I had come down from the mountain for supplies. It was hot and dry in the valley, and I was dog dead tired. I had one more stop to make before I could head back to higher elevation, cooler temperatures, and the last few hours of my day off from my work camper job.
I went into the 99 Cents Only Store, where some prices were a lot less than 99 cents and some prices were substantially more. I perused the bargain baskets in the front of the store, cruised down the aisles of beans and other canned goods, and grabbed the best looking produce at the best prices. When I got up to the cash register, I told the worker that I wanted two sacks of ice, and I even remembered to extract them from the freezer in the front before I hit the exit door.
I pushed my cart over to my van, which I had parked at the edge of the parking lot. My 1994 Chevy G20 conversion van was a hulking beast and easier to park in places where there were no other vehicles around. I preferred to park easily and have farther to walk to a store’s entrance rather than fight to maneuver into a tight parking space.
This time, there was no car parked on the van’s passenger side. I threw open the side doors, as much to gain access to the interior as to let the parched air escape. I climbed into my van and lifted the lid of the ice chest. Yuck. I’d forgotten to empty it before I left camp. The ice had melted completely and left the cooler half full of water. In the water floated some small broccoli florets that had turned limp and yellow before I could eat them and stray bits of cabbage that had been jostled from the most recent head. At the bottom of the cooler lay the waterlogged plastic ice bag left behind when the ice became liquid. I had to get all of this out of the cooler before I could put the new ice and groceries in.
I pulled the plastic bag from the bottom of the cooler. The water it sat in was tepid and smelled a bit sour. I let the water drain from the bag and into the cooler. When most of the water was out of the bag, I threw it onto the floor of the van. The drops of water clinging to it weren’t going to hurt anything and in the heat of midday would probably dry before I was ready to throw it away.
Next I had to dump the water from the ice chest. I figured since any vegetable matter floating in the water was natural, it was ok to let it fall onto the asphalt. If some bird didn’t eat it right away, it would decompose soon enough. I lifted the cooler and wrangled it to the open doors. I lowered it to the floor of the van, then slowly tilted the container so the water drained onto the ground.
The Man likes to joke that you can always tell when hippies have been in a parking lot because there’s at least one wet spot on the ground. On this day, the big wet spot I left had plant matter in it too.
Once I got the cooler back in place, I wiped it out with a couple of paper towels, then loaded in the two slippery and deliciously cold sacks of ice. After that, I carefully placed the eggs and milk and orange juice and produce and whatever other cold groceries I had that day into the chest.
Some time after I had the cooler and the ice in, but before I’d packed in the groceries, a car pulled in next to my van. Why the driver decided to park next to me instead of elsewhere in the vast parking lot will always remain a mystery. I glanced out and saw an older Latina lady getting out of here car.
When I looked out, I also saw the plastic ice bag I’d left on the floor of the van had made an escape. I suppose the desert wind had kicked up while I was busy packing the cooler and sucked the bag right out of the open doors. I’d have to pick it up from where it had landed on the ground before I pulled out of my parking spot.
I wasn’t the only one who had noticed the bag on the ground. My parking neighbor took a look around and saw the plastic bag as well as the huge wet-but-rapidly-drying spot dotted with limp, yellow broccoli and waterlogged bits of cabbage. I saw her shake her head and say under her breath (but loudly enough for me to understand her completely), Basura.
I don’t know if she saw I was white and thought I wouldn’t understand what she’s said, if she didn’t care if I understood, or if she wanted me to know how she felt. In any case, I’d studied enough Spanish to know that basura means trash and that she wasn’t happy with the mess I’d made.
I’d seen the van around town several times before. It was difficult to miss. It was a blue Chevy G20 conversion van with black plastic covering one of the back windows. In addition to the creative window treatment, the van was absolutely loaded down with items strapped to the exterior. There were at least four spare tires attached to various points on the van. What appeared to be a microwave oven sat atop two of the spares on a platform linked to the front bumper. A yellow generator was somehow held on the roof, and ratchet tie downs kept a water tank that looked like it could hold at least 100 gallons up there too. I hoped the water container was empty because 800 pounds traveling on the roof of a G20 seemed like a disaster waiting to happen to me.
I will confess, I’ve driven overloaded vans. The inside of my last Chevy G20 was packed to the gills on several occasions, but the only thing strapped to the outside was a 5-gallon gas can. I’m sure we each think our own material possessions are of the utmost importance, but why in the world was someone driving around with four spare tires, a 100 gallon water tank, and a microwave oven (!) strapped to the outside of a van? Certainly the water tank on the roof made driving in the wind more difficult and the extra weight of all the extra things decreased gas mileage.
