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Vanlife Build: Cutting large holes in the van. Totally normal.

Ask any vanlifer what the hardest part of their build was, and they’ll tell you it was putting in the roof fan. It’s not all that complex or physically demanding, but the mental anguish that comes with CUTTING A LARGE HOLE IN A PERFECTLY GOOD VAN is palpable. But it’s a rite of passage that all of us go through. Once it’s done, you realize it’s not that big of a deal. But I was still sweating it.

Why a roof fan? They are nearly mandatory if you’re going to be spending any time sleeping inside. They make a huge difference in keeping the interior temperature comfortable, and whisk away cooking and “other” odors. Plus, just breathing as you sleep causes condensation, which will eventually lead to mold.

After doing a lot of research, we went for the top of the line Maxxfan Deluxe, sourced from Amazon for $265. This one is unique in that it can be fully open in a downpour. It has 10 speeds, blows in or out, raises electrically, and comes with a remote control. It had great reviews across the board.

So, on to the install! We decided to put it nearly in the center of the van. This kept it out in front of the roof box, while still leaving plenty of room in the front of the roof for solar panels. Plus, it will be close to where we are putting the cooking stove.

I started by measuring it out and using a carpenters square to get the precise line. Some people say to use the trim ring, but I found that I couldn’t get a Sharpie in there. I then used masking tape to give myself a good sight line.

Basic layout, and some of the tools I used

And now we’re at the point of no return. I took a deep breath, and drilled all four corners to create space to put the jigsaw blade.

Drilling the corners

Next, I simply grabbed my jig saw (ensuring that I had a sharp blade), and connected the dots. Some people prefer to use electric metal shears because it creates less metal shavings, and I would definetely recommend that if you have access to one. DO NOT use a sawzall or grinder! Pro tip: Make sure you lay down something to collect all these shavings, AND to prevent the cut piece from dropping and damaging your pretty new floor. Whoops!

I may look calm, but…

Once it was done, I sat back and thought, “In essence, I’ve just totalled my vehicle”. No matter, ONWARD!

Resale value enhancer

I hit the cut edge with some rust inhibitor and let that dry. Afterwards, I cleaned the surface and vacuumed up all the shavings.

Here’s where I cut a corner that I might have to come back and redo. Every blog I read said that the best adhesive/sealant was from this brand called Dicor. But it was Sunday during the pandemic, and the only thing open was Walmart, so I had to settle for a similar product. I layed down a bead on the roof where the fan frame was going to rest, then set it in. The kit came with some self tapping screws to really secure it to the metal. I put a bit of sealant on the head of each screw as well. The Walmart sealant wasn’t all that easy to work with, being a little too thick to make it pretty. Looks like it’ll keep out water though.

The next best thing in a pinch

Then, I simply attached the fan to the frame, ensuring that the wiring didn’t get pinched.

I came back inside, and temporarily wired it to the dome light circuit. It works perfect! The remote has a thermostat that allows you to set a temp, and the fan will do the rest. (Within reason of course, it’s not an AC unit.) I will eventually be running the wiring into the fuse box I’ll be creating for the electrical system.

And there you have it!

Post script: I felt pretty awesome about this afterward. This was a big step, and something I had never done before. It boosted my confidence enough to do something stupid, like the following…

We knew we wanted to install some windows on the drivers side to bring some light in where the dinette would be. So I ordered what I thought would be the correct RV windows. What I failed to account for was that the sides of our van have some curvature. And the windows had none:

Seems like a water entry point

So, there will be a big gaping hole in the side of the van till the correct window gets here. Because I’m a big dummy.

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Vanlife Build: Floor

And now the real fun begins! Most of the sites we’ve seen say that the floor should go in first, so that’s where we started.

First, we removed the rubber mat that came with the van. We kept it so that we could use it as a template to cut our insulation and subfloor. Once that was up we could see some of the holes that had been drilled through the floor by the previous owner. We used Rust Inhibitor and caulk to seal these up.

floor prep

Many of the blogs we’ve seen recommend using some sort of car audio soundproofing mat to reduce noise levels inside the big metal can that is our van. It’s basically a rubbery tar mat with some aluminum foil as structure. We used Stinger mat from Extreme Audio in Appleton. Opinions vary on how much coverage to apply, so we settled on doing about 40% of the floor, with nearly full coverage on the wheel wells. We’ll probably do about 25% on the walls and ceiling. That added up to about 72 square feet to do the entire van, and it cost about $170.

