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.