One day while I was working at the supermarket fuel center, the overloaded van pulled up to pump 4. The driver–a man in his 60s with a white comb over–came up to the kiosk to pay cash for his fuel. He was soft-spoken and polite.
Several minutes after the van driver paid for his fuel, I left the kiosk to do my hourly conditioning of the merchandise for sale. I heard a soft voice calling Ma’am? Ma’am? Was someone talking to me? Where was the voice coming from?
Ma’am? Ma’am? I heard again.
I looked over to the blue van. The voice seemed to be coming from that direction, but I didn’t see anyone who might have been talking to me. No one looked at me expectantly or waved to get my attention. Was I hearing things? The job had me stressed out, but if it was causing auditory hallucinations, I was in big trouble.
I looked up. That’s where the voice was coming from. A voice from on high was calling for me.
The man with the white comb over was on the roof of his van, crouched next to the generator. He’d stretched the gasoline hose from pump 4 up to the roof where he was pumping fuel into the generator. The whole setup seemed dangerous to me.
I need another $5, the comb-over man said to me while waving a $5 bill in my direction. I guess he’d misjudged how much fuel it would take to fill all his tanks.
I’m not supposed to take money outside of the kiosk, I told him. No one in authority had explicitly told me not to accept money outside of the kiosk, but it was a policy I’d set for myself. I figured only accepting money through the drawer would help keep every transaction on the up and up.
Please? the man on the roof of his van asked. I don’t want to have to climb down.
He sounded so pitiful, and I certainly wanted to minimize his chances of falling. An extra climb down followed by an additional climb up would increase the chances of a catastrophe I neither wanted to witness nor clean up after. I reached up and took his five dollars.
As I entered the kiosk, I realized the white-haired man was going to have to hang up the nozzle before I could authorize the pump to give him his additional $5 worth of fuel. He must have gotten the attention of a kindhearted stranger who hung up the nozzle for him because when I looked at my POS (point-of-sale) system, the screen showed pump 4 was available. I authorized the pump for $5 worth of fuel and put the money in the cash drawer. Then I stood back and watched the fellow on the top of the overloaded van pump the gas into his generator. I was pretty sure no fuel center spectacle could top this one.
I wrote this post before The Man and I ended up with a travel trailer and a truck to tow it. If I were single, I’d still be in a van.
I’m a van gal. I bought my first van (with the not-very-nice fellow who is now my ex) almost a decade ago. We upgraded to a newer, better van several months later. We spent two whirlwind years traveling across the country visiting cities, public lands, and music festivals. When I finally left that guy behind, I was homeless for a few months until, with the help of friends, I was able to buy a Chevy G20 of my own and return to van life.
During my time as a vandweller, people have suggested I
“upgrade,” especially after The Man and I got together. Yes, we would have more
room in a school bus, a travel trailer we could pull behind a vehicle, or a
small motorhome. However, what we’d have to sacrifice in exchange for a bit
more room isn’t worth it to me. Today I’ll share what I see as the advantages
of living and traveling in a van.
#1 I can navigate most any paved road (and lots of dirt roads too). During the second year I worked in the mountains of California, the camp hosts down the road lived in a converted school bus. Halfway through the work season, a wildfire was near, and two of the three roads off the mountain were closed. The bus couple worried about how they would get their rig off the mountain if we were required to evacuate. The one open road was narrow and curvy, and they weren’t sure the bus would make it around the tight turns. I had no such concerns. I’d driven my van up and down all three of those mountain roads and knew it could make it down (and back up again when it was safe to do so) with no problems.
I’ve driven conversion vans from California to North
Carolina, Kansas to Minnesota, Maine to Georgia (with lots of crisscrossing the
middle of the Unite States), and I’ve never been on a paved road I thought I
might not be able to navigate. Sure
there are dirt roads that have caused me concern. I’ve been on dirt roads I had no business taking my van
on, and I’ve been prepared to turn around if necessary. Anybody traveling in a
rig without four wheel drive is going to run into the same trouble on some dirt
roads, but my van can get around in places where bigger rigs can’t.
#2 My van is (comparatively) easy to park. Granted, I’m not
great at parallel parking (confession: I can’t really parallel park at all),
but most bigger rigs wouldn’t even fit in a parallel parking spot. My van only
takes up one space in any parking lot or residential street. Unless I’m in a
busy downtown area where I need to squeeze into the only parallel parking space
on the street, I don’t have a difficult time finding a place to leave my van.