strips of soundproofing in the ribs of the van floor

You can cut it with a utility knife into any shape you please, and use the adhesive backing to adhere it. With a little heat and a roller, it goes on pretty easy. And this is one of the areas where you don’t have to be too perfect. We cut it into strips and layed it in the low ribs on the floor.

soundproofing the wheel wells

On to insulation. We chose extruded polystyrene (XPS) because of it’s durability and high-ish R-value (R-3 on the 1/2″ sheets) for such a thin layer. Our van is a low roof, so you really have to be mindful of headroom, and flooring thickness affects that. As you’ll see later, we wound up with a total thickness of 1 1/2″ for the floor. We needed 3 sheets of 4x8x1/2″ to do the entire floor, at a cost of about $14 each at Menards.

We used the rubber mat to rough trace the shape we needed, then cut with a sharp utility knife, trimming as needed. To secure it to the floor, we used 3M spray adhesive. On the seams, we simply used duct tape.

The plywood subfloor was next. I really wanted to use 1/4″ (again, conserving headroom), but that didn’t seem like enough to bolt the bunk and furniture too. We settled on 3/8″ underlayment quality plywood. These 4×8 sheets were bought at Menards, and cost about $15 each. We again using the leftover rubber mat to trace out our outline. Our primary tool for cutting was a jigsaw, although we did use a table saw and skil saw for some cuts.

starting the subfloor. note the tasty adult beverage

One decision I made that might come back to haunt me is using self tapping metal screws to bolt the subfloor to the van. Other vanlifers seem to simply use adhesive to glue the plywood to the insulation. I simply couldn’t see that being a good foundation for bolting furniture and shelves to. So I punched dozens of screws through the floor of the van, potentially creating a moisture and corrosion nightmare. Time will tell.

finished subfloor

On to the top layer. Charisse and I vacillated wildly on what to do here. I initially wanted a very thin layer of linoleum. Charisse wanted a classier laminate, but I knew that most panels were 1/2″ thick. Luckily, she scoured her resources till she found a very handsome board that was only a 1/4″ thick. Sourced from Home Depot, we needed 3 boxes at $60 each to complete our floor.

With the help of a laminate flooring kit, this tongue and groove style paneling was pretty easy to install. For cutting, we used the jigsaw again, but switched to a fine carpentry bit to prevent chipping the laminate. (Pro tip: spend the extra $$ for quality blades. I’m partial to Bosch). As you can see, we only used the laminate up to the back of the wheel wells. From there to the back doors is the “garage”, and we will simply be using rubber matting here.

One detail I had to reconcile was that because of the extra height of all this flooring, the side door footwell would not be at the proper height. So I basically built up the floor with 2×4’s, and secured the plastic footwell to those. Seems a little janky, but serves the purpose.

And that’s it, the floor is in! We really love the style that Charisse picked out, and this should be a great foundation for the rest of the build. Feel free to comment!

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Sweet tooth

(Charisse) Though Tim and I continue to fine-tune how we eat to make it as clean as possible, we both battle a bit of a sweet tooth. Freshly baked Cinnabon (unfortunately available at a lot of truck stops) and Haagen Dazs ice cream cause regrettable lapses in judgement for me, while donuts and candy bars call to Tim like sirens. In an effort to steer away from these processed monstrosities (most of the time, anyway), I’ve found three recipes that curb our cravings and are now our go-to before we line up at the Cinnabon counter. They’re all low-carb, and contain healthy fats and small amounts of sweetener.

#1 Chia Pudding: Um…chia? Isn’t that what they used to grow plants on terra cotta animals back in the 80’s??? Why yes, it is! And it’s surprisingly nutritious. It plumps up like tapioca in a rich, mousse-like pudding made with coconut milk, and it is de-lish! I often make it with cacao or cocoa powder, but made strawberry this time. So, so good. We usually eat a couple of spoonfuls after dinner.

#2 Chocolate protein bites: These chocolate-y snack bites are loaded with nutritious goodness and are a quick hit to fill you up on the go. I add a few dark chocolate chips because, you know…well, I don’t have a good reason. They just add extra yumminess.

#3 Almond flour muffins: Seriously, this one is my new favorite. The recipe calls for bananas, and I used them last time, but tried pumpkin instead today. To…die…for. The weird thing about these is they get better with age (don’t we all wish). I keep them in the fridge (they freeze well, too), and every day they taste better and better. Again, I added a few dark chocolate chips for good measure. You could certainly omit, but…who would do such a thing?

