Talking Authentic #Vanlife with James Barkman

Words by Chris Zimmerman
Photos by James Barkman

There has been an explosion of #vanlife in recent years, and while some people enter that life with fat bank accounts, healthy trust funds, and brand new Sprinter vans, there are others who truly give up everything to live more simply. James Barkman is one of those people. After dropping everything to move across the country to intern for famed photographer, Chris Burkhard, James has quickly developed his own following with photos that offer a unique look into his lifestyle. Whether capturing images of his distinctive 1976 tangerine Westfalia puffing a cloud of smoke from his custom woodstove or pulling his trailered dirt bike to a local NW surf spot, James and his van, Melody, have been circling the internet lately, all while he continues to live a lifestyle geared around surfing, traveling, and photography.

Can you give us a quick intro on where you’re from and what you do?

I’m originally from the Northeast, I grew up in a small county in rural Pennsylvania. The last couple years I’ve been calling the road and my ’76 Westy home, and currently, I work as a freelance photographer.

Just like you can’t give yourself a nickname, vans can’t name themselves. Have you given your van a name yet?

Too true. My van’s name is Melody. Melody Barkvan. I had a crush on this girl named Melody in 5th grade… just kidding. I named her Barkvan after my last name, Barkman, and bestowed the name Melody upon her after the wife of Keith Green, who was an old school hippy/musician from the 70’s. Melody is a good friend of mine, and she and Keith used to live in a yellow Westy just like mine, they sent that rig coast to coast around 13 times.

Did you know much about working on VW vans before you bought yours? How much have you learned along the way?

I’ve always owned and loved old shitty cars. My first car was an ’84 VW diesel Rabbit that had been sitting for 20 years. I didn’t have a clue about air-cooled motors at first, and not surprisingly the van let me set on the way back from buying it. It quickly forced me to learn a thing or two. I’ve put more blood, sweat, and tears into my bus than almost anything else in my life. The best teacher is a vehicle that is guaranteed to break down at least once a week, haha. I could talk for hours about the breakdowns and curveballs she’s thrown at me, but I supposed I’ve learned enough to keep her on the road this far.

Do you have a go-to van meal, something you always find yourself eating?

I hate doing dishes probably more than anything else in life, therefore I usually pound an egg + avocado burrito for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I’m a pretty simple dude and try to live as minimal as I can, so it doesn’t get old. That’s the go-to for sure.

Sometimes traveling the way you do can lead to some seemingly sketchy situations. Can you talk about what it takes to find a spot to park your van each night?

One time I was woken up at 3:00 am by a tweaked out homeless crackhead that had to be tripping on that next level cocaine, plus a couple hits of a lot of other stuff. I was alone and in the middle of the woods, and he wouldn’t leave. Finally, mid conversation he just disappeared into the woods, haha. I was so creeped out, slept with my hatchet the rest of the night. There’s been a few of those type of situations, but I usually try to be smart about where I park or camp. Finding camp in a new territory can be a hassle, especially with my trailer, but the more time you spend on the road the easier it becomes to find those little golden nug zones.

Your van has a pretty unique setup with a wood-burning stove, where did you get the idea to install one and have you had any scares since you started using it?

I was living in the van on the east coast and wanted a way to stay warm during the winter, but didn’t want to deal with propane heat. I found the stove on Craigslist for $40, figured out how to make it work and was honestly a little surprised at how well it all came together. It only started a fire once, but a buddy quickly spit it out with a couple mouthfuls of water, haha.

You seem to spend quite a bit of time on the Northwest Coast, what do you like about that area in particular?

My last name means “mountain man”, and as long as I can remember I’ve been hyped on mountains and forests. As a kid growing up in rural, landlocked Pennsylvania, all I wanted to do was live on a mountain in a forest by the ocean. Some dreams never die! It really doesn’t get better than the Northwest coast.

What are some of your favorite spots to surf in the NW and why do you like surfing up here?

I love cold water and of course the wild northwest scenery, but also the challenge of finding a wave up here. I hiked a 9-mile round trip mission once, and still got skunked. Anything that you put time, energy, and effort into has a greater sense of reward and surfing in the PNW is no exception. The Olympic Peninsula is probably my favorite area, but there’s also a few hidden gems on the Oregon coast.

How old were you when you drove across the country to intern for Chris Burkhard, and what was it like to pack up everything and take off in your van?

I left the east coast when I was 21, and had been looking for an excuse to move west for a while. Risk, change, and the unknown have always been dynamics that stoke me out, so it was definitely a surreal moment to pack up everything I owned and leave everything I knew to start a new life 3,500 miles away. It felt like I was in a movie or something.

You probably learned a lot shooting with Chris, If you could distil the knowledge you gained from him into one piece of advice, what do you think it would be?

That’s tough to nail down, but one thing Chris always said has really stuck with me. “To truly ‘make it’ in any particular industry or to develop a style, you must fully immerse yourself in the culture of that which you are trying to pursue.” Very true, and I think that can be said of almost any career or dream.

You shoot a lot of film, can you talk about the opportunity and the challenge that comes from shooting primarily for social media with that format?

Like I said earlier, anything that you invest time, energy, attention, finances, passion, etc into has a greater sense of reward. To me, analog photography does just that. There is no real reward unless there is a legitimate risk at stake – anyone that shoots film understands just that. When I’m shooting with film, I understand the value and importance of a single image, and it completely changes my approach. It teaches me to compose, be patient, notice, observe, and be alert, qualities that are often lacking from many photographers these days. I’d rather have 3 images that I’m remembered for than 10,000 that the world forgets.

It seems like there are a lot of Instagram photographers these days, but you have been able to achieve a very unique look. Can you talk about what it takes to stand out in a world where we can see essentially the same photo taken by every big name Insta photographer?

I try to look for moments that others overlook, and I want my images to tell an honest story, not just be an arsenal of aesthetic “bangers” that have no correlation or connection to anything. I hope that my style, technique, and approach will constantly be progressing and evolving, but it’s very important to me to strive towards building a body of work that will stand the test of time and not be forgotten in a few years when people finally get over Instagram and social media.

Do you have anyone you want to thank? Shoutouts or anything like that?

I’m very grateful for the people in my life that have taught, inspired, and motivated me. The list is too long, but shoutout fersure to the rents and family, my boy Chris Conley, Jeremy Bardwell, and everyone else that’s believed and helped me along the way

In a world full of emulators, it’s good to see there is still some originality and authenticity left. Follow James on his social channels to keep up with his travels and adventures, or maybe kick him down some spare VW parts if you got ‘em.





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