Life has been a happy blur since we arrived in Cali. It’s busy season at MRA, so there’s been no end to the projects and daily tasks that need accomplished. We’ve been spending time in the bustling office/store, driving shuttle buses/vans full of excited rafters, and turning wrenches on mountain bikes. We are SO loving it. But it’s been HOT. Oppressively hot. As you probably know, the west/southwest is experiencing unprecedented highs in temperature, and this area is no exception. Even when there’s wind, it’s like an oven blowing in your face. So, when we both had the same two days off, we ran to the mountains for an off-grid trip that would allow us to cool off and be rejuvenated.
Tim had spent an overnight in Big Meadow while I was in Washington, and just fell in love with the area and how secluded it was. And so, after a stop at McNally’s for a [locally] famous burger and milkshake, we drove the 90 minutes around winding roads, deeper into the Sequoia National Forest so I could experience what he’d found. It was beautiful, and not a soul in sight.
Our first afternoon, we lazed around in the hammock, played cards, and watched the meadow for animals (Tim had seen a bear the last time there). It was cold enough to need our sleeping bags that night in the van, versus the single sheet we’d been sleeping on since we arrived in the desert.
The next morning, we relaxed with coffee and a view, then packed up for the day’s adventure. We rode our mountain bikes two miles toward Siretta Peak (elev 9977’), our goal for the day, on loose, sandy roads. After locking them up off-trail, we threw on our packs and started up the even sandier hiking trail. It was warm but gorgeous out. The trail was steep, gaining 2,000 feet in just over 2 miles. Near the top, the well-tread trail fell away, and we followed cairns to the pile of boulders we scrambled up to reach the summit. What an incredible view in all directions. After signing the register, we sat in the sun with a breeze and ate lunch, then headed back down to camp. The entire trek was only around 9 miles, but we’re still acclimating to being active at elevation, and spent the evening in rest/recovery mode. We’ve just scratched the surface of the playgrounds at our fingertips here, and are so excited to continue exploring!
Just a quick update and short video to let everyone know we made it to our new home. We had a great road trip, stopping in Iowa to see most of the Sinksen clan. We also stopped in Salt Lake City to see my sister Deana and nephew Sam.
We had very few problems, although we did discover a slight leak in the roof of the van during a downpour in Nebraska. Time to get the caulk gun out! We’re learning to live and work in this tiny space without killing each other, lol.
We are in Kernville California at Mountain River Adventures. We’ll be working in the office, on the grounds, and driving shuttle buses for rafters and bikers.
The van is parked near the climbing wall, where we can watch deer, birds, lizards, and the occasional skunk. We’re only about 50 yards from the Kern River, thus living up to our “van down by the river” ethos.
If anyone is thinking about a beautiful getaway in the Southern Sierras, this is it! Hiking, biking, rafting, fishing, kayaking, some craft breweries, and surprisingly good dining options are all here. Let us know, we would love to share this playground with everyone!
And with that, here’s a bunch of pics of me staring at wife’s rear end for thousands of miles…
Remember when we first started work on #vanlife, and I joked that soon we’d be living in a van down by the river? Irony is hysterical sometimes.
Charisse and I have been feeling a little burnt out with trucking. Or, more accurately, with the lack of free time. We actually love trucking. Our company has been sending us on western trips primarily, and we love the view out our windshield most days. Even the challenges of weather, traffic, and “hurry up and wait” are tolerable; obstacles to be overcome. We love our big Volvo, which Charisse has dubbed “Maximus”. Once in awhile, an opportunity arises to step out of the truck for a hike, a walk around a cool mountain town, or to feast on street tacos from a food truck. We have freedom to build in time to see loved ones along the way. It really is an interesting and unique life.
But it is a massive time commitment. The typical week for a trucker is: out for 5-5 ½ days, home for 1½-2. That’s over 120 hours a week in the truck. When you get home, it’s a flurry of trying to see a couple loved ones, make it to scheduled appointments, maybe get a little recreation in, and do all the laundry and food prep for the next trip. And, of course, enjoy some quality sleep in a bed that isn’t moving.
