We have seven days. Seven days left of our run-of-the-mill existence. The first night we sleep in the van will be strange for me. To think of everywhere I have been and all of the places I have slept, a Vanagon isn’t the worst of them, nor is it the best.
I’ve slept on hard racks with thin mattresses, both in jail and in the military. I’ve slept in a-frames in the desert, on the ground, and on cots. I passed out in a bush once. I’ve slept on both of my sister’s couches, crashed in dingy hotels next to drunk strangers, and in the back of an amphibious assault vehicle, in the U.S.A. as well as Africa. On March 31, my family and I will begin our tour of the 48 contiguous states. Alaska and Hawaii will have to wait. We’re going to do it in an ‘82 VW Camper.
If it sounds crazy to you, it feels just as crazy to me. But I like that feeling. Final preperations are in full swing. The van is receiving all of our attention. The apartment is being frequented by Craig’s Listers looking for sweet deals. A guy named Frank gave us ten dollars more than we asked for our bed, just because we didn’t have change. Then a lady named Jen came over and bought our dresser. She talked us down $50. No one felt threatened, although we did have to meet Frank at a nearby Starbucks with the bed on account of all the nervousness surrounding Craig’s List these days. There have been some homicides in the news, it’s understandable.
All of the beds are torn down, we are sleeping on our mattresses pushed together in the back bedroom. And honestly, it isn’t that big of a change, Penny has always slept with us. Pretty much since birth. She won’t miss her bed because she rarely slept in it. She was happy to help us take it apart.
I’m down to my ration of clothes for the trip. The rest of them have been donated to the goodwill. If you wanted to know more about me as a person, you might be able to glean quite a lot from shopping at the Goodwill in Denver on Monaco and Hampden. Most of my old possesions now reside there on the dingy shelves and dusty floors among all the other props from other people’s universes. Bill Cosby books on family values, Tom Clancy novels, and stretched-out sweat-stained golf shirts that are always the brightest, gaudiest color you can think of, bright orange with horizontal stripes, corporate logos on the sleeves. Anything I didn’t sell or give away to people I know went to the Goodwill. Someone else is actually going to get to walk a mile in my shoes, literally.
We are running out of time, so these final big pieces of furniture need to go. Timing is critical here. I imagine in a couple of days I might be writing from the front seat of the van as the couch and the table and chairs will be gone. We’ve prepared. We have everything we think we need, which is probably too much. But we are starting with the benefit of the knowledge of those that have gone before us. For inspiration we didn’t need to look farther than GoWesty’s list of blogger’s living the van life. I count ten blogs, each of them documenting the amazing journey’s and lives of people out there doing it right now. The family at Bodeswell has been on the road for more than 5 years in a 1971 bay window bus. Seeing other’s doing it, these enterprising spirits, these people with the courage and the smarts to survive life on the road. It’s empowering. I feel like we can do it because there are others out there proving it’s possible.
Ever since Maizy told me she was pregnant with Penny almost 5 years ago, my life has been nothing but constant change. I refer to March 31 as the “jumping off point” but really I think I jumped off five years ago. That’s when I quit drinking alcohol and stopped smoking cigarettes. I quit my job to raise my daughter. I enrolled in college and fell in love with photography. I got this crazy idea that I wanted to be a journalist, and Maizy supported that. And now Maizy is ready to jump off too, and that’s really what’s happening here.
We are leaving this apartment, Maizy is leaving her job. We are leaving this city behind. We are doing all this to be together. We will tour the U.S. as a family, and search for the place we all agree is home. We don’t know where that is yet. There is more to this trip than I am letting on, but this is the broad view.
For me it’s a search for home as much as it is a search for human connection and a challenge to overcome my social weakness. I hope to beat it out of my system by forcing myself on society. I will step out of my shell and be more present in the real world. Maizy gets to be with Penny every day, and the road is her kindergarten. She’ll be five years old in less than a month, just old enough to go along with this willingly.
It’s a family bond strengthening, self-sufficiency training, photography dream pursuing, road-schooling, rubber-tramping tour of the United States, at a medium pace to cure our wanderlust. We’ll see where it leads.
On Old Betty:
Betty is an Ivory Beige VW Vanagon L with a Westfalia camping conversion. She sleeps four comfortably (depending on your definition of comfortable) and provides a refrigerator, sink and stove. She was manufactured in 1982. She’s outfitted with BF Goodrich All-Terrain KO tires on 14″ steel wheels. The 2.0 liter, air-cooled engine gets 70 HP and is mounted in the rear. The total mileage is unknown. My guess is north of 200,000 miles are on this body, which is in great shape considering.
The rebuilt engine has about 8,000 miles on it. The canvas is in disrepair and the pop-up top is a little off center so it’s difficult to close. We’ll work on that in Missouri. Besides installing new canvas and adjusting the top, we still have solar power to implement as well as an auxiliary battery. She’s slow on take-off and struggles to lug her 4,600 lb. frame up the steep grades. We recently had the fuel lines replaced and the fuel tank resealed. We added new brakes as well.
