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 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.