Last week, February 17th to be exact, we hit four months of living full time in our 50 sq. ft van home. In that time frame we drove over 12,000 miles, explored the states of CA, OR, WA, UT, WY, ID, CO, NM, NY and NJ (the latter two via plane over Thanksgiving) and just returned from a month in Canada, crossing mountain passes between British Columbia and Alberta. Remy jetted to Dubai with FoldHaus to install the Shrumen Lumen sculptures at a design festival and I used my solo time to obtain AIARE 1 Certification and study snow.
We’ve been stuck in (and escaped unassisted from) sand, peanut butter clay mud, and snow, currently hold annual passes to the National Parks of both Canada and the United States, have brewed our way through three different iterations of coffee making apparatus and have managed to avoid any trips to the health clinic or emergency room. We’ve skied somewhere between 30-40 days, packed the fall with amazing mountain biking across the American West and have discovered some beautiful climbing areas (City of Rocks – Idaho!). French fluency and guitar mastery continue to elude us, but we doggedly work at our respective pursuits almost every day.
Obviously the amazing outdoor experiences abound and like most individuals doing the #vanlife thing, these are the moments that we most frequently share on social media. But just like in LBVL (life before van living) the glamorous summit shots, perfect powder slashes and killer sunsets are also sprinkled with the mundane. Probably 1/3 of our days are devoted to housekeeping, work, life management tasks and wading through the occasionally murky waters of compromise, communication and compatibility that feed into any human relationship. But this post is about the awesome highlights! So I’ll save the challenges for another time, and instead recount the standout trip moments and useful tips that may benefit other folks looking to make the mobile living plunge.
Single Favorite Moment: When the SUPERMOON to eclipse all other supermoons occurred on November 14, 2016, we were in the Utah desert, working out our post-election feelings à la Edward Abbey. On the Captain Ahab Trail (which is awesome – go ride it!), we met David and Michelle, travel nurses who also live nomadically in in their vehicle. We all agreed that taking in a supermoon in the desert was a fine thing indeed and perhaps the finest way to experience it would be to ride Moab’s famous Slick Rock trail by its silvery light. So that’s what we did. Waiting till after sunset, we whooped up and down the frictiony rock, the sole riders on a normally very crowded trail. Eventually we switched off our headlamps as the moonlight perfectly illuminated the trail and caused the white dashes to glow. Upon return to the parking lot we were serenaded by the cries and howls of what could have been 100 coyotes. Perfect desert magic. Thank you mother nature and thank you to David and Michelle.
Best Van Feature: Remy spent many sleepless nights scrutinizing the van layout, evaluating how to maximize every inch of usable storage and living space. Our extendable table that unfolds from the wall, our motorized futon that goes from queen bed to couch, and clever storage compartments beneath the bed and over the bulkhead certainly make living in the van full time and entertaining others possible and enjoyable. But it is our gear room behind the rear wheel base, lovingly referred to as the ‘garage,’ that takes the cake as our best feature. This room is separated from the living space via a 1″ plywood wall and pocket door, allowing access from within the van or via the outside rear doors.Most striking is the bike rack, which Remy designed and welded along with his college friend Marty Johnson. The rack holds two mountain bikes, suspended vertically from the rear wheels and secured via welded fork mounts and ski straps. Two 500 lb test drawer slides are bolted to the ceiling, which allow the rack to slide out when the back doors are open, enabling easy access to loading and unloading the bikes along with the plethora of other gear stored within. Four pairs of skis, ski boots, touring gear and a considerable collection of climbing gear are concealed or restrained in drawers and along the walls. The garage also offers decent space to dry wet items, store toiletries & first aid supplies, and still has room for a tiny shower and cartridge toilet. Though freezing cold,the shower is surprisingly refreshing and efficient in the right environment. Many of the van builds that we’ve encountered are designed to accommodate two people, maybe three max. We can comfortably fit six around our folding table and have crammed in up to ten people at once. If you plan to explore winter environments in your van and want to also socialize with others, indoor hangout space for more than two people is a nice feature to consider.
Van Dining Highlights: A few people (really just my brother) have asked about our dining habits in the van. We have a decent sized dual fridge and freezer + a two burner camp stove so our diet is not drastically different than what we would create at home, sans baking. A solid van meal requires minimal prep time, utilizes just one pot or pan, is healthy and emits minimal smells/grease. (While it is true that waking up to the smell of bacon in the morning is outstanding, waking up in a space that is saturated with the slightly putrid grease smell of bacon cooked 9 days ago is not.)
