Space

Lost in Space

Photographer Mark Hartman goes off the grid to get a better view of the American landscape.

In the summer of 2020, photographer Mark Hartman gave up his apartment, bought a van, and — along with his cat, Shiva — spent the rest of the year drifting back and forth across America. In between magazine assignments and scattered visits with friends, Hartman spent the bulk of his time alone, living on the road, sleeping under the stars, and seeing the country through an entirely different lens. Here he reflects on the experience of being untethered, really seeing America for the first time, and shares some images from his months living largely off the grid.
As told to T. Cole Rachel


Hitting the road.

When the pandemic hit, all of my regular work just completely stopped. I was like, I really need to figure out a way to create art, and also have some freedom during this time. I bought a van, and then just slowly converted it. It’s a 30-year-old van, so it took some time to get it ready and make it comfortable inside. I am somebody who really does like my home and having nice things, and I’ve always tried to create a cozy environment wherever I am. It was important to me that the van actually be livable, that it would feel like a safe zone.

So it took me a while to get that together, but then the following March I finally hit the road. I basically just beelined for Sedona, Arizona, since I knew people in that area, and I figured it was a good idea to follow the weather. I had no real strategy, so I jumped around a lot. I was kind of all over the place for a good part of the trip, but eventually I figured out where I could go that made sense seasonally. Beyond that, the idea was just to go create art, wherever I was. That’s how I feel connected, and that's how I feel good. I knew I would go a little crazy if I wasn’t making art. What I crave and what I value most in life is the freedom and ability to create work and have mobility. So I got in the van and then restructured my whole life in order to have all the freedom that I can.

Making friends.

I did manage to see some friends in different places as I was traveling, but I also ended up meeting people along the way, in the national parks or other people who were also on the road. From time to time I would really feel the need for some sort of socializing — I stopped in LA and saw friends at one point, I visited one of my old art professors from college who lives in New Mexico — but most of the time I was really alone.

The van life was so strange and interesting, and often really weird because you are basically a transient. It was hard to develop any kind of real relationship, whether it be romantic or some kind of new friendship because you aren’t in one place long enough. Still, you end up having these very intimate, fleeting moments with people. Often, when people realize that they’re not going to see you again, they open up about certain personal things or something that’s bothering them, or something that just wouldn’t really come up in a day-to-day conversation. But given the fact that you’re kind of just passing by, this person can share some tidbit of experience or wisdom or just their own story with you, and it can be really profound and significant. That was so interesting to me. It was this weird give and take — having these brief, very intense experiences with other people, then long stretches of time being all alone.

It was this weird give and take — having these brief, very intense experiences with other people, then long stretches of time being all alone.

Staying the night.

People would always ask me how I found safe places to park and sleep at night. It’s actually really easy, especially the further you get out west. I use a couple different apps. There’s an app called Boondocking, and then there’s another app called iOverlander. They basically let people share their experiences — “Oh, I stayed here and it was fine.” The more you start doing it, the more you realize that there are actually tons of very specific places where you can stay. For example, you can stay on any Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land, of which there is so much. So you could be driving on a highway and there’s a little turn-off with a gate, and then you go in this gate and you’re on this beautiful expanse of land and, by law, you’re allowed to stay there for 14 days. You can look up these BLM locations on a map and see that they are all over. So a lot of times I would stay in these areas, which ended up being incredible. They are usually also really beautiful since a lot of them are close to monuments or national parks.

And when you go to these places you encounter other people who are basically doing the same thing you’re doing. There are a lot of those people. There’s a place like Quartzsite, Arizona, which is a town where I don’t think many people live, but a lot of people go there in vans. I think they talked about it in that film “Nomadland,” which I still haven’t seen even though people ask me about it constantly. Anyway, there’s a huge amount of BLM land there. And people just set up cities there, especially in the winter.


Advertisement

Other than parks, I would occasionally stay in residential neighborhoods. In San Diego, you just park on a nice street and nobody bothers you. Or I would park by the beach or near a train track. You start to be aware of these no-man’s-land kind of spots that no one, not even cops, would really pay attention to. Also, there’s always the Walmart parking lot. You’re allowed to stay in Walmart parking lots.

When you start driving across the country, you learn that rest stops are actually pretty amazing. Sometimes they'll have free showers and places you can plug in for electricity. It’s kind of crazy. There are not that many in New York or throughout the Northeast, but when you go further west, you find stuff like that. Also, you just become more resourceful. Traveling alone keeps your mind active because you’re always problem-solving. Where do I get coffee? Where can I get this thing fixed on my car?

