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Vanlife Build: Hey, nice rack!!

It’s time to start building this thing out! We are going to start with the roof rack, because it’s pretty much the easiest thing to get knocked out. Plus, it has the added benefit of making this look like less of a creeper van, lol.

One thing I want to get out of the way first. Followers of this blog are probably used to us posting beautiful pics of beautiful places, and saying a couple words about them. Or maybe talking a bit about our new career as truck drivers. We try to be concise and not get too wordy, for fear of losing everyone’s interest. The posts under the “Vanlife Build” umbrella are going to be a little different. As a community, vanlifers tend to be very generous with the details of their build, and we will be no exception. This blog is potentially reference material for someone else’s DIY build. That means a lot of facts, figures, costs, and decisions that might bore our casual followers to tears. Fear not, we will still be posting beautiful pics of beautiful places!

Speaking of reference material, there are literally thousands of websites and blogs that involve vanlife. We’ve poured over several. Some are good, and some are quite bad! The one we seem to go back to repeatedly is Gnomad Home. This young couple is inspiring, and have a very detailed website about their build and vanlife in general. They’ve even answered a couple of our questions. Anyone interested in should definitely check them out at https://gnomadhome.com or follow them on FB at https://www.facebook.com/gnomadhome/

Onward! When we bought the van, we knew we’d need a rack, possibly even two. We needed room for our cargo box, and our kayak cradles. We would have to mindful of the placement, because even though there’s an acre of real estate on the roof of this van, we would need to leave room for the roof vent and solar panels.

We settled on rain gutter towers from Yakima, paired with 78″ crossbars. Fair warning: Yakima does NOT give their stuff away. If you were add up every bike rack, snowboard rack, cargo box, kayak cradle, tower, and bar we’ve ever bought from Yakima, I’m sure they could have built another factory by now. On that note, these towers retail for $210. Luckily, I found them on FB Marketplace for $75. The crossbars were $100, sourced from REI. The cargo box is the Yakima Skybox 21, and was about $500 when we purchased it 15 years ago.

The kayak racks are also carryovers from our car. This is Yakima’s Sweet Roll, and they were about $200 a piece three years ago. If that seems a little pricey, it is. Until you try wrestling a 60 pound kayak into a standard J-cradle, on top of a car that’s only five feet tall. It sucks. And now we have a van where the rack is nearly eight feet off the ground. No thanks. The Sweet Roll are incredible: just pop the nose onto the back rollers, then slide it smoothly onto the front cradle. Worth every penny.


The install was pretty straight forward, with the hardest part being getting the spacing right for all the components. As you cans see, the Skybox tried to eat me! I haven’t measured, but I imagine we’ve got a 9 foot clearance, so no drive thru’s for us. But everything looks great, and is ready to haul our stuff.

One additional thing we did was replace the shocks. I noticed that the van had a lot of floatiness over bumps. The great thing about these big dumb vans is that they are fairly easy to work on, and parts are dirt cheap. We bought Gabriel units from Auto Zone for about $45 each. Despite this being a Wisconsin vehicle, there wasn’t a ton of rust. I sprayed all the bolts with PB Blaster about an hour before I started, and they all came loose with little resistance. Two hours later, the ride was much more controlled. A huge improvement for little effort.

That is all for now! Next up will likely be a post about prepping and installing the floor. The real work is about to begin…

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Vanlife Build: We’re gonna live in a van down by the river!!

No, no we’re not, lol. But we have decided to upfit a cargo van for short (less than a week) excursions. I’ll be detailing the build as I go along.

But first, what is “Vanlife”? For some, it’s just downsized RV’ing. A slightly smaller and more maneuverable vehicle for going on vacation. For others, the extremely high cost of renting/owning a residence in big cities has pushed them into this alternative. But for many, it is the idea of being nomadic and free that is the main appeal. It represents adventure, travel, minimalism. Many of them have figured out ways to make their income mobile. They really are living in a van. There are literally thousands of blogs detailing peoples lives on the road. To me, these people are certainly living the best version of their life.

We fall into the downsized RV category, at least for now. The idea of having a mobile place to eat, cook, sleep, and carry our bikes/kayaks/assorted outdoor stuff was incredibly appealing to us. We see them all over the place, especially in the Southwest: upfitted VW’s, Sprinters and cargo vans, ready to go to remote places to mountain bike, climb, or paddle.

