Following in Erik Johnson’s Footsteps: My Journey from Devastating Sickness to Eating Tacos, Drinking Booze, and Climbing Mountains

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Sara hiking in Wyoming in late July.


August 4, 2016

By Sara Riley Mattson

“Is anybody else noticing that this guy is healthy enough to be drinking beer and eating tacos again?” I said to myself one day. I was reading Erik Johnson’s book, Erik on Avoidance, and he’d been popping up more and more in the mold support groups online. He was an obvious spitfire, and I liked him immediately. As one of the original members of The Tahoe Mystery Illness, diagnosed with ME and then used as a “prototypical case for the CDC of what came to be known as CFS syndrome,” I also knew that, like me, he knew how it felt to be devastatingly sick.  And that he had to have been dealing with this for a long time.

The mold community recognized him as the pioneer who used the decontamination techniques he’d learned in the Army to scrupulously avoid mold toxins in order to regain his health. We knew him as the guy who was climbing mountains again and justifiably frustrated that there wasn’t more research being done into the connection between the immunotoxic/neurotoxic effects of mold toxins and chronic fatigue syndrome.

Erik didn’t seem too interested in encouraging others to do his techniques, but I was starting to think, “Okay…beer, tacos, mountain climbing, and working full time. Why wouldn’t I want to try this? I want to climb mountains again!”

I knew why I was resistant to try it. As I wrote in the first chapter of my book, Camp Like a Girl:

I am a city girl. I’ve lived in cities all across the United States and am happiest when the most complicated machine I need is a bicycle. For the first two decades of my adult life, if you gave me a choice of location for home or travel, I’d have picked a city 100% of the time. It wasn’t that I didn’t appreciate the beauty of nature and camping. I just wasn’t much a fan of driving. I was even less a fan of sleeping on the ground.


I was so sick of being sick, though. I was sick of working so hard for unimpressive results. It wasn’t an easy decision to finally try camping. It was a really easy decision to keep camping, though. In a matter of days, I started feeling like myself again.

The tachycardia was the first symptom to leave. My heart rate had been troubling paramedics for a year. 110 beats per minute had become my new normal, thanks to the lingering immunotoxic effects of mycotoxin exposure. In two days of camping, it was back down to my normal of 60-65 beats per minute.

My focus was better, my sleep was better. My anaphylactic reactions to foods were going away. If I got exposed to the most problematic toxins for me, I got very sick. Sicker than ever, to be honest. But as I continued to heal, my reactions were diminishing. It seemed like a no-brainer to continue.


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Looking inside Sara’s van.

My Cargo Van Project

I was tired of living in my Subaru, though. I wanted something more comfortable and more conducive to keeping it clear of mycotoxins. I also wanted to try doing something that would be helpful for other people who might want to try mold avoidance, especially women. I decided to convert a cargo van into a dry camper and to document the entire project.

This is how Camp Like a Girl: Finding Health and Wellness in Nature, a cargo van conversion story came to be. My cargo van project resulted in greater gains in my health than I’d ever imagined possible. That I was able to do it while living on the road, with only minimal and incidental help from my husband, was very empowering. The book starts with an expression of gratitude for the freedom and connection to nature the van has given me:

Chris Farley’s genius rant on “living in a van down by the river” rattles around in my brain constantly these days. At each new campground I think, “living in a van down by the reservoir” or “living in a van down by the slot canyons.” Living in a van, for my generation, meant your luck had run out. It represented the last ditch effort to find shelter before homelessness.

 It doesn’t feel like that to me, though. My van has taken me to some of the most beautiful places in North America, and, at least since I was a child, it is the only place where I fall asleep easily and sleep soundly all night long. It is less a consolation prize and more a strange and completely unexpected answer to a very long list of health problems from which I have been wishing for relief nearly all of my life.


I did my best to give a detailed description of how I did the van conversion and to include much of my reasoning behind my decisions in the build.

Because ideas and instructions for building a low-tox, mold-resistant van seemed hard to come by while I was in the planning stages, I decided to take extensive notes on my conversion in the hope of helping others. I also made attempts to photograph each step of the conversion. I am not very experienced in projects like this and, as such, have tried to explain diligently and precisely what I did as opposed to suggesting what might be the best advice for others.

At every turn, I tried to write down or find the real names of the materials I used, since I did use some odd materials. The nice folks at the hardware store had to deal with a lot of questions like, “Do you know where I could find some of those flat, metal, sticky-together thingies for attaching things?”


Camp Like a Girl includes includes every tip, trick, hack, and helpful insight I could think of on how to live well and be well on the road, from staying clean, doing laundry, and controlling cross-contamination to eating healthy, and even feeling pampered while camping. Because I was a professional Pilates teacher and fitness expert before I got sick, I included my insights about exercise and how to slowly build strength again as you pull out of the chronic-fatiguing elements of biotoxin illness.

As crazy as it seemed at the time to head off into nature to pursue mold avoidance, I know I will always look back fondly on this last year of healing and especially this last six months of living in my cargo van. As long as I don’t experience exposure, I feel healthier than I have since I was a teenager. My mind has never felt so calm and I’m getting the best sleep of my adult life. I’m jogging again, productive again, and just like Erik, climbing mountains again.

In fact, I wrote this post in my head while on an impromptu six-hour hike to the top of a 12,000 foot mountain. Even in my “healthiest” years prior to mold avoidance I would not have been able to do that.

I’m also eating tacos and drinking gin and tonics whenever my fantastically healthier heart desires.



From Sara Riley Mattson

Sara’s book is called Camp Like a Girl: Finding Health and Wellness In Nature, A Cargo Van Conversion Story.

It currently is available for $4.99 on Amazon Kindle (free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers).

Sara also is a musician and recently released an album called Envy of the Agile Heart focusing on how she felt during her mold avoidance experiences.

The album can be purchased or sampled for free on the Bandcamp site.

Those signing up for Sara’s newsletter currently can get a free download of the album.

Sara also has just started a personal blog sharing her mold avoidance experiences.

Her website is


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Sara took this picture at 12,000 feet on the Snowy Range in Wyoming. Click on the photo for a better view!

From Paradigm Change

The Living Clean in a Dirty World blog recently featured a book review of Camp Like a Girl.

A Beginner’s Guide to Mold Avoidance (written by Lisa Petrison and Erik Johnson) is mentioned as having been a helpful resource in Sara’s book. The Beginner’s Guide is available for free in PDF format for those who sign up for occasional emails on mold avoidance topics from me. It is also available as an Amazon Kindle book.

The book is the basis for the Facebook group Mold Avoiders, which now has more than 3500 members.

For updates on additional information about recovering from mold-related illness, sign up for occasional newsletters from Paradigm Change. You also will receive a free copy of the book Back from the Edge, which provides information about the extraordinary life of mold avoidance pioneer Erik Johnson.

The Paradigm Change Publishing page of the website provides information about a number of additional books of interest to those pursuing mold avoidance.

Find out about new information about recovering from chronic illness and living a healthful lifestyle by liking the Living Clean in a Dirty World page on Facebook.

Any and all civil comments from individuals not selling commercial products are welcome in the comments section of this blog.

Links on this page are in orange (no underlining).

Thanks very much for reading this blog.


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