Brianna Madia lives in a van in Utah with her husband and their two dogs. Nearly 200,000 people are captivated by her life.
Accidental fame through social media is a relatively new concept to most of us — including Brianna Madia, who never intended to attract a massive following when she started her Instagram account in 2012.
Today, she has 193,000 followers and counting. She’s “Instagram Famous.” Strangers know her name, her husband’s name (Keith), her dogs’ names (Bucket and Dagwood), and her big orange van (Bertha).
Many of those people might also feel like they know Brianna. As a person. Her posts are eloquently written and weighted with honesty and details. She shares what it’s like to live in a van, in the desert of Utah. She shares the good and the bad; the sunsets melting over hoodoos and the puppy kisses in slot canyons, alongside the number of days she sometimes goes without showering, and what it’s like to wake up with ice on the inside of your windows.
She also sometimes shares the anxiety and apprehension that swirls around the “influence” she now wields through her photos and her words.
The Dyrt caught up with Brianna to chat about what it’s really like to be Instagram famous in the outdoor industry, where a lot of people are chasing big dreams, big summits, big change… and big inspiration from people like her.
The Dyrt: When you first started your Instagram profile, what did your life look like? What kind of things were you sharing?
Brianna Madia: When I first downloaded the Instagram app, I was actually living on a sailboat with Keith (and Bucket) after we had graduated from college. We were working to save up enough cash to move out west.
Bucket and I worked as nannies for a local family with 2 kids and Keith was teaching sailing lessons. I downloaded the app mainly because a friend had shown me hers and I thought it looked like fun to be able to edit photos like that. I’d never owned a “real” camera and was just posting photos of Bucket using my camera phone.
My account was also private because at the time, I couldn’t imagine anyone being interested in my life outside of those who actually knew me.
Did you have a vision for what you wanted to accomplish through social media at that time, or was it just for fun?
I grew up in the time when you needed a valid college email address to apply for Facebook, so I didn’t know much about social media outside of its ability to connect you with your new potential freshman roommate.
When I downloaded Instagram several years later, I still hadn’t really realized that you could accomplish anything through it other than putting sepia-toned filters on your dog’s face.
What prompted the move into the van?
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Keith and Brianna Madia are pleased to announce the birth of their van, Bertha. Yes that's right kids, we're van people now. We had every email alert from Zillow and Realtor.com set up, we'd even gone to the bank to inquire about a loan. But slowly we started to realize that we didn't want a house…we didn't want a mortgage…we didn't want to grow up. So we took every single penny we had and bought a big orange lifted 1990 Ford scooby doo van off KSL and I can barely see straight because I'm so deliriously happy. •••"And then there is the greatest risk of all…the risk of spending your life not doing what you want on the bet you can buy yourself the freedom to do it later." ••• #vanlife #optoutside #staywild #neverstopexploring #asdt #in2nature #campvibes #choosemountains #fpme #adventureonly #camptrend #greettheoutdoors #freshairandfreedom #keepitwild #spreadstoke #goatworthy
Keith and I always felt that we wanted to live “differently.” We both grew up in the same area of Connecticut where there was a high focus on wealth and material things and status and that never really jived with either of us. We felt like so many people are just ushered into this rat race because they believe that’s their only option. We were determined not to fall victim to that.
So, when we found ourselves suddenly thinking we had to buy a house, we began to examine where that feeling was actually coming from. We always say that it felt like we were doing it because we thought we were supposed to…not because we wanted to.
About a week after we’d started looking into mortgages, we switched our search to the local classifieds and saw a photo of that giant orange van. The following day we withdrew every single cent we had to our names and handed it over – in cash – to a guy in a parking lot in north Salt Lake.
Craziest, most wonderful thing we’ve ever done.
What was the hardest thing about transitioning into that lifestyle?
Getting the rest of the world to understand that you’re still pretty normal people even though you live in a car. I was still working a 9 to 5 job for a software company and I had to go sit down with the HR department and say, “So I’m gonna sleep in the parking lot now.”
They were surprisingly okay with it, but there were plenty of coworkers who would see me carrying my toiletry bag into the bathroom in the morning or filling up five 5-gallon water jugs from the kitchen sink in the afternoon and just be so, so confused.
Was there ever a point when you suddenly realized that you could reach a huge audience with your profile?