Sometimes parking garages do pose a problem for my rig. More than once I’ve been at the entrance of a parking garage before I realized my van was too tall. While that’s a drawback to having a high top, I know anywhere I don’t fit can’t accommodate a school bus, motor home, or even a tall truck camper. My van can (and has) fit into some parking garages, but rigs taller than mine probably won’t have much parking garage luck.
#3 Not only does my van offer enough clearance to allow me to park in at least some parking garages, it affords me decent clearance in general. During my time as a camp host and parking lot attendant, I saw several drivers of motorhomes freak out about branches overhanging the road through the parking lot or above a campsite. One driver of an RV insisted on backing out of the one-way loop through the parking lot rather than continue through when he realized overhead branches were going to scrape the top of his rig. I suppose buses and tall motorhomes don’t utilize too many fast food drive-thrus. In my van, I don’t often have to worry about being too tall.
#4 Not only is my van (comparatively) easy to park, it’s
also (comparatively) easy to back up. I didn’t get a lot of instruction on
backing when I learned to drive late in life, but especially in the last few
years, I’ve had quite a lot of practice. My van didn’t have a review mirror
when I bought it, and the two back windows are blacked out, so I use my blind
spot mirrors on the sides a LOT. (The Man opens the driver’s door and sticks
his head out and looks behind him to aid his backing abilities when he’s
driving my van.) I backed into a tree last summer, but other than that little
incident, I’m doing fine (knock wood).
Once another vandweller and I were looking at a van that was longer than mine. I fretted that I would never be able to back up something so big. The other vandweller assured me that once I got a feel for the dimensions of any rig, backing up wouldn’t be a problem for me. He’s probably right, but I’d be terrified backing up a big rig while I was trying to learn its dimensions. Could I learn to back up a rig bigger than my van? I know I could, but I like knowing I can do a decent job backing up the van I already have.
Of course, if I pulled a travel trailer behind my van, backing up would pose a whole new set of problems. Could I learn to back up a rig I was pulling behind my van? Again, I know that I could, but I don’t really want to. I don’t feel the need to complicate my life with complex backing.
#5 If I need to stealth park, my van blends in. Let’s face
it, a school bus is not going to blend in on a residential street, even if it’s
still sporting the customary school bus orange. If it’s been repainted some
cool new color, it’s really going to stand out wherever it’s parked. A small
motorhome may fit in a little better, but most people who live in in a house or
apartment don’t park their recreational vehicles on the street. An RV parked on
the street may call a little too much attention to itself.
I don’t stealth park on residential streets a lot. If I have to be in civilization, I’d rather spend the night blacktop boondocking in the parking lot of a truck stop or a Wal-Mart. However, if the only place I can find to spend the night is a residential street, my van can slip in and look enough like a regular passenger vehicle so that no one suspect I’m sleeping in there.
#6 Not only can I stealth park in the city in my rig, but I can fit in most any campsite with a parking spur. Yes, I have been to campgrounds with only walk-up tent sites. (I’m looking at you Big Tesuque!) We were at that campground in the off-season when the entire campground was covered in snow, so we simply slept in the van in the parking lot. However, the majority of campgrounds I’ve been to have offered plenty of room to park my van on the campsites.
While I was a camp host, I saw many people with big rigs have a difficult time getting into the two smallest campgrounds on the mountain. People in big RVs often struggled to find a campsite large enough to accommodate their rigs. I’d rather travel in a small rig that allows me to take nearly any campsite available.
#7 The Man would tell you my G20’s gas mileage stinks compared to what he gets in his minivan. He is right about that comparison, but my mileage is great compared to what rigs bigger than mine get. The Scientific America article “Teenager’s Invention Saves Fuel for School Buses” says that school “buses…only get 4 to 6 mpg.” I’m guessing a motorhome (depending on its size) gets the same sort of gas mileage or maybe a little better. That makes my 12 to 15 miles per gallon look pretty good. Of course, pulling a travel trailer would reduce my gas mileage even further.
At the time I’m writing this post (February 2019), diesel costs more than gasoline. Because my van runs on gasoline, I spend less on fuel than I would if I drove a bus with a diesel engine or a diesel truck I might need to haul a big fifth wheel. Also, I found out when I worked in the mountains, diesel is sometimes not available in remote locations, even when gasoline is.
