In Appreciation of Baseball

June 20, 2011. Yankees vs Reds. Great American Ballpark, Cincinnati, OH.

That was the first Major League game I ever attended. I think I ended up with tickets as part of a Tire Barn giveaway. At the time, I was dating a girl who loved the Yankees, so we had to go. I was always more of a football guy, and I hadn’t even glanced at a baseball game in years. Despite that, I couldn’t help feeling a little bit excited as we made our way into the stadium. There seemed to be a contagious energy in the air. I decided I was definitely going to root for the Reds.

The first thing we did was stop to buy a program. “I always get a program,” my baseball-savvy companion said. And so we did, and then proceeded to climb all the way to the top of the stadium. Our seats were in the very highest row of the View Level, but I didn’t mind. You get a great view of the river up there. While waiting for the game to start, I started thumbing through the aforementioned program. Being wholly uneducated about the Reds, I was surprised and delighted to read that the MVP of the league was on their roster. “Hey! This Joey Votto guy is really good!” I exclaimed.

So he was, and so were the Reds back then, but that night did not belong to them. The Yankees, courtesy of superb hitting from both Alex Rodriguez and Robinson Cano, won the game 5-3. Mariano Rivera closed it out in the 9th. But a spark was lit in the muggy Midwest air that night for me, one that would illuminate a path I’m still walking down.


I play music for a living, and there are many parallels between my job and baseball. For one, the schedule; the season is 162 games long, and I usually play anywhere between 160-180 shows in a year. The travel is another, with teams travelling anywhere from 25,000 to 45,000 miles in a season. As a touring musician, I was on the road for 50,000 miles last year. Another is the struggle and grind that players go through to make it. For every star like Rivera or Votto, there are hundreds of unknown guys in the minor leagues, working for minimal pay, all trying to make it to The Show. It’s a long road, and a lot of guys are in the minor leagues for 8 or 10 years before they “make it.”

I had the fortune of catching a few Spring Training games in Arizona this year, and I was struck by the immensity of it all. I was surrounded by prospects from all over the world, all working towards a singular goal. Some make it, many don’t, but there is nobility in the effort.


Back to 2011. My newfound interest in baseball just so happened to coincide with the beginnings of my career in music. I had spent the first part of the year working a regular job, and it made me absolutely miserable. But, Cincinnati offered an opportunity in the form of an event called the Cincy Blues Challenge. Not even a month before my first Reds game, I had gathered up my guitar, my insecurities, and my nerves, and put them all on the stage at Arnold’s Bar & Grill. Hoping for a chance. I got it, in the form of winning the competition.

That was May 22, 2011. The day before my 19th birthday. My journey as a professional musician started there, in the Queen City’s oldest bar. I went into work the next day, quit my job, and never looked back. It’s been all music ever since, and I’ve been working my way up through the system. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.


It’s taken me every bit of these past 6 years to gain a true appreciation for the beauty in baseball. I was angry and impatient as a teenager, and I didn’t have the perspective or patience to follow an entire season. Football, that adrenaline-filled sport where every game is life or death, was a better fit for my younger self.

So, I started out as a casual fan, and I grew a little bit with each passing year. I’m almost 25 now, and I’ve learned that the journey matters as much as where you end up at the end of it. A win is nice, but if you’re expecting one every night, you’re going to end up being disappointed a lot over the course of 162 games.

For the first pitch of Opening Day this year, I wasn’t in Cincinnati. I wasn’t at the parade, or glued to a TV in a sports bar. I was on the road, heading to my 45th show of the year. Scott Feldman got the start for the Reds; he’s a journeyman who’s been in the leagues since 2005. He’s played for 6 different teams. He’s lost more games than he’s won. He isn’t famous. They can’t all be.

The Reds lost to the Phillies on Opening Day, 4-3. I found out during sound check, and it was okay, because I knew there were 161 more games to come this year. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

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Going Back Home

Note: This post is about Singer-Songwriter Brian Keith Wallen’s new album, “Going Back Home.” You can listen to songs from the album and download it by clicking here.

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In the tradition of artists like Bon Iver, the Black Keys, and Sufjan Stevens repping their home states, I give you “Going Back Home.”