Armed with our reasonably healthy treats, we’re headed for California again this afternoon. If you struggle with hankerings for sweets, give one (or all) of these a try! They sure are working well for us. If you have questions, feel free to leave a comment, PM me on Facebook, or email me at jones.charisse74@gmail.com.

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Zzzzzzz’s

(Charisse) Road noise. Reefer noise. Traffic. Wind. Pelting rain or hail. Forklifts going in and out of the trailer. Climbing up and charging down mountain passes. Stopping and starting at traffic lights. Potholes the size of craters at crusty truck stops. Rumble strips on the shoulder of the interstate. Hard braking for some idiot driver who just jumped out in front of your 80,000-lb. situation at 60 mph.

Now imagine you’re trying to sleep.

I am here to tell you…learning how to sleep in a moving semi truck has been one of the greatest challenges we’ve faced as a trucking team. It has taken months of trial and error to arrive at a point where we sleep reasonably well, most of the time.

It took a combination of tools to get this whole scene under control:

First, we had to get the right mattress. After trying the cushions that came with the truck, then experimenting with a thin layer of memory foam, then moving to a bouncy mattress that exacerbated all movement, we landed on a two-layer foam mattress with a cooling top layer (I’m a hot sleeper).

The right pillow makes all the difference, too, and we each found one that worked best for us. To reduce body movement, we bought a weighted blanket with a cooling element on one side so I don’t roast. We added cool, comfortable fitted and flat sheets to slip between.

A high-powered 12v fan for white noise, and eye covers/ear plugs to keep out intermittent light and front-of-cab sounds. Keeping the vents open/blowing out cool air and opening the windows helps with air flow. And for safety, a giant seat belt “net” to keep us from flying out of the sleeper berth.

Quite the ordeal, yes?

We’re still working to form a bedtime routine that helps us wind down, though our days and nights are anything but routine. Some light yoga or guided meditation would probably aid in drifting off to sleep much better than our current go-to of watching funny videos on Facebook, but we’re a work in progress.

We knew we had to get our sleep under control to stay healthy on the road, so it was worth all the frustrating fails to find the sweet spot. And now that we’re well-slept AND eating well (I’ve got an arsenal of instant pot and electric skillet recipes that we love!), time to move on to Healthy Truck Driver Phase #3…fitness. I’m disappointed it took so long to prioritize movement, but hey…adapting to this lifestyle has been one wild ride, so to speak. I’ve already worked up a spreadsheet (because we’re both nerds) of exercises that can be done in and out of the truck using minimal or no equipment. More on that in the coming weeks!

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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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Thunder Mountain

(Charisse) On our way out to Cali on Tuesday, we saw something odd in the middle of nowhere, Nevada. A shrine, an artist’s expression, a bunch of random things held together by concrete…we had no idea what it was. We passed by it on I-80 before we had a chance to figure it out, wrote down the mile marker, and told ourselves we’d stop and figure it out the next time we went by. And today was that day.

Thunder Mountain Indian Monument

We found a frontage road right off the interstate and parked the truck, walking into this fenced area that held the most random collection of rusty and old stuff we’d ever seen. Some of it was held together with concrete, and some of it was thoughtfully leaned or placed or hung. A lot of glass bottles and old windshields were used in the walls. There’s a cool (but kinda sad) story about this place, and you can read about it here.

Apparently, everything on this property was found within a 50-mile radius between 1968 and present day. Some of it was cool, and some of it was downright creepy.

Worth the stop, for sure. So if you’re ever driving through the middle of nowhere in Nevada, it’s a must-see.

And just for fun, here’s a tumbleweed rolling down the road.

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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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Bridge of the Gods

(Charisse) Two weeks ago, we were on a run to Tacoma, WA, and had to route through Oregon due to an impassable, snowy Snoqualmie Pass in the Cascades. And boy, did we ever win the jackpot with some awesome views along the Columbia River on our way to Portland. Best part? We stopped in Cascade Locks and got to see the Bridge of the Gods, which spans the Columbia and connects Oregon to Washington. If you’ve seen the movie Wild, it’s the bridge where Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) ended her hike on the PCT.

