And just like that, we’re back in Wisconsin. Our adventure in Colorado came to an abrupt end, with equal measures of regret and relief. Without getting into too many details, I will say this: I never want to work with tourists again. Rich, entitled, whiny tourists. They are the worst. Oh, and mask mandates. I will never work where I have to be the mask police again.
Having said that, Colorado was wonderful. Being able to look out our window and see snow covered mountains has been so uplifting. I’ve snowboarded more in the last two months that I have in the last twelve years. We met so many great co-workers, many of whom shared our passion for the outdoors. We’ll miss it.
Luckily, we’ve kept our options open over the last year, and our former trucking company welcomed us back with open arms. We are finishing up our orientation now, and have already been assigned our truck (another Volvo, YES!). We signed a lease on an apartment near Appleton, and should be moving in at the beginning of February.
So, we’re back to “normal” life, for now. As normal as driving a big rig all over the country can be, anyway. We’re so grateful for the opportunity to traipse around the country for the past seven months. We’ve seen and experienced so much, from California, to Oregon, and eventually to Colorado. We encourage everyone to chase your own adventure, your own passions. You only have a short time on this planet, and you owe it to yourself to live it to the fullest. Stay tuned for what’s next…
Tim: “We live in freakin’ Colorado!” It seems like every day, Charisse and I say this to each other, like we can’t believe our good fortune. It really is beautiful here, and the opportunities for outdoor adventure are nearly limitless. We’ve already gotten a bit of snowboarding in, as nearby Keystone resort is partially open. Charisse is slowly building her skills. Before long, she’ll be ripping down the mountain with me.
Our new jobs as transit bus drivers for the Town are going great. Because the ski resort isn’t open yet, the town is pretty quiet, except on weekends. So that can make for monotonous circuits around town driving the buses. Except when moose decide to make an appearance! Yes, we regularly see moose as we drive our routes. Big bulls, cows, and sometimes calves, all meandering around through people’s yards. We also see a lot of fox, along with coyotes and deer.
Although mountain biking is mostly done for the season, we were able to get in a few fun rides here, and we’ve been happy to get some hiking in, too, before the snow really flies. There is so much history here, with old gold mines and structures dotting the landscape.
We’ve also decided to attempt to hike the 567 mile Colorado Trail. I’ll be detailing THAT new quest in a separate post.
Other than that, we’ve just been trying to soak up everything that Breck has to offer. Museums and shops run the length of historic Main Street. Dining opportunities (a lot of them with awesome happy hour specials) are endless, and every place seems to have an outdoor patio to enjoy the views. And of course, the beer tastes so good after a day enjoying the outdoors!
Rooster: Maverick decided she wanted to wrench on bicycles. She had been helping me with a couple of the bikes that needed fixing at MRA, and really fell in love with the satisfaction that comes from resurrecting an ailing machine. She also wanted to maintain her own mountain bike without relying on me. Plus, if we want to keep up this nomadic lifestyle, it helps to have some portable skills. It was a great idea.
So we both decided to take a course on bicycle mechanics. I’ve been wrenching on bikes since I was a kid, but I’m a self-taught hack, so it was time to learn the proper way to do things. We found a week long course in Ashland, Oregon called United Bicycle Institute (UBI).
The instructors and facility were amazing, and I can’t believe how much we learned in just one week. The bike industry is exploding with new technology and riding styles right now, and it was almost overwhelming to explore the possibilities. Plus, Ashland is a beautiful town, with a great biking culture. These folks are hardcore. I was invited with some locals on their “casual” Wednesday night ride, and it nearly broke me: it started with a 4 mile climb with over 1600 feet of elevation gain. Easily the hardest climb I’ve ever done. Then, bombing amazing single track back into town. Total stoke!
Since we were in Oregon, we decided to take a trip up to Bend. I had been there a couple years back with my Mantrek buddies, and had been telling Mav that we had to ride Mt. Bachelor. It’s a ski resort that has lift serviced mountain biking (no climbing!), and there were a couple runs that I knew she would love.