So I started looking for our vehicle. We briefly considered the travel trailer/pickup truck option instead. The main appeal there was a real bathroom with shower and a fully outfitted kitchen. Plus, it would already be built and ready to go. The drawbacks were the much higher cost and where to park all this stuff. A decent used pickup is well over $20,000 these days, and the cool trailer we had our eye on was at least that. We could have gone cheaper, but you still need a spot to park the trailer. So we went back to the van idea.

Not that vans are cheap. A new high-roof Sprinter or Ford Transit can easily push past $50,000. And that’s BEFORE you start upfitting. Used ones are difficult to find, and still a little pricey. Standard low-roof cargo vans seemed to be more reasonable and plentiful. We were finding plenty of ten year old Fords and Chevys with around 150,000 miles in the $10-12,000 range. But a lot of them were used by tradesmen, and were pretty hammered and rusty. Plus, these old vans are notoriously thirsty for gas. My search was leading nowhere.

Until I came across an ad for a 2015 Chevy Express long wheelbase, advertised for $6000. Surely that had to be a typo, right?. The pictures presented a very clean, shiny, dent free van. The interior looked nice. I knew that this fairly young van had the more modern 6-speed auto transmission, which would bring the mpg to a more acceptable level. Scrolling down, I finally found the reason: it had an eye popping 390,000 miles on the odometer! How was that even possible?

I called the dealer selling it, and she explained that it had been used by a local courier service to run coast to coast. They were all highway miles, the gentlest kind. This dealer had also performed all the services on it since new. It had new tires, brakes, and a fresh transmission. I looked over all the service records and Carfax, and everything checked out. The test drive confirmed that this was our van. I negotiated down to $5700, and we are now the proud owners of a white creeper van!

Over the next several months, I’ll be detailing the upfit. Our plans include a bed that converts to a table, a small kitchen, and a very rudimentary bathroom. We’ll have a garage in back for the bikes. Up top will be our kayak racks and cargo box. We’re looking at putting some solar panels up there to feed an electrical system for lights and a fridge. I’d like to keep the total budget (including van purchase) under $12,000. Please feel free to ask any questions as we go!

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2/10/20 Arches National Park

Sometimes trucking is all about making lemonade out of lemons. As we were heading home from California last week, we learned that a storm had whipped up in the Colorado Rockies. We were already in Colorado, and turning around wasn’t really an option, so we would have to shut down. We were a little bummed because we had plans at home that weekend.

But, through the magic of Uber and Enterprise, mobility is just an app away! We headed into Utah, and spent two days exploring Arches National Park. We stayed in nearby Moab, and were blown away by how beautiful everything was. Enjoy the pics!

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11/29/19. Time to roll

Tim: Well, formal training is over. Eight weeks of school and four more weeks with our trainers. Earlier this week, our dream of becoming team OTR drivers was realized when our company, Midwest Carriers, tossed us the keys to our new whip. It was surreal, prepping for our first run, realizing that it was finally happening. We were a little nervous, especially since this would be the first time we’d been in a truck together.

Our first run went fairly smoothly: out to New York with a load of cheese (of course), then down to Jersey to bring a load of coffee beans back to Wisconsin. It was fun and challenging ironing out the kinks of when to drive, when to fuel, what to eat, etc. There’s always so much to think about, and it was rewarding when we got it right.

So this Thanksgiving, we are thankful that we found a great company that has been very welcoming and supportive. We are so thankful to our trainers, Robin and Darrell, for putting in the hard work with us rookies to ensure we were ready for this life. And we are especially thankful to our kids, friends, and family for all the love and well wishes.

And with that, it’s time to roll. We’ll see ya down the road…

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11/3/19. Training

Tim: Its been awhile since I’ve updated, so here we go!

Charisse and I are currently training with our new trucking company, Midwest Carriers, out of Kaukauna WI. We’ll be with our driver trainers for about 4 weeks before we get our own truck, and are turned loose on the world.

I’m training with Darrell (his is the truck on the left, 2017 Volvo). He’s been in the industry for about 30 years, and his wealth of knowledge has been incredibly helpful. He started out driving team with his Dad, and you can really tell that trucking is in his blood.

Charisse has been training with our friend Robin (2019 Volvo on the right). She was the one who was a lot of the inspiration for our decision to go trucking, AND to hike the PCT (she hiked it in 2013).

Both of us have been fortunate to land at such a high quality company, and we’ve been meeting so many great people. Plus, we’ve already driven 3-4000 miles each in the last week or so. Our runs have taken us to Minnesota, South Dakota, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, and Virginia.

