You Should Know… Aaron Fensterheim

Photo by Dan Schere.

Aaron Fensterheim attended Rochester Institute of Technology with the goal of majoring in computer engineering. His plan didn’t work out, and so he decided instead to make his living as a part-time web developer, part-time sound technician and full-time traveler. Then, this year, the 26-year-old Rockville native started Off Grid Adventure Vans to help travel enthusiasts equip their vans. Washington Jewish Week talked with Fensterheim inside a furnished van, parked outside of the company’s Gaithersburg office.

Were vans always in your DNA?
No. It was actually climbing. I started rock climbing when I was 7. And using a van seemed like the best way to climb where I wanted. With vans, you can travel, not have to worry about rent, expenses or all that stuff, and be able to do what you want. I was set up for web development so that I could live in a van, work remotely and climb all the time.

Sounds like a pretty cool life.
Exactly. For three years I did that and also went on the road as a sound engineer with Broadway shows. I spent most of my time with the national tour of “Chicago.” I lived on a bus, although sometimes I would stay in hotels. I did that for eight months of the year, and then I would travel in vans for the other four months.

What’s it like traveling with celebrities?
It’s incredible. Some of the closest people that I’ve met are people from the shows I’ve worked on.

Anyone famous we would know?
Brandy. She was a late ‘90s, early 2000s pop singer. I did “Chicago” at the Kennedy Center with her for a few weeks.

What are the pros and cons of living on the road?
Living on a bus with a bunch of people is very challenging, especially when you finish packing up a show at 1 a.m. and you have to unload at 7 a.m. somewhere else for a matinee. But living in a van with someone is easy. You stop at a store, you get whatever you need, you stock up and you’re good to go. It’s a very simple, budget way of living. And you get to travel anywhere.

What’s been your favorite place to see?
I love southern Utah because of the climbing out there.

Do you always travel alone?
I usually either travel with someone or I end up picking someone random along the way who I found climbing somewhere. I get to know them for at least a few hours or sometimes a couple days. We spend some time together and then go out on the road. A lot of people who don’t have a climbing partner will literally wait at the entrance to a climbing area and wait for a partner to show up.

Any interesting stories from your travels?
I remember being in Avon, Colo., Just outside of Vail. The snow kept coming down and we had parked for the night. It was minus-15 degrees. We expected to go up the mountain and get back down, but we ended up having to spend the night with just a small heater in the van. That was definitely a challenge.

What was your Jewish upbringing like?
We were members of Congregation B’nai Tzedek [in Potomac]. Part of my family was Orthodox and part was not, so that was interesting. Now my family belongs to Bethesda Jewish Congregation.

So the idea of Off Grid Adventure Vans is to customize vans for people who want to take their lives on the road?
Exactly, and to do it in a sustainable and budget-friendly way.

What part of this van is sustainable?
All the wood on the walls is solid cedar. The black walnut [wood] on the floor is all local. The floor is actually from just a few miles away. The rest of the wood is Maryland and Pennsylvania wood. Everything we keep as close to home as possible.

So it’s like farm-to-table, only with vans instead of food.
We really are. We fit the farm-to-table version of RV conversions. We know where our wood comes from. We know where our cabinets come from. We know where it all comes from. In fact, it’s funny, I just sold a van two days ago to a guy who is in the farm-to-table movement. He drove down from Michigan to meet with us.

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