Progress on Spaceball 1

It took a full two weeks for the US Postal Service to deliver the bill of sale and title we needed to register the van, and to make sure it was really genuinely legally ours before starting our build. I laid the groundwork for our future YouTube channel, and posted a van tour video of what we got before we started into it.

We didn’t wait long after that to get started, despite winter. The foundation of our build is what I call “the Erector set,” a network of L-channel structures that’s bolted to the walls, as well as into the floor using the same floor channels that used to secure wheelchairs in transit. This is well underway, with a bed that we could use right now plus copious under-bed storage. We still need to add three floor-to-roof cabinets, as well as a counter that will fill the 40% area of the 60/40 side doors. We’ve figured out where the fridge (which arrived broken — exchange in progress), batteries, propane tank, and water tank(s) will go, and are starting to build the cabinets in those areas, also out of L-channel. The idea is that the L-channel will support the structure, which means the walls can be lightweight wallboard, or maybe even pegboard. This may be a 3/4 ton van, but we don’t want to stress it by loading it down to capacity.

Meanwhile, I’ve done some really crappy bodywork to try to get the van through state inspection. It’s rusty, and the entire rocker panels need to come out and get replaced. That’s not in the time or budget right now, so I patched it and will get to it when we’re in good financial shape. The rest of the van is in great shape and very much worth salvaging despite the rusty rockers. A new friend took the wheelchair lift off our hands for us, and thinks he can at least use it for spare parts if not repair it himself. I’m glad it’s not just going to get scrapped.

The house electrical system will arrive over the next few days. That means a pair of Renogy 200 amp hour AGM batteries, a Renogy charger that will manage charging from both the alternator (through the wires that formerly powered the wheelchair lift) and the solar panels, once installed, plus a 12-fuse panel that all of the “house” wiring will come from. That means everything from lights, to 12v and USB outlets, to the fridge, to my ham radios, and anything else we can think of. I don’t think I’ll need all 12 circuits right now, which will leave us room for future expansion with more lighting, the Maxxair roof vent, and so on. (No, I did not mention a power inverter. I’m trying to stick with 12v as much as possible to conserve the energy lost when converting DC to AC. I already own a 350 watt inverter, which should be enough for any small devices or maybe a laptop, though I already have a 12v adapter for my Lenovo.)

There are so many other projects, too. I need to clean the roof to put the solar panels on, but it hasn’t been warm enough to do that. We may have to just charge off the alternator alone until we can get to a warmer climate to deep clean the roof and install solar. That goes for the roof vent as well, since the self leveling sealant has to be above 60F to work properly. That’s not happening here for many months here in New Hampshire. The composting toilet won’t arrive for another few weeks. So we’ll have plenty to keep us busy.

I’ve got several videos lined up to edit. The build is going faster than my editing, but that’s okay. Since the channel isn’t really started yet, I can pre-stage a bunch of build videos, then start releasing them once I’m sure I’ll have and maintain enough content for one build or how-to video per week. Once we hit the road and start traveling, we’ll supplement that with a second video of each week’s adventures, alternating between techie stuff and #vanlife adventures.

One big factor on when we actually hit the road is my lease at my current apartment. It’s up at the end of February, having given notice in December that I do not intend it to auto-renew for another year. The property manager indicated that we could probably go month-to-month for a little while, which would give us ample time to not only finish building the van (as much as we can in the winter), but also to work on selling or giving away everything we won’t be taking with us, which is the vast majority of what we currently own. I believe we’re on track to have the van ready by the end of February, but we’re woefully behind on dealing with our stuff. With any luck, we can stay through March or even April if needed, then hit the road when we’re ready. Otherwise, we might have to move lots of stuff to a storage unit for a few months, then deal with it when we’re back in New England this summer. I just set up the van for towing. Renting a Uhaul trailer is cheap and easy, and this van will have no issue hauling even a 6×12 trailer, the largest they rent.

There are a million other things I haven’t even mentioned yet. The logistics never end. At least we’re starting with a solid van, if a bit rusty.

The Salty Van

The Pirate Van is no more. Considering how many repairs it’s needed this year plus the breakdown after the RallySprint, I decided that this particular van is not suitable for extended travel, which is exactly what I want to start doing. So I sold it to someone who will continue to use it as a weekend warrior.

I haven’t given up on #vanlife, though. On the contrary, I’m embracing it, and just needed the right vehicle to do it. This is it — a 2004 Ford E250 extended wheelchair van. By coincidence, it’s the same van as Vancity Vanlife, one of my main inspirations, except this one has a high-top roof for extra headroom. Mechanically, it’s everything the Dodge wasn’t — solid, well maintained, runs great, shifts great, drives great. I wouldn’t hesitate to take it on a long road trip right now. It does need a bit of work first, though. First of all, I need to remove the wheelchair lift, as well as a fold-down jump seat that we won’t be needing. There’s also the matter of rust repair. This van has been all over Rhode Island for the past 16 years, and Ford vans tend to rust from the rocker panels up in the land where we salt the roads and the air hurts my face. Welcome to The Salty Van, affectionately known at Spaceball 1.

This won’t be just a weekend camper van. I already had one, and would’ve kept it if that was my plan. Our plans are bigger than that. We’re hitting the road full-time. Yes, we. Trisha, my significant other, is joining me on this journey. The next couple of months will be a mad dash to strip out, spruce up, and build out the inside of the van to turn it into our tiny home on wheels. We’re hoping to live cheap, make money on the road as digital nomads, and travel places we’ve never been before. That won’t take much for me, since I haven’t had the opportunity to travel much so far in my life.

