ETech Preview: Living the Technomadic Life

One of the themes at this year’s Emerging Technology Conference is nomadism, and there is no better example of technomads than Chris Dunphy and Cherie Ve Ard. Traveling around the country in a custom 17′ trailer towed by a Diesel Jeep Liberty, they manage to run a consulting firm while satisfying their desire to see new places and meet new people. In this preview of Chris and Cherie’s ETech presentation, Tales from Technomadia, we talk to them about what it takes technologically to make it work, and what a life on the road is like. Listen to the full interview, or read the transcript below.


JAMES TURNER: This is James Turner for O’Reilly Media. Today I’m talking to Chris Dunphy and Cherie Ve Ard, self-proclaimed technomadics, who travel around the country towing an ecologically tricked-out trailer. In addition to their vagabond life, they also run the consulting firm Two Steps Beyond. They’ll be speaking at O’Reilly’s Emerging Technology Conference in March. Thank you for taking the time to talk to us.

CHRIS DUNPHY: Good morning, James, good to talk to you.

CHERIE VE ARD: Good morning.

JT: So why don’t you start by giving a brief background for each of you and how you came to be traveling around the country together.

CD: I guess I’ll start it out. I’ve been living technomadically for just about three years now. This has always been a dream of mine. I was with Palm and PalmSource for 5+ years, and when PalmSource decided to go off in the direction of doing embedded operating systems in Japan, I set about evicting myself from my San Francisco apartment, bought a small trailer, started traveling with it, upgraded it to solar, and then along the way I met Cherie, and, she can give her side of the story.

CV: Chris and I actually met on a Prius forum online, because he had owned a Prius and traded it in for a Jeep to pull his new home, and I had just bought my second Prius, so that’s where we first encountered each other and we started the online “getting to know you” process. And finally we met up in between both of our travels and instantly hit it off. And I think it was about six months later that I had decided to join him on the road. And I’ve always found that my technology vision was being very mobile and with the ability to travel, so it was a trial for the first seven months. It was a very small 16-foot trailer, which we’ve now upgraded to a much larger 17-foot trailer.

JT: Could you describe the trailer and what makes it different from an off-the-shelf model?

CD: It’s fiberglass; fiberglass egg is kind of the overall type of trailer. It’s made by a company called Oliver Technologies that we tracked down in Hohenwald, Tennessee. They’ve been making these trailers for about two years now, and they do them completely custom, so they work with you to specify everything from, well, for the more conventional customers, the fabrics and floor tiles and the decorating scheme and patterns on the outside. And in our case, we specified wire gauges and solar panels and what sort of inverter/charger combinations to use and all sorts of things that they never really thought about before and they’ve now started to offer as standard options for other people customizing their trailers.

The trailer’s about 17 feet long. It’s mostly kind of, just a fiberglass bubble with two hulls so that it provides some extra insulation. Inside is a space for a four-person dinette that we normally keep as our bed. It works out as a full-size bed. A smaller two-person dinette, a great little kitchen, and a refrigerator…

CV: And a full bathroom and a closet!

CD: Full bathroom, closet, shower, and of course there’s a server room, too, you know. Every good geek needs a server room in their trailer, although in our cases, just a cabinet.

JT: How do you keep that stuff cool?

CD: Keeping it cool? The ultimate way for nomads to control the temperature is to go someplace cool. So if it’s too hot, head north. If it’s too cold, head south.

CV: Generally.

CD: Yeah, generally. We do have, when we are on shore power, when we’re off solar, we’d have an air conditioning unit, but for the most part we find good weather and stick with it.

JT: So what’s a typical day on the road like for you?

CV: Typical? What’s that word mean?

CD: Yeah, part of how we design our life is…I’m very strongly anti-typical. I don’t like typical days. Cherie’s the same way, so, you…almost by definition we don’t have a typical day. Sometimes we might spend a week or a month doing intense, nonstop work, parked in one place. Other time we might spend a month focusing on a national park or traveling across the country or…

CV: Or volunteer project.

