I really enjoy creating a documentary style of life as I see it, I guess.
Adam Williams: You have these two young kids we've mentioned. What do you think, as parents, you would like the takeaway to be ultimately? In 15 years, what you hope they have accrued through [00:53:00] the travels, through the sense of community and all the senses of community that you have developed and brought them into through the property that fosters that. Just all of these pieces of who you are, what are you hoping that they are absorbing in this time?
Mars Fite: This sounds so cliche, but honestly, to follow their heart and follow their dream, no matter how big it is, and to try to help people within that. I think at the very end of the day, [00:53:30] if they take their experience that they have growing up, and use all of that to really find out what they can do, that they love, and how it can help the world, as a parent, I'm like, "Okay. Heck yeah."
But I think, obviously, all of the relationships that we've had on the road and the wide variety of people they've met and all of that, hopefully will craft them to be a very open-minded, independent, loving, and caring individual [00:54:00] as well.
Ashley Fite: Yeah, I agree with that.
Adam Williams: I think what you're modeling for them, if we circle this back to the beginning and the idea of you leaping into van life, and probably what is a perception across the vast majority of population is, "Well, I can't do that. It's very cool that you do. I can't imagine how you do. I can't uproot and do that." What you're doing is modeling possibility for your kids, and I think that that is just invaluable.
Ashley Fite: [00:54:30] Thanks.
Mars Fite: Thanks. Yeah.
Adam Williams: I've enjoyed getting to know you both more here today. Thank you for sharing your story. I enjoy following you online. We'll include links for those things in the show notes at wearechaffee.org. But again, thank you. This has been great.
Mars Fite: Yeah, dude, seriously, it's an honor to be here.
Ashley Fite: [00:55:00] Thanks for having us. Yeah, for sure. This has been really fun.
[Transition music, instrumental guitars]
Adam Williams: Thanks for listening to the We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream Podcast. If our conversation here today sparks curiosity for you, you can learn more in this episode's show notes at wearechaffee.org. If you have comments or know someone in Chaffee County, Colorado who I should consider talking with on the podcast, you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We invite you to rate and review the We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast on Apple Podcast, Spotify, or whatever platform you use with that functionality. [00:55:30] We also invite you to tell others about The Looking Upstream Podcast. Help us to keep growing community and connection through conversation.
Once again, I'm Adam Williams, host, producer, and photographer. John Pray is engineer and producer. Thank you to kHEN 106.9 FM, our community radio partner in Salida, Colorado. To Heather Gorby for graphic and web design, to Andrea Carlstrom, director of Chaffee County Public Health and Environment, and Lisa Martin, community Advocacy Coordinator for the We Are Chaffee Storytelling Initiative.
[00:56:00] The We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream Podcast is a Collaboration with the Chaffee County Department of Public Health and the Chaffee Housing Authority, and it's supported by the Colorado Public Health and Environment Office of Health Disparities. You can learn more about the Looking Upstream Podcast and related storytelling initiatives at wearechaffee.org and on Instagram and Facebook @WeAreChaffee. Lastly, until the next episode, as we say here at We Are Chaffee, “share stories, make change.”
[Outro music, instrumental horns and guitars]