Roving photographer plans giveaway for famous van

Four years ago, Travis Burke climbed into his grandma’s retrofitted old van and hit the road with just $81.10 and the goal of becoming a successful adventure photographer. That leap of faith succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.

In the 160,000 miles since the Oceanside native and his van, “Betty the Grey Wolf,” embarked on their North American road quest, he has amassed more than 800,000 Instagram followers. And his stunning images have been featured on numerous national magazine covers, on Google and in numerous travel, advertising and car and truck promotions.

Now, the 31-year-old nature-lover wants to make another dreamer’s wish come true. At the end of May, he’s planning to give Betty away to the winner of his “Ultimate Storyteller” contest.

Hopefuls have until May 31 to submit to Burke either a 3-minute video, a photograph with a 500-word description or a 1,000-word essay on how owning Betty will help them “live passionately and follow their dreams.”

Burke said he and a friend came up with the idea of giving away the van, rather than keeping it in the family, because he wants to pay forward the gift he received from his grandmother Betty, the van’s namesake, who always believed in his talent.

“My grandma gave me the opportunity to chase my dreams. If I can give someone that same opportunity, that would mean the world to me,” he said, adding that his grandmother loves the idea.

Burke discovered photography in 2008, when he bought a camera and drove up to the Sequoia National Forest to camp for a few days.

“I didn’t even know how to use the camera but I found I loved having it with me because it helped me to stop and appreciate the moments rather than just pass them by,” he said of that first experience.

When he returned, he took photography classes at MiraCosta and Palomar colleges, learned new techniques from Youtube videos and apprenticed for a year with wedding, portrait, commercial, fashion and sports photographers.

In 2013, he landed a staff photographer job with the action sports company GrindTV, which paid him for stories and photos he captured during a pre-planned 100-day camping trip across the Western U.S. in his truck.

Thanks to his eye-popping images of night skies and rarely seen natural wonders, his Instagram account (@travisburkephotography) took off, but his bank account did not. To achieve the next step, he created a vision board for his dream to travel full time in a van with a bed, kitchen and workstation. Before long, the universe answered back.

In late 2013, Burke’s grandmother called from Texas, offering her 20-year-old Dodge Ram B2500 van if he’d come get it. He sold his truck and all his furniture and moved out of his apartment to fund the three-month van renovation project. He gutted the interior, built cabinets, added interior lighting, external ladders, a roof rack with solar panels, raised the chassis for off-road driving, painted it gray and named it after his grandma.

On the eve of his 27th birthday, he and Betty hit the road and they’ve been rolling ever since. This month, his photos grace the covers of both National Geographic Traveler and Backpacker magazines. They’ve also been used in the past by National Geographic Wild, American Airlines, Jeep and Subaru. Last year, General Motors did a three-part series on his lifestyle and he’s also been profiled on The Weather Channel and Red Bulletin.

Because of their presence on social media, both Burke and Betty are frequently recognized in their travels. Burke said freeway drivers often pull up alongside him to take photos of him and his van.

Yet, as glamorous as Burke’s lifestyle may look from the spectacular images he posts online every few days, it’s hard work. Most people, he said, couldn’t hack living four years in a van without a toilet, shower or wifi, the 18-hour workdays, harsh weather, flat tires, endless solitude and the times when he didn’t have a bite to eat or a drop of gas in the tank. And because he’s always on the move, he can’t own a dog and he has a hard time keeping a girlfriend for very long.

Those are among the reasons he’s finally ready to part ways with Betty the Grey Wolf. Last year, he created a new vision board for his next dream: a custom-built, fully habitable adventure van that he can take for monthslong photographic journeys to South America, the Arctic Circle and the Sahara Desert.

To prepare for the next stage of his life, Burke has rented an apartment in Carlsbad and has spent the past three months working with a newly hired team of four assistants, a web designer and a law firm to craft the details for the Ultimate Storyteller contest.

To cover these expenses and the staff time to process submissions, Burke is charging $25 for contest entries. In exchange, all who enter will receive one of Burke’s nature images.

The winner, who will be chosen in June, will receive Betty as well as $6,000 in gear from Burke’s sponsors, including GoPro, AquaTech, Black Diamond, GoalZero and Clif Bar. They’ll also receive a free mentoring session with Burke.

When asked what he’s looking for in a winner, Burke said, “I’ll know it when I see it,” but he said he’s not looking for the next great adventure photographer. It’s the story that counts, not the quality of the video or photo that accompanies it.

“Maybe it’s a young girl who wants to be a professional rock climber and she needs a van to go rock-climbing around the country,” he said. “Or it could be a 40-year-old lawyer who wants to throw his degree out the window and set off on the road. Or maybe it’s someone with cancer who wants the opportunity to visit beautiful destinations.”

Whoever wins, Burke said he’s looking forward to developing a friendship with them and watching how Betty changes their life as much as it did his.

“This isn’t just some cheesy PR stunt,” he said. “I want it to be something that has impact and I’m excited to continue to watch their journey and watch them grow as a human.”

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