Shortly after we bought the van, REI shared a photo of it and my iPhone pretty much exploded. I believe we got 10,000 followers overnight…taking us from about 6,000 followers who probably just enjoyed the photos of our dogs, to 16,000 followers who were now waiting to hear a story we hadn’t even written yet.
It was really overwhelming and it continues to be overwhelming.
What’s the most common misconception about your lifestyle?
There seem to be two types of folks that we hear from regularly when it comes to misconceptions about our life:
- Young people who want so badly to believe that we just float around on a breeze and have our entire life paid for by Instagram, thus furthering their hope that they can do this too.
- Old people who want so badly to believe that you cannot make a living unless you are sitting at a desk, thus furthering their hope that they didn’t miss out on a life they could have had.
If my Instagram has taught me anything, it’s that you basically become a projection screen for people’s hopes, dreams, desires, insecurities, anger, jealousy, rage etc.
Popular Instagram accounts have become a big part of the outdoor industry. Their images and words spark (and sometimes lead) some really important conversations that might not be addressed as directly by bigger brands or mainstream publications. What do you consider your role in the outdoor industry and in current conversations (on public lands, for example)?
This is a really tough one because I don’t think people realize how jarring it can be to very suddenly be thrust into a limelight you never truly anticipated. I’m not a politician…I’m not a lawmaker…I’m not a professional athlete…I would never even call myself an activist because I think that does an injustice to people who dedicate their entire lives to pounding the pavement and banging down doors for outdoor advocacy.
What I am is a storyteller. If I can use the power of my words to tell you about a place you’ve never been to…a place you didn’t know about…perhaps I can make you understand why you should care.
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We pulled in to a campsite in Indian Creek on the first night of our relay across Bears Ears and Grand Staircase. Slowly each vehicle arrived under the cover of darkness, carrying enthusiastic and nervous runners who greeted each other around a fire. This was a scene I was familiar with…after all, Keith and I had spent so many nights here by a campfire after a long day of climbing with friends. I was staring up into the Milky Way, thinking about how special this place was to me, when Len of @nativesoutdoors spoke out into our little circle. He said that this land was sacred to many tribes because when the white man began marching Natives clear across the state of New Mexico to be put into internment camps, this is where they came to hide. Here, beneath the towering walls we climb…. Here, among the canyons we lay in our tents beneath… Here, in the place we'd claimed to know so well… I felt a sting of embarrassment there in the darkness, listening to Len talk about the history of his people. I felt familiar pangs of anger in my chest, knowing full well that I'd never been taught any of this in my history classes. The truth can be uncomfortable. But it's our responsibility to dwell in that minor discomfort so that we can better understand each other…so that we can ask better questions and advocate better policies… We are being asked, at the very least, to recognize the origins of this land. To recognize the history and the sacredness and the significance, and to fight for it not only because it means something to us…but because it means something to others that we may never truly understand. I'm so grateful to know the incredible group of runners you will see when our short film is released tomorrow. I hope you'll watch, and I hope you'll help us save these places. Check out some teaser trailers in my IG story today. 🦅🏃♀️#MessengersRun #MakePublicLandsGreatAgain 📷:@dirtbagdarling
What is important to know about me in this realm is that I have one idol in this world and that is the late Edward Abbey. Sure, some folks called him an activist, but what he really did was incite a fire in people because he told damn good stories. So when I’m feeling overwhelmed with the state of our planet, with the state of our public lands, I recite his words: “Do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am – a reluctant enthusiast…a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here.”
If I can accomplish anything with this platform I suddenly have, I’d hope it would be to encourage people to advocate for the places they love in meaningful ways (VOTE!), and then shut the damn phone off and go enjoy them.“If I can use the power of my words to tell you about a place you’ve never been to…a place you didn’t know about…perhaps I can make you understand why you should care.” - Brianna Madia Click To Tweet
Even without geotagging or mentioning specific locations, you present followers with an intimate connection to the land of Utah. What do you want people to know about the places you call home?
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Exactly five years ago today, Keith and I were somewhere in Nebraska…or perhaps Wyoming. We were just 2 kids from New England who'd never spent much time further west than Pennsylvania…but there we were with all we owned in this world shoved into 2 cars, rumbling down the highway toward the mountain west. Many people who knew us joked that we must have just closed our eyes and pointed to a map. We had no family in Utah…no jobs lined up…in fact, we'd never even really been there… We leapt into the great wide open. We leapt because we could. We were terrified and tear-soaked, but still, we leapt. And my mother stood in the driveway and waved until we were out of sight. She'll argue that she knew the day we left that we were never coming back…
The places we call home really are home to us. We’re not on some cross-country road trip or just passing through these deserts. We live here. There’s one place by the river where I’ve spent weeks on end. If I were to drop a pin to that place or tell 190,000 people how to get there…it would almost be the equivalent of someone geotagging their driveway. If you drive out there, there’s a 65% chance you’re literally going to roll up to my van.
