All photos: Robert Harold Sell III
What do you do when you get laid off from your job, have some money in the bank and want to see America? If you’re Robbie Sell, you put your stuff in storage, buy a camper van, and map out an epic adventure to capture photos from all around the continental United States. After six months on the road, Robbie has been lots of places and seen many things, and although he’s going it alone, he’s also bringing everyone along with him through the magic of social media. With over 20,000 miles already under his belt, we figured it was time to catch up with Robbie for an official Vancarious Hump Day.
Brooke: Why did you start this trip in the winter? Seems like van camping is a bit more desirable when it’s warm out.
Robbie: Well, I got laid of from Arnette when they discontinued the goggle product line, so I was out of work at the time and I didn’t immediately find another opportunity to jump into a similar career position. I knew that I had to take advantage before I found something else and do the stuff that I wouldn’t be able to when I sat back down at a desk or got a girlfriend. I was like, I gotta go on a roadtrip. I was thinking, well I can do a few cool little spots that are within whatever time frame, or I could just do it right and do it as big as I can. To me that’s a cross-country venture, which I had never done.
Brooke: Oh wow, you’ve never driven cross-country before?
Robbie: I’ve been to numerous places across the country, all the snowy regions and a couple random spots for trade shows but no, I’ve never driven farther than Cook City in Yellowstone for snowboarding film trips. So I’ve never driven farther than 1,000 miles in one stretch.
Brooke: It’s a big country.
Robbie: Yeah, right? When I decided I wanted to do a road trip, I started doing research. How I would do it, what kind of vehicle, how long it was going to take me? I had a car at the time that just was too small, so I knew I had to sell that and the DMV put me through a bunch of delays before I could sell the car, and it took me like 4 months. I was planning on starting in the summer but it was near winter and by the time I got the title, sold my car, and found the exact van. I didn’t wanna wait any longer. I’d already been telling people like, “hey I’m gonna do this project,” and I didn’t wanna back out on my word, so I was just like fuck it, I’m gonna go in the winter. Having been a pro snowboarder in the past, what’s a little snow? I’m not afraid of being a little cold, I’ve experienced it so much that it’s like fuck dude, I’ll just reroute my path a little bit and send it.
Brooke: I actually think that it’s really fun to go to tourist attractions in the off-season because there’s no people to get in your way.
Robbie: Yeah exactly! There’s huge pros and cons to going to a lot of these locations in the winter – avoiding the average tourists and people that are scared of cold climates when they could go do it in the summer. But the downside to it is the major touristy destinations that are kind of business-oriented are typically closed. I went to Niagara Falls and there were a bunch of parks that are still under renovation and they had it all blocked off. When I was in Washington DC, a lot of the monuments were being spruced up for all the summer tourism. And then some places were just totally shut down because of the snow, so I had to do a little covert mission, jumping over fences and stuff that were meant to keep some people out. But once upon a time I was a skateboarder and a snowboarder and that never stopped me, so I still have that mentality. I feel like no trespassing signs are just a mere suggestion for people who it would benefit.
Brooke: Yes, absolutely. Just trying to keep people safe. Okay speaking of skateboarding, how on earth do you take the selfies of you doing kickflips?
Robbie: All the self portraits are mainly just because I want my photographs to have a subject in them, and I feel that makes an image tell a little bit more of a story. It’s human nature to be a little more interested in seeing what another person is doing, so being that I don’t have a person with me along the way, I have to take a photos of myself. I set up my camera on a tripod and then I hookup radio transmitters – basically the pocket wizards that are meant for studio flashes. I have it set up so that I use it to trigger the camera shutter instead. I have one in my hand that I usually try to hide. If I’m doing something where I’m jumping up and down on a rock or I’m skating, I just put it on sequence mode and shoot a bunch of frames so I can try to time it right. I don’t have a super fancy camera anymore, I have a more amateur one that only shoots 3 frames a second so it’s not like when I use to shoot snowboarding and I could shoot like 8 frames and have a bunch to pick from. I typically have to time it just perfect, and it’s not easy. Those ollies or kickflips that I do, it should only be a couple shots to get it, but I usually have to try it like 20 or 30 times, just to get something I’m satisfied with. Having been able to shoot professional snowboarders in the past, now I strive for that perfect moment, so being that I’m not a really good skater it takes me a long time to get those shots I’m at least mildly satisfied with. Or I’m just tired and sick of it so I’m like ah, it’s good enough. It’s a lot of work, but I just want the picture to be a little more interesting to the viewer.
Fuck it. From Iowa and Missouri in a Hurry
Brooke: You’re trying to make a book out of this right? So you don’t want half-assed photos.
