Wednesday, June 24, 2020

The Golden Van

An idea made real. A future defined. The last great adventure my wife said to me after 26 years of marriage and many trips.  The farcical millennial lifestyle: hashtag vanlife. Yes we two old farts, and a dog, can't forget the dog, will we hope take off joints creaking to emulate the fresh young things with their YouTube Upspeak and rivettingly enviable lifestyle full of sunsets and beaches and impossible clean interiors....this will be a different story I fear.
The idea of a van was born out of a series of choices over the years that directed my travels in other different directions. I used a motorcycle as a youth for pleasure while happily able to spend less money. In California I got into sailing to satisfy a long held desire and discovered the pleasures of living on the water and discovering places from a totally unpredictable angle. There was nothing like coming ashore in a strange place in  a dinghy.
One day I discovered the interior of an RV which was a revelation when I compared it, even in the primitive 1980s to my kerosene stove, my small sailboat with no heating, a small cramped toilet and no shower or running water. Wow!  I thought, you get a  lot for the money in an RV however at that tender age one is inclined to hold excessively romantic notions of oneself and all the bold writers wrote of sailing as heroic travel and decidedly not National Lampoon's Vacation in a station wagon. I was rugged and revelled in my pointy bed.
Time passed and I did try van traveling, once a disastrous cross country journey with a dying Volkswagen, and later a commute to a job in a van with a bed and a camp stove to allow me to reduce my journeys to a distant job.  Neither experience was well planned or executed and sailboats remained my preferred means of escaping the humdrum. But time passes and older travelers sometimes end up with dogs who don't want to go sailing and husbands who got sick of sailing with dogs and the work they entailed. At the same time a new form or RV travel had the great good timing to appear on the scene a few years ago.
There was another thing and that was that I do enjoy travel. Sailing was a great way to boff around and be romantic but as far as seeing things it does have certain limitations. A trip to the interior from the coast requires wheels so in an effort as it were to eliminate the middle man (and keep Rusty happy) we thought about traveling in a  self contained home. 
My accident gave me the time and the inclination to think long and hard about how to spend the rest of the time left to me. From being rated unlikely to survive  to being told that I would most likely be able to walk again I found myself wondering why I got to live. "Everything happens for a reason," is a fatuous saying which implies that one is too important to be killed off pointlessly. My accident was not Fate telling me to get a move on, it was just the product of inattentive driving by a driver with almost no insurance. However the saying I like to apply is "making lemonade when handed lemons," which is a saying that allows us to write our own endings in life. I had a job with excellent health insurance which, as I grew up with socialized medicine is a requirement for my peace of mind. Then when they told me to do physical therapy I threw myself into it six hours a day and any weekend they needed overtime I asked to be their patient. I made my own lemonade. By the way, the reason I am retiring in 2022 is because I qualify for Medicare that year. I take health insurance very seriously and try not to leave that to chance because "I am healthy" or some other such platitude. I only look spontaneous but I try to make sensible plans. Hence the van after years of thought.
You could argue that good works and settling in a community and being part of the fabric would be the most recognizable way of contributing to a purposeful life but my talents such as they are point in a different direction. I like Webb Chiles' phrase describing his own peripatetic sailing life of "going to the edge of human experience and sending back reports" as my template for this van journey. The tug of staying put is always there, as Key West is after all as good a place as any to live, but the call of the unexpected is stronger. There will be time enough to return after the exploration is done to settle down and wait for death.

The van is a Promaster 3500 extended, a high roof cube with lots of standing headroom inside a box 21 feet long overall and six feet wide. The living space is about 12 feet by 6 feet behind the cab which is a standard 2020 Ram Promaster van cab. These machines are designed as work vehicles and lack many of the electronic amenities of lane control and automatic braking and such beeping bells and whistles which I did not want. 
Promasters come with one engine and the designation 1500,2500,3500 refers to suspension capacity as the boxes come in various lengths. We went for the biggest box as  17 feet we found was too short to give us an expansive interior feeling. Promasters are work vans as I said and to give you an idea cruise control is an option. I went for that.