Indiana is my birth home, my foundation, the place that made me and supports me. The UP is my community home, the place where the people make me feel welcome and fill my heart with hope and belonging. Colorado is my spiritual home, where the mountains take away my troubles and the rivers give me peace.

I came up with the concept for the cover artwork before I even had all the songs; I knew I wanted to do the map of America, and the initial idea was to highlight each state where a song had been written. But as time went on, that vision evolved into wanting to highlight my “home states.” I reached out to Rachel Hart, who’s done all of my graphic design work for the last year, and she stunned me with the gorgeous cover you see above.

I feel drawn to all three of these states, and you’re likely to find me going back and forth between them at any given time. Let me take you song by song and tell you how they inspired me.


Crazy Beautiful World

I wrote this song in February 2016 in Marquette, MI. It snowed one night, about 7 or 8 inches. The next morning, I walked half a mile down to Lower Harbor. I gazed out into the fog hovering over Lake Superior and pondered life for a while. Here I am, in that moment.

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I could feel a song coming on, so I rushed back to my room, grabbed my Dobrato, and wrote Crazy Beautiful World. Suffice it to say, Lake Superior makes you feel a lot of things. (Side note: I ended up playing the Marquette Blues Fest at that very same place, Lower Harbor, in the summer. That was a cool moment!)

“When you get to to the edge of the earth, you’ll see how little you’re worth.”

Colorado

This song started in Indiana, in May, with this hook.

It evolved over time, and I tried a bunch of different lyrics. Nothing seemed to work particularly well. My friend Ted said the hook sounded “laid back and cruising”, and that gave me an idea of a travelling/road trip theme. I finally broke through with something in late August/early September, right before a trip to…you guessed it. Gareth, my bass player, really brought this song to life with his part.

“So I’m back on the road, and I’m going back home…to Colorado.”

Arkansas Blues

This song came to me in Fort Smith, AR in mid-April. I was on tour, and I’d lost two shows last minute. I put out a plea for help on Facebook, and my buddy Matt Dodd hooked me up with a show at a fantastic venue called R. Landry’s New Orleans Cafe. It has the coolest vibe; beads hanging up all over the place, a funky stage, crawfish and gumbo on the menu…

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It inspired me, so I grabbed my Dobrato, went outside, and started playing the hook for what would become Arkansas Blues. Like with Colorado, I shot a video of my initial thoughts and posted it on Facebook. My engineer/producer Corey came up with the idea of doing the stomp/clap pattern on the back half of the studio version. It gave it a whole different vibe!

Break Away

The origins of this one go back the furthest; I had lyrics floating around for this as far back as September 2015. I wrote the words in Colorado, and shelved it because I didn’t like the music. I finally came up with the right hook and music in January 2016, on a cold Indiana winter day. (In Elkhart, with snow on the ground.) It’s a ballad, a love song, which is unusual for me. It took me a while to get comfortable with it, but I really want to write more songs in this vein.

“We can cross that Mississippi River, where the cornfields turn to wheat…break away with me.”

Give Me Peace

I was on tour in Colorado back in June 2016, and I found myself stopped in one of my two favorite Colorado towns, Buena Vista. After eating lunch at Eddyline Brewery, I grabbed one of my Taylor guitars, walked down to the Arkansas River, and sat down on a bench. I looked around, and saw the river, the mountains, the trees, the sunshine…before long, a melody was ringing in my head. Fortunately, I had a guitar and my phone to record it. I finished the lyrics later, but the heart and soul of the song was birthed on that riverbank. I’ve got a picture from the moment.

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“I’m gonna sit here on the riverbank, and let the world pass my right on by. When the water starts to rise, I’ll let it wash the trouble out of my mind.”

More Heart, Less Attack

I knew I wanted to do a cover song on this record. But deciding which one proved to be difficult. I tried out a bunch of different things, and none of them felt right at all. It got to be the day before I was scheduled to go into the studio, and I was at a loss. Fortunately, my producer Alexis came to the rescue. She asked: “what’s the most meaningful song you’ve ever played?” This NEEDTOBREATHE tune popped into my head immediately. I’d covered it exactly once on a show, when an audience member asked me to play the most meaningful song I could think of. Ironic, right?

