Joe Hawley and his dog, Freedom. Image courtesy of Joe Hawley

Whether you spend life on the road for pleasure or work, it’s nice to have the comforts of home as you travel the highways and byways. TRAILBLAZER checks in with folks who spend a fair amount of time on the road to see just what makes their home away from home.

This month, we chatted with former NFL lineman and current global wanderer (and blogger) of ManVanDogBlog, Joe Hawley.

2018 was a game changer for Joe Hawley, former lineman with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. After playing for the Bucs for three years (and playing professional football for eight years, not to mention another eight years playing in high school and college), he suddenly found himself as a free agent in early 2018. And a chance to start his life over again. He jumped at the opportunity and hasn’t looked in the rear-view mirror as he hit the road in a tricked-out conversion van.

Hawley had always had a notion of doing a cross-country road trip. And when the Buccaneers didn’t pick up his $2.5-million option for the 2018 season, the 29-year old thought this was the perfect transition opportunity before jumping into whatever was next. He was pretty footballed out with the demanding regimens of the sport. So, he saw this as a window of opportunity to hit the road and experience life with the freedom to go wherever he wanted, whenever he wanted.

He donated all his possessions to charity, bought a 2007 Ford E-350 Econoline diesel cargo van, adopted a traveling companion in the form of a Boxer mix—appropriately named Freedom—and hit the road in April 2018. With no end date in mind and with a sketchy roadmap in hand, Hawley set off on a new adventure and a new way of life. With no obligations or material things tying him down, Hawley is living life in the moment, figuring out who he is outside of football, and sharing his experiences on his blog, ManVanDogBlog (www.manvandogblog.com). Oh, and he’s also left a quarter of his body weight behind as he’s shed almost 70 pounds thanks to following a ketogenic diet.

We caught up with Hawley as he was exploring the California wine region.

Image courtesy of Joe Hawley

How long have you been on the road?
When I first started, I was thinking I’d travel three or four months. Then I realized that wasn’t even long enough to get across the country. Then it turned into six months. It’s been four months and I really don’t think I’ve seen very much. There is so much to see in this country. So, it’s open-ended now. I want to go at least a year and see how I feel. I don’t want to put any restrictions on it. It’s kind of a journey that’s evolving into its own thing. I’m learning so much and growing so much. I don’t stay in the van every night. I get hotels and stay with friends. I’d say it’s about 50/50.

Had you ever traveled in a van or RV before?
Very little. We went camping a handful of times as a kid. I rented an RV with Cruise America early in my career for a weekend trip. I had very little experience. The first RV park I went to [on this trip], I had to ask one of the RV guys how to do the hook-ups and the hoses and all that.

Tell us about your van.
My van is a 2007 E350 Econoline 4×4 conversion van. The conversion was done by Sportsmobile about 10 years ago. I bought it used from a guy out in California and put a few upgrades of my own on it. It has solar panels, a pop top, sink, 16-gallon fresh water tank, grey water tank, mini fridge, couch, an awning, plenty of storage and, of course, four-wheel drive. I added a few things myself like a new bumper with winch, bike rack, storage box, new stereo system, and a paint job. Technically it’s a wrap, which is like wallpaper. And I put on a logo sticker of my blog. I also have a little pull-behind trailer for extra storage. It holds my weights, generator, camping gear and other miscellaneous items. I’m still learning how to live the van life, but it sure does help to have a badass rig.

Does it have a bedroom or bathroom?
There is a bunk space that comes down when I pop it up. I sleep up there. During the day, I can move it to walk around. There is a porta-john bucket-type thing but I haven’t used it yet. Emergencies only. There is a small sink and an outdoor shower head hose that I can use as a shower. But I haven’t used that either. I typically use bathhouses.