We knew some of these drawbacks going in. But the cumulative effect of almost two years of bad sleep and limited physical activity has been taking its toll. It’s time for a change. It’s time to get back outside.
If you’ve been reading our blog for awhile, you’ll remember that when we were hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in 2019, we hopped off the trail for six weeks. The snowpack in the Sierra Nevadas had been nearly impassable, so we decided to pause and let it melt out. We found work at a whitewater rafting campground named Mountain River Adventures in Kernville, California. We worked on projects, in the office, on the climbing wall, and in the mountain bike rental department. The owners, John and Rhonda, welcomed us in graciously. We loved being around the “river rat” community, which isn’t very dissimilar to the hiker trash crowd. All in this beautiful playground where the mountains and desert meet.
On a whim, we called John and Rhonda, and asked if they had any work for us. After hammering out some details, we excitedly agreed to come down and work at least the rest of the rafting season, possibly longer. We’ll be hitting the road for California on June 20th. And we’re literally going to be living in a van down by the river!
After that? The only firm plan we have is to resume hiking on the PCT around June of 2022. That will last until about October 2022, after which we will probably return to Wisconsin. So from fall of this year to summer of next year, we are nomads. We have several possibilities to explore, from migrating south to work, remaining in Kernville (in an apartment, it gets cold there), picking up a trucking job, working at a ski resort, etc. We may be able to help John and Rhonda open the 2022 rafting season.
But we really are flying without a net here. Which is scary as hell, but exhilarating at the same time.
April 16th, 2020 was the day. It was the day when Charisse and I plopped down good money on a big, white, creeper van. COVID-19 was in it’s infancy, the stock market had just crashed, the political landscape was predictably in shambles, and increased racial tensions were on the horizon; perfect time for a bug-out vehicle!
April 16th, 2021 (exactly one year later) was the day I officially declared “mission accomplished”. It’s been a long, rewarding, and sometimes painful ride. We lost an entire summer of mountain biking/kayaking/hiking/recreating while building this thing, but I think it’s been worth it. We now have a fully independent vehicle capable of housing all our outdoor gear, keeping us warm/cool/dry/safe, with the capability to cook, eat, sleep, clean, use the bathroom, and………., relax.
We had a rough budget of about $13,000 when we started (including the van itself). I started a spreadsheet to detail every dollar we spent. I was initially diligent about updating it, but then started getting lazy sometime around the holidays. Luckily, by then most of the big ticket items were already purchased. We were up to $13,500 at that point, and with the awning and several odds and ends, I estimate we probably have about $15,000 invested. That does NOT include all the tools I bought and the sewing machine. Judging by what I see similar vans selling for, I estimate the van, (wait, CAMPER!) is now worth roughly $24,000.
We want to thank all our friends and family for the enthusiasm and support we’ve received while working through this crazy dream! We really hope you’ve enjoyed the process and the finished product. Please feel free to contact us with any questions or comments.
We especially hope that any potential vanlifers found this build to be informative and helpful. We have found so much useful information from other vanlifers, and we felt compelled to add our humble abode to the mix. Also, anyone wishing to get the entire text and pics of the Vanlife Build without looking through our clunky blog, contact me, and I’ll email the entire thing in a Word doc.
And now, it’s time for adventure!
Post script: Yesterday, I was sorting through all the boxes of left over building materials, trying to decide what to keep and what to trash. I came across the initial sketch I had drawn of the layout we wanted:
Pretty close! The fridge and pantry are where the bathroom was planned, the sink is further away from the stove, and toilet wound up wedged in the back. I might have to frame this somewhere in the van.
(Charisse) Our getaways usually revolve around an outdoor activity: mountain biking, kayaking, snow sports, backpacking, etc. But sometimes, what you really need is to take a couple days to rest, breathe, and completely unplug. And, we hadn’t planned much to celebrate Tim’s birthday or our anniversary, so off to the Airbnb app we went to find the perfect mini vacay. We hit the jackpot with this one.
