To read the van life blogs, one would think that van life is just for young, beautiful people, with good teeth, nice hair, and stylish wardrobes. But sometimes, a fat old man makes a plan, gets a van, and hits the road. This is the story of one such man, intended to inspire other old men and women. It is also to say to the young and beautiful, enjoy your time in the sun, but don’t give up when that time is done.
The Man Carl was 63, stuck at home during the pandemic, and not doing anything compelling. He spent a lot of time staring out the front window, and wishing for new adventures, after spending most of his adult life in Africa. His family, friends, and colleagues were also sitting at home, waiting for the Covid pandemic to end. No one went anywhere or did anything anymore. The phone seldom rang. There was just no reason to for anyone to call. Everyone was being careful, and playing it safe. Life was dull.
Meanwhile, his four kids were all grown and on their own, employed, and doing well. Their daily joy and happiness did not depend on his constant presence. He had raised them to be independent, and now they were. His job as a parent was largely done. No need to hang around like a helicopter dad.
He had no reason to stay home any longer. And the road beckoned to him. For years, Carl had had the travel bug, and he had it bad. He started his adult life as a Peace Corps Volunteer in North Africa, before going on to live and work in 29 of the 54 nations in Africa over the next 40 years. He had even written a book about his time in Africa, only to find out that books don’t sell themselves. But what to do next?
The Plan Finally, by the spring of 2022, Carl had had enough of sitting on his duff. Why am I just sitting here,” he asked. “The world is out there, just waiting for me. But it’s not going to come to me. I have to go to it.” He had heard of the van life. He began to formulate a plan: He would buy a van, convert it to a camper, and launch his own national book tour. He soon realized that it would take several months to drive all over the U.S. and that he would do well to avoid extreme temperatures, both hot and cold.
He planned to travel the northern U.S. during the summer, and the Southern U. S. in the winter. During the fall, he would travel to the center of the country. She made some simple calculations of the costs and concluded that he would apply early for his social security benefits. He set himself a goal to cover all the monthly costs out of his social security check. He would use some of his retirement money to buy the van, convert it to a camper, and outfit it. From then on, he would be on a tight monthly budget.
Carl was from the Midwest, where people are frugal. It’s in their blood. No reason to waste money. Why stay in hotels if you can sleep in your van? Why eat in restaurants if you can cook your own meals, etc.?
Family and friends were alarmed at first. They seemed to think he might have lost his mind. People his age, they suggested, did not buy campervans and travel around the country for nine months. But Carl could not see any real reason why he should not at least try. Frankly, it didn’t seem that difficult.
The Van Preliminary research, plus the high price of gas in early 2022, convinced him that he should buy the smallest van possible, with the best gas mileage. He soon found out that Toyota and Honda had pushed van MPG up to 25 starting in 2014. The price of a 2014 van in good condition was $20,000.
He packed up his belongings and put them in storage. He drove to Indianapolis to visit family before starting the trip. He found a 2014 Toyota van there in excellent condition, with fairly low mileage. He found a guy in the Denver area who did conversions very economically, and drove the van out there.
Let’s stop here. Why pay someone else to convert the van for you? Why not just do it yourself? The young van life people often have unbounded energy and enthusiasm, and build their van from scratch. Some of us are too old to scratch, and we don’t have the itch. I shattered my left wrist in a bike accident a year ago. The doctors were supposed to fix it, but they only made it worse. I don’t have any feeling in the first three fingers on my left hand. I can’t swing a hammer, use a drill, or grip things with pliers. So.
It would take up to two weeks for the conversion. Carl wanted to get used to living in a campervan, and he needed transportation around town while waiting for the conversion, so he rented one from Aaron, the man doing the conversion. He practiced boondocking at night. He soon figured out he would need a lot of water on hand. He also realized that water in leads to water out. This is the case at home, too, but the options for releasing excess liquid are fewer in a van. He also realized that it gets much cooler at night outdoors, and that it pays to have a light blanket handy. But overall, it did not seem that hard.
Outfitting the van was the hardest part for him, and he underestimated the cost. The conversion would include the bed, the stove, the fridge, cabinets, a battery, a solar panel, a five gallon fresh water tank, and a five gallon grey water tank. And, on top, an awning for shade. He soon realized out he needed a good-quality self-inflating mattress, for his aging back. He needed or wanted a lot of things: a folding camp chair, a good camera for the trip, and a high-speed charger for his cellphone on the road, etc.
The Dog (His Biggest Fan?) Carl had time to think. It seemed to him that man needs a dog. He thought there might also be a dog in need of a human. He went to the local shelter. They brought out a dog that looked the part. It was a mid-sized dog, three and a half, energetic but not out of control, weighed about 45 pounds, and thus would be able to sit and sleep comfortably on the front seat.
It had short hair, as Carl wanted, so the van interior would not end up looking like a shag rug. And, the best part, it absolutely won Carl over with its friendliness, tail wagging and hand-licking, a permanent grin, and expressive brown eyes. It had a white head, paws, and belly, but from the neck down it was a brindle, and clearly a pit bull mix.
At the shelter they called him Chado, but the dog did not respond to that name. It seemed like they just made it up during his stay. He had a history. His previous family had “surrendered” him to the shelter for destruction of property.” Carl asked what kind of property a dog could destroy? Had he taken the family car for a joy ride and crashed it into a lamp post? Was he having a smoke and burned down the house?
Nothing that dramatic, apparently. It turned out that the family had just left him alone in the backyard and ignored him. So, he turned to digging and chewing. Maybe he had dug up their little flower bed.
Carl asked what to do about the chewing. He did not want the dog to eat the front seat. The woman at the shelter said to get him chew toys. Seemed simple. Carl paid the “bail money” for his dog and they marched out the front door of the shelter. They went straight to a pet store and got dog gear: a leash, a bed, a bowl, a chew bone, and so on. Next, Carl wanted to find a name that fit the dog. His dad used to call him “Mr. Bones” at times. He tried it on the dog, and it seemed to fit. From then he was Mr. Bones.
When the campervan was ready, Carl paid the balance, and they drove west out of Denver, for good.