So when I talk about these places and share stories of these places, I am literally talking about the place where I live. It is not a vacation. It is not an annual camping trip. These are places we’ve cherished and loved and examined every inch of over the last 6 years.
I know there are so many people who think I’m so selfish for not geo-tagging but…I want people to understand that not everything is supposed to be easy or convenient. I want people to know what it’s like to put the work in because I know for a fact that when you put your bones and tears and sweat into finding a place, you treat it differently. You respect it more because you worked for it and gave a part of yourself to it.
Do you receive much criticism from online commenters? What type of content seems to spark that and how do you deal with it?
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Happenings of the last week or so: – We parked Bertha in our friend's back yard and successfully disassembled her entire front axle to begin refurbishing and replacing the moving parts. We anticipate Bertha being here until December. – I learned how to use a sewing machine and completely redecorated Bertha's insides. – I tried acupuncture and cupping for the first time and really really loved it. – Keith cut all of his hair off. – I cut some of my hair off. – I took a lot of naps and read a lot of books and listened to a lot of Neil Young whilst sitting in my dear friend's bathtub. I did all of this 3 by 5…a saying Keith and I use when we do something without a phone or a camera blocking our view…just a straight shot from our eyeballs to the world in front of us. I needed a minute. I wrote my last post with the intentions of being honest and vulnerable…but those intentions were twisted beyond recognition. I didn't have the energy to defend a feeling I tried so hard to put into words. I didn't have the energy to carry the weight of other people's offense on top of the pile of things I'd been carrying for weeks. It was too heavy. So I just let it fall. You know Keith likes to joke that I've become an actual piece of this van…tethered to her with my own rusted bolts and intricate wiring just like any other working part. When she's broken down, I am too. But you know the thing about wheels and axles and vans and people? We're all fixable 😉
Since we’ve exceeded a certain number of followers, it seems that everything is up for criticism…the way I raise my dogs, the type of food I eat, the cost of my climbing gear, the fact that my van runs on gasoline, the fact that we have a whopping three companies who we do sponsored work with on social media…the list goes on.
I think a lot of criticism or negativity comes from some people’s desperate need to believe that Keith and I are “doing something wrong” or that we’ve “cheated” in some way. People don’t understand why we live this way. They don’t understand how we both still have jobs. They don’t understand why we enjoy it so much. And because they don’t understand it, it makes them angry. Certain folks seem to believe that if something doesn’t apply to them, or make sense to them, or appeal to them, or include them, then it is wrong and it should not be allowed to exist.
And while it is still overwhelmingly positive, those negative comments are like taking bullets.
You see, I’m not selling some product or starting a business…I’m writing stories about my childhood dog dying, or being stranded on the side of the road in Wyoming because my axle exploded. I’m sharing stories of me washing my hair in a dog bowl or videos of myself sobbing like a lunatic outside a vet’s office. There’s roughly zero degrees of separation between who I am and what people are reading. Imagine getting a bunch of “bad reviews” on who you literally are as a human being…it’s really rough.
And I’m probably one of the last people in the world who should have a popular Instagram because my skin is about as thick as a piece of wet paper…and yet, here I am!!“Imagine getting a bunch of “bad reviews” on who you literally are as a human being…it’s really rough.” - Brianna Madia Click To Tweet
Do those criticisms ever lead to productive conversations? How do those go?
Maybe once or twice I’ve been able to have productive conversations or “change someone’s mind”, but if I’m being completely honest, I had to stop dedicating my energy to that. Defending yourself day in and day out is something I wouldn’t wish on anyone.
Have you ever considered stepping away from the attention that your Instagram garners? What motivates you to keep sharing?
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I woke up to the news that Katie Lee died at the beautiful old age of 98. There's a fantastic link in my bio right now for anyone interested in learning a bit about how incredible she was. They called her the Desert Goddess…and she was amazing. When I heard, I climbed out of the van, up onto a big sandstone block in the middle of the desert, and stared up into the sky. What a shame that so many people will never truly come to understand the desert for the genuine and absolute magic that it is. These contractors…these oil refiners…these politicians…they'll never understand. But Katie did. And I do too. The fight continues…
I think about it all the time. Fortunately, I do spend a lot of time out of service. My favorite river-side spot where I spend so much time each year is completely void of cell service. If you want to post something, you have to physically climb up a cliff.