Tucked away in the hills of southwestern Wisconsin, is Griff Run, a tiny cottage on an alpaca farm.
Have I mentioned I’m obsessed with alpacas?
Though everything was still brown from winter, this adorable farm couldn’t have been a happier, more peaceful, more colorful place to hang out for a couple of days. With four alpacas, three friendly dogs (2 huge Pyradors and a Goldendoodle), a big, sweet tomcat, and chickens, we got our animal fix like nobody’s business.
Shawna and Matt were so welcoming and toured us around their property, telling us of the plans they have to expand on the Airbnb circuit. Thoughtful touches like fresh eggs in our fridge, locally-roasted coffee beans, and alpaca treats made us feel right at home. We read, played cards, drank wine, slept in, enjoyed a leisurely coffee and breakfast, played with the dogs, and giggled (mostly me) while we hung out with the chickens and alpacas.
We spent both nights doing this after dinner.
And we got to check out their cool old root cellar.
We did end up taking a hike the next day around the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, with a picnic at the end near an artesian well and THIS…
And now, please enjoy the ridiculous number of pics and videos below of my favorite animal on the planet. Maybe you’ll be obsessed with them, too.
I hadn’t planned on getting an awning for the side of the van. For some reason, I mistakenly thought they all cost around $2000. I figured we’d just get one of those pop-up canopies, and put it next to the van when we stopped. But then I got word that a coworker’s brother might be selling one, so I decided to see what price he had in mind.
I’m really glad I did! He had a nearly new ARB 2500 Touring, which retails for around $350. It’s 8′ x 8′, and comes in a soft pouch that attaches to the top of the van. Included in the sale was the matching screen house, which retails for another $220. All this for the bargain price of $300!
ARB seems to be the leading manufacturer of a variety of canopies, and this seems very well built. It has a long aluminum frame that has channels for specially designed bolts to slide into. That’s really the only hardware it comes with. ARB realizes that the configurations to mount this to your roof are nearly endless, so their website has a couple of suggestions for accessories you can get. Plus, consulting “YouTube University” is always helpful.
I knew that I had to somehow tie this in with my existing Yakima roof system. I settled on these very beefy “L” brackets from ARB. They were $22 each, and I needed two (Amazon). I also realized that I was going to need yet another crossbar, this one near the side doors. Luckily, I still had a pair of used rain gutter risers from the purchase I made for the wind deflector. I purchased a pair of 66″ Yakima crossbars from REI (normally $100, but my REI dividend covered it. Love REI).
First, I attached the L brackets to the frame, using the existing hardware. I left them loose to slide them to fit.
The next thing was to drill three holes each in the two crossbars it would be hanging from. I wasn’t a big fan of doing that, but the alternative was using something like a hose clamp.
Charisse and I took the whole assembly outside, and bolted it to the underside of the crossbars. It looked great, but…, it sure was sticking out there a lot. There was a fairly wide gap between the roof of the van and the awning frame. At first, I didn’t think there was much I could do, because the L brackets were already tight up to the risers. But the more I looked at the L brackets, I realized they were so beefy, I could get away with hacking off a good 2-3″. This would move the whole assembly closer to the van. Where’s my saw?
So, back onto the van it went. MUCH better.
Now, it was time to play around with this thing. I will say that it is a lot easier to set this up with two people, only taking about two minutes to get the awning into place. With one person, it is incredibly awkward, but still doable. The screen house uses a clever channel system to attach to the front and back, with C clips and stakes to hold the rest into place. It seems very secure once it’s all staked. And there you have it!
Post script: You may have noticed that the entire assembly is positioned to cover the side “barn doors”. This was because we had this idea that maybe, with the screen up and keeping the bugs away, we could leave the doors open at night. It turns out the screen zipper doesn’t line up at all with the door. Plus the open doors really intrude into the awning space. So I will be repositioning the entire thing aft about 3 feet.
The van’s done! Well, ok, not completely done. I’ve still got a lengthy list of detail and finish work to accomplish. We’ll call it 95% done. After nine months of working on this thing, I’m itchy to be done and finally start using it.