CD: We volunteered on the Obama campaign, so we spent a month being a field office. So there’s not a lot that’s typical about what we do.

JT: What’s kind of the average duration you end up staying somewhere?

CV: There’s really not an average. We could be somewhere for a night or two. If we’re just passing through we could stay somewhere for a month. Right now we’ve been in the San Francisco area for about three months working on a work project, and we’re going to hang out in this area until the O’Reilly e-Tech conference next month.

CD: So we, sometimes our duration is of getting to a Wal-Mart parking lot at midnight, and we’ll be leaving shortly after dawn the next day. You know, Wal-Mart has made themselves very transient-, nomad-friendly, and, that’s one perk of Wal-Mart, it’s a nice, safe place to park, if you’re trying to get across country really quickly. Much preferred is to stay in beautiful, scenic places. Public land, there’s a lot of public land that you can stay at for, in a lot of places, up to two weeks at a time. You know, off the grid, down dirt roads and stuff. And we’ve found some amazing, amazing beautiful places where you look out your window and you just can’t believe that “I’m staying here. This is my view today. This is my office view.”

Other times, like right now, we’re actually staying in a commercial trailer park in south San Francisco that gives us easy access to BART and all the joys of the big city. But the quirk’s that when we’re done here, it’s just hitch up and leave, and we’re back out in the wilderness, we’re back on another coast.

JT: I looked on your website and you did mention that occasionally you just kind of park wherever, even if it’s not a trailer park or a camping ground. Do you ever find problems with local law enforcement or local property owners when you do that?

CV: No, we’ve not had too much trouble with that. We’re trying to be very conscientious about where we’re at, staying somewhere. Like the friends who have a driveway, and they know that their zoning laws allow for short-term parking of RVs at least. There’s been a couple of times where we’ve parked in places that might be a little bit more sketchy. But generally if you’re there just overnight, and you’re out early morning and you’re not putting up your awning and putting lawn furniture out on the pavement, you’re typically pretty good off, and the worst that comes up is, you might get a knock on the door that says, you know, you’re not supposed to be sleeping here, and you say, “Oh, we’re just stopping for a meal.”

CD: In three years of mostly nomading about, I’ve only had a knock on my window once saying “You shouldn’t be here.” So, that’s not a bad ratio.

JT: What kind of mileage do you tend to put on every year?

CD: Ooh, that’s …

CV: Last year we did just over 9,000 miles, and the year before we did 12,000.

CD: Yeah, I’ve noticed that I put a lot fewer miles on the car than I used to when I was, had my Silicon Valley job when I was commuting 80, 90 miles a day, from San Francisco down to Silicon Valley. So it’s like, we control how far we drive. A lot of times, an ideal pace for going across country is only 100 to 300 miles a day, and then you stop a lot. And you stay in a place for a while. So, if we’re putting too many miles, we’re logging too many miles, we’re doing it wrong. We’re wasting our time.

JT: You use cellular technology a lot to stay online. Have you found it to be an affordable option?

CD: Um, yeah, it’s really affordable when you’re not also paying for some other connection too. Cherie used to have a house in Florida that we stayed at last winter, we actually dropped her cable modem service there and were living off of our cellular broadband there as well. And when you’re not paying a cable bill, the cellular broadband bill is actually really affordable.

CV: The biggest limitation of a lot of the cell phone companies have gone on to implementing a 5 gigabyte a month limit, and we’re with Sprint right now and they have that limit, but they’re not steadily enforcing it yet.

CD: Yes.

CV: It would be very prohibitively expensive if we were, like, on Verizon, who is charging when you go over 5 gigabytes a month. Because between two technomads doing high-tech stuff all the time online, we easily churn through five gigabytes a month.

CD: Yeah, well, it depends on the month, too, because a lot of times when we have access to Wi-Fi we supplement that way. We’re happy to do more and more active bandwidth management on the fear that Sprint’s going to start enforcing overage charges in the near future.

JT: How often do you find yourself just in an absolute dead zone where you are absolutely cut off from civilization?

