Van Life: Alison Turner and Max Live Life on the Road

This photographer shares her traveling life with a special companion.
By: Helen Anne Travis
Alison Turner and her dog Max exploring the road

Alison Turner is leaving first thing tomorrow morning. But she doesn’t know where she’s going. Maybe up to Canada. Or northeast toward Nevada.

“I make it up as I go along,” she says. “It’s more interesting that way.”

For a decade Alison worked in ad sales. She kept waiting for the job to get creative—to get interesting—but it never did.

It might not have stirred her soul, but it did pay well. So she worked, and saved, and saved some more. And in 2008, she was finally able to quit.

During her exit interview, they asked if she was going to work for a competitor.

“No,” she told them. “I’m just going to get in my car and wander around the country.”

Living for Wanderlust

So it began. At the time Alison had a nine-year-old rescue dog named Maggie. The two drove all around the U.S., stopping at Yellowstone National Park and Niagara Falls, heading east toward Maine, before circling back west to home.

It was an adventure, but it lacked purpose. This was before she discovered photography, before social media and blogging took off. She wondered if people back home even remembered her.

“The first year was the scariest and the loneliest,” Alison says. “Every day I had doubts about what I was doing.”

“It was pretty tough so I drank a lot.”

A New Road

But about a year into her travels she quit drinking. It just wasn’t fun anymore. And then a month after that, Maggie died of complications from surgery on her spleen.

Suddenly Alison had a lot of time on her hands.

That’s when she finally picked up the camera. Seven years later, Alison has built a following of more than 54,000 on Instagram. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, Dog Fancy, and Salon.com. She’s had exhibits in museums around the country.

She also met Max.

In 2009, Alison stopped at a Long Beach farmer’s market for strawberries. She walked away with a pint and a 10-pound terrier mix who had been rescued from a high-kill shelter. He was called Freddy then, but Alison renamed him Max.

“Max didn’t want anything to do with me, but everyone kept saying he would be a great dog,” she says. “I made a leap of faith and brought him home.”

Starting the Journey—Together

She had him for a few weeks and then they hit the road together. On those rides from Sedona to Colorado, New England to the south, the two bonded. Max fell in love with his new mom, with the road, with exploring new destinations.

And what’s cool is he never saw Alison touch a drink. “Now I can’t imagine traveling without him,” she says.

The two have a little routine. Every morning when they’re traveling, she wakes up, puts Max on her shoulders and climbs down from the pop-top in the camper where they sleep. They go for a little walk, eat breakfast, and then Alison breaks out the map to find where they should head next.

The two usually stay only one night in a destination. People tell Alison she should relax, stick around a while. “But I just want to move and explore,” she says.

A Home Away From Home

Keeping Max comfy while they’re traveling is her main goal. He always has access to water. They take frequent breaks (Alison has learned that if she has to use the restroom, the dog likely does too). If their route takes them off-road, Alison gives him treats to keep him calm. The van vibrates when they’re not on smooth pavement and Max isn’t a fan of the ruckus.

They spend about half the year on the road, splitting the time between her home in Chico, California, and the van, which she calls Campy. Campy is about 80 square feet, a perfect size for her and Max. It has a teeny closet, a fridge, and a two-burner stove.

“It’s pretty luxurious,” she says.

There are two questions her fans and followers always ask. One is how she makes money on the road (photography assignments, sponsored blog posts, investments, donations and renting a home out on Airbnb) and number two is where does she go to the bathroom.

“The answer is anywhere you can,” she says, adding that the van is equipped with a small porta potty of sorts.

In April, Alison took a trip to Denmark, Iceland and Norway. Max didn’t come. On her Instagram feed she posted beautiful shots of fjords, glaciers, and epic coastlines.

She got a lot of likes, she says. “But I also got a lot of ‘I miss Max’.”

Follow Alison at instagram.com/alisontravels/ and alisonturnerphoto.com