Amazingly, I didn’t have a single flat tire. I didn’t have a single issue. And it was kind of crazy. People are always like, “Oh, aren't you scared something's going to happen?” But honestly, I wasn’t. You just get so used to it. And it's like, even if something happens, you just deal with it. It kind of blows my mind actually, thinking that I went over 17,000 miles, all around everywhere, and I had no issues; and I’m driving a car from 1990 that basically looks like it could break down at any moment.


A new perspective.

You don’t really understand how huge America actually is until you drive through it. It does radically change your perspective. Not to sound pessimistic, but I would often think about the movie “Easy Rider.” I think that’s the perfect image of America in some ways because it’s so beautiful and sometimes so weird and dark. And the people you meet are so incredible. I realized that I had a certain perception of people from the Midwest, but what I found is that people are just really generous. Other than one kind of frightening experience with a cop in Utah, I never had any bad interactions with people. No matter where you are in the world, there can be this scary underbelly that will show itself sometimes, but mostly I was just amazed. America is an amazing country. People are so generous and kind.

Freedom from things.

I am now back in New York — out in the Rockaways — and I’d say that the experience of being out on the road for so many months really did change my perspective on pretty much everything. Before I left, I had put all of my things into a small storage space. When I came back, I ended up just throwing most of the stuff away. I realized that I actually need very little to be happy, and now things are sort of taking a turn for the better for me. It made me reconsider the value of things and what I truly value in my life. I realized I don’t need much. I don’t think I had ever really spent enough time before just thinking about what it is that truly makes me happy. So I came back here, downsized to a tiny place, and now I live about a block away from the beach. I bought a surfboard. I started doing jiu-jitsu. Things I’ve never done before. I’ll do this for a while, then eventually get back in the van again and spend six months or so roaming around. I’ll probably go to California for a while, surf, take photos, and see what happens. To me, that kind of freedom is truly ideal.

Header image — Glacier National Park, Montana.

Pit Stops in the American West to Write (or Photograph) Home About

Photographer Mark Hartman picks some of his favorite places along his cross-country odyssey.

  • Glacier National Park, Montana

    I’ve never seen any place so immaculate in the U.S. The combination of swimming holes, hikes, and glaciers make this place so unique. I recommend the Grinnell Glacier hike on the east side of the park in the Many Glacier region.

  • Big Sur, California

    I am obsessed with Big Sur. Sleeping on the cliffs, I would hear clear whale sounds echoing against them. I think this is the most beautiful part of the U.S.

  • Goblin Valley State Park, Utah

    The area has huge sandstone formations and hoodoos that resemble goblins. I’ve never seen any place like it.

  • Bisbee, Arizona

    A beautifully preserved western town that attracts a lot of artists; I fell in love with this town. I believe comedian Doug Stanhope lives there.

  • Chaco Culture, New Mexico

    A World Heritage Site that boggles your mind, this community had very advanced technology and understanding of astronomy ahead of its time. The society flourished and then vanished. Its deeper history remains a mystery, with plenty of speculation among anthropologists. It’s a fascinating place.

  • Glacier National Park, Montana

    I’ve never seen any place so immaculate in the U.S. The combination of swimming holes, hikes, and glaciers make this place so unique. I recommend the Grinnell Glacier hike on the east side of the park in the Many Glacier region.

  • Bisbee, Arizona

    A beautifully preserved western town that attracts a lot of artists; I fell in love with this town. I believe comedian Doug Stanhope lives there.

  • Big Sur, California

    I am obsessed with Big Sur. Sleeping on the cliffs, I would hear clear whale sounds echoing against them. I think this is the most beautiful part of the U.S.

  • Chaco Culture, New Mexico

    A World Heritage Site that boggles your mind, this community had very advanced technology and understanding of astronomy ahead of its time. The society flourished and then vanished. Its deeper history remains a mystery, with plenty of speculation among anthropologists. It’s a fascinating place.

  • Goblin Valley State Park, Utah

    The area has huge sandstone formations and hoodoos that resemble goblins. I’ve never seen any place like it.

Explore More
Our Contributors

Mark Hartman Photographer

Mark Hartman is a photographer and director based in New York City.

',
Newsletter

Let’s Keep in Touch

Subscribe to our newsletter

Come On In

U.S. issued American Express Platinum Card® and Centurion® Members, enter the first six digits of your card number to access your complimentary subscription.

Learn about membership.