Born and raised in Black Hawk, Erika Ristau spent the majority of her childhood traveling the winding roads of the Black Hills in her dad’s CJ-7, hiking and collecting rocks. Now a barista, Ristau is still traveling, but from the comfort of her van-converted-home, “Nellie.” 605 was lucky to catch Ristau before her next trip and ask her about van life in the Midwest and what it means to really travel.
“Be fluid. LIfe is way too short to stress about where you’re going to sleep at night, about what hike you’ll be doing tomorrow, or if you took a wrong turn 80 miles back.”
Tell me about growing up in South Dakota.
ERIKA RISTAU: Growing up in Rapid City was the best. I was fortunate to grow up with two beautiful, loving parents who worked their butts off to make sure I had a great childhood and the building blocks to a successful adulthood. I vividly remember driving around the Black Hills in my dad’s CJ-7, going hiking, and collecting as many rocks as possible.
Where are you working/living right now?
ER: Dornans in Moose, Wyo., which is about 12 miles north of Jackson Hole and one mile east of the Grand Teton Mountains. I work outside on a coffee cart at the base of the mountains. They let me park the van down by the river (yes, I’ve seen the SNL skit, and yes, I’m seriously living in a van down by the river) and give me three meals a day. My coworkers (now friends) all live here in the dorms. My ‘commute’ to work is a short walk up a gravel path that mirrors the mountains. I get to watch the sun rise while I open shop and continue to watch the clouds dance with the sun over the Grand Tetons all day.
Why do you travel?
ER: I travel, because some day when I’m old, I want to be able to tell my mildly inspiring stories to 19-year-olds. I want to experience life in every dimension possible. Traveling, to me, is just an open door into some of those avenues. It’s really hard to talk about traveling and not sound cliché… but it truly is an inspiring experience that I would recommend to anyone.
What is your favorite thing about traveling?
ER: Chasing snakes. Let me explain: I have this ridiculous, irrational fear of snakes. It doesn’t matter if they are big, small, poisonous, or otherwise. Over the course of the past few years I’ve been trying to get over that fear, so my new strategy for dealing with snakes is to stop, breathe, observe, and move on. When I first started traveling on my own, I was terrified of a lot of stupid, irrational things. I was afraid to sleep in parking lots. I was afraid to brush my teeth in public bathrooms, but most of all, I was terrified of people. When I started traveling alone, I realized it was not only impractical to fear most of these things, it was actually crippling my traveling experiences. So, I slowly started “chasing snakes.” Instead of sitting by myself in a coffee shop, I would ask to join others. Instead of hiding at a campsite, I started Googling events going on in the area. I found myself going to concerts, farmers’ markets, and arts festival across the country. So, in short, my favorite part of traveling is how much it pushes me to experience new things, and how it opens new doors that I never imagined I would be walking through. It actively creates me.
Tell me about your van.
ER: Nellie and I have been together for a year and some change. I named her Nellie Bly after this super rad woman from the 1800s who traveled around the world in 72 days by herself with nothing but a backpack and a journal. It seemed appropriate for the direction I was heading. Plus, whenever I’m going down a dicey road, there is nothing more satisfying than yelling “Woah, Nellie!”
I moved into it in late February, and it was stupid cold, but so worth it. I used to park in trailhead parking lots or at the coffee shop I was working at at the time. It was a fun transition from weekend warrior vehicle to full-time home. You really begin to learn what you do and don’t actually need. When I first moved in, I tried to pack in all my clothes and trinkets from past trips, books, and a bunch of camping gear. As time went on, a lot of that stuff began to disappear, and just the essentials remained.
Is there a specific design aesthetic?
ER: (Laughs) Absolutely not. If anything, it’s just practical. I’m not really that picky with how things look. My bed is made out of exposed two-by-fours, and one of my buddy’s leftover siding from his tiny house. You can definitely tell Nellie is a budget van, but I love it and I’m so proud of it.
Do you plan your trips or are they more spontaneous?
ER: I hate the ‘p’ word. My trips are usually outlined, maybe one week prior to whenever I’m leaving. I don’t plan for a couple of reasons. One, it’s freaking hard. I hate researching things. I hate staring at a screen for hours, mapping and organizing, and trying to find places to camp and hike. If you have a plan beautifully lined up and you get this idea of how the trip is ‘supposed to play out,’ you limit yourself to experiencing just one version of the trip. I like to be a little more fluid these days. If you don’t plan anything, then you’re open to everything and the world becomes this exciting oyster in your hands.
- Don’t spit your toothpaste on the ground. There are chemicals.
- Buy reusable water bottles. Staying hydrated while traveling is so important, but be responsible.
- Don’t honk in six-lane traffic. Everyone is just as stressed as you are.
Do you travel with friends or solo?
ER: I mostly travel solo, which I’m fairly proud to admit. I lived a decently sheltered life, and was incredibly afraid of the world until I began to travel by my lonesome. My first solo trip was in February of last year. Everyone close to me was pretty skeptical, but I was determined. I pulled a double shift at the job I was working at, loaded up the Ford, and hit the road. I got off work at 2 a.m. and drove all night until I reached my destination the next day. I will never forget passing the Utah sign; I was extremely stoked that I did it. Since then, I have been somewhere every month. I have definitely done my share of traveling with friends, too. My favorite person to travel with is, hands down, my dad. He’s great to take on the road because of his motivation to hike every day. Every morning he’ll pull out a map (the man loves maps) and find a hike for us to do.
What is your favorite place to travel?
ER: If I had to pick, it would be anywhere in Utah. I love the people. I love the culture. I love the colors and I love the way it makes me feel. The desert is a special place that demands a different kind of appreciation. To anyone who has never been, I highly recommend catching a sunset in Canyonlands National Park.
Where is one place you still need to visit?
ER: One place that has been steadily moving up towards the top of my list is Mount Kilimanjaro, or Baja, Mexico.
What advice do you have for travel newbies?
ER: Getting lost can be a hoot if you let it be. Never go to the first or last gas station you see in a town. They’re always more expensive, so try to go to one located a couple of exits into town. If you’re going to three or more national parks in a year, I highly recommend the $80 parks pass.
What do you want people to know about vehicular travel?
ER: Whoever is driving gets the ultimate say on the tunage, especially if you’re driving through the night. That’s my only road trip rule. But really, the only advice I can give about traveling in a vehicle is to keep it clean, keep yourself clean, and check your oil.
For more information, follow Ristau on Instagram @rickyontherun_.