Corey, Alexis, and I came up with the arrangement pretty much on the fly. Like I said, I’d only played it once before! It ended up being one of those raw, spontaneous moments that I treasure. This is my favorite song on the record.

“Be the light in the cracks. Be the one that’s mending the camel’s back. Slow to anger and quick to laugh…be more heart and less attack”

Turn the Lights On

This one started with the hook, that little acoustic guitar part you hear in the beginning. I started writing it in April 2016, right after I got back to Indiana from Memphis, TN. The lyrics took a long time to solidify, as did the whole feel of the song in general. I wrote it during a break-up, so that’s what it was initially about. After Merle Haggard and Prince died, it evolved into being about losing your favorite artist or band. The last line of the chorus references that feeling you get at the end of a show, when they turn the house lights on and it’s time to go home.

“What do you say when the end has come and gone? And left you waiting around for more, until they turn the lights on.”

Blues Train

This is the last song I wrote for the album, in October 2016. It’s directly inspired by an event called the Durango Blues Train, which I was fortunate enough to play back in June. The DBT is one of the coolest things I’ve ever done in my life. It’s a steam-powered train that goes up into the Rocky Mountains, and twice a year they do a Blues Festival ON THE TRAIN. With a different artist in each car! It’s magical, and I feel so fortunate to have played it.

“There’s rhythm in the rails, and the whistle wails and moans…so fill up your cup, and let the blues train take you home.”

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Grateful Heart

Of all the songs on the record, I felt it was the most important to get this one right, and it wasn’t easy. The initial melody and lyrics came to me in July 2016 as I was driving down the road in West Virginia. I had to pull over in Beckley and grab a guitar and my phone to record the idea. I messed around with it over the span of a couple months, and nothing felt right at all. It had multiple verses initially, and it felt really clunky.

I met up with my brother Dean Phelps in Denver later on in September, and pulled it out while jamming with him one evening. All of a sudden, everything kind of came into focus. I pared the song down to a single verse and chorus, and Dean’s additions and input on guitar really helped me point the song in the right direction. We went into the studio, and our version of it ended up on our EP collaboration, Mountain Roads.

I loved that version, but once I had all the other songs together for Going Back Home, I knew it needed a bit of a different feel to fit on this project. Alexis suggested I slow it way down, do it fingerstyle, and bring in another one of my friends and brothers, Randy McQuay, to play harmonica. He gave it just the right feel, and you can really hear his personality on what he played.

“Whenever trouble comes my way, I pray a grateful heart will lead the way.”


So, that’s a more detailed look behind the songs and the production of “Going Back Home.” I could NOT have done this without my creative team; Corey Miller at the Lodge studios, Alexis Klosinski, Rachel Hart, Dean Phelps, Randy McQuay, and Gareth Somers, who all contributed in significant ways. I look forward to working with them on many more projects in the future.

“Going Back Home” means more to me than anything I’ve ever done. I put everything I had to give into it, and I hope that shows when you listen to it.

You can download the album for $5, or get a physical copy for $10 by clicking here. Thanks for reading.

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Most People Are

It’s been a crazy week, yeah? I spent Election Day in a hotel in Conway, Arkansas, which I booked just so I could watch the election results after my gig. Regardless of result, I had hoped the end of the night would also be the end of the hatred and divisiveness swirling around this campaign season. I was surprised, and not in a good way, to see people doubling down on it all over social media the next day. It was practically inescapable.

I won’t lie, it started to get me down. I felt a weariness deep within me, one that I know was shared by lots of other folks. News of protests and riots and hateful messages sprayed on buildings began to emerge. The finger pointing and arguments between both sides reached a fever pitch. My favorite radio host, Dan LeBatard, asked a half-joking question that got to the heart of things. “Is America more divided now than it was during the Civil War?” Despite all that, I couldn’t stay discouraged for very long. Because this is how my election week looked.

Monday, I played a set at Red Brick Bar in Oklahoma, and then got to take part in a jam session with five or six super talented musicians, who welcomed me into their group without hesitation. There were a whole lot of positive vibes in the room that night; everybody just playing their heart out.

Wednesday, I was welcomed into Hot Springs, Arkansas by Larry Womack, who hosted me as a guest on Blues night at the Ohio Club. He let me sit in with the band, do my own set, and then take part in what became a big jam session at the end of the night. And then, put me up at his house.

