Tag Archives: Jared Kennedy

Embarking on a #Vagabond #Instagram #Vanlife #Adventure

December 20, 2018 by
Photography by Jared Kennedy

In my daily, mindless scrolling of social media, “#vanlife” posts began creeping into my Instagram feed.

The wanderlust-inspiring images of people not giving a crap about anything carried a strong allure; however, I couldn’t help but be turned off by the stereotypically beautiful bohemians dominating the movement. This throwback hippie lifestyle seemed to reek of privilege for people who don’t have to work for a living. I had no idea that—within a year of discovering the hashtag—I would become part of this movement, a lifestyle far more sincere than I had realized at first glance.

What is van life?

While popularized via social media, van-dwelling, van-camping, or van-lifing isn’t a new thing. The most obvious precursor to van life now can be found in the 1970s. Think floor-to-ceiling carpeted Ford Econoline vans, Volkswagen buses, etc. On the whole, these build-outs were simpler than their modern counterparts. Van life today includes vans of all shapes and sizes, ranging from super-technical to very basic. A lion’s share of these van dwellings are colloquially referred to as “Sprinters.” This type of van is taller, often providing more living space than normal, low-roof vans. Sprinters dominate the fleets of commercial businesses, and they are produced by brands such as Mercedes-Benz, Ford, Dodge, and Nissan.

Looks crazy. Sure, I’ll try it.

Erin and I hadn’t been together for very long—maybe two weeks—when she mentioned in conversation she wanted to live in a van with her dog and travel the United States. I feigned interest and support in my initial reaction, but having a person bring this up in “real life” somehow made the idea far more tangible than before. I started looking at the popular hashtags on Instagram; I stalked the accounts of notable van-lifers; I even looked at vans and how people built them out. Soon enough, I caught the bug. I began running the numbers in my head: “How long would I have to save to take a year off and do this? What would my monthly budget look like?” I found that saving ahead of time for a whole year of expenses was probably off the table if I wanted to go on this adventure sometime this decade. Maybe if I would’ve gone to school for economics and not communications I would have the cash flow necessary, but no, I knew I would need to find remote work and take a job on the road.

I was sold on the idea, and once I am sold on an idea there is little that can get me off it. Erin and I were in a fairly new relationship, so I had to figure out how to say: “Let’s go halfsies on a $35,000 project and make this massive commitment to each other even though we just met” without the part where I sound like a naive nutcase. I think it ended up coming out something like “Wow, I just ran the numbers on what it would cost to save up for van life, and it’s way more doable than I thought…” What happened next was pretty simple. We agreed to go for it.

We went for it.

After about a month and a half of deal-surfing online and test-driving a couple of vans, we found ours. It was at the top end of our price range, had low mileage, and was a “high roof, extended-length” model, which are hard to find and sought after by van-lifers. On April 27 (neither of us will forget that date), we drove up to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and picked it up. That’s when the hard work began.

We built it.

The van was a bare cargo van, so we were truly starting at square one. The first three steps were: install a plywood subfloor, install a roof vent fan, and insulate the interior of the van. We logged over 50 hours on those three projects alone—mainly on insulation. We had to make sure the van was insulated to retain heat in the winter, and ventilated to repel heat in the summer. Once the insulation was complete, we installed wood paneling on the walls and ceiling and began building the living space. It took at least another 40 grueling hours to install a bed, cabinets, solar panels, and other essentials. Finally, the van was coming together. We were feeling pretty good.


What I learned when I actually looked into van life is that the glamorization of the movement isn’t really the fault of the people in it. Social media just has that effect. The reality of van life is that the aforementioned privileged, bohemian beauties are living in a dirty, tiny, cramped, often-uncomfortable living space. (I am writing this paragraph at night, sitting in a lawn chair at the front of our van with a massive head cold. My feet are buried in the dog’s bed for warmth, and I am thinking about throwing on some gloves because my fingers are getting numb.) Even if your van has all the amenities, there is still a unique set of challenges associated with occupying such a small, off-the-grid space—especially if you are doing so with another person.