Robbie: Yeah in the very end I wanna have a tangible product to remember the adventure from because all these websites, you know they’re so quick to archive everything, and nobody looks through the keyword metadata, you know searching into it. These days they’re just like, “What’s next! What’s next!” so I wanna have something that’s a little more easily found. It’s gonna be sitting on your bookshelf or coffee table. Hopefully I’ll be able to do it, I don’t have the cash to really front it, so I think I might try one of those crowd funding things, so if somebody wants to they can just kind of like pay for it up front and I’ll hook them up. Maybe if I can create more of a compelling story, I might even try to get a random small town publisher to see if they can work an angle on it.
Brooke: Yeah, well van life and travel is always hot so…
Robbie: Totally yeah, Foster (Huntington) already paved the for me. And his stuff is really cool, but I have a novel story, a solo road trip. His is more about documenting others’ lives via their van vehicles.
Does it get any better than a limo ride with Alex Mertz? Not likely. From I Heart NYC (Dirty Version)
Brooke: What’s your favorite spot you’ve been to?
Robbie: Kind of recently my favorite spot has been New York City, mainly because I had so many friends there and after having been on the road for, I think at that point it was like 4 months, it was really great to just kind of see friends and kind of revitalize my enthusiasm for the remainder of the tour. I was getting burnt out right before that, so hanging with friends and not driving for a few days was really nice. Just kind of getting to act normal for a minute. So that was a favorite spot, but Washington was really beautiful, like all the scenic areas up on the coast.
Brooke: Did you get up to Forks?
Robbie: Yeah I did. I went to those huge trees are on the beach and The Vance Peak bridge, the abandoned train bridge that tumblr and instagram made famous, and now it’s illegal. And then I went to the Mt. Baker ice caves, that was pretty cool up there. Other than that, Detroit was insane. Going up there and seeing a city that claimed bankruptcy just a number of years ago, seeing all the abandonment and the poverty that’s going on there, it was kind of sad. But it was really cool because I got to sneak into some really amazing abandoned buildings. Beautiful old churches and the Michigan theatre, like the whole urban decay kind of vibe and the urban exploring has been a kind of fun thing for me to do and try to document and share with everybody.
The Florida natives can be unruly. From Floriduh
Brooke: How was Florida and the Keys? Are you gonna move there and retire?
Robbie: I actually didn’t like Florida. Driving through Florida, it’s like a sprawling suburbia. I don’t know how many stop lights I hit down there, but it kind of started me off on a bad note. The Everglades were cool, but getting to them was kind of miserable and it was definitely the hottest region I had gotten to so far. Just super humid. And the Keys were scenic and photogenic, but when I actually got to Key West it kind of reminded me of what Mardi Gras would be like – just streets full of chaos and people just drinking on the streets and acting like a bunch of shit heads. It was a really cool experience to go there, but I don’t know maybe a different, season or if I would have had friends with me to…
Brooke: Get hammered and party?
Robbie: Yeah, party. But for me just kind of rolling solo I just found myself the most authentic local food there then took off and went up along the Eastern edge of Florida. Checked out Miami and all that. The Everglades were cool, you know seeing alligators and shit.
Brooke: What about Louisiana, did you go to New Orleans?
Robbie: I got to New Orleans exactly a week after Mardi Gras, so the locals, like all the shopkeepers and what not, seemed burnt out. Like they’d dealt with like going to war. There wasn’t a lot of enthusiasm when I was there.
Robbie: Before I got to New Orleans I went by one of those preserved plantations, where there was like heavy slavery and what not, and went on a tour there. I’ve never really been in a region like that so it was kind of a culture shock. Going through there is like walking into a history book. And just kind of feeling that weight, like well you know sure I never had anything to be ashamed of because I’m not racist by any means, but that region still is so racist and it just felt super strange.
Oak Alley Plantation. From the Lame Past of Louisiana
Brooke: Did you go through Baltimore, speaking of racism?
Robbie: Yeah, I have a friend, this chick Lindsey, who used to work at High Cascade back in my day, she and her husband live in Baltimore, so my experience was going up and hanging out with them for a couple of days. But I really wanted to visit the 12-O’clock boys, but didn’t see any quads or dirt bikes ripping down the streets, so I was kinda let down. I wanted to see just a squad of people overtaking the roadways just causin’ a rukus. I went to a roller derby. A bunch of butch chick just smashing each other and it was fun.
Brooke: You’re hitting all 48 mainland states, right? How many do you have left to go to?
Robbie: Well, I’m in Texas right this second, even though I’m trying to catch up my blog and it looks like I’m just touching New York. As far as the public knows – unless they’re following my Instagram – I’m way far behind. But I’m in Texas and doing all of the Southwest. I’ll be going from here into New Mexico, touching Colorado and touching Utah, going into Moab and Zion and all those beautiful state park areas. Then Arizona and then probably down into Southern California. So it seems like I’ve got just a little bit left, but it’s gonna be a couple thousand miles at least, and probably going to be about a month before I wrap this thing up.
Brooke: Have you gotten a lot of Instagram followers out of this trip? Is that all that matters?