CD: It varies. There’s some places where you’re just so frustrated that, you know, a slight walk up a hill and you’ve got coverage, so you might walk up a hill, and you know, sync your e-mail, come back down, and handle it, walk back up the hill later and send it out again. Other times you are really in the boonies and you’ve got to kind of plan your stops, like when we spent some time in Yellowstone, there’s no coverage other than in Yellowstone’s main lodge area. So, we had to plan work calls and stuff while passing, you know, OK, we’re going to hit here, do some work calls, be out of reach for three days, do some more work calls when we pass through this town, and…you have to do a bit more active planning when you’re out there. But in general, we found coverage, you might not have fast coverage, you might not have broadband speed, but there’s coverage to be had in a lot of places that you’d be surprised.

CV: And we’ve also got a cell phone booster system much like a mobile command center might install on their unit, that boosts our cell phone signals quite a bit so that we can be just on the edge of where a signal is and still get fabulous signal. This was the case back in, I think it was in September, when we were passing through the Tahoe forest in Northern California.

CD: Oh yeah.

CV: The camp is in the national forest there, and there was just a slight signal coming in from the nearest town. And we wound up boosting it up and stayed there comfortably for a couple of days.

CD: Yeah. The cell phone booster system actually has an antenna on the roof of the trailer that picks up the signal, goes through am amplifier and then there’s a smaller antenna on the inside that rebroadcasts it, so it’s not just one device hooked up, but it’s both of our phones and our data cards are all amplified and connected at the same time as if they had an amplified big antenna up on the roof.

JT: Traveling across the country with a trailer, now, it’s a solar trailer, but at the end of the day there is a Jeep Liberty in front of it.

CD: Yes.

JT: How do you balance your wanderlust with the desire to be environmentally aware?

CD: Well, that was part of the decision with tracking down the Jeep Liberty. They made it only for two years but there’s a diesel version of the Jeep Liberty that gets fabulous, fabulous fuel economy, so we’re able to get around 20 miles a gallon while towing. And even, you know, up to 25, 26 while not towing, which, when I used to have the older version, well, the other version of the Liberty, the nondiesel, the gasoline version, I was only getting like around 12, 13 miles towing.

CWA: And it gives us incredible towing power, a small unit so that when we’re not hitched up, we’re getting decent fuel economy when we’re getting around town. In addition to it running diesel, because it can also run on biodiesel, so when we have access to biodiesel, we have a much more environmentally friendly and less petroleum-based option for fueling our…wanderlust.

CD: Yeah, there’s always the future option of even doing a veggie oil conversion as well. I’ve run across several people who have taken bigger trucks and are doing something similar, but with veggie oil conversions where they stop by a Chinese restaurant every so often and get a whole barrel and…one couple we ran across said that they were traveling the country for, I think, about 12 cents a mile.

CV: Yeah, it was like 10 cents a mile. Incredibly well.

CD: Yeah, it was, but doing an oil conversion, that means you need to carry around barrels of veggie oil, and it makes it a little bit more complicated for our trying to do things in very small spaces. We don’t want to have a big truck.

JT: I would think that the combination of the periodically high gas prices we’ve had lately and the emerging negative attitude many people seem to have toward large vehicles, that would have impacted the whole RV community. Do you find there’s been a shift in the type or number of people you run into while traveling?

CD: Again, there’s tons of variety thing going on. I’m not sure there’s a particular type of people we run across. That’s kind of what makes it interesting is, you know, out in rural Nevada we’re running across very different people than we do in a trailer park in south San Francisco.

CV: And also we tend to not stay in places where’s there’s lots of RVers.

CD: That’s true.

CV: This is probably…where we’re at right now, in an RV park, is probably the most number of RVs that we’ve seen in our entire trip together over the last year and half, simply because we’re in places where we’re remote and on our own. Places where the bigger RVs, such as the big Class A’s that you see on the road and things like that don’t go. They tend to go to the commercial RV parks, because we’re off grid, we don’t need the hookups, we’re very self-sufficient, and we can stay places where only other self-sufficient RVers tend to go.

