“Fifteen thousand four hundred and eighty-two miles, thirty-seven states, one hundred and twenty-two days, six full-time job offers, a couple of hundred fish, five oil changes, sixteen tubs of cat litter, and one defective brake light ticket later, I woke up on a friend’s couch back in Houston.”
A self-proclaimed “Huck Finn wannabe,” Mark Vlaskamp has been paddling a canoe since he was a kid. After serving as YakGear‘s marketing director for four years, he left the position at the beginning to 2016 to spend a significant part of the year on the road. Living the dream! What a lucky guy, right? Before you start convincing yourself that type of freedom is unattainable, read Mark’s road trip recap on his blog. He challenges the idea that this trip was a “once-in-a-lifetime” experience, advocating for a change in the way we think about work and play. That’s not to say everyone should quit their full-time jobs and take up the van life to feel personally fulfilled. Everyone has different priorities and responsibilities; stability is a blessing for some and a bore for others.
Whether you’re eager for the next big step or looking to incorporate more adventure into your daily life, this interview may be the catalyst for a lifestyle change:
Q. In your bio, you go from annoyed kid on family paddling trips to a man with a career in paddlesports. What was your defining “I actually enjoy this” moment, if there was one?
Mark: I think everyone goes through it – the thought process growing up that no matter how cool your parents actually are, they’re not cool. Luckily, I grew out of that mentality and came to realize that they had me beat on outdoor adventurer cool points. My jump into enjoying paddlesports, like my parents, was a gradual process but the catalyst was getting old enough to go out on trips on my own. My parents are always there to tell me what I did wrong or how to do it better, but the ability to go explore on my own was a defining moment for my level of enjoyment.
Q. Before that fateful Uber surge charge that spurred your decision to leave your full-time job at Yak Gear, how long had you been considering exploring options outside of the expected 9 – 5?
Mark: I never really considered exploring other options. I had a great job with a group of guys who are still some of my best friends. While it wasn’t something that was pre-planned well in advance, the stars aligned with some stable freelance options, manufacturer sponsorships, and the understanding from the guys at Yak Gear – so I jumped at the opportunity.
As the marketing dude there, part of my job was to manage the content coming in from our team of social influencers and brand ambassadors. There’s nothing that gives you the adventure-itch quite like sitting at a desk and getting blown up with pictures, videos, and stories from guys like you while you’re stuck at work. That’s enough to make anyone want to make a change. Pair that with a burning urge to write and tell stories for a living and it was a no-brainer..
Q. How has the feedback been to your online writing about the concept of everyday adventuring? Do people reach out to you saying you’ve inspired others to reflect on their own routines, the work vs. play mentality, and life priorities in general?
Mark: The feedback has been the best part of the entire project. From college buddies to industry associates, people have been really receptive to the ‘everyday adventure’ concept – just getting out and doing it as often as you can.
This goes against the narrative that a lot of outdoor companies push in advertising. Big adventure sells, I get it. I love a good expedition just as much as the next guy. But why wait for a once in a lifetime trip when you can have micro-adventures daily? On the trip, I would meet up with people and go fish before their work day started, hike the local trails on their lunch break, and paddle their rivers after dinner.
Q. I know you’re a canoe guy, but do you have a preferred kayak to fish from?
Mark: This is the question that I get the most. My answer usually disappoints people because, well, I like them all. I was lucky enough to get to use lots of ‘buddy boats’ along the way.
It blows my mind that some folks can have such loyalty to one boat or one brand.– Mark Vlaskamp
There are so many variables: body of water, style of fishing, accessibility to a launch, paddling conditions, etc.
There have been some that I prefer over others but I strongly believe that choosing only one boat – canoe or kayak – severely limits you in the long run.
Don’t make me choose one; I won’t!
Q. Let’s talk gear. What’s one item you’d pat past-Mark on the back for bringing on your road trip?
Mark: I’ll give myself a big pat on the back for my locking tie down straps from Kanulock. My Jeep had my boat and Yeti strapped down externally. As two big ticket items, they were always locked down to the car. There isn’t a pair of bolt cutters big enough to help someone get away with my gear. The locking straps and the C-Tug Cart were lifesavers. On all terrain, the C-Tug Cart by Railblaza got me to the launch without blowing out my back. A portage to the water doesn’t seem like much but when you’re doing it everyday, you take all the help you can get.
Q. Who comes to mind when you hear the word “mentor”?
Mark: From a practical paddling perspective, the obvious answer is my parents. But it gets deeper than that when you consider the media, marketing, and content perspective.
Within paddlesports, there are some guys out there that are much more talented than me – both on the water, behind the camera, and on the keyboard. If you’re looking for good, inspiring, paddlesports-related social media follow, some of the guys I look up to as storytellers are Robert Field (@yakfishfield), Rex DeGuzman (@rexdelrey), Brian Vincent (@vincentvisions), Ben Levin (@benplevin), and Austin Bousman (@a_gardner7).
Q. On your road trip recap blog, you were very particular with documentation, recording stats on the nights slept in car, nights slept in tent, etc. Was this for budgeting purposes, fun reflection, planning for future adventures… all of the above?
Mark: On a trip like this, the budget is king. It’s not that the trip wasn’t funded; it’s that responsible monthly budgeting was the single most important part of my road tripping reality. Wasted money one day results in fewer days on the road at the back end of the trip. Money comes in, choices get made, money goes out, and practicing the art of delayed gratification and car camping is mastered. It’s a reality that gets swept under the rug with most #VanLifers and kayak fishing road warriors, instead choosing to focus solely on mind-blowing Instagram photos piling up likes, hashtags, and debt.
Is a night in a shady Motel 6 worth one less day in Yellowstone, on the Colorado in Moab, or ten-miles offshore in a kayak in South Florida? With this mentality, I tried my best to stay away from hotels. If there wasn’t a friend or family member’s couch to crash on, I camped – either car camping or tent camping.
Q. What’s the balance between spontaneity and planning?
Mark: The work put into travel logistics and planning seemed to take forever. Most of this burden was unfairly put on the incredibly understanding fishing buddies, friends, and family hosting me. For the cooperation with last minute travel changes, midnight logistical text messages, and those warm meals and cold beers along the way, I’m grateful. But there were plenty of pre-planned periods of spontaneity – most of which were centered around National Parks.
Q. We’ve heard of dogs living the #VanLife. How did your cat enjoy the adventure?
Mark: Cammi is the best. My cat is a better adventurer than most people that I know. She’s leash trained, cool with sleeping in a tent, and never complains that I forgot to shower. While I think she prefers a more sedentary life, she can adventure with the best of them. There’s a country-wide carnage trail of grasshoppers, moths, and mice to prove it.
Q. What were your most played songs on the road trip?
Mark: Undoubtedly, it’s Losing Side of Twenty-Five by American Aquarium. When I hit the road, I had just celebrated my 26th birthday. While all my friends were spending their days on the losing side of twenty-five getting married, climbing the corporate ladder, or building white picket fences around their new homes, I was wandering around the country on a road trip with my cat. The lyrics of the song hit close to home – and still do.
Q: What’s next?
Mark: After the trip, I took a month off and backpacked around Europe. Paddling the lakes in the Swiss Alps, the canals in Venice, and surf of the Amalfi Coast was unreal – but now vacation is over. I’m still working the freelance content creation jobs that I started on the road trip. While I’m settled in Austin instead of cruising the country, I’m still heavily involved with paddlesports manufacturers, outdoor media outlets, and everyday adventures.
Fingers crossed for another epic road trip soon. Let’s just say I’m not making any concrete, local plans for Fall 2018.