But Mother Nature wasn’t cooperating. At around 6000’ of elevation, even the parking lot was getting a layer of wet, windy snow. The mountain bike park decided to shut down. We headed back down to Bend, and it was raining pretty hard there too. But we decided to wait it out. We were rewarded with enough of a break in the weather to enjoy an afternoon session on some local trails.
So, as I write this, we are back on the road. We are heading back to Wisconsin to visit friends and family. In addition, we’ll be preparing for our next adventure, which I’ll detail soon!
Rooster: I’ve been slacking! Our time in Kernville has been a whirlwind of activity. As I write this, we’ve already left California for new adventures. I’ll get to those in future posts, but let’s wrap up all the great times we had on the Kern River.
We had previously mentioned on Facebook that a fire that sprung up nearby in August, but it’s hard to convey the devastation that these things cause. As we left Kernville on Friday, the French Fire had consumed over 25,000 acres, and was only about 55% contained. It had burned several buildings and a couple residences. The smoke in the air ranged from being a mild eyesore to blocking the sun, irritating your eyes and lungs. While Kernville itself was never critically in danger, Maverick and I often drove up into the high country after work to get away from the smoke, and stayed overnight in the van. But even that option was taken away when California closed all National Forests in the state. Other, even more destructive fires had stretched the fire and support crews so thin that they closed most public lands.
Despite all this, work carried on at Mountain River Adventures. Because of our very low water year, whitewater rafting was over by mid July. We concentrated on standup paddleboard (SUP) and mountain biking trips, which Mav and I both had a chance to guide. The campground filled up every weekend with city folks looking for some fun on an unusually calm river. Being in the desert meant that we would often cap off a hot day of work by soaking in the river with a cold drink.
We had a very welcome visitor from Wisconsin: Robin, aka ”Toots Magoots”! She hiked the PCT in 2013, and was also the inspiration for us getting into trucking. We were able to give her a little taste of our life by taking her on a three day roadtrip. We started by going to the Sequoia National Forest to see the big trees. We camped there the first night, then took a long meandering drive to the base of Mount Whitney. Along the way we stopped at Kennedy Meadows to visit the general store there, an iconic place among PCT hikers. We camped at the Whitney Portal that night, and took a beautiful, but strenuous 14 mile hike the next day. Our destination was Meysan Lake, an alpine lake above 11,000 feet. Toots wasn’t leaving without jumping into the frigid waters, and Mav and I couldn’t let her do it alone! That night, we camped down in the Alabama Hills, an eerie landscape where hundreds of Westerns were filmed.
Living in the van has been mostly good. The absolute freedom we have to just bug out to a new place, and enjoy our coffee with a beautiful view makes us giddy at our good fortune. It’s also rewarding to live within such an efficient space. We have only what we need, and it’s all within arm’s reach. Even when we stayed in the campground, we would sit and stare at the mountains, enjoying the antics of the deer, lizards, and woodpeckers that shared our space.
The downsides have been few, with our small and not particularly comfortable bed topping the list. I’ve also been fighting through some electrical issues. Despite all the insulation we installed, our refrigerator still had to work overtime in the 100+ degree heat. This often led to the solar panels not being able to keep the battery topped off. A combination of more ventilation fans, an isolator, and a strategy of parking in the sun in the morning, and shade in the afternoon have improved matters somewhat. Once we start heading to cooler climes, I’m hoping this will become a non-issue.
As we move on, we reflect on our good health and fortune to be able to live this life. We have met so many great people this summer, and deepened relationships with others. Tops on this list are John and Rhonda at MRA, who have been so gracious and welcoming. We consider them lifelong friends, and know that our paths will cross again.
Enjoy the pictures, it was a struggle to pare them down! More updates to follow…
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.
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.
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!