Its already shaping up to be a great adventure, and we’ll keep everyone posted with where this takes us.

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10/18/2019: Last day of trucking school.

Tim: It’s hard to believe that we are graduating, and have our CDL’s. Eight weeks ago, we could barely shift a truck, and now we’re ready to hit the road. It’s been challenging but fun as we’ve moved quickly through the program.

A few days ago, we did some night driving, starting at 3am and driving to Wausau and back. Yesterday was our day on the skidpad (see videos below). We were out on the wet tarmac getting trucks and cars sideways to learn how vehicles behave in low traction situations.

We really want to thank all the instructors at Fox Valley Technical College for all of their support and advice. It’s a top notch program, and we couldn’t have done it without them.

And……, we already have a job! We start next week with V&S Midwest, out of Kaukauna. There were several great companies out there but this one seemed to fit us best. Plus our friend Robin (who helped inspire this madness!) drives for them, so it’s nice to know a friendly face.

Our first 4-6 weeks will be orientation, and going over the road (OTR) individually with our trainers. Once that’s done, we get our truck, and we’re turned loose on the world as a team! I’ll try to keep the blog updated as we go through training. Plus, feel free to ask questions about this new lifestyle we’re about to enter.

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9/10: No longer homeless, soon to be employed

Tim: It feels very strange to use my normal name now. I had grown so fond of people calling me “Rooster”. I miss it and we miss the trail.

But, we’re moving forward with our new chapter. It’s been a busy couple weeks, as Maverick Charisse and I moved into a nice duplex in Neenah. Nice and small, the way we like it.

We’ve also started truck driving school! This was our plan from the beginning; to hike the trail, then start a new career as an over-the-road truck driving team. We’re already doing some driving on the school’s test track, and we’ve also started practicing on the road. It’s been an awesome experience, and we can’t wait to see what the future holds.

First day of school pic!

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8/17: Our trail family (kinda wordy and feely, lots of pics)

Reunion in Dunsmuir

Rooster: We’ve been off trail for a couple weeks now, and real life is starting to creep back in. As much as we miss the challenge and beauty of the actual hiking, we’re realizing something else as well: We miss our trail family.

Your trail family are the hikers that probably started in Campo at roughly the same time as you, and are hiking at roughly the same rate as you. You tend to hike together, pull into town for resupply and off-trail time, share hotel rooms, and you camp in some of the same campsites. Some groups are pre-planned, and some just kinda happen. Some gather together for companionship, safety, or just to meet like minded people. Trail names are bestowed based on some silly, stupid, or profound thing you’ve done or said. You start to form bonds of friendship and camaraderie around your shared experiences.

For me, this was the most surprising element of the trip. Before the trail, I had become very cynical about humanity in general, and don’t tend to make friends that easily anymore. That changed on the trail. My heart warmed to my fellow travelers in a way I didn’t know I was capable of. Maverick, by far the more social of us, felt it too.

When we stopped for six weeks in Kernville, we knew many of the bonds we had formed would be broken. Our friends either pushed through the snow, flipped forward, or got off the trail. By the time we returned to the trail, the main “bubble” of hikers was long gone. We were actually pretty lonely! In our final week on the trail, we got lucky and ran into some of our earlier trail family (Pirate, Bluebird, Poppins, and Sherpa). We were so happy to catch up. But then that was over too.

After Mav injured her back, we got a shuttle back to civilization. We rented a car in Fresno, and started the long drive up I-5 back to Seattle. We were feeling pretty melancholy. Our trip was over. In Northern California we decided to stop for dinner in a town named Dunsmuir. Ironically, it’s one of the few places where the PCT is near the freeway, and we remembered it as one of our potential resupply points. We ordered pizza, and sat down. Suddenly, Mav exclaims “No WAY!!”, and then runs out the door and into the street. She had spotted some of our favorite trail peeps! Legs, Mack, Penguin, Tall Boy, Low ‘n Slow, and Backsplash were all at the brewery up the street. We caught up over some beers and really had a great time. In a most fortuitous coincidence, it turned out that Tall Boy had been considering going back home for a couple days to see his girlfriend and catch a concert. And that home was in Seattle! So after a long, heartfelt goodbye to the others, we were able to bestow a little trail magic of our own by giving him a lift. It was the most poignant way I can think of to come off the trail.

To all of the hikers we met, we wish you a safe journey, however long that may be. We love you guys!

