Surf Shacks 020 – Janna Irons & Johnny Stifter

Janna Irons and Johnny Stifter are what some might call a “power couple.” Janna was born into one of surfing’s royal families and has carved her own path as a talented writer and brand strategist (not to mention surfer). John, by contrast was born strapped into a pair of skis in the Pacific Northwest and has also forged a successful career for himself as a writer, editor and producer. Both live the avid outdoor enthusiast’s dream scenario of working in the field and immersed in the sports they are passionate about. Recently they both decided to sell all their stuff, downsize, and hit the road for an epic cross country adventure in their newly converted Dodge Sprinter van. We caught up with them on a little pit stop while they were “on the grid” with wifi.

Janna Irons and Johnny Stifter are what some might call a “power couple.” Janna was born into one of surfing’s royal families and has carved her own path as a talented writer and brand strategist (not to mention surfer). John, by contrast was born strapped into a pair of skis in the Pacific Northwest and has also forged a successful career for himself as a writer, editor and producer. Both live the avid outdoor enthusiast’s dream scenario of working in the field and immersed in the sports they are passionate about. Recently they both decided to sell all their stuff, downsize, and hit the road for an epic cross country adventure in their newly converted Dodge Sprinter van with no set schedule, plan or trip timeline. We caught up with them on a little pit stop while they were “on the grid” with wifi to hear more about their vanventure.

What did you do today?

Janna: We’re actually on Kauai right now. We spent the last two weeks driving up the West Coast—which was incredible! After living in Southern California the last eight years, I can’t tell you the feeling of waking up to quiet, empty oceanfront land. We took a quick detour and flew over to Kauai for the Irons Family Reunion. We haven’t all been together in like over a decade. Today, we’re getting some work done before heading down to the beach to push all the cousins’ kids into the tiny waves in Hanalei. The Irons family is like 90 percent male, so right now there are about 10 little boys about the same age beating each other up down the road! We’re here for another week before getting back in our van in Washington and heading to Idaho lakes, then the Canadian west!

Tell us a little about yourselves.

Janna: I was born and raised in Hanalei. It’s the most amazing place to grow up, but feels like such a small place when you’re a teenager. As soon as I graduated I moved to California—I think I left the day after graduation. I went to UC Santa Barbara, interned at SURFER Magazine my senior year, and pretty much got hired on right after. I was there for six and half years, and have spent the last year and a half at a creative agency in Encinitas.

John: Born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, I am a 32-year-old writer turned editor turned producer. After high school, I attended Montana State University in Bozeman, where skiing was just as much, if not more, my focus than school, working at a ski shop and skiing Bridger and Big Sky and the surrounding backcountry. The summer of my junior year, I interned at Powder, which was a dream come true. Thereafter, I freelanced for local Bozeman magazines, ski magazines, and ESPN for three years during the X Games before scoring my dream job as associate editor of Powder in 2007. In April 2012, after a year spent as senior editor, I was named the magazine’s editor. Most recently I’ve transitioned to the role of Executive Producer for Powder Magazine’s in-house production studio, Powder Productions.

When and where did you both first learn to surf?

Janna: I caught my first wave when I was really little. Surfing has always been a part of my life. As a kid it was pretty close to impossible for me to not surf. Though I certainly tried! I was super into ballet and dance and did plays and other sports, convinced that I wasn’t going to be a surfer, that I was going to be different. But at my 14th birthday sleepover my mom sneakily motivated all my friends to take all her surfboards out front in Hanalei, so I begrudgingly joined them. It was the most fun I’d ever had. From that day I was hooked. It was a late start, but by the next year I’d quit dance, and was doing contests and traveling to surf. I think my family was really relieved.

John: Powder magazine is, ironically, located in Southern California and owned by the same company that runs Surfer, Bike, Snowboarder, Transworld magazines, etc. So I learned how to “surf” during my three-month-long internship with the magazine in summer 2004. At the time, the magazine’s offices were located in Orange County, so my goal was to surf Lowers Trestles by the time I left. I did it one day near the end of my time down there—and have never had the courage, or desire, to return to that competitive and talented of a lineup. I’m perfectly happy surfing the less crowded corners of the coast.

Janna, what was it like growing up in Kauai and being in such a legendary surfing family?

Janna: My family is surfing. My dad is one of nine (rowdy) siblings who grew up surfing in Torrance Beach, all eventually making their way to Hawaii in ‘60s. They’re all legends. Everyone on both sides of my family surf. It’s pretty awesome being part of a big surf clan because it seems like no matter where I surf anywhere in the world I meet people who know one of my uncles or cousins—and usually they have some story about how an Irons almost got them arrested or killed, or some other tale debauchery. My mom was also a charging mat-surfer in the ‘60s and ‘70s on the North Shore of Oahu. She’s an awesome artist too—she did all the art for Greenough’s Innermost Limits of Pure Fun. Between both sides of my family it’s fair to say my life has been pretty drenched in surf history!

Johnny, what was it like growing up in the Pacific Northwest, skiing from a young age?

