“No middleman” is an apt way to describe Harry Lyles’ approach. He’s long been drawn to direct, hands-on activities, having spent years surfing, mountain biking, rock climbing, dirt biking, skateboarding, and snowboarding. And when he decided that he wanted his many pursuits to be more accessible, he simply cut out housing and switched to full-time van life. A van that he outfitted himself, naturally.
Harry’s carpe-diem lifestyle began early with a board and the beach. “I’d say that my first true love is definitely surfing,” he recalls. “I learned to surf when I was like four or five years old. Unfortunately we lived in the high desert [of Southern California], which was about an hour and 45 minutes away from the beach, maybe two hours. But my dad was a surfer and grew up surfing, and he made it a point to make it part of my life at an early age; my first memories are at the beach surfing on his board with him. Every summer we’d drive down to the beach and I’d just surf all day. It’s been a part of my life for the past 25 years.” He started skateboarding and snowboarding at 12 years old, and got into mountain biking and dirt-bike racing at 18. Rock climbing is the most recent addition, and while it’s a change of pace for him in terms of speed, it may be the most viscerally thrilling thing he’s done: “With surfing or mountain biking there are points where you have a scary moment, but that moment is fleeting. When you’re rock climbing, you basically have perpetual fear until you get to the very top of the route. ‘Cause there’s that fear of falling: all the primal parts of your brain, all the alarms are freakin’ going off, telling you to get the #$@& off the wall. But you try to conquer that.”
Southern California’s range of topography is uniquely positioned to support such a wide array of sporting interests, but it’s by no means a small area to cover. In early May of 2018, Harry decided he didn’t want distance to hold him back anymore. “I just wanted more time to surf,” he explains, “and just be able to wake up and be right at your spot within a minute to 30 seconds. Also, I was tired of paying rent; I didn’t want to pay someone else’s mortgage. It’s allowed me to free up a lot more cash flow and have more time outside. And that’s the main goal: if there’s anything to take away, it’s just that I wanted to move into the van so I can spend more time under the sunshine.” As with most of his adventures, Harry dove right in: “It was all a learn-by-doing experience. And that cost me probably a $1000 dollars’ worth of mistakes.” When all was said and done, though, his ProMaster van offered most of the comforts of home, along with a few extra bells and whistles. There’s a hand-pump sink equipped with a gallon tank of fresh water and a gallon tank of gray water, a laminated countertop with a distinctly granite style (“I always joke that it’s marble from the Vatican and the Pope himself blessed it and gave it to me”), a Coleman two-burner stove, shelving, a bed that folds out to accommodate two, a fridge, and 200 W solar panels on the roof for recharging his Goal Zero power source.
If anything, all Harry’s done is trade one form of convenience for another. Whatever he doesn’t have in terms of traditional housing he makes up for in mobility. “What I tell everybody is that it’s very, very easy to do, you just have to be comfortable with sacrificing convenience,” Harry shares. “And when I say convenience, it’s like, ‘You have an apartment. You know exactly where your apartment is everyday. You know where your bed is.’ Like, for me, I don’t really know where I’m gonna sleep tonight ‘cause I’m gonna be traveling. And having a bathroom, that’s definitely a convenience and luxury.” For any prospective van-lifers, he adds, “Understand your layout, know your budget, and understand how much time you can allocate to building a project. One thing people underestimate is the time investment involved in building a thing. People think, ‘I’m gonna work on it for two months,’ but in reality they should multiply that by two or three.”
As always, new adventures are on the horizon for Harry. A bad dirt bike accident left his ankle too damaged to snowboard anymore, so he’s planning on taking up skiing to scratch that itch. “It was really frustrating, being so capable a snowboarder and then just barely being able to go down the groomers without a ton of pain. In a ski boot your ankles are fixated, so I’m really looking forward to learning how to ski and doing some crazy Alpine stuff.” Bow hunting is another item on the to-do list. “As a vegetarian I’m sure that sounds kinda funny,” he admits. “One of the reasons I don’t eat meat is because we don’t know where our food comes from. It would be cool to take down a deer someday and have a BBQ with my friends and say, ‘I made a decision to take this animal’s life, and I harvested it, seasoned it, and cooked it, and now we’re enjoying it.’ I think that’s a really cool connection back to nature that very few people have.” And he’s already itching to outfit a sequel van for his never-ending adventures. He’d like to construct a totally new bed setup, take cabinetry classes, and maybe give a fresh look at his solar array. But in a nutshell, if he had to do it all again? “I’d probably measure twice and cut once,” Harry laughs. “Just going for it definitely got me in a lot of trouble.”
APPLE VALLEY, CA
PHOTOGRAPHYER | MARKETING SPECIALIST