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8/12. Passes that kicked our asses

Rooster: The Sierras were awesome, but extremely challenging. Despite waiting 6 weeks, there was still a significant amount of snow at the higher elevations. In the early morning, it would be firm, and our microspikes gave us a lot of traction. By mid morning, it would be getting soft and slushy.

Adding to this were the rivers and streams that needed to be crossed. Sometimes we made an effort to keep our feet dry, but most of time we just plowed through. We had everything from ankle deep to waist deep. And the current ranged from mild to a serious push. And it was always painfully cold.

But the hardest part of this section was the passes. A pass is basically a low point in a ridge line or group of mountains. And by “low” I mean around 11,000 to 12,000 feet in elevation. Usually we’d attempt to get to the top before the snow softened up, and then rush down to get close to the next pass by nightfall. And they were difficult. 3-5 miles and a couple thousand feet of elevation gain. The trail was generally covered, so you’d either be route finding through patchy snow or scrambling over boulders. And then the descent was more of the same. It was slow and exhausting. The passes included Forester, Kearsarge, Pinchot, Mather, Selden; it seemed like we had to go over one every single day.

But by far the most difficult was Muir. We had heard that both the approach and descent had a solid two miles of snow on each side. Plus several crossings. We got a very early start, and still struggled to make it to the top by lunchtime. There, it was starting to rain, so we hunkered down in the stone hut. Over the next hour, the storm intensified, with some lightning and a little hail. We waited it out till we thought we had a decent break in the weather, and started down at around 2pm.

And then the storm returned. We were stuck in this shallow valley with lighting all around us, racing through the slushy snow and rocks. It alternated between rain and hail, completely obscuring what little we could see of the trail. Between the snowmelt and the rain, the crossings were getting sketchier by the minute. And we were carrying aluminum/carbon trekking poles: nice lightning rods, especially when you’re standing in water. Our rain gear put up a good fight, but it was wet through after about two hours of this madness. Hypothermia was a very real threat at this point, so our only choice was to continue rushing down valley.

After nearly four of the most harrowing hours of our lives, we were finally below the snow line, and the storm was subsiding. We camped near a lake, beyond exhausted, both physically and mentally. It was another lesson to never underestimate Mother Nature.

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8/2 “It’s a beautiful day!”

Rooster: Morning miles are the best. Mav and I usually woke up around 5am. We’d have some coffee with our breakfast, break camp, and start hiking around 6am. The air was always crisp and fresh, we’d be feeling strong, with a smile on our face.

Early on, we developed a fun habit where one of us would look around at the landscape and exclaim, “It’s a beautiful day!” And the other would simply reply, “It IS a beautiful day!” It was like we had to take a moment to revel in our good fortune. To simultaneously be present, and to briefly reflect on what it took to get to get to that point. We are truly living our best lives.

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7/29, Mile 875. An unexpected exit.

Rooster: It is 6am, and we are currently sitting in a coffee shop in Seattle. We just arrived after driving our rental all night from Fresno, CA. Why? In an unfortunate turn of events, Maverick slipped on a rock while crossing a creek, and tweaked her back. Nothing serious, nothing a couple trips to a chiropractor and taking it easy for a couple weeks won’t cure.

But obviously, marching up and down mountains with a pack on her back is out of the question. So we are done for the year. We’d be really disappointed, but we’d already come to terms with the fact that finishing it this year was unrealistic. We were already way behind schedule because of our incredible time in Kernville.

So, no regrets, no sorrow. Our biggest goal was to have a big adventure, to live our best lives. We hiked a third of the PCT, spent 6 awesome weeks working at a rafting company, and met some of the best people in the world. We are fortunate that we have the flexibility to come back some other year (2021?) and finish. And so now we go back to Wisconsin to start a new phase of our lives, knowing that the trail will always be there for us.

We’ve been off the grid for awhile, and we’ve got a decent backlog of pics and stories. I’ll be getting those posted over the next couple days.

“Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened”.

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7/19, mile 789. Mt Whitney and Forester Pass

They say there are no bad photographers in the Sierras. They would be correct; no matter where I point my camera, the views are spectacular. We did a full moon ascent of Mt Whitney, starting at midnight, and summiting just after dawn. At 14,505 feet, it is the tallest mountain in the lower 48. The following day, we went over a steep and snow covered Forester Pass. It is the tallest pass on the PCT at 13,200 feet. Just one week into the Sierra Nevada range, and we’re already overwhelmed by the challenge and beauty of these incredible mountains. Enjoy the pics and videos.