What made it “done” is that the kitchen is complete. As detailed in my last post, I had to get the countertop finished in order to continue. Once that was done, I constructed a simple frame to put it at the right height. This is the semi-finished product:
The first thing to go in was the sink. Originally I chose a bar sink that was 16×16 in size, but that proved to be too big. So I returned that and purchased this 12×15 stainless steel one. It included the strainer, and was $78 on Amazon. It included hardware for an undermount, but I wasn’t wild about having the wood countertop exposed. So I opted to top mount it, simply gluing it with a tube of Liquid Nails. The faucet is a simple one that swivels and teliscopes. It’s made by Whale, and cost $40 on Amazon.
The stove was next. We chose this Eureka Ignite Plus camp model for it’s large size, and rave reviews about it’s ability to modulate the heat. Every other stove seemed to have two settings: Off and Inferno. We also liked how it came with mounting knobs, which allows us to attach and detach it from the counter with ease. It was $140 through REI.
Once the sink was in, it was time to get the drain installed. I used a trap kit and some other PVC joints to fabricate a drain. The grey water tank is installed slightly downhill in the step for the side doors.
To get water up to the faucet, I decided to go fairly simple: only cold water, with a foot pump (Whale, $108, Amazon) on the floor. I contemplated an electric pump and a water heater, but I figured we could make do with this. I used beverage tubing and hose clamps to get water out of the fresh water tank to the pump, and then up to the faucet. I initially had trouble with the tubing, as it’s very stiff and retained it’s curved shape. I couldn’t get it to reach the bottom of the water tank. So I got crafty and cut a piece of PVC that reaches the bottom. The tubing inserts into this, assuring that I’ll be able to get every drop of water out of the tank.
The propane tank went in next. It took awhile to find all the proper hoses, fittings, and adapters to not only run the stove, but have an a second line for a small space heater.
With all of this work done, it was time for a trial run. I decided to go snowboarding, and then stay the night in the van afterwards. I’ll start with the good stuff. Everything from the stove, fridge, sink, and fan worked flawlessly. It was a sunny day, and the solar panels kept the battery topped off. The bed was comfortable, and the table made a great workspace for food prep. I was able to work at the stove or sink in a reasonably comfortable (seated!) position from the table.
On to the bad. I will preface this by saying that winter weather really amplifies all the headaches I encountered. To start, I tried to use the leveling blocks to get the van level, but they just slid on the icy parking lot. I was wearing tons of clothes, and of course, I can’t stand upright in this thing. So that meant that both my butt and head were always swinging around and knocking things over. Like the egg carton, and at least two beers. I was dragging snow into the van, which I had to constantly sop up. And the Little Buddy heater throws off WAY too much heat to be a viable long term option. I would shut it off in the middle of the night because I was roasting, only to turn it on two hours later as the van cooled off. And there was no place to put it that it didn’t get in the way, or threaten to melt something.
Having said all that, it was enormously satisfying to be completely self sufficient in the van. I made a menu for three meals and some snacks, plus beer and coffee. I raided our camping gear for some plates and utensils, plus some pots and pans. You can see my breakfast above, and I had salmon steaks with sauteed beans for dinner. And it was great to have a place to relax with a beer when I took a break from the slopes.
As the weather warms up, I will be getting the finishing touches done. Then it’s time for a real trial run with the bikes. The real test will be if BOTH of us can work together in this small space. I’ll keep you all posted!
As I was contemplating how to build out the kitchen, I realized I didn’t like the painted surface of the table top. I knew that it would be easy to scratch and stain. I briefly considered rebuilding it with laminate top, because that’s what I intended to build the kitchen countertop as well. As always, I cast about on other Vanlifer’s blogs for ideas. One constructive fellow used a transparent resin over the top of some reclaimed barn wood. It’s the same stuff you sometimes find on bar tops, and makes a very durable and glossy finish. I decided to try it out.