Emotions bubble up for me anytime we’re anywhere near the PCT or a town we went through while hiking it. Though we hadn’t made it this far in our hike, the trail goes right over this bridge…I couldn’t help but smile thinking of all the thru hikers who had crossed through this gateway to the last state on their journey. 🙂

PS – Today marks one year from the day we started walking from the southern terminus on the US/Mexico border. It feels like yesterday/forever ago…

4/14/19

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Find some peace amidst the chaos

(Charisse) What a strange few weeks it has been for us all. Our thoughts go out to family and friends who have been impacted so far…financially, emotionally, and otherwise. You may be out of a job. Your hours may have increased depending on the industry you’re in. Your small business may already be struggling. You may be working from home amongst littles and teens (if we were nearby, we’d drop wine on your front porch). Social distancing may be taking its’ toll on your sanity. These are stressful times. Hugs to you all.

For those of you hunkering down at home, I hope you’re able to take time to enjoy the little everyday pleasures that are so easy to miss when we’re running with our hair on fire. Read a book. Do a puzzle. Start a garden with the kids. Get some sunshine and fresh air, even if it’s just in your backyard. Enjoy some new music or that hobby you love and never seem to have time for. Bake or cook something. Take a bath. Connect with people in creative ways. Snuggle with the dog. Snuggle with the kids. Snuggle with your main squeeze. Be kind to yourself during these weeks/months because stress is harmful. Find some peace every day by turning off the news and social media for a while. And don’t forget the wine.

As for us, we’re doing all of the above as often as we can. And we’re pretty darn good at social distancing, rolling down the road 22 hrs. a day. We’re working to stay positive, healthy, and prepared; controlling what we can and not worrying about the rest.

Sending lots of love and good vibes to you all from out here in Cali! Stay safe, stay healthy, stay in good spirits. And remember…

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Our home away from home

Take a little tour around our mobile work/home space! This is our 2019 Volvo VNL 860. We LOVE it!!

Maximus
*Note – I mention in the video it’s not safe or legal to sleep on the top bunk, but for clarification…that’s only the case if you drive as a team. No one can sleep on the top bunk while the truck is moving. Solo drivers can sleep on the top bunk with no problem. 😁*
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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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Staying healthy on the road

How will we stay healthy and active as truck drivers?  We get this question a lot, and it’s a great one, because…let’s be honest. Truck drivers make up one of the least healthy populations in the country.  And it’s no surprise, really.  Long hours of sitting, punctuated by breaks at truck stops where a cornucopia of junky snacks, energy drinks, and McBellKingArby’s are at your fingertips.  It seems inevitable…but it doesn’t have to be.  So, we’re working a three-step plan to avoid becoming a statistic. 

First up? 

Food (and water)

Truck driving is far from the free-for-all food orgy that thru-hiking was (sad face), where our bodies metabolized anything and everything we ate. When you sit on your hinder 24/7, it’s important to make smart food choices. This job is hard on your body in lots of ways, but the biggest issue we’ve noticed is a serious lack of nutritious food available on the road. Our solution? We shop and do most of our food prep at home to stock the truck with healthy options so (most of the time, anyway) we don’t succumb to truck stop temptation. As we go out for longer periods of time, we’ll need to also shop on the road and cook in the truck, so we have a plan in place for that, too. Luckily, our company provided us with a nice, big fridge to keep all our fresh food in (it’s nearly empty now because we’re heading home today).

We’ve been trying on a low-carb, high-fat way of eating, and it really seems to be working for us in terms of keeping us full for longer and having far less cravings.  Plus, most of what we’re eating is easily cut into snackable portions. Here’s what some of our daily foods look like. 

Add to that, lots of water throughout the day (plus a cup or two of coffee), a light dinner of chicken, broccoli, and raw sauerkraut and/or avocado, and that’s pretty much our routine for now.  Shout out to Robin TootsMagoots Grapa for educating me on this way of eating.  She has been an inspiration to us in so many ways, and is truly an amazing gal.  Read more about her and her bad-assery here.

Don’t get me wrong…we REALLY enjoy food…a lot.  Which is why nothing is truly off limits.  My philosophy has always been 90/10.  If 90% of the time, you’re putting clean, nutritious food in your body, the other 10% of the time, eat what you want.  Food is meant to sustain you, but is also a source of immense enjoyment.  Life is short…eat that Double-Double Animal-Style In-N-Out burger!

Sometimes you eat eggs and veggies and do jumping jacks at the fuel island. 

Other times, you watch Netflix and eat kettle chips and ice cream.

It’s called balance.  😉

More on our second step (sleep) and third step (fitness) in upcoming blogs. Plus, we’ll give you an inside tour of our new truck, Maximus the Road Warrior.