Sometimes I’ll wake up, climb the cliff, click post, climb back down and spend the whole rest of the day and night in total signal-less solitude. It’s an absolutely perfect scenario for me. But I’m sure there will come a day where I never climb that cliff again. I’ve always said that I could see myself just disappearing one day.
For now, what keeps me sharing is the fact that my words and my stories mean something to people. That’s a dream come true to me. That’s all I’ve ever wanted as a writer. I can’t even type it without tearing up. I have an entire folder on my phone…screenshots of messages from people who’ve used my words as inspiration to go camping or take their dog into the backcountry or share a poem at their local slam or submit a piece of writing to their college newspaper.
It’s indescribable. It gives me such a wonderful sense of purpose in all the madness. And I know there’s some cynics who would frown at that…who would huff on about social media being a generation’s desperate attempt at validation. But f*** that. I think it’s the most beautifully human thing in the world to seek reference points in other people…to want to understand each other…to know we’re not alone in our thoughts and our dreams.
If I’ve provided that to a single person on this planet, it will all have been worth it.“I think it’s the most beautifully human thing in the world to seek reference points in other people…to want to understand each other…to know we’re not alone in our thoughts and our dreams.” - Brianna Madia Click To Tweet
Are you often recognized out in the real world? What is that experience like for you?
I want to say no because it sounds less narcissistic for some reason and I’m super self-conscious about that but…yes, we’re recognized all the time and it’s absolutely nuts. You have to understand that in my mind, the timeline goes like this: download Instagram app, post dog photos, buy van, write thoughts, pose for selfies with “fans” in the grocery store.
It is still so hard for me to wrap my mind around the fact that anyone besides my mom cares about what I’m doing. But meeting people in person is one of the best parts of all of this. It makes it feel very real and genuine and honest and I love that.
Sometimes I do get a little worried that I’ll be at a stoplight picking my nose or something and not notice the person next to me taking a video — so that’s kind of worrisome. But I have joked to Keith that it’s a good thing that I’m publicly known for living in a van so the bar is already set pretty low when people see me and I haven’t showered in 6 days.
As a writer, your captions are particularly captivating. Do you have an Instagram post that you’re most proud of?
There’s a caption I wrote about Dagwood and it’s probably the closest thing I’ve ever written to a poem, and I kind of love that about it because poetry was never my strong suit. Keith and I are actually making a little short film about Dagwood with that caption read as narration just for fun.
You’ve mentioned a book… can you tell us anything about that?
I am writing a book! I have an agent! I have a book title! And that’s about as far as it goes haha. It’s a collection of short stories that I am pouring my entire being into and I’m so excited – but also outright terrified – to share when it’s done. As to when it will be done…I’m writing as fast as I can
What is the goal of your Instagram account these days?
Mainly I just need people to know how cute Bucket and Dagwood are 😉.
But honestly, I simply hope people can take whatever it is they need from my story. When I send my words out into the world, they don’t really belong to me anymore, and that’s the beautiful thing about being a writer.“When I send my words out into the world, they don’t really belong to me anymore, and that’s the beautiful thing about being a writer.” - Brianna Madia Click To Tweet
You probably get asked a lot of the same questions about your life. What’s one thing people don’t ask but you wish they would?
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Perhaps in another life, you were a bird. I can't be certain…but whoever you were, you must have been terribly free. A leash and 4 walls have never suited you. Dog parks and paved sidewalks were chaos for you to try and wrap your primitive, untamed mind around. In fact, sometimes I think we should have slid the collar from your neck and turned you loose in the vast, silent openness of the desert you love so deeply. But we would have missed you too much. So we slipped our own collars and went with you instead.
One time a young woman sent me a message that simply said, “Is it a burden to have so many people tell you that you’re an inspiration?” and I genuinely burst into tears upon reading that. It’s not something I’ve ever really acknowledged before because I’d hate to make people think that I don’t take it as an immense compliment…but there’s such a heavy pressure attached to hearing those words, especially for someone who still struggles with self-doubt…for someone who is still learning to navigate this world themselves.
I hope so deeply that I don’t let any of these people down.