First, I had to build and paint the kitchen countertop. I used 1/2″ plywood as always. Once that was done, I went to Menards and picked up resin. It is a two-part epoxy, and was pretty pricy, $60 for a kit that creates a gallon.
I will say up front that this is not the easiest stuff to work with. There are a lot of detailed mixing instructions, and you should really use larger containers than the coffee cups I used. It will start to warm up a bit, and that’s when you should pour it over the surface. You have to lay it on really thick, and wait for it to self level. You can use a clean putty knife to spread it around if need be. Once the surface is covered, I took my heat gun and lightly heated the surface to remove all the air bubbles. Then you let it cure for a day. I had to repeat this process a couple times, because my first coat was way too thin, and left a bunch of dimples and bare spots.
Note: Make sure you have a lot of thick drop cloths, as this stuff is messy and difficult to get off floors.
After three coats, I had a nice thick surface that was mostly flat. There are a couple of defects I wish I could have done better. But I’m really happy with the way it looks. It especially makes the sea green paint pop out, and gives the whole thing a more professional look. And, it’s much easier to clean.
We are slowly inching our way towards being done with this build. The next post will detail building out the kitchen, which is this last major piece of the pie. Enjoy!
Post script: A couple posts back, I wrote a quick bit about putting a Yakima wind deflector in front of the solar panels. It was an effort to reduce the deafening wind noise, and keep turbulence from straining the mounts. While it helped some, it didn’t have enough surface area to cover the entire bar, and push the air up and over. So I decided to cut my own.
I purchased a clear 48″x72″ plexiglass sheet at Menards for $89. Using the original Yakima as a guide for the bottom shape and attachment screws, I traced out a much bigger deflector. Using my jigsaw, I ever so slowly cut it out, and smoothed out the edges. I spray painted the back white, and attached it using the existing hardware. It was a huge improvement. The inside of the van is downright quiet going down the highway now. Plus I’ve got a nice billboard for more stickers, lol.
The last few months of 2020 proved to be even more stressful for us than the months prior (as I’m sure it’s been for a lot of folks). So, for the past several weeks, we’ve been intentional about getting outside more, regardless of weather…the one place that grounds and calms us, and forces us to breathe deeply and restoratively.
On our last trip to Cali, we built in a little time to hike up a short (but steep!) hill at our favorite rest stop in Utah on a sunny and crisp day for some epic views.
We caught some pretty, snow-dusted mountains at a truck stop.
On a run out to Tacoma, WA, we had a great visit with my Mom and stepdad (Gary) at a truck stop in North Bend (forgot to take pics!). We had fun exchanging a few things…Tim had picked up a selfie stick and tripod to make Face-timing easier for my folks (holding the phone for an hour is no fun). They gave us some albums from my Mom’s collection to give to Landon, who is building up his own collection (Bee Gees, Grease, Beatles). And funnest of all…Gary gifted Tim a full stereo system he had bought nearly 50 years ago that was in phenomenal shape. Complete with a turntable, reel-to-reel cassette, receiver, and speakers. I’ll let Tim expand on his journey to restore and set up this awesome system in another post, but we’re gonna have lots of fun hunting down some of our fave vinyl to play whenever we’re home.
Snoqualmie Pass had kicked up a snow storm that was going to dump 3-4 feet on the route to our pickup, so we had to head south through Portland and the Columbia River gorge to get there. Not upset about this diversion at all. The route along the Columbia River is breathtaking, AND takes us through Cascade Locks, where the PCT crosses over the Bridge of the Gods from Oregon to Washington. Beautiful, completely accessible little town for big rigs. We parked the truck, donned our cold weather/rain gear, and ventured out into the chilly, wet day. After grabbing a mocha at a coffee shop, we wandered around town, down by the river, along a bike path, and then onto the PCT for a bit.