Megan and Matt McMonagle—widely known in #vanlife circles as @dirtydarlings—are a married couple who have lived in their Mercedes Sprinter van for 14 months and say their nomadic stint may be coming to a close. Megan is an accountant and took her full-time job on the road. Matt quit his job and does photography and other freelance work now. Megan eventually decided to quit her job also, but she wants to continue doing remote work of some kind.

“I worked at this job for a year on the road, doing everything from 10 to 40 hours a week trying to find the right balance between work and our traveling lifestyle,” Megan says. “For now I’m living the, ‘I saved up money for a long time to enjoy a few months of unemployment’ life.”

So work is a thing, and van-lifers must work (unless they are fabulously wealthy, which I am not).

Another challenge to the social media phenomenon is personal. The lifestyle will test your relationship. It is not always rainbows and butterflies.

“Let me just tell you,” Megan says. “No matter how much you love another person, spending 24/7 with one other person in a very tiny space is hard. Another challenge has been the lack of independence in our relationship. Our days and schedules are so closely tied together that we sometimes forget we need to take time for ourselves and spend time apart.”

Erin has a dog, Yadi, that she definitely loves more than anything on the planet, and she has jokingly shared her fear that one of us would get so tired of hearing the other speak that we would drive the van straight off a cliff. She claims she wouldn’t do such a thing because she has Yadi to live for—which means I better come up with something, too, or I will never get to drive.

Seems like it isn’t what it’s cracked up to be, so what gives?

Things that go viral on the internet seem to exist on one side of a digital dichotomy, like representations of “real life” that only exist in social media: Are there really kids who eat Tide Pods? Do people really do yoga with goats? Do Instagrammers really live in vans? (The answer to all those questions is “yes,” but representative individuals add up to statistical outliers from the general population.)

Being an outlier is OK with me, and we are evidence that #vanlife isn’t just for hipsters (I’ll admit that I tend to wear my long hair in a so-called “man-bun” on occasion, but don’t call me a hipster!). Van life is real, and we have the receipts and debt to prove it. After hundreds of hours—and tens of thousands of dollars—my girlfriend and I are embarking on this lifestyle. We don’t know how long the open road will be our domicile, and we don’t have an exact timeline for our journey—but we know it’s happening.

Van-dwelling, van-living, van-camping, whatever it’s called this decade, is not easy. It stands in direct opposition to some major American ideals—particularly the ones that have to do with collecting lots of things, living in a big house, being well-established financially, etc. It may not impress your grandpa’s golf buddies, but who cares? America is also rooted in the ideals of individual liberty and personal freedom. In a way, van life is as American as it gets. So, excuse me while I take a selfie…before my fingers freeze and my phone battery runs out of juice.

Follow the author on Instagram at @runnerbikersprinter for updates from his #vanlife experience.

This article was printed in the January/February 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.


October 18, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

In fall 2017, panels of local arts experts held a lecture series that explored the personal and societal benefits of all forms of art, from opera to painting. The panelists used buzzwords like “golden age” to describe the current status of the arts in Omaha. Indeed, these are years of great prosperity for large legacy organizations, but many artists are not fortunate enough to be a part of those organizations.

Enter Philip Kolbo, Grace Manley, and Hannah Mayer—three artists who founded OutrSpaces. These three saw a need in Omaha for a more inclusive space that offered rehearsal facilities, developmental opportunities for artists’ careers, a performance space, and an outlet for engaging the surrounding community. 

Kolbo graduated from the University of Nebraska-Omaha in 2016 with a degree in percussion performance. He quickly found that, out of academia, it is difficult for performing artists to find professional facilities in which to practice.

“I am a percussionist—we have a lot of gear, we make a lot of noise, and we take up a lot of space,” Kolbo says. “You could find a few places here and there that could work for a specific performer, but nothing that really fit needs exactly.”