The L in Vanagon L just means our version features cloth upholstery, fancier interior panels (which are pretty much toast now), and a dashboard blower, which we have, but all it really does is blow cold air in my face. The camper conversion features an integrated kitchen that includes a refrigerator that can run on propane or electricity, a stove with two burners and a steel sink connected to an onboard water supply.
The rear bench seat folds into a double bed and the roof pops up to reveal a canvas tent and a second fold out bed. There are cabinets, and closets, and shelves all over the place. We aim to fit what we need in the van without having to put one of those giant boxes on top of the car. We are trying to travel light. In the coming days we will be testing that theory. Can we fit everything we need in the space provided? What will we have to give up to make that happen? I’ll let you know as we pare it all down, but I can tell you it’s quite a bit. I call it the purge.
On a side note: Old Betty attracts a lot of attention. She is conversation starter. The other day in the drive-thru of an Arby’s a man was honking and whistling at me, when I turned around to see what was all the commotion, this guy is hanging out his window smiling and he just says “nice van!” Another time, I was sitting in traffic and the guy in the car next to me leans over an yells out his passenger window, “I love the purr!.” Those are just the two most recent experiences I can recollect, we’ve only had her six months and I’d estimate I’ve been approached five or six times by people wishing to express their appreciation of the Westy. One drive-thru girl told us it reminded her of a Scooby-Doo van. I just smiled and laughed, but on the inside I was struggling to understand the correlation,. everyone knows the Mystery Machine is a Ford or a Dodge, it certainly isn’t a VW of any sort. Maizy tells me the guy at the pharmacy keeps retelling the same story over and over every time she sees him. He’s always reminiscing about his childhood spent in a van just like ours.
On the Travelogue category:
This is the place I will post everything related to our journey, a trek that will take us to each of the 48 contiguous states. We have exactly one month left on our lease. When that expires the grand experiment begins. We’re pulling up the anchor and getting off the couch, we already sold the television and the furniture isn’t far behind. We’ll start our journey on familiar ground. Denver.
We’ll stay in and around Denver for at least three weeks. Our van will be our only shelter, unless we wimp out and get a room every once in a while, I hereby reserve the right to do so, especially if we are at our wits end or Penny is freaking out. This trip will test our endurance, but we aren’t trying to break any world records. We are just a family in search of a home.
We figure it will probably take us two years to go everywhere we want to go, but that can go shorter or longer depending on where we are mentally after we’ve been doing it awhile. I’m looking at the initial stay in Denver as a sort of road trip boot camp, a shock to the system where we quit regular life cold turkey and become people of the road.
Instead of starting a brand new blog with zero followers, I thought I would stick with the crew of followers that have been so generous as to read my posts and look at my images over the last couple of years. It doesn’t make sense to ditch such a cool bunch of people. So instead of starting a new blog, I’m going to follow the advice of an old gunnery sergeant in the Marines once told me. Keep it simple stupid, A.K.A, the K.I.S.S. method. One I’m sure you’ve all heard. If you like travel stories, keep an eye on my posts over the next couple of years. I should be hitting every state at least once. I’m sure the writing will get better as we go along.
This is not a van. This is a bus. A Volkswagen bus with a Westfalia camper conversion. “The Pig” was there when Penny was born. Maizy and I took her camping in it when she was 2 months old. From that point on we toured as much of the Rocky Mountains as we could before the engine finally blew up. We beat up this already beaten bus. We rode it hard and conquered some of the highest mountain passes in the United States. I took her to 14,000 feet at Mt. Evans and got some epic pictures for my refrigerator in the process. This bus even made a Go Westy calendar a few years ago. I never did get a copy of that calendar.
We loved this bus. When the engine blew and we made the decision to give it up a little piece of me died with it. It was an impulse decision and a bad purchase all the way around. I paid too much. It was too rusty. It had very little in the way of heat. I once drove it in a blizzard with bald tires. We passed several cars and trucks that were overturned or stuck in ditches along I-70, barely able to see, hands freezing, inching forward ever so slowly. I think our top speed was 14 miles per hour on that stretch.
There was just something about this bus. We have a “new” 1982 Vanagon Westfalia now. Everything that was wrong with the pig is what is right with the new van. We plan to travel the country as slowly as possible in it. It has a stove and a sink, it has two beds, it will have a good heating system. We just have to keep it running which may or may not be a challenge. It’s all a part of the adventure now.
The laptop is in the shop and the iMac has a full hard drive. So I had to dig into the archives until I get my ThinkPad back. I took this photo about 3 years ago with an old Nikon DSLR that I borrowed from my oldest son. It was the first DSLR I ever used.
My family and I have been traveling across the United States in search of a van that will be used to travel across the United States. We will be leaving within the next 9 months. The bus we found on this trip was not the right fit for us, but the trip wasn’t all for naught. I got the opportunity to explore Albuquerque with my K-5.