Words and Photos by Black Koles
Chad Parkinson is one of the most intriguing humans I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. He is a true artist— passionate, obsessively detail oriented, scatterbrained, chummy, hilarious and completely dedicated to his craft. Chad is a lifelong climber who now owns a thriving custom furniture business based out of Salt Lake City named The Furniture Joint. He is the father of three beautiful young children, and the husband to his lovely wife Kat.
As I’ve come to know Chad on a more intimate level, I’ve been inspired by his philosophies surrounding freedom and his dedication to his craft and his family.
After spending a weekend in the Uinta Mountains with Chad and his family climbing and camping in their converted Sprinter van (which they lived in as a family of five for two full years), Chad and I sat down over coffee to recap the conversations we’d had the week prior, tucked up in the high alpine terrain of the Mirror Lake Highway.
- Sean Black
Where did you grow up and how did you first get into the mountains?
Well, I grew up in Idaho Falls, and my family spent a lot of time in Driggs and Jackson. My dad would bring us fishing up in Island Park, so fishing was my primary introduction to the outdoors. Later on, my stepdad was a big climber who climbed the Grand Teton multiple times. He introduced me to rock climbing. Eventually I found climbing gyms and was introduced to climbing outside. I fell in love with the sport and then climbing pretty much completely took over and changed my life.
How, specifically, has climbing changed your life?
Everything I am is from rock climbing…like everything. Rock climbing is what first introduced me to the outdoor lifestyle. It’s the thing that opened the door and taught me to appreciate nature. I think it takes a pursuit like rock climbing to help people understand that our open spaces are worth protecting. You can ask people to donate all day long and save public lands or this and that, but until they see what they’re trying to save, they’ll never understand it. Once they feel it, experience it, then they want to protect it.
How did your worldview change from your experiences traveling for climbing and spending time in the wilderness?
Well, it got me out of my Idaho Falls thought bubble. It just feels like, in any small town, everyone thinks the same. It’s hard to find outliers…or the outliers don’t speak out because it feels like there is so much pressure to conform to that standardized way of thinking.
Getting into climbing completely changed that for me, because I started meeting all of these awesome people who had completely different views than me. I never would have known or been exposed to these different ways of thinking about the world if I hadn’t burst out of my bubble. All of that really broadened my horizons.
Beyond building an appreciation for the wilderness and introducing you to different perspectives, what are some of the most impactful lessons that you’ve taken away from climbing?
Climbing has helped me develop so many useful skills. It helps you conquer your fears. It forces you to create goals that seem unattainable because of how difficult the climbs are. But then you accomplish those things and realize that you can achieve so much more than you thought you could before. Climbing in general is such a great education. I think that setting lofty goals and achieving them within the context of climbing helped me later in life as a business owner.
Climbing teaches you that if you fail at something, it doesn’t mean you’re a failure. It just means you’re trying. That’s why I love climbing and skateboarding, because they’re like 99% failure. Those pursuits are some of the best education you can receive, or give to your kids. Your kids learn that they might fail a thousand times, but eventually, they’ll succeed and then keep pushing their level of failure— and success— to higher levels and harder achievements.
How did you transition from being a climbing bum into a career woodworker?
As a kid, I saw climbing as a hobby and not something that would lead to a career. I’ve always been drawn to form and art, in general, so trying to mix the two has been a dream of mine. My dad was a carpenter when he was younger and then eventually got a government job, which I think killed him a little bit on the inside. After seeing that process with my dad, I knew that I couldn’t go the traditional “9 to 5” route. I wanted to chase the passion that I feel like he left behind. And from there I really fell in love with the craft.
What is your favorite aspect of owning your own business?
Freedom. I can’t live without the freedom to make my own decisions. I get my work done when it fits into my life and not the other way around. Climbing was my original passion. The things I was introduced to via climbing—these amazing places, food, new people, ideas—changed my perspective on what I wanted in life. Climbing taught me that there’s more to life, and I work so I can experience more of it.
Does your life philosophy around freedom influence the way you raise your kids?
Yes. Naturally, as a father or mother, or for anyone who has children, you want to gather what you’ve gained and learned in your life and pass it onto your kids. That way, there’s an accumulation of knowledge and every generation is better than the last. I’ve realized that there’s an education you can gain from the experiences of a life lived outdoors that is broader than what you can learn in school. You can’t learn about other cultures or ways of thinking in a classroom. You really have to experience those things firsthand to truly understand them. I want my kids to understand that they’re living on this giant planet with an endless diversity of people and ideas.
How do you balance running a successful business while also achieving that level of freedom?
For every entrepreneur, there’s an establishing period where you’re trying to establish yourself as a maker of sorts. You need to create a massive portfolio of work or no one will ever see it. For the first 10 years of woodworking, my goal was basically to over-build and under-charge. I knew that I needed to get beautiful pieces inside of people’s homes and that would eventually lead to return business. That was my strategy, and it worked.
But at the end of that phase, I got super burnt out and wasn’t home enough for my kids. I sort of broke down and thought, “We have to spend more time together.” So in 2016, I forced myself to make more time for my family by moving us into a van. I frantically built the van in less than a month and then we just moved in. It was the best decision I ever made. We were able to spend so much time together. We traveled and took these cool, educational vacations across America. We taught our kids about different cuisines, different people, historical sites, and different ways of life. We swam in the ocean and checked off a long list of educational experiences that the kids never would have been exposed to if we had continued to live in a traditional house.
And you were able to live that lifestyle, in part, because of the decision to homeschool your kids, right?
Essentially, it started with the idea of having more freedom. We enjoy the freedom of working for ourselves and setting our own schedule, so we wanted that same freedom for our children and our family life. We did a ton of research. My wife, Kat, handles the education. She does an incredible job.
Homeschooling allows us to live a lifestyle where we don’t have to schedule “adventure.” It happens naturally because we have the freedom to allow it to happen. We can take advantage of opportunities instead of having to schedule it all out. We find out what our kids are passionate about and then let them pursue that thing instead of forcing them to stick to a universal and broad curriculum. It allows us to tailor their education to the subjects that they’re interested in. I think that mixing homeschooling with traveling and adventuring is the perfect combination for a full education.
Outside of your family, are you passionate about introducing other people to the outdoors?
I love teaching and sharing my knowledge. I love teaching woodworking to people to a fault. I let too many people in the shop because they want to learn and I just want to show them how to do it.
And when it comes to any group of kids or friends who want to go and adventure outdoors, I’ll drop whatever I’m doing to introduce them to it because it really changed my life.
The more people we can get outside, the more I think we can protect the outdoors, because there really is something to love out there. You can’t learn to love it from a photo or a story. You need to feel it and smell it. You need to be out there. So I see that as not just an education, but a conservation of sorts. Getting others outside is really an act of conservation because every time you do so, you’re creating an advocate for the environment.