To date, our favorite van meal is a mung bean coconut curry. It is delicious and also fits all of the criteria mentioned above. I believe that this dish has origins in the Philippines, but our poached and adjusted version is found below. This is for you, Eric.
1.5 cups of pre-soaked mung beans. (You fart more if you don’t pre-soak. Fact.)
3 cups of water
1 Tbsp of turmeric powder
1 Tbsp of cumin
Curry spice to taste (I like Penzy Spice Company’s Masala seasoning)
1/2 large yellow onion
2 inches of peeled ginger, minced
3-6 garlic cloves, minced
1.5 cups of sweet potato, cubed
1 pkg of firm tofu.,drained & cubed
1 16 oz can of coconut milk or cream
Many hand-fulls of fresh spinach or kale
S&P to taste
Naan bread, roti or pita
Cilantro & beansprouts (optional garnish)
Saute onions, garlic, ginger & sweet potatoes with coconut oil & salt and pepper until onions are translucent and potatoes are slightly browned. Add pre-soaked mung beans, water and spices. Allow to cook for about 30 minutes, until the mixture has the consistency of a chunky paste and is beginning to burn on the bottom. Add tofu, mix & cook for another 5 minutes. Pour in can of coconut milk. When mixture thickens a bit to the consistency of porridge, add spinach or kale & mix, reduce heat, cover and wilt greens. Serve with toasted naan, roti or pita and top with bean sprouts and cilantro.
The two burner Everest Camp Chef works great and disassembles more easily than a Coleman for thorough cleaning. Our cook ware consists of the Lodge 3.2 qt. cast iron combo cooker and a 2 qt. metal pot. We used to have hip ceramic plates and bowls from Heath that we scored at a Goodwill in Palto Alto (hooray for thrift stores in wealthy neighborhoods!) but eventually swapped these for stainless steel table ware that is smaller, bulletproof and more hygienic.
Most Scenic Drive: In mid-December we drove from Jensen, Utah and Dinosaur National Monument to Jackson Hole, WY via US 191 and 44. This scenic roadway took us through Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area which caught us completely by surprise with its sapphire blue water and vivid red cliffs streaked with white snow. It was such a lovely backdrop that Remy acquiesced to a photo.
Aside from the splendid scenery, this roadway also serves up a healthy dose of paleontology and geology. Signs along the road inform the viewer of the changing geologic eras and natural history of the various rock layers surrounding the highway. My favorite: “Bizarre sharks and phosphate.”
Best Wildlife Sighting: I wanted to see a moose while we were in Wyoming, but somehow kept missing them and just never seemed to be in the right location at the correct time. (Which is rather funny, as moose are not known for their stealth, agility or small frames.) I would hop in the shower and twenty minutes later would emerge to learn that three moose had been hanging in the backyard or I’d be gazing at the Tetons out of the wrong car window when we passed a moose on the highway. But on our last day in Wyoming a young bull plopped down in the backyard (we were staying in the home of Remy’s grandparents) and stayed for awhile. He kept trying to use an evergreen as a scratching post, but the tree wasn’t up to the task and the awkward teenage moose repeatedly toppled over into the snow. It was delightful.
Most Useful Things:
The following websites and apps have been extremely helpful on a daily basis.
US Public Lands App – You can apply this to Google maps and know when you are moving through Public Land that is free to camp and recreate on. Super useful, particularly in BLM rich states like Colorado and Utah.
The website www.freecampsites.net covers free or low-cost camping options throughout North America and extends far beyond your standard established camp grounds. Secluded trail heads, dead end forest service roads and scenic river banks are all noted. Plus users supply useful beta like road conditions, spacial constrictions (i.e., can an RV turn around at a clearing) bathroom availability, potable water sources and cell signal strength.
What We’re Reading & What We’re Listening To & What We’ve Learned:
We both recently finished Disgraced by South African author J. M. Coetzee, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. Spending time with the main character was an uncomfortable experience and caused both of us to examine the ugly tendencies and traits that sometimes manifest within ourselves. Not a pleasant or feel good read but thought provoking and still recommended.
I’ve been captivated by the More Perfect podcast, a Radiolab spinoff that examines various Supreme Court cases, the backstory behind the characters involved and the far reaching implications that such rulings have in our daily lives.