Thursday, I drove over to Fort Smith, where I was welcomed by Matt and Jackie Dodd, friends I met at the International Blues Challenge. They let me stay at their house every time I come through. Got some more jamming in with Matt and his band.

Friday and Saturday, I was welcomed to Fayetteville by Larry Brick and Rachel Fields, who are terrific musicians that I’d never met before. Larry Womack called and arranged for me to stay with them. Not only did they give me a place to sleep, they also fed me and gave me a tour of all the cool places in town.

It was Saturday I had the epiphany. I called my parents to let them know that I was coming home the next day, and I told my dad, “I’ve stayed with musicians almost every night this week. We get bad press sometimes, but musicians are all pretty good people.” He responded, most people are. It was a reminder at exactly the right moment. It’s the same story that I’ve been telling this whole year, the foundation of my new album. And yet, for a minute there, I lost myself.

It’s so easy to forget all the good things right in front of us. Is there ugliness along the edges? Yes. Are there real problems we have to face, and wounds we have to heal in our country? Yes. But I know this; music can do it.

And most people? Still good people.

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Letsbevy!

Hey guys! Time for another update from the road. This time, I’m writing to you from Texas. I’ve had some really great shows in San Antonio and Abilene, but I want to focus on a couple of magical days in Austin and the Hill Country. A good friend of mine, Kris Potrafka, set me up with two really cool house concerts through Letsbevy.

What is Letsbevy? It’s a new service designed to connect artists with folks who want to host live music. There are a number of sites and apps before that have attempted to do this, but none really work all that well. I believe Letsbevy can change the landscape of live music.

The concept is to match up concert hosts and musicians in a way that’s personal, simple, and effective. It works both ways. Are you a singer-songwriter trying to book a weeknight gig on the road? Pull up the app and get matched up with a house concert host or a wine bar looking for entertainment. Hosting a backyard BBQ and looking for a Blues artist? You’ll be able to log on and get matched up with me right away.

I’ve seen the beta app, and it’s going to make life so much easier for everybody once it rolls out. The important thing is to sign up. That’s what will really help this thing get off the ground. Check out letsbevy.com and do it! You’re about to see what makes it so cool.

The first house concert I played this past Saturday was at Kris and Claudia’s place in Austin. Drew Davis played a set to kick things off, and she was fantastic. The weather was perfect, and there were many other artists in attendance. The feeling of community was undeniable.

The community aspect is the coolest part about house concerts; Kris and Claudia put me up for the night, and I got to spend Sunday just hanging out with them. Watching football, eating breakfast tacos, and soaking up some sunshine on the patio. That’s a personal connection you don’t get with any other kind of show.

Afterwards, I headed over to the Hill Country for another house concert, this time hosted by Mary and Carl. They live way out on a big ranch, and playing outdoors as the sunset faded to reveal a million Texas stars above was something I’ll never forget. All the neighbors turned out, along with a contingent from Austin, including Tim, Michelle, Tony, and Urmi, who took these photos.

Again, after the show, I got to hang out and just visit with everybody. We sat for hours, drinking wine, sharing stories, and watching shooting stars. (We saw five!) I got to stay for a couple of days after the show as well, and there were so many special moments. From hiking along the creek that runs through the ranch, to a guided tour of Fredericksburg (complete with a wine tasting and burgers), to a live performance on TABC Radio.

The generosity shown to me by everyone involved here, particularly Kris, Claudia, Mary, Carl, Michelle, and Tony, is humbling to the point that it almost overwhelms me. I came in not really knowing anybody in this part of Texas, and now I’m leaving with friends for life. That’s what makes house concerts great, and Letsbevy is what made it possible with these two. Imagine a world where that’s what EVERY show is like! I really believe we can make it happen.

Thanks for reading, y’all. 🙂 Here’s some video from the Austin concert to close it out.

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Healthy Living (#vanlife update)

Hey everybody! Time for another #vanlife update. Right now, I’m staying with my good friends Quint and Nancy down in Phoenix, Arizona, but I just finished my biggest stretch of camping yet!