John: I used to joke with my parents that the best gift they gave me wasn’t love or education but skiing at Schweitzer. I was a spoiled kid in that my parents got me on skis at Mount Spokane, WA, when I was 2 and bought a ski cabin at Schweitzer in Northern Idaho when I was 5, so we’d load up the Suburban every Friday after school during winter. While at the mountain, which was only two hours from my hometown of Spokane, WA, I’d ski race all day followed by building jumps and forts and generally playing in the snow and having the best time of my life with friends. The local mountain culture and passion for skiing impacted me from a young age, as I used to go to the local ski shop in Spokane, where I later worked in high school and college, and just hang out—talk shop, watch ski movies, and inhale melting ski wax. Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho aren’t on the ski map, I guess you could say, so I learned to appreciate the downhome, unpretentious vibe that permeated the scene there. And, of course, it allowed for big dreams elicited by the pages of Powder to go ski in Utah or Colorado or Tahoe or Whistler or even Europe someday out there.

How did you two meet?

Janna: John was the Editor-in-Chief of POWDER Magazine and I was the Managing Editor of SURFER Magazine at the time. They are owned by the same company and are in the same building. We’d said hello to each other in the halls for probably five years before we had our first real conversation. I was shocked to realize that I had so much in common with an “inlander.” From our first date at a Mexican joint in San Clemente we were pretty much inseparable.

Before this road trip, did you go on many surf trips or other epic journeys together?

Janna: We’d both traveled a lot on our own. John’s spent a lot of time in ski destinations all over Europe, South America, New Zealand, Canada, and Japan. I’ve traveled quite a bit for surf trips—places like Australia, Tahiti, Indo, Europe, New Zealand, and Central America. Together we’ve done a lot of road trips up the California coast and up to the mountains all over the west. We both love parts of Europe—especially the pace of life and perspective on work-life balance—and have lately thought, “What if we just ship the van over there when we’re done with the East Coast?”

What led you to make the leap of selling all your stuff, moving into the van and hitting the road for a while?

Janna: We both just started seeing life passing us by. We had great jobs and really fun lives full of travel and great friends, so it’s really not that we’re escaping anything at all. We just felt like we somehow had to find a way to step out of our routine, scheduled existence to feel like we were really living. We also felt that by being in the same place doing similar things for so long our creative wells were going dry—and that we needed to get out of our rut to really get inspired again. John had always dreamed of getting a van and building it out, and I’ve never been one to say no to an adventure—ever. So after a few years of talking about it and watching friends “settle down,” we realized it was time to just do it.

What is your intended mission for the journey? Any bucket list to-dos?

Janna: We really just want to see everything. Mostly we want to remember what it feels like to not be busy. To just slow down and appreciate life and nature. We want to go to the great national parks, and to creative, inspiring cities. We also have plans to spend good chunks of time in places off the beaten path, with no cell service. Just really unplug, slow down, read, hike, and just relax. We plan to go up the west coast, into Canada, then across into Montana, Wyoming, the Great Lakes, and over to the Northeast. Our rough plan is to spend the winter up in the Northeast—maybe rent a cabin a few different places when it’s too cold to sleep in the van—then head down the East Coast in early spring. But it’s all totally open to change. We just want to take it as it comes, and stay as long as we want in the places we love.

How did you go about finding the van the suited your needs and how did you customize it?

Janna: We talked ourselves in circle discussing just about every option in existence—from a VW to a Tacoma with a shell to an Econoline. We settled on a Sprinter because we really wanted something we could stand up in and something big enough to bring all our gear. We also aren’t mechanically inclined so we wanted a vehicle that was reliable and a bit newer. Sprinters really are the most amazing vehicle for what we are doing—they get great gas mileage, have tons of room, drive really well (their turning radius is actually incredible), and are stealthy enough to sleep in in random places without raising any red flags. Plus the 144-length fits in normal parking spaces so we don’t have to worry about finding a special long parking spot.

Logistically, how does work fit into the equation (or does it)?

Janna: We’re both going to be working from the road. John is taking an 8-week sabbatical and then working from the road. I’m freelancing, working on a variety of editorial, copywriting, and strategy projects. We’ll be getting Wi-Fi for the van soon, and will definitely be frequenting our fair share of coffee shops across the country—which I really love because I think coffee shops give you a great sense for a city and its people.

Where can we find you next?

Janna: We recently launched our website to document the journey, Vanventuresjournal.com, where we will be blogging from the road. We also have an Instagram for the trip: @vanventures.

Follow along with Janna and Johnny’s adventures across country:

Van Ventures

/ Photography by Maddie Lochte
/ Interview by Matt Titone

Check out more Surf Shacks here.

Matt Titone

A goofy-footed graphic designer who hails from the first state, Delaware. After attending Flagler College in St. Augustine, FL then graduating from SCAD in Savannah, GA with a BFA in Graphic Design and Illustration, Matt moved to NYC and found work as a freelance designer and art director. In 2006 he moved west to Venice, CA where he co-founded ITAL/C Studio, constantly seeks left hand point breaks, and tries very hard to avoid crowds & traffic.

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