Most are sold in standard white but we went for a hundred dollar option and special ordered a gold colored van which took four extra months to be delivered. I came across Custom Coach Creations by accident while perusing RV Trader online and lamenting the lack of a commercially built van that hit all the needs wants and desires we had for a mobile home...They are a family business based in Deland, North Florida and the business grew out of the owners' own love of travel. What I discovered is they will build what you want the way you want it and they have a reputation they enjoy maintaining.
We had some idea we wanted to developed from our years of traveling by sailboat and as eccentric as they sounded the crew at Custom Coach Creations got to work. 
You can see samples of their work on Facebook as well as their website. One issue we had seen raised frequently by vanlifers is how to cope with bad weather. It's easy to be  a picture postcard perfect van dweller in the right conditions but dark gloomy weather with rain and cold dampened proceedings quite severely. We decided we needed an interior to try and counteract that problem. So we built comfortable benches in the back which at the press of a button become a queen sized bed across the back of the very broad Promaster.
From a commercial design by Pleasure Way we copied the idea of having front office space with swiveling front seats and tables that unfold when the cabin seats face backward. Thus one of us could be asleep in back while the other might be reading or computing up front a whole 8 feet away...The van is littered with 12v and USB ports everywhere we asked for them so one need never have a device with a flat battery.
I had wanted an all electric van, dispensing with gas stoves and fridges both of which we had used while afloat. My thinking is that traveling with gas creates issues on ferries and cargo ships when we send the van overseas, plus every country seems to have its own gas fittings and filling systems. To ensure we have plenty of power we went with a monster electrical installation: 600 amps of Lithium battery storage fed by a 3000 watt inverter to provide 110 volts as well as 12 volts (there will be a test later) in turn fed by 400 watts of solar panels on the roof and two alternators under the hood. Three hours driving or four hours idling should charge the entire system completely from empty. There is a separate battery for the engine so if all else fails we can start the engine and refill the entire bank from dead. This $15,000 package (more or less) should keep us cool warm, cooking, refrigerated and fed.
There's even a cell phone booster on the roof and a TV antenna of all things inside the air conditioner unit. I'm not an electrical engineer but I play one in my van...
The toilet, also known as the spare room hence the absence of photos as we chucked everything in there for the trip home...sorry about that; as I'm sure you'd like to see our 2.5 gallon Thetford porta potti before we soil it with use. Or not. CCC's fabric queen, a miracle worker called Michelle who leads a team with whose work my exacting wife could find no fault. I never saw a cleaner  more smoothly finished van interior. 
We wanted a faucet with a boat style foot pump but Bob the boss talked us out of that water saving program by pointing out the faucet over the sink reaches outside the van and can double as a shower for us or even for Rusty...done! However he was puzzled by my request for a shower compartment with no shower. My wife was fine with this mad plan as she had found she preferred solar showers on the boat rather than using the pressure water system we had. So my idea was to put a hook in the ceiling and hang a shower filled with either solar heated water or with water heated on the induction stove. The bonus is we use less water, far less, and secondly the solar showers are cheap, easy to carry and can be used outside the van in clement weather. Our reasoning made sense to us. The porta potti has a small unobtrusive tank to make it easy to dump anywhere there is a toilet without having to use an RV dump site. I am of the opinion there are more public toilets in the world than specialized RV dump stations. On a nicer cedar smelling note here we have Dave the Carpenter who wore a mask and made last minute decisions for us on the placement of a few items we needed to make a personal decision on, the shape of the table, the location of the shower hook,which is exactly what makes this a custom van:
I even asked for a spare water pump for under the sink and Custom Coach Conversions did not let me down. I hope you understand that even before coronavirus I wanted our van to be as self sufficient as possible, not in the hopes of becoming hermits but of being able to travel further without worrying all the time about stuff breaking and not being able to repair it, or wasting face time with strangers asking them where the RV parts store is (or isn't).  Everything is a compromise of course and we tried to thread the path between reducing complexity and maintaining a pleasant living environment. For instance even though we will travel with hikers' water filters we did specify the biggest water tank possible please and Bob gave us fully 35 gallons (140 liters in Canadian currency). Enough for a month of comfortable living:
This whole idea may strike you as lunacy but in my defense I can only say that we have done stuff similar to this previously and enjoyed it. We have tried to balance the needs of first world sybarites with the requirements of long distance travelers. We shall break no exploration records nor shall we claim world class endurance feats or acts of driving derring-do but I hope we shall see things worth seeing and do things worth doing such that one day we may wash up in the old folks home in Key West with plenty of stories with which to bore the other inmates. It's hard to justify even to myself the notion that it is worth leaving Key West to do this thing so I hold on to the idea that we can come back as idle retirees which would be lovely. I could stay in my job for twenty more years working hours that pay well, in a position that has better health benefits than any other in town, and in a department that offers security and comfort but... In a world gone mad on Internet aphorisms I'm sure you can find one to suit your taste that advises you to live your life before it's too late. For instance this one isn't too saccharine:   
We all have two lives. The second one starts when we realize we only have one.
My family got even more mad when I left  and emigrated and never went back because they had been mad at me to start with. After a quarter of a century away they did grudgingly admit that my emigration may not have been at all a bad idea. I am used to disapproval but after 62 years I have figured out that if I don't do this I will regret it. Luckily my wife feels the same way and my dog has no choice. Oh and the cost of the van thus tricked out with mood lighting, a television, cell phone signal booster, air conditioning, etc etc etc...$89,000 including van, conversion, tax, tag and all. And some people spend that on tricking out a pick up truck. Lunatics!