He began working with other artists to form a co-op space with a shared lease so he could have the practice resources he needed, and that’s when a lightbulb went on for Kolbo.

“All the work that was going into that seemed like so much for it not to be a sustainable idea,” Kolbo says. “So that’s when it really took off as a project that’s a sustainable resource for artists in this city long into the future.”  

OutrSpaces is a membership-based rehearsal and performance space. Members can pay $100 per month for unlimited access. Kolbo says the organization primarily hosts performances by any community member who wishes to use the facility, and artists are always paid. 

“[Outside of contract musicians] there are very few people in this community who perform 100 percent as a form of income and make a living wage off of that,” Kolbo says. “For Omaha to have a robust nightlife and arts scene, we really need to start financially supporting our local arts community.”

Manley says at the core, helping artists earn a living wage is what OutrSpaces is about.

“Everything really goes back to it,” Manley says. “How are you supposed to have a product without a place to create that product?”

Mayer says there is also an element of social justice to the OutrSpaces mission. Growing up as a self-described white, middle-class child, she says there were things she had to overcome studying music that would have been even harder as someone with less privilege. 

“I am passionate about breaking down these barriers that keep poor people, people of color, and other minorities from participating in something that has so beautifully shaped my life like classical music,” Mayer says.

Bach Mai is a musician who got involved with OutrSpaces early in its creation. Mai even used resources from the organization to start OutrSpaces’ Conspire Music and Art Festival. The event formed groups from 14 musicians, then gave the groups a week to create new music they performed at OutrSpaces on June 16. He says Omaha needs people like Kolbo, Manley, and Mayer.

“They’ve spent countless hours building the walls that house the many practice rooms and workspaces they offer to creatives,” Mai says. “I like to think of their space as something similar to a co-working space. A place where artists can go and work regular hours and separate their home from work.”

OutrSpaces closed its first location on 24th Street earlier this year when the lease expired and moved to a new space on South 13th Street. Happily settled into their new location, it seems the OutrSpaces crew is commencing countdown, and blasting off on an unremitting mission to explore strange new worlds, seek out new life for performing artists in Omaha, and—for this place—go where no one has gone before. 

Visit outrspaces.org for more information. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

This article was printed in the September/October 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. 

From left:
Hannah Mayer, Grace Manley,
 and Philip Kolbo

Local Farm-to-Table

August 3, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Nick Strawhecker reaches down and opens the oven. There are two whole, cooked chickens resting on the platter within the large industrial appliance. One chicken looks well proportioned, intact, and almost seems to sit rigid as though something was placed inside it to offer structural integrity. It looks delicious, succulent. The other chicken is striking also, but in a very different way. It is of a similar size, but the breast is massive, unnaturally so. The legs are tiny by comparison. Its skin looks like a popped water balloon. This chicken sits in a thick deposit of cloudy, watery juices. It is splayed on the platter, floppy—its spine is broken. This chicken’s liver, compared to the other, looks as though it spent its short life drinking hard liquor in lieu of water. The heavenly, intact chicken was among the living just days ago. It was raised on a cage-free farm near Pawnee City, Nebraska. Where was the other chicken from? Unknown.

Though the difference in quality is obvious on many levels (for example one is pumped with antibiotics and water to add weight and size, while the other is simply a natural chicken) even industry professionals from the free-range, farm-to-table side will admit both types of chicken have their place in the overall food economy. Dean Dvorak, who operates a family poultry business in southeast Nebraska called Plum Creek Farms, says he has never complained about the existence of large companies when it comes to chicken production. 

“The big companies are certainly necessary,” Dvorak says. “People in our country eat a lot of chicken and small producers can’t produce nearly enough to keep up with the demand.”

The price point of some menus just do not fit what small producers can supply, Dvorak says. This adds to the “niche” culture surrounding local, farm-to-table food production. It takes a specific client base willing to invest in high-quality foods.  