Tell us about your traveling companion?
Freedom. She’s right here getting a little antsy. I knew I wanted to take a dog on the trip and I knew I wanted to rescue one. I’m a big “feel” guy—a big intuition guy. I went to a few different shelters and had a few play dates with different dogs. Nothing just felt right, and I walked by Freedom a couple of times and she was sulking in the corner. Most of the dogs were coming up to the fence like “pick me, pick me” and she was acting all depressed in the corner. I tried a play date with her and she didn’t want to have anything to do with me. She seemed so sad and depressed. So, I thought, she’s perfect. She’ll be so grateful to get out of here. As soon as I got her home, she licked me for 30 minutes straight and now she doesn’t care for anyone but me. She is a boxer mix. She has a little pit in her and maybe a little Rhodesian Ridgeback. She knows the van is her home. She does really well on the road. We’ve driven nine, ten hours and she’s fine.

What’s your favorite thing about staying in your van versus a hotel?
It just feels right. I like being out in nature. It feels really simple. Waking up and being able to take my time. Read. Yoga. I like to cook. When I stay in hotels, it feels like traveling. When I’m in my van, it feels like home.

What are your three favorite things onboard?
I like having the sink. It’s really big and I like being able to wash dishes and wash my hands. Having the couch is nice. I do a lot of chilling on it. I like my bike rack for my pedal-assist bike.

What do you listen to as you travel down the road?
I usually listen to podcasts or baseball games. I don’t listen to a lot of music. Sometimes I’ll drive a few hours in silence. I think it’s refreshing and meditative to go down the open road with your thoughts.

Highways or scenic routes?
Highways. I usually plan a couple of weeks at a time. I usually have a plan on where I’m headed. This is the first time during the trip where I don’t have a plan and I just drive and stop when I see something I like. I’m just starting to experience what it’s like to be like that.

Where have you been, and which have been your favorite destinations?
The best part so far has been the baseball games. Seeing all the different stadiums, meeting all the different people at the stadiums. I’m really excited to get out West. I want to see Zion and Bryce Canyon. But so far, it’s been about the baseball games. [He’s been to nine stadiums so far and counting]. Someday I’m hoping to make it up to Glacier National Park, Redwood National Park, and Niagara Falls. I just really want to see beautiful places and meet cool people.

Any campground rituals?
I have a foam roller that I roll out. It’s a tool you can use to roll out your muscles like a self-massage. It helps me with my back and glutes after sitting for a long time.   

What do you do to pass the time?
I love cooking and grilling out.

What do you make?
I’m on the Keto diet. It’s a high-fat diet so I eat a lot of eggs, avocado, bacon, fatty cuts of meat like ribeyes, vegetables with lots of butter. I drink coffee with butter three to four times per day. I’m down almost 70 pounds and I feel amazing.  

Any favorite places you like to eat on the road?
Waffle House if I want something quick. Anywhere I can get an omelet. If I stay in a city, I try to go to a staple place.

How do you maintain your health and fitness regimen on the road?
I try to do yoga three to four times per week. I do my foam roller every day if I can. It really makes a huge difference after long drives and sleeping in the van. I have Power Blocks which are dumbbells that can go from five pounds to 50 pounds and use them to work out two to three times per week. I tried running because of Freedom but my knees are really bad, so I put a harness on Freedom and she pulls me around on my skateboard in order to give her exercise.

Where are you headed next?
A whitewater rafting trip in Colorado with a couple of buddies that are meeting me outside of Denver. I’ve whitewater rafted before but we’re going to do an overnight trip and camp on the river, which I’ve never done before.

What’s the future hold for you? Do you think you will ever get back into football?
I think about it a lot, which is part of the reason that I wanted to do this trip. I have a lot of ideas. I want to get involved in business. Probably something with health and fitness. I want to help people have better lives and help them make better versions of themselves. I’m taking this transitional break before I get geared up for all that. I always say I’ve got coaching in my back pocket, but I’m pretty footballed out.

Is there anything about your van or your life on the road that I didn’t ask that you would like to share?
My message would be: live with less so you can experience more.