I camped out for five nights in a row. Elk City, OK, Albuquerque, NM, Sedona, AZ, and Flagstaff, AZ. I conservatively estimate that my lodging cost would’ve been $300-$350 for those five nights, but camping out, it was only $20. To spell it out, I saved about $300 on lodging just this week. I spent two nights at a National Forest Campground (which had showers and fire pits and restrooms and everything), two nights at Walmart, and a night at a dispersed/primitive camping spot in the National Forest.

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It’s been a really good stretch; first of all, I heard your suggestions about the 12V stove and purchased one. Thank you for that. It’s been nice to be able to plug it in, throw a can of soup or some veggies in the tray, and eat a hot meal few minutes later. I also got creative at the campground one night, went to the grocery store, and cooked up a meal over the campfire. Frozen veggies with a natural salmon/chardonnay reduction. It was sooooo good.

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I get asked a lot about eating healthy on the road, and to be honest, it’s not that difficult. And it’s pretty cheap. My diet consists mainly of these things.

  • Natural/organic, low sodium soups. There are a couple of different brands out there for about $2.50 a can that are excellent.
  • Mixed green salads from the grocery store, dressed with my own vinegar and olive oil.
  • Fresh veggies. Just about any grocery store, and many truck stops, will have a chilled container of mixed fresh veggies you can grab to snack on.
  • Epic meat bars. These are a bit harder to find; so far I’ve only seen them at Natural Grocers, a western grocery chain. But they are awesome. Natural/uncured/nitrite free meat bars that are very low in sodium, and wonderfully seasoned. Unlike jerky, they are super tender. Only about $2.50 a piece, and they offer bison, beef, chicken, turkey, and pork.
  • Raw nuts/raw nut butter. Check out your local grocers bulk nut section! You can often find amazing deals. I recently picked up some Filberts, also known as Hazelnuts, on sale at City Market for $0.59 cents per pound. They are normally $10.99 per pound! Craziness! I bought a pound and a half a month ago, made a mix with some peanuts and almonds, and I’m STILL snacking on it.

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I’ve lost 35 pounds this year without even trying to lose weight. How/why? I basically don’t eat sugar, I don’t eat bread/wheat, and I only drink water, coffee, and tea. My dessert consists of 85-90% dark chocolate bars, which have barely any sugar and are packed with protein, but still manage to satisfy that “sweet tooth” craving.

I feel like a new man. I don’t know how I ever toured before doing it the “old way”. IE, staying at overpriced hotels, eating at unhealthy, expensive restaurants, and being generally miserable and broke. I’ll never go back. (More on never-going-back in the next blog post.)

Van life=an awesome life!

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Van Life

I recently posted about how I’d converted my minivan into a camper-of-sorts. So, I wanted to give you an update on just how things are going with Regina the Van Camper.

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In the past couple of weeks, I’ve camped out five nights in total. One at a paid campground, two at free campgrounds, and two at Walmart. It’s been absolutely marvelous. Obviously, the paid campground had all the amenities you could ever want, but by and large, the free campgrounds did too.

One campground was in Blue Earth, MN, underneath a gigantic statue of the Jolly Green Giant. No joke. Also not a joke was the fact that they had showers, restrooms, and electric hookups for FREE.

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Most recently, I camped out in Fort Morgan, Colorado. Again, this was a FREE campground provided by the city, with complimentary electric hookups and restrooms. I enjoyed my stay there for a couple of reasons; for one, a Fort Morgan Police Officer cruised by a time or two on patrol to make sure we stayed safe. It’s really nice to see the city embracing and looking out for campers. And then in the morning, when I was packing up and getting ready to head out, the guy in the camper parked across from me slid open his window and said, “Hey bud! Want a cup of coffee?” He literally handed a Styrofoam cup filled with coffee to me through the window, just to be nice and neighborly. This is the life, people!

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I was spending an average of $50 per night on lodging. So, for five nights, we would have been looking at $250. For five nights in the van camper, my total cost was only $25. If you’ll recall, I had about $210 invested in the necessary modifications to start camping. So, in just two weeks, it’s already paid for itself. All “profit” from here on out.