Our pickup the next day was taking us near Kennewick, where one of my favorite cousins, Melanie, lives with her family. When I thought hard about it, I realized we hadn’t seen each other in over 15 years. So as we headed away from Cascade Locks, we hatched a plan to meet up that afternoon. She and her three kids picked us up from the truck, got a tour of our rig, and invited us into their home for a shower and to hang with their beautiful family for a bit. When her husband Jim got home from work, the four adults went to a nearby restaurant for some martinis and amazing food. So fun to catch up with them! Wish I’d taken more pics (I always get so wrapped up in conversation), but I managed to snag a couple.
The next day took us through beautiful, freshly-snowed-on mountain passes in Idaho and Montana. While we briefly considered jumping out of the truck to make snow angels at this rest stop, we decided to enjoy the view and stay cozy in our 7×10’ “mobile home”. ☺️❄️
By our standards, a little 5 mile out-and-in barely registers as noteworthy enough for the blog. But we decided to post this to encourage people to find little ways to put a smile in their heart during TWYE (The Worst Year Ever).
Our hike wandered among the pines, with occasional glimpses of the valleys below. It was a bit cold, with a sharp wind that made us wish we had a few more layers. And while we felt pretty good physically, an afternoon at 7000+ feet reminded us that we’re only a couple weeks removed from being COVID couch potatoes. We were pretty gassed after this hike! But as you can see from our pics, we’re overjoyed to be back out in the outdoors. Afterwards, we drove to the top (10000+’) for yet another selfie.
BTW, we were hiking along a short section of the Sandia Crest, above Albuquerque NM. This is one of the southern most reaches of the Rocky Mountains, and they really dominate the landscape to the east of the city. We’d love to revisit sometime for a more rigorous hike. Hope you enjoy the pics!
We’re back! Getting COVID was miserable, but we survived. We wound up with two weeks off. That’s a lot of Netflix. Under normal health, two weeks would have been enough time to almost finish the van completely. But every time I thought I felt good enough to work, I couldn’t go more than two hours without needing a nap. Charisse felt the same, but she pitched in with a lot of sanding and painting.
So, cabinets! I needed to build three main pieces: 1) a pantry/fridge station, 2) garage storage and wardrobe, and 3) kitchen storage. And as always, the curvature of the van walls made this a real PITA. I wish I could say that I had some master plan for how I wanted these built, but that would be a lie. There were so many different edges, angles, and workarounds that I just started throwing pieces together until they fit. The carpenter in me is pained by the lack of straight lines and 90 degree corners in the monstrosities I built. The kitchen cabinet in particular was an extreme amount of effort for a measly amount of storage. But, in the end, we did wind up with a lot of useful storage, and that’s all I could ask for.
The pantry has been mostly done for awhile. I needed something to affix the solar charge controller to, so that was roughed out about three months ago. This is where the majority of our food and cooking appliances will go.
Next, was the garage and wardrobe. I wanted a lot of storage in the garage. This is where the propane tank is going, plus it’s going to house most of our outdoor gear. On top of that, facing the other direction, is what I’m calling the wardrobe. This is where our everyday clothing will go.
Last is the kitchen cabinet. This will mostly house small utensils, dishes, and cookware. You’ll notice that rather large cutout on the back; I had forgotten that I needed room for the bike handlebars.
Lastly, it was time to build the drawer, cut and install the cabinet doors, and install hardware.
I should point out that most of construction was out of 1/2″ plywood and 2×4’s. I used a combination of various length construction screws and my nail guns to fasten it all together. We did a lot of sanding, but there are still some rough edges here and there. Again, this is by NO means “finish carpentry”. The paint really masks a lot of mistakes. Now it’s time to see if everything can fit into it’s space.
We are finally starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. The next post will detail building out the kitchen sink/stove area. After that is a lot of odds and ends, but we’re almost done!
2020 strikes again: we’ve got the ‘Rona. Yay. We’re doing fine-ish, just run down and achy. We’re in quarantine for about another week, so I figured I’d finally get around to finishing the write up for the electrical.
I’ll say up front: I am feeling lazy, lazy, lazy. This should be the most detailed post of this whole build, and I doubt I’ll muster the motivation and brain power to string together two intelligible sentences. Please feel free to ask questions.