#8 I’ve had some tire troubles in the past, but at least I only have four to deal with and not six. Not only do full size schoolies and some larger motorhomes have two extra tires to deal with, getting the best, strongest tires capable of handling the additional weight of bigger rigs costs a pretty penny. After reading a few articles about the cost of tires for school buses and Class A motorhomes, it seems a single tire suitable for one of these rigs can run anywhere from $100 (plus a charge for mounting) to $430, with one article estimating an upper range price of $600. Ouch!
Although I do have expensive, strong Michelin tires on my van, they’re in the under $200 (each) price range, and I’m glad to save the money two more would cost.
#9 Because my van is a regular passenger vehicle with a
gasoline engine, I don’t have to find a special mechanic to work on it when I
have problems. Just about any trained and competent mechanic can repair most
any problem. As a bonus, The Man is able to do some of the repairs and
maintenance my van has needed. He’s replaced my all of my brake pads and put in
a new radiator when the old one sprung a leak.
I know folks with small motorhomes who’ve had trouble
finding a mechanic with a shop big enough to accommodate their rigs. All of the
vans I’ve owned, including the two with high tops, have fit in every shop
they’ve been brought to.
#10 I don’t have to dump grey or black water tanks. Yes, it would be convenient to wash dishes or my hands in my van. Yes, it would be convenient to have a rig with a flush toilet. I’m sure I could learn how to dump grey and black water tanks, and with practice, dumping would become just another routine. However, at this point in my vanlife, I’m happy to be without the burden of staying aware of the levels in grey and black water tanks, finding dump stations, (possibly) paying to dump, then going through the smelly process. I’m content to wash my hands and the dishes outside and find a toilet whenever I have elimination needs. (Of course, I have a system in place for when I’m boondocking.) The lack of black and grey water tanks makes my life a little simpler.
I’m not trying to tell
you what rig you should live in. I’m only telling you why I do what I do. By
all means, make your own decisions based on what works best for you.
I’ve had three vans since I started rubber tramping on my own.
I was homeless when I got my first one. I’d made some money selling sage sticks and hemp jewelry, and several friends had helped me out with funds. As summer moved into fall and nighttime temperatures dropped in the mountains, having an indoor sleeping spot was becoming more urgent. It was soon going to be too cold to sleep outdoors, even in my snuggly sleeping bag.
I saw an ad on Craigslist for a Chevy G20 (my favorite kind of van) from the late 80s. (I think it was a 1986, but my memory is fuzzy.) The owner wanted $1000 for it, but the ad said the windshield was cracked and neither the gas gauge, the speedometer, nor the heater worked. It seemed like a high price for a van that wasn’t in really great shape. Besides, if I spent $1,000 for the van, I wouldn’t be able to afford insurance, license, registration, or gas. Since it was the only van for sale in the small town, I contacted the owner.
The woman selling the van seemed nice. I told her $1000 was a lot for a van in the condition her ad described and asked if she would consider selling it for $800. She said yes!
I’m not great at bargaining because negotiating seems like conflict to me. But I know people trying to sell vehicles ask for more dollars than they really want so they can drop the price during negotiations.
I set a time to meet the woman and test drive the van. A man I knew who claimed to be a mechanic had offered to look at any vehicles I was interested in, but when I tried to take him up on his offer, he was too busy to help. I was on my own.
When I saw the van, the body looked good. The crack in the window didn’t obstruct my vision. The back seat was folded down into a bed, so I could sleep comfortably right away. The van started up, and I took if for a test drive. Apparently I still knew how to maneuver a van, even through narrow small-town streets.
When I returned to the seller’s house, I offered her $700 cash on the spot for the van. She accepted, and I was on my way with not only a vehicle, but a new home too.
This is Betsy, the first van I got when I started rubber tramping on my own. (Thanks to the Lady of the House for helping me get this photo off my phone and into this post.) Notice the sliding side door. The door broke after a couple of months on the road and could no longer be opened or closed. My friend had a van with a sliding door that wouldn’t close and latch properly; we had to tie it shut with rope. I strongly recommend avoiding buying a van with a sliding door.
That van took me and my friends literally across the country, almost from coast to coast. Unfortunately, one cold February night, I hit an elk and destroyed both the critter and my van.
From where I was stranded in Colorado, it was a long, strange trip to Austin, TX, where I stayed with friends and worked to earn money for another van. (Again, good friends chipped in to help me.) I was scouring Craigslist for vans for sale before I had money to buy a vehicle. I was disheartened to see nothing available for less than $1,000, way more than I could afford.