(BTW, all the other nights on this tour, I’ve been put up by wonderful and generous people in Marquette, Skandia, and South Sioux City. Thanks Robbie, Kyra, Dean, and Dan! Now, I’m staying with my good friends, Dean and Debbie, in Denver. It really does take a village.)

Additionally, doing this has inspired me to make changes with my eating habits on the road. Before, I was spending about $25 per day on eating out at restaurants. Not anymore. I’m subsisting now on a variety of healthy items from grocery stories. Dry roasted/unsalted nuts, bananas, dates, salads with vinegar dressing, all-natural peanut butter, dried meats, and low-sodium canned soup. (I heat the soup up by putting the container under the hood of the van for a while once I’ve set up camp. It works great.) Now, I’m probably spending less than $10 a day on food. By my calculation, I’ll save $2,500-$3,000 a year by eating this way. Not that I couldn’t have done this before, but something about van camping inspired me to make the changes.

Saving money, eating healthy, and meeting great people. That’s living the #vanlife!

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Down By The River

Hi! I’m Brian Keith Wallen, and I live in a van down by the river.

OK, not exactly like Chris Farley’s character in the famous SNL sketch, but kind of! I make my living as a solo touring musician, and I’m on the road full time. Just to give you an idea, I’m writing this on September 7th, 2016, and I have about 60 shows in 15 different states on the books between now and Christmas. I don’t stay in one place for very long at a time.

The last couple of tours, I’d grown really tired of bouncing around from cheap motel to cheap motel, often paying $60, $70, $80 per night just to sleep for 6 or 7 hours and leave the next morning. I thought about buying an RV, but the cost was so prohibitive that I decided against it pretty quickly. Eventually, I settled on converting my existing vehicle into a space where I could camp out.

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This is Regina, my home away from home. She’s a 2007 Toyota Sienna minivan, and she is a good and faithful servant. She’s been reinforced a bit with air shocks in the back, and Yokohama all-terrain truck tires to handle the extra load of my gear. Other than that, bone stock. A little over 200,000 miles now, a consistent 24 MPG, and super reliable. Now, check out the inside setup!

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First things first, I have a lot of gear. Full PA, lights, merch, usually three guitars, plus my luggage, food, water, cooler, etc. My dad built a wooden rack in the back that I store some stuff on top of, and the guitars and luggage underneath of. That was step one, and you can sort of see that behind the mattress in the above pic.

I’d already been touring with the second and third row seats removed/folded away, and step two was to remove the front passenger seat to open up the space for the bed. Step three? Buy a platform mattress. This is awesome on multiple levels. It was $90, all I had to do was fold it open, and it fit like a glove in the van. Plus, there is tons of easily accessible storage right underneath the bed for merch, my stompboards, and whatever else, as you can see. I ended up adding a nice memory foam mattress topper, so here it is with that+sheets and everything.

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The platform mattress came with a 5″ pad, and the topper I added is 2.5″, so all in all, it’s 7.5″ of memory foam that I’m sleeping on. It’s really comfortable, and it’s adequate space for me. I’m 6′ 4″ tall, so if I can fit, that’s saying something.

I love the flexibility I have now with this setup. I never feel stressed out about finding accommodations. If I can’t crash with a friend or find an AirBnB spot on the cheap, I’ll just roll into a Walmart, Flying J, or Pilot, and crash. Campgrounds are an option as well, of course. Many towns have free or almost free camping available at city parks. The first night I camped out, I did it at the Walmart in Iron Mountain, Michigan. They had free coffee in the store for shoppers, and free Wi-Fi in the parking lot! How can you beat that?

Total Cost for Minivan Camper Conversion
Platform Mattress: $90
Mattress Topper: $80
Windshield Sunshade (For privacy): $20
Power Inverter (For charging laptops+tablets and phones on the go): $20

Total: $210

The nice thing about van camping is that it’s super stealthy. Nobody even notices a minivan in a parking lot. My back windows are already tinted, so I just put the sunshade in the front window, hang a couple of jackets up to block the front windows, and go to sleep. I’m absolutely thrilled about the money that this is going to save me over the coming months and years! I’d love to do a Sprinter conversion and make my own tiny house on wheels someday, but for now, this is an incredibly cost effective way to have a home away from home.

So, yeah. I live in a van down by the river. And I’m good with that.

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