“Our efficiency is much poorer than a larger company’s,” Dvorak says of his higher prices. “We lose more chickens to predators, and our pound of feed per pound of gain [the measure of how much chicken a farmer produces per pound of feed] is much poorer because our birds get a lot of exercise by not being kept in a small space.” 

Serving a lower price point is a major faculty of the industrialized farming sector. The USDA reports organic food made up just 4 percent of U.S. food sales in 2012. This means there is a point for consumers where cost simply overrides the level of quality in a more expensive product. Many are not willing to ante up for the good stuff. Additionally, organic food is not yet available on the same scale as the alternative.

Local restaurateur Nick Strawhecker is an advocate of the farm-to-table supply chain. He owns and operates Dante (in West Omaha) and Dante Pizzeria Napoletana (in Blackstone District).

“The way most of the world works is cooking what is around you,” Strawhecker says. “After big agriculture in the United States in the ’50s, all of the sudden strawberries came available in December, or tomatoes came available in January…I think that kind of food is not at all the same, and it does not taste good.”

Strawhecker prefers to cook with food from within 100 miles of his locations and builds his menus on what he calls “hyper-seasonality.” This means an item like asparagus isn’t offered from his kitchen until it is in season, and he compromises this only on things that are absolutely essential as year-round ingredients.

Locally sourced food is healthy for consumers and for the local economy, says Ben Gotschall of Lone Tree Foods (a local food distribution company). He says when you support local food you are essentially supporting local businesses. 

“It puts money back into the local economy,” Gotschall says. “A locally owned business whose suppliers are also local keeps the money from leaving the area.”

Gotschall raises cattle and sells milk to people like Katie Justman, a cheese producer (at Branched Oak Dairy) who works solely with Gotschall’s grass-fed cows for her product. Gotschall also sells milk, cream, butter, and cheese wholesale through Lone Tree and on the site of Branched Oak Farm (located just north of Lincoln) through his company, Davey Road Ranch.

Justman cares very much about the environmental benefits of working with local, farm-raised product, but she says the environmental benefits are not her leading point when talking about why she focuses on farm-to-table food—instead, much like Gotschall, she talks more about the economic benefits.

“A lot of us go with the economics route when describing our philosophy because it is a lot more relatable to talk to people about it in that way,” Justman says. “It is technically less controversial, even though the sustainability aspects are very important to us and we [Branched Oak Farms] are 100 percent grass-fed and organic certified.”

Not everyone using farm-to-table ingredients does it as part of a movement. Jeanne Ohira is the co-owner of Ted and Wally’s Ice Cream. Ohira says when she and her brother, Joe, bought the company in 2000, using local ingredients was just the natural (no pun intended) thing to do.

“That’s just how we were raised,” Ohira says. “My dad was from a farming family. My mom was part of a co-op and we grew up driving way out to pick up different food. As a business, we didn’t really think about it [in terms of participating in a movement] because at the time it wasn’t much of a trend yet.”

The trend has found a welcome reception among Omaha’s high-end culinary scene, with farm-to-table fare on the menus of Kitchen Table, Au Courant, Baela Rose, Le Bouillon, Block 16, Stirnella, Mark’s Bistro, The Boiler Room, The Grey Plume, Society 1854, J. Coco, and Over Easy (among others).

Strawhecker’s Dante and Dante Pizzeria Napoletana demonstrate the local supply chain in practical application. Gotschall raises cows and sells their milk; Justman purchases the milk for her creamery and produces cheeses—including mozzarella—which Strawhecker uses in his gourmet pizzas. Strawhecker is one of Justman’s biggest customers of cheese. He’s also a major buyer of chickens from Plum Creek Farms and a buyer of other local farmers’ products.

But Dante is only one example of this bullish moo-moo-movement. Omaha’s urban place in the heart of Midwestern farm country has helped raise the city’s profile as one of America’s top destinations for farm-to-table cuisine.

This article was printed in the July/August 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.