1999 Ford E150 hi-top van

This is the magnificent beast that brought my husband Serg, dog Hoobie, and me from New York City to San Francisco.

Although this old, green monster scared the hell out of me at first, I quickly learned to love it, and now I can’t imagine my life without this house-on-wheels.

Although we are not living in the van full-time, we do spend about a third of our life in it. I often get questions about how we got to this point, so here is a quick summary …

1. Just do it

We had previously moved from DC to Seattle (2013) and from Seattle to New York (2015). Our first cross country move was the hardest and my husband had a lot of doubts … Finally, reassuring ourselves that we can always come back if things don’t work out, we signed the paperwork and began prepping.

The Seattle move was done by a professional moving company. Six guys rushed into our apartment, packed up absolutely everything (even trash), and after about seven hours of wrapping, taping, and passing boxes they were gone. And so was all of our stuff. It was awesome. We had temp housing waiting for us in Seattle, and we flew out to the great PNW a few days later.

A couple of years later we decided to move to NYC. Trading everything in for new adventures didn’t seem so intimidating anymore. By the time we were moving to NYC, we had a new taste for type-two fun and an 8-month-old Dobie mix named Hoobie.

Once again, we were provided with a moving company, but this time we stuffed some gear and adventure necessities into our Subaru Impreza, and set off on a 2-week adventure. The plan was to hit eastern Washington, Glacier National Park, Yellowstone, Grand Tetons, Devil’s Tower, Mount Rushmore, Detroit, Chicago, and finally, arrive at NYC.

The car was packed to the brim—no rearview whatsoever—and one square foot for the pupper. The trip was incredible. To our parents’ disappointment, it awoke a new craving for masochistic adventure that has only been growing more intense ever since.

Two years later we were ready to return to the West Coast. This time, however, there was no moving company …

We looked around our apartment, scanning for valuables, and after some consideration decided—everything must go! The only items that would come to our new home would be all our gear, TV, and some wire shelving. We bought a few boxes, four large and two small containers, and started CraigsList-ing the furniture. Some stuff sold, some stuff walked away for free, but in the end, it was very liberating to have everything gone.

It’s unlikely that we would be able to commit to this type of journey for our first move, so easing into it is key.

2. There is no ideal van … Until it’s yours!

Searching for the right van turned out to be harder than we expected. They were more popular than we anticipated, so we missed out on a couple of good opportunities at the very beginning of our search.

The day after we looked at a very nice van—poof!—it sold for 1.5 times the original price! Eventually we bought our Green Monster for $3,000 in Virginia and spent another $900 on fixing it up.

Serg and the previous owner drove it up to my parents’ house in DC. I could tell Serg was very satisfied, but when I first saw it, I was mortified. It seemed dirty, old, and GINORMOUS.

I had doubts and pangs of overwhelming fear topped off with some panic and nausea. But it was too late. And my parents were watching. So trying my best to keep from passing out, I smiled and hugged the van and told myself

“This is great … THIS IS GREAT! You love this van!”

… And after two days of vacuuming and washing it, I knew it was fate.

3. Stuff is like quicksand

We moved in February … NYC was freezing. We carried incredibly heavy crates and boxes full of gear down narrow staircases, through gates, and across frozen patches of ice in the cold darkness.

It was like a game of Tetris, and of course we couldn’t get everything to fit correctly the first time. We spent several nights attempting to magically mold our rigid objects into one perfectly balanced load with enough room for sleeping. This was a character-building experience perfect for those looking to test their relationship.

These containers were the only belongings we had left, so fearing that someone would break in we didn’t want to leave them in the car overnight. Several of these boxes and crates were going up and down the stairs multiple times … Crossfit had nothing on us.

Eventually, we had to toss the two second-row seats. After that decision was made, things became easier. We successfully and strategically filled our new mobile home with our things, hung the keys, and waved good-bye to NYC.

In the end, we had just enough space under the hi-top part of the van to sleep. We put some blankets and sleeping bags on top of the stacked containers and boxes, and wiggled our way up from the front seats through a thin crack to land on top.

It’s hard to describe, but basically it was an American Ninja Worrier moment on a daily basis … I was especially bad at this. Hoobie had to sleep on the front seats, but he didn’t mind.

The upside of being so full was that nothing shifted. Ever. So when we entered some turns a little too fast, or hit the brakes a little too hard, nothing came crashing down.

The downside was the process of getting items out. Although I deliberately packed everything in a meticulously calculated order for easy retrieval based on our itinerary, things seemed to have traded places. The process of finding something became an entertaining ordeal requiring almost complete unpacking of the van.

Looking back, I should have done a little more labeling …

4. Home anywhere: sleeping confidently in your van

Our Green Machine took us from NYC – DC – Natural Bridge State Park, KY – Loveland Ski Area, CO – Eagle Canyon, UT – Bryce Canyon, UT – Zion National Park, UT – Las Vegas, NV – Paso Robles, CA – San Francisco, CA.

It was incredible, and although we were initially worried about where we would park to sleep, we figured out a convenient system that we’ve been using since …

Park anywhere … just don’t be a creep!

We’ve slept in small neighborhoods, parking lots, rest areas, country roads, etc. without a problem. No one has ever even tried to peek in. I hang a blanket by the front seats so there is no direct view into the van, but Serg doesn’t even think that’s necessary.

Pee right before you park

One of the worst things you can do is pee in someone’s yard.

It’s rude and illegal and gives people a reason to start being suspicious and unwelcoming. Some parking lots also have cameras and they can prosecute for public urination. We try to stop by a gas station or grocery store before turning in for the night. And if you still have to pee at night … hello pee funnel and Gatorade bottle!

Park close to a coffee shop

They tend to open the earliest so you can get up with the sun, brush your teeth, do your morning business, grab a cup of coffee and be on your way!

Starbucks tends to open super early and they have unlimited refills that you can sneakily pour into 2 thermoses and get another cup to go.

Bring earplugs

Sometimes a spot that seems ideal in the dark ends up being a busy railroad station.

Try to sleep in the wilderness

It’s just nicer. Some parking areas around national parks and conservation areas will even have portable toilets!

It takes some time to get used to sleeping in the van. It wasn’t comfortable from the get-go, but with some adjustments (like shoving pillows between the windows and the couch) we found a way to sleep soundly through the night.

What we learned

Compared to our original Seattle to NYC move, we saved a massive amount of time by foregoing the search for campgrounds, setting up and breaking down our tent, stumbling around in the dark, and trying to dry the tent.

We also saved some money on skipping campgrounds. We still stopped by some RV parks and campgrounds to shower, but most of them don’t provide that as a separate service, so you can either shower for free if you don’t get caught, or leave them some cash.

We would always arrive after-hours, so I would sneak an envelope with $5-$10 into their self-check-in box with a little note explaining that we showered in their facility and are very grateful. Most people don’t do this, but to me, it feels like theft if I use someone’s facility without any compensation.

At the very least, leave the place clean and give them a good review on Yelp!

After the nomadic life

The final challenge was keeping the Green Machine in San Francisco …

We thought it would be too big and expensive, but it’s been ten months since we’ve moved, and the van is still a part of the family. It has given us a lot of freedom and saved us a lot of nerves.

We don’t have to leave Hoobie behind, or waste time looking for pet-friendly campgrounds and hotels. Our adventures begin on Friday and end on Monday mornings. Sometimes Serg will work remotely from the van as I drive to or from our destination.

It’s cheap and comfortable, and always ready to go. I am thankful to this machine for giving us so many memories and opportunities, and tolerating our messes and crappy driving, and I look forward to enjoying many more adventures together.

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