Robbie: So I wanted to make this like a marketing project, like a portfolio piece. And when I’m finished show it to a potential employer or brand. I was kind of fancying myself as like a marketing consultant or something like that, and I feel like a fucking failure.
Robbie: I had a really small following in the beginning, like I think it was less than 2,000 followers and right now I think I’m like almost at 5,000, but I thought I was gonna be in like 10-20k plus range. When I pitched the project I had a whole turnkey package that I wanted to partner with a number of relevant brands in the youth lifestyle market, Coal Headwear, Arnette, DVS shoes, Ninja Suit – since I was shooting all these photos and subtly using their product in them. I was gonna have them use the pictures on their social media and then kind of like tie it back to like, “See this guy is on a cross country adventure, tune in to see where he’s at now.” If all these brands that I pitched it to did it, I think it would have really caught on a lot more. But a lot of the marketing directors that I spoke with are just either overwhelmed and they didn’t wanna add anything else to their plate or just idiots and didn’t see that they had a great opportunity to engage with their current audience or even build a bigger one. So for me it’s kind of a little bit of a let down, cause I was expecting so much more from it.
Robbie: I’m appreciating what I’m doing, seeing the nation and experiencing the culture that I wasn’t really around growing up. But having the background of working in marketing and trying to be an ambassador for these brands and what not, I couldn’t help but put bigger expectations on myself. But it’s not done yet, it could sky rocket at any moment.
Brooke: You just need one photo to go viral, that’s it. One. One photo.
Robbie: True, and when it’s finished too I’m sure it’ll get some traction, you know, here’s the package. If and when I do the Kickstarter, I’ll use that as an editorial piece in its own right, too.
Washington’s future is bright. From Let’s gota the Dakotas
Brooke: Definitely. I think our whole need for immediacy and the now now now can kind of taint experiences in that way.
Robbie: Yeah, being at the age of kind of being in the millennial lifestyle but remembering, you know, analog photography and actually reading books.
Brooke: You know you can still do that stuff, right? You can still read books even though kids don’t.
Robbie: Yeah, I have a couple of books that I brought with me on my road trip that I’ve dabbled with here and there, but I’m incredibly busy – like you’d think “oh you’re just driving and taking pictures you got all the time in the world,” but being that I have a very very small budget, I see my bank account just getting smaller and smaller. It’s like, will I have enough money for gas and peanut butter and jelly to get home? I’m not trying to lag too hard because I wanna get back and post up and find some way to have a little bit of income. I’m shooting, I’m driving, I’m planning, I’m editing, and then I’m exhausted and sleeping, so there’s not really much downtime. It’s kind of exhausting.
Brooke: Vacation is the most exhausting thing in the world, right? You try so much harder then in regular life. So, after this you have absolutely no plan? Is there anywhere that you’ve been where you’re like maybe I’ll move there and figure it out?
Robbie: During the trip I’ve kind of in the back of my mind. I’m literally living in the van and I don’t have a location that I need to go back to for a mortgage or girlfriend or employment. So I’ve been open-minded about what’s next. In all these locations thinking like, “What would it be like to live here? What kind of opportunity could I have? Could I try to start another restaurant? Could I offer some sort of something, you know? Could be a damn constructive worker?” I’ve been thinking about that all along the way and there have been some really cool zones and I always weigh the pros and the cons. Minneapolis is amazing and even though I can handle the cold, would I wanna handle their brutal winters? The community and culture there is super cool. I’ve kind of seen the same exact thing in a number of other locations too. There’s that in Baltimore, there’s that in obviously New York, there’s that in a lot of those major hubs across the nation, but nowhere is perfect and if it is perfect, it’s probably overpopulated and crowded and annoying.
Robbie: I haven’t fallen in love with anywhere and it makes me think, do I want to go back to where I grew up in Lake Tahoe? Should I get back into snowboarding? You know I saw actually a really good change with Corey Smith when he went back there like it looked like he was really enjoying himself and I think that’s when he started all the Spring Break stuff. I hope I could find something inspiring wherever I go, but I don’t know where it’s gonna be. Like I said I have my fingers crossed that this project will get noticed or discovered.
John Wells. From Wyoming because
Brooke: A dream job without having to try. Isn’t that what everybody wants?
Robbie: Yeah, I have been fortunate in the past, a lot of things have fallen in my lap, but I can’t rely on that, of course. I’ve been making a lot of notes about possible brand ventures. I’ll need to come up with business plans and find investors and what not, but you know, dreams come true. I’ve been fortunate enough to make a few of mine a reality from becoming a pro snowboarder to being an established photographer and starting a restaurant and then actually making this adventure come to life, it’s like it all started with just a thought and then kind of talking about it and it just comes to life. So if I keep making these notes and then put a little more thought into it maybe they can also be something to put into the past.
Brooke: Another chapter in the book.