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’ve always been a conversion van sort of gal. I’ve owned five conversion vans (4 Chevy G20s and 1 Dodge Ram) since 2010. When I decided to sell my truck and buy a van, I was pretty sure I’d buy another conversion van. Then I started seeing what used vans were actually available in the state of New Mexico.
On Craigslist I found newer traditional conversion vans and Sprinter vans on the used vehicle market, but those rigs were wildly out of my price range. If I’d had $10,000 or more in my pocket, one of those big van could have been mine. Since I only had around $7,000 in my pocket, none of those vans were to be mine.
The vans in my price range were older. I saw vans from the 90s, 80s, and even 70s advertised on Craigslist. I was unsure how wise it would be to invest in a vehicle that was more than 20 years old. My friend Brent strongly suggested that I get somethings manufactured in the 21st century. Besides just being old, the majority of full-size vans I saw that I could afford were high mileage. I saw vans for sale with 180,000; 200,000; 250,000 miles on them. How long could something with so many miles on it last before I encountered a major problem? I was really worried about buying myself a big ol’ problem (or a bunch of smaller problems) in the form of an older van.
After looking at all of the Craigslist ads for full-size vans in New Mexico and finding nothing suitable, I started looking at ads from Arizona. There were more large vans available in the Copper State, and I thought maybe I’d have to go Arizona and stay with friends while I shopped for a van there.
Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic complicated everything. (What hasn’t the COVID-19 pandemic complicated?) I had received both of my vaccine shots, but none of my friends had received theirs. The last thing I wanted to do was infect anyone, especially people I care about. How could I keep everyone safe during my visit? Where would I sleep while staying with friends in order to not risk anyone’s health? Should I use public transportation to go van shopping? Would it be safe to have a friend drive me to see vehicles? How dangerous would it be for me to meet with a variety of strangers and test drive their vehicles? How would I get to Arizona anyway? My truck was sold, and there’s no Greyhound service from the town I live in. I probably didn’t want to be on a bus with strangers and their breath for 6 or 8 hours anyway.
On the second day of my ad search, I realized I was seeing a lot of New Mexico ads for minivans in my price range. I’ve always been a conversion van gal, but I started thinking maybe driving a minivan would be ok.
The biggest factor I considered when I thought about buying a minivan is that I’m no longer a full-time rubber tramp. I’m keeping my little trailer parked in the little RV park, and I’ll live in it 7 or 8 months out of the year. Because I won’t have to shove everything I own (and believe me, I am not a minimalist) into a minivan, I was able to imagine living and traveling in one for 4 or 5 months at a time.
Of course, gas mileage is the siren song of the minivan. When I interviewed The Man about why he chose to live and travel in a minivan, the main reason he gave for his decision was the minivan’s good gas mileage. After years of driving my vans and truck and getting 15 miles per gallon at best, I was ready to spend less on gas. Not only will the minivan give me good gas mileage during the 4 or 5 months when I’m traveling, I’ll save money when driving around town running errands when I’m living stationery in my travel trailer during the winters. If I want to take road trips during the spring, fall, and winter, I can do so without worrying that stops at the gas station will break my bank.
Reliability was another important minivan attribute. When The man was in the market for a minivan, he spent hours researching the best on the market. He found the two most reliable minivans available were the Toyota Sienna and the Honda Odyssey. I figured if I got one of those van models and maintained it properly, I could probably drive it for a long, long time.
As I looked through minivan ads on Craigslist and Facebook, one in Albuquerque caught my attention. It was a 2005 Toyota Sienna with under 100,000 miles on it. It was being sold by the original owner. I sent the owner lots of questions throughout the day and he answered each one promptly. By the end of the day, I had an appointment to see the van the next afternoon.
My mechanically inclined friend drove me out to look at the van, crawled under the van to look for leaks, checked the fluids, rode with me while I drove the car, and took it out for a spin himself.
On the plus side, the vehicle seemed to be in good mechanical condition. There were no leaks. No “check engine” lights were on. The owner said the van had passed the emissions test the last time it had been inspected, about eight months prior and had never been in an accident.. The owner also said the minivan had never been his family’s primary vehicle. His family had always had another vehicle, so the minivan mostly sat in the garage except for the few times they drove it to Vegas on family trips. On the minus side, the van needed new tires, a new battery, and new windshield wiper blades. All things considered, I decided to buy the vehicle.
I had the van’s oil changed right away. I bought a new battery for it, new windshield wiper blades, and four new tires. The nice man who helped me at AutoZone confirmed what my friend had said: he neither saw nor smelled any evidence of leaks. He said the engine compartment looked very clean. The young man who put on new tires at Discount Tire said the can’s alignment seemed fine; the tires weren’t worn unevenly. I’ve driven the minivan over 600 miles in the weeks since I purchased it, and all seems well.
The minivan drives smoothly and quietly and practically parks itself. Its got more get up and go than any conversion van I ever drove. I am so relieved that I no longer practically need a ladder to get in and out of my vehicle. The air conditioner blows cold. The stereo sounds good.
I named it the Silver Streak.
I’ve pulled most of the seats out, and I’m getting it ready so I can sleep in it and live in it. I’m about to take it out on the road for the start of my summer travels. Hopefully it will hold up as well as I think it will. Stay tuned for more posts about getting the seats out and how I set everything up.
I took the photoos in this post unless otherwise noted.
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.