My dad converted a 1976 Dodge Maxi van to shuttle along my then-newlywed parents’ van trip back and forth across the country. Original van lifers. They each had work lined up on the other side of this escapade, so it was making the most of their open calendar and adventuresome spirit. The stories from that trip live on around the dinner table today, like when they’d routinely swap drivers at 65 miles per hour barreling down the highway or sleeping in a Las Vegas parking lot without AC in the stifling 110-degree desert heat.
There are a dozen reasons I never figured my wife and I would adopt van life. The efficiency and frequency of our air travel. The cost. The associated vagabond lifestyle. All signs pointed to keeping our lives status quo, right up until a global pandemic threw a wrench into things a few years back.
Our first child was born the day our home state of Vermont recorded its first case of Covid, early March 2020. Within a few months we were searching classifieds for a van, largely to have young Hazel meet her extensive extended family all in Seattle. One month later, there we were, a fresh-faced family of three driving straight into the pacific northwest.
It sounds silly that having a second child is a reason to get a second conversion van. But while Laura was pregnant this spring, we talked at length about what to do with our current van and how we’d operate into the future. Namely, van number one had specific characteristics designed for a family of three and here we were about to become four. We quickly found a buyer for our first van while we worked with our friends at PTCH to build a van for the great American road trip, summer 2022 edition.
I’ve seen my dad’s carpentry work over the years and while I can attest everything has held up just fine, I’m told that ’76 Dodge was crude. Meanwhile, it’ll be sometime around 7pm when I’m doing the dishes with piping hot water, putting leftovers in the fridge, the AC is humming along, with Laura changing diapers – yes, all in the tight confines of the van – that I think “Gosh, this camping stuff is alright!”
These past twelve months have not been normal. I shattered my elbow in the final race of my 2021 season, which goes down as the most difficult orthopedic injury of my career. Just as I was finally getting a good bit of form back into the legs and looking at the second half of 2022, I was diagnosed with a pulmonary embolism. Insert a lingering pandemic, add a second child, suffice it to say, it’s been a busy summer. With all of this, and especially after the PE, part of me wanted to sulk and become a hermit for some indefinite period. Thankfully good judgment won out and we packed up the new set rig in early August to begin an indefinite van trip instead. At the time of departure, Hazel was on the young side of two-and-a-half while Hayden, our youngest, was not quite two months old.
Fast-forward to the next time we pulled into our driveway, the entire trip lasted two months, covering sixteen states, 166 driving hours, and more than 7,000 miles. Someone recently suggested to me that a childhood is full of highs and lows, but overall if one’s youth is remembered as positive or negative, it has to do with the overall arc rather than any single event. Given the ages of our kids and especially living in the tight confines of a van, I’m the first to attest that the highs and lows are meteoric and happen in the blink of an eye. However, the overall arc of this trip is unanimously positive among all those involved. (Hayden, although not yet verbal, gave me the nodding wink of approval when I asked him how he enjoyed the second half of his life up until that point.)
There are a lot of how-tos that we’ve worked through in our experience criss-crossing the country a whole handful of times, some of which I’ll suggest here. Much like my parents at the time of their travels, it’s helpful to have the lifestyle fit into your work balance. Laura and I are independent contractors and you’ll find us working any and all hours of the day. A traditional nine-to-five job could be more conducive to escaping for a week once or twice per, at which point looking into van rentals might be my suggestion there. I’ll never dissuade anyone from getting a van, because it’s been so good for us, but really think of how often you’ll use it.
Childcare is not something to be taken lightly. Due diligence and having trusted friends and family members is a must for us. Given that, plus given that Laura and I are both busy on and off the bike, there exists a lot of trading childcare duties among each parent. Up front communication is key here, listing your wants versus needs on any given day or week will help you get through every day.
“I want to ride my bike for three hours” doesn’t take precedence when your partner says “I need to complete this project today”.
Laura and I each had a mountain bike – those were located inside thanks to Thru Axle Traps – and each had gravel bikes thanks to our MTR-2 trays attached to the back. A quick tire swap would convert them to “road” bikes or gravel bikes, depending on the tire for the day. Admittedly, having a mini air compressor was huge in this department. Our Viair had a handy compartment in the back, which is where all my cycling tools lived. Hazel has her Cannondale Lefty strider and Hayden is easily entertained with a pacifier and sleep. There were also books and toys and stuffies and blankets and any number of odds and ends that help keep kids entertained. Rest assured that there are times the van will feel out of control, and that’s totally normal as well.
Maybe one of the simplest tricks, and perhaps most obvious, came around dinner time. We’d often have covered a big chunk of driving for the day and for the sake of efficiency, we’d want healthy, filling, but quick and easy meals. Solution? Camp meals. Bagged dinners these days are made of incredibly healthy ingredients, often organic and without preservatives and other unwanted stuff. Steam up some hot water in a kettle, pour the water into the bag, and shake. While it takes 8-15 minutes for that to finalize, I’d whip up the most basic of salads, and voila. Crack a beer (or seltzer or whatever piques your thirst) and you’ve got yourself a family date night with a view.
Who knows how much of this trip our kids will remember. Hazel sees photos and hears stories of her first van trip two years ago and already waxes on about her adventures then. “This is when I visited aunt Kathy” or “I went on a boat in Montana” she’ll explain. Unlike the first time around, we’re not looking to reconfigure the van to a growing family. I’d call it safe to say this four wheeled rig (or technically six, since it’s a dually) is a fixture in the family for years to come.