CD: Yeah, very true.

JT: With your lifestyle, every time you move you’re going to have a new set of neighbors. What do they tend to be like, and what are the extremes both good and bad you’ve run into?

CD: I don’t think we’ve run into bad. Other than one bizarre incident while camped out in the middle of nowhere in northern California where somebody pulled up in a loud car pumping gangster rap and making threatening noises, which you don’t expect in the middle of the national forest. Even then, they…it kind of ended with us completely undisturbed, but that was our only bad, uncomfortable neighbor situation. Mostly we just meet really interesting new diverse people. Sometimes we meet people who are various tech geeks. A lot of times though there’s…the people who have chosen to go full-time RVing that are following the stereotype of the older retired generation, and so it’s always very refreshing when you run across other people who are in their 20s and 30s and have chosen to not wait for retirement to get out there and start traveling. But that is actually a bit rarer for us to find people like that.

JT: In addition to traveling, you also do run a consulting form called Two Steps Beyond. Can you tell me what kind of services you offer through that?

CD: Well, with Two Steps Beyond we try and find projects that are interesting. With our lifestyle we’ve managed to keep our expenses as minimal as possible. We’re not paying rent or mortgages and have a lot more control over our expenses, and we try to be really conscious of how we spend our money so that makes us a lot less obligated to take whatever projects come along. So we take interesting things. Our most recent one was consulting to an iPhone software start-up called Hear Planet. Do you want to explain what Hear Planet was?

CV: Well, we basically managed a launch at Macworld. The owner of the company came to us and said he wanted to do a large bus party going on around Macworld. So we orchestrated getting him a double-decker bus and a lineup of DJs, and did a big splash promotion at Macworld that got a lot of attention. It was very non-mainstream for the event. So that was a very fun project, and because he was pre-funded, we were able to do it at an affordable rate for him. But we’ve also taken on helping small businesses integrate technology into their business. Everything from accounting and setting up basic websites, doing IP research type things.

CD: Yeah, we did patent consulting, we’ve advised some start-ups that are doing their early strategy and evaluation stuff. The Hear Planet one was great; it took a company from nowhere, we got their app launched at a number 3 in the travel section of the iApp store with, on such a short time frame and such a small budget, and that was really fun to do that project. And then, you know, one of the things our flexibility lets us do is take on projects that are personally important to us, so we basically put everything else on hold and spent the month of October running a field office in rural Nevada for the Obama campaign, so, we had the geographic flexibility and the ability to devote our time 100% to something so we could go where most needed and went deep into rural Nevada.

JT: You’re going to be speaking at e-Tech in March. Can you give us a little peek about what you’re going to be talking about?

CD: Oh yeah, the O’Reilly folks came to us and said, one of the themes that we want to talk about this year is nomadism and technomadism, and, like OK, we live that and we could kind of, you know, give hints and tips and guidelines to other people who want to make the shift to living more nomadically, or living nomadically, to actually, you know, cut the cord and hit the road. So we’re gonna kind of do just a practical hints and tips, how to do this, some of the stories, lessons, and everything that we’ve gotten out of this.

CV: And just sharing some of what inspired us to hit the road, and what it took, and the mental barriers that it took to overcome.

CD: Yup.

CV: …to be able to give up a physical house and just really be out there living your life.

CD: And we’ll also show off the geekery that we use, so we’ve got all sorts of fun technology that makes this possible, makes it possible to do this while staying connected, like we’re doing with you right now, talking cross-country. So, it should be a fun session, I’m really looking forward to e-Tech. There’s lots of other amazing stuff on the roster, so it should be a great conference.

JT: I’ve been talking to Chris Dunphy and Cherie Ve Ard, who are self-proclaimed technomadics. They’ll be speaking at the O’Reilly e-Tech conference at the end of March. Thank you so much for talking to us.

CD: It’s been our pleasure.

CV: Thank you.

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