One fine day, I saw this ad:
The Hippy Van of your Dreams!
Ol’ Blue has been in my family for 20 years! She’s a 1989 Dodge Ram Van with 191K on the odometer. RV with bed and couch! Great for road trips and camping. Definitely a one of a kind ride looking for the perfect owner! Some rust damage, but runs like a beast! If you are interested I can send pics. $789 obo
I was so excited. Ol’ Blue sounded great and $789 was possible. I showed the ad to Lou, and she said I better write a really good message to the van owner so s/he would like me.
This is what I wrote:
My name is Blaize. I have been traveling for the last 3+ years, hitch hiking, riding the ‘Hound, and rubber tramping. I had a great van I loved very much named Betsy. Betsy took me to Colorado, through New Mexico, across Arizona, into Nevada, to LA, then all the way to Mt. Shasta, CA. After that, she took me across the country to Asheville, NC, then to Austin for two months before rolling me into Colorado again. Unfortunately, Betsy and I hit an elk. The elk died and took Betsy with her. RIP, Betsy.
After a month of hitch hiking and traveling with some folks who went sort of crazy a few days ago, some kind Christians bought me a bus ticket to Austin. My plan is to stay with friends, do odd jobs, buy myself another van, and get back on the road.
I just saw your ad on Craigslist. Yes, Ol’ Blue does sound like the hippy van of my dreams. But I promise you, I am the hippy that Ol’ Blue has been dreaming of. If she were my van, I would drive her to the coolest places, like New Mexico and Montana, take her to every hot spring I could find. I would make sure she never got bored by being stuck in the same place for more than a few months at a time. I would fill her with kids and dogs and backpacks and food. I would make sure her oil was changed right on schedule and never let her run out of gas.
The email must have worked because the owner seemed to like me. He even agreed to take a down payment, then hold Ol’ Blue until the refund check on the insurance I had prepaid on Betsy arrived. Once I bought the van, I had to park it outside my friends’ house until I could pay for insurance.
This is Ol’ Blue. Notice the side door swings open instead of sliding.
Ol’ Blue had both a full size bed and a couch.
Ol’ Blue also had Celtic knots spray painted on the hood and sides and liberal stickers in various spots.
Ol’ Blue had some problems other than rust damage. The main one was that it didn’t always start. An old friend who’d gone to mechanic school put in a new starter for me. A few days after the replacement, the van wouldn’t start when I tried to leave a shopping center. I called my friend who came out and hot-wired it for me. He thought the van needed a new ignition switch, but he didn’t have the time and I didn’t have the money to put in a new one, so he just put in a toggle switch as a bypass. In the next year, whenever the van wouldn’t start, I flipped a switch to get it going.
Knowing that if I have a problem at night, I can climb into the driver’s seat, start the van, and leave helps me feel safe while van dwelling. When Ol’ Blue did not start, my peace of mind was shaken. Sure, I had that toggle switch, and it did get the motor going, but it was hard to get to. I couldn’t simply reach down and flip it while sitting in the driver’s seat. To get to it, I had to open my door and lean my body out while reaching down awkwardly and feeling around for the switch. Opening the door was not going to be an option if someone was hassling me enough to make me want to drive away, and I was going to look pretty dumb (and vulnerable) sitting in a van I couldn’t get started.
The van had other problems too. It needed new tires, I had to add coolant fairly often, and sometimes when the indicator showed the van was in park, it was actually in reverse and rolled slowly backwards when I took my foot off the brake. I decided to start saving money and look for a new van before I found myself stranded.
I found my current van on Craigslist too. The headline made the van sound really good, and the price was do-able. When I clicked on the ad and saw the photo, I caught my breath. This was my van! It was a G20, and it had a high top. A high top! I’m fairly short, so a van with a high top means I can stand up in it.
I called the owner, a young woman who had bought the van to live in. She told me her life situation had changed and she was living in a house. She said she’d had lots of calls about the van, but no one had come by to see it yet.
When I got off the phone with her, I called my friend the Rock Guy and told him about the van. I asked me if he could drive me to the city where the van was (about two hours away) in a couple of days, but he told me we needed to go that night. So we did. I bought the van for the price the woman asked; I didn’t even try to talk her down.
I’ve had quite a bit of work done on the van since I bought it (new starter, four new tires, brake work, new battery, lots of front end work), but I love this van so much! (At one point I told my friends I loved the van so much I wanted to marry it!) It’s my safe space, my cocoon, my home.