The Barkvan, The Barkman, & The PA Grand Canyon

It’s not every day that a VW bus pulls up in front of your house. But this wasn’t just any day; it can’t be when James Barkman has anything to do with it.

I’ve been on an internal journey lately. Actually it’s been a bit more like a grinding, gnawing, slightly painful slow burning fire. It has come in the form of small nagging questions. Questions like: “Why do I receive so much of my worth by my work?” “Why do I shame myself if I’m not working?” “Where did my simple joy in The Lord go?” “Why am I driven by unattainable, vague notions of what I want my life to look like without asking Jesus what He wants my life to look like?” “Why does my version of Christianity often look like working harder, doing better, and outperforming people around me, instead of enjoying my work as a gift from God?”

James has been one of those people in my life to encourage me to see life differently. It’s a perspective someone can only gain by living out of his van, quitting his job, and traveling to California for an internship with a photographer. So in the midst of a busy, chaotic schedule, we heeded the call of the wild. Or the PA Grand Canyon.

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It took us what felt like forever to finally reach the Canyon. Just so you know, everyone in the area of the Canyon thinks they know where the best overlook spot is, and maybe they do – but they all pointed us in different, poorly marked areas up and down the highways.

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James is one of those free-spirit type people. I know people who think I’m free-spirited, but let it be known that there are definitely different levels of free-spiritedness. James is perfectly okay with cruising his van out to sweet spots, with or without people, and camping around, with or without permission. When the police tell him to leave they usually compliment his van.

Something I truly admire about James is his fearlessness. He just tries things. He isn’t worked up over having each calculated result spelled out beforehand. There are hearts that are spellbound by the call of God on their lives. And I’m learning this doesn’t need to look the same for everyone. What it means for me to follow God’s call on my life doesn’t necessarily need to look like the call James has – but there is much we can learn in the body of Christ by spending time with people who otherwise don’t live lives that look exactly like ours. It doesn’t mean we compromise on the essentials, but we all have different gifts to build each other up with.

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One of the slickest features in the Barkvan is the wood stove. It’s totally a fire hazard and it’s not up to any particular code. I’m still not sure how that conversation would go if James was pulled over:

“License, registration, proof of insurance… wood stove?… Does that actually work?…”

.. but when it’s forty degrees in the middle of the forest and you’re freezing you’ll be glad you had this bizarre aftermarket option.

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James and I were outside in the forest, in the middle of nowhere, taking long-exposure photographs of the van, like all nerds, when I heard something rustle in the trees. The sound couldn’t have been more than twenty feet away. I heard it distinctly once. James was focusing on his killer shot, but for about three minutes I was on high alert. It was pitch black outside other than the moon light eerily peering through the trees around us. I heard the noise again. It took several steps toward us and then stopped. I got out my flashlight and pointed it into the darkness. I didn’t see anything staring back at me, but I knew something was there. James came back to the tripod where I was standing and I, with hurried speech, told him we had a guest and I think we needed to get back into the van. After assuring him that I wasn’t kidding, which I wasn’t, we booked it back to the van.

We prepared our sleeping bags in the double-decker van.  James was on the lower level right next to the windows. I was exhausted from the drive, and I hadn’t slept well the night prior at home. Then I heard it – whatever it was, or perhaps a different it altogether. I made sure I wasn’t just hearing things. I listened intently and three times heard an animal just outside of the van. It took a few steps and then stopped. The final time it stopped walking I heard it begin sniffing. There is nothing like being in an animals natural habitat, when you are outside of your natural habitat, and then hearing it breathing your scent. I woke up James, who was already close to sleep, and we both stared out into the trees nervously anticipating something would pop up right in front of the window like something out of the movie Wrong Turn. Again, we never saw anything – but even as I type this up my living room seems to grow dark around me as I picture the scene, still not knowing what was outside.

James had unfortunately not heard the noise or the breathing and logically I don’t think he believed me that something was indeed outside. That is, until we woke up in the morning to large paw marks on the ground and a trail of animal blood.

Totally kidding about the paws and animal blood- I just thought it would make a more riveting story.

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We had planned to both wake up early for sunrise photographs, but I was exhausted and let him go that adventure alone. I wasn’t able to fully fall asleep in the van. Maybe it was the slight incline we were on that made me feel like I was going to roll over. Maybe it was the Sasquatch outside. Maybe it was knowing that I had a queen-sized bed at home with a hot wife sleeping soundly. (I’m allowed to say that because it’s true. Nervously anticipating my in-laws reaction to this.)

James began preparing breakfast – bacon, eggs, pancakes, and coffee. I can now say that some of the best eggs and pancakes I ever had were made on a wood stove inside of a VW Bus. Take that, Denny’s! The morning light made for some gorgeous photographs of the process.

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And just like that we were already heading home. It was a total blast to spend time with James and hear his heart for Jesus, community, and his journey following The Lord. I’m so thankful I got to spend some of his final hours in PA with him. I hope to have many more adventures with this crazy guy.

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