For now, you can follow our journey on Instagram. More ways will follow, including a website and a van life YouTube channel. I’ve also started a Patreon account, but please don’t think we’re looking for handouts. We’re doing this and can afford to do this regardless of any contributions. If you’d like to help out, though, and get a bit of exclusive content in the process (or tell us what kind of content we should offer to the world), feel free to jump in.

A Van Workout

Beach Bums

I’d promised Trisha a day at the beach. I hadn’t fulfilled that promise, and there aren’t that many warm days left this year. Since I don’t currently have a full-time job taking up my time, we decided to hop in the van and visit Hampton Beach one particularly warm day last week. She got her beach trip, and I got a break from the grind of kicking off my job search. There isn’t much to report. We did basically nothing, and it was wonderful.

Being in the van enabled us to spend the night at the beach. Since it’s off-season, parking was easy, even overnight. During our extensive walking around the area, we found no signs prohibiting overnight parking, nor marking resident-only parking, so we just parked in front of an unoccupied house for rent and called it a night. I got Trisha caught up on The Mandalorian before season 2 starts, and we fell asleep to the sound of the waves. Nobody bothered us.

The next day we lounged a bit more, then met Allison for lunch. When the rain started, we hit the road to National Powersports Distributors. Trisha wants a bike, but wasn’t sure what kind. The best way to figure that out was to sit on a whole bunch of different ones, and this place has a huge, wide selection of bikes. I mean, they even had a Honda PC800 in stock. She pretty much fell in love with the Triumph Speedmaster. I can see why — I like it, too. Then it was onward and homeward.

Because Racecar

The next day we did a quick turnaround on the van and drove up to the Littleton rest area for the night. This wasn’t for the scenery, but a strategic pre-staging location for Team O’Neil Rally School, less than half an hour away. We volunteered to work an SCCA RallySprint, the first to take place since the ‘Rona ruined everything, and the first rally event of any kind I’ve gotten to all year. All that planning with the previous radio tests got put to practical use. It was go time.

It worked great. I set up the radio as a crossband repeater to let me sit outside with my fellow rally workers — at least, until my handheld radio’s battery ran out. No big deal. I just sat on the futon sofa and operated the radio by hand instead of remotely. Since it was cold, I also turned on the propane heater. It was practically the lap of luxury.

I also saved the day when the generator failed to start by plugging the timing equipment into my Jackery 240 battery pack. This was pretty much a worst case scenario for my power situation, running twice the wattage I expected and with no solar charging due to shade and overcast skies. It was under 20% charge by the end of the day, but it did its job perfectly. We were headed home that night anyway, so we wouldn’t need any more power overnight.

Breakdown, Now I’m Standing Here

Or so I thought. To make a long story short, just north of Concord, NH the van sprung a leak and dumped all of its coolant. After a long wait with roadside assistance, once they finally assigned a towing company it was a relatively quick and easy flatbed home. I’ve traced the problem down to a hole in the top of the radiator. The drive to Team O’Neil was a straight highway slog up and down Interstate 93, running faster and harder than I normally do just to maintain the speed limit of 65-70 mph. This harder driving is probably what pushed the radiator past its limits.

I could try some of the low-cost patching methods (stop-leak, an egg, etc.) but everything in this van is so old and rusty I should probably just replace it. Honestly, I can’t justify spending money I’m not making on repairing a vehicle I don’t need to use right now, so the van is just sitting in my parking space, awaiting repair. I will winterize it if it’s going to end up sitting over the winter, just to prevent any further issues while it sits still.

It’s a blow, for sure, but my van adventures for this year were already pretty much over. There’s another SCCA RallySprint in November, but I’m not going on any adventures with very little income. Northern New England is in pretty good shape for COVID these days, but the rest of the country is raging out of control, making travel to someplace warm not the safest thing to be doing. On top of that, I’ve lost a lot of confidence in this particular van for long distance voyages. Ultimately I’d like to do a cross-country trip, and I don’t trust this clunky old Dodge to get me there and back trouble free. When I bought it, I always said it was a one or two-year van, given its age and condition. I’ve gotten essentially a year’s use out of it at this point, so that’s on target. It’s given me a chance to try #vanlife. And, it’s given me the chance to realize that I like it. So although my personal #vanlife is on pause right now, it’s certainly not over.

Radio Check

Fortunately I recovered from my crash well enough to not bail on this past weekend’s van excursion. A group of five of us (plus one wife) trekked up to Maine to experiment with HF radio communication on the New England Forest Rally’s South Arm and Icicle Brook stages. Communication on the traditional 2 meter band has always been problematic, with a big hill in the middle of the stage blocking direct contact between the start and finish. There’s no rally this year, which means it’s the perfect time to go out to the stage to test alternative communication, with no pressure of holding up rally cars and such.

I turned this half-day activity into a weekend van trip. Although I’d wanted to explore some dispersed camping near Bethel, Maine, a lack of time and a need to complete some RideApart writing led me to spend the night in the Oxford Casino parking lot. It’s only an hour away from our meeting point in Newry, and had an excellent fast data connection for me to do my work. It’s not a glamorous campsite, but it served its purpose.

The following morning I drove to Newry, accidentally meeting up with one of the other radio people in the process. We chattered on the radio as we drove. I won’t bore you with the details of the test itself, but if you’re interested you can read all about it on W3ATB’s website. 80 meter NVIS worked beautifully, and 10 meters was a failure. That’s okay — we found something that works, and today was the day to experiment and fail.

After the test we had a late lunch, discussed the results, and went our separate ways. I tried getting more writing done in the Irving parking lot, but while my signal strength was excellent, my data rate was unusable. Bethel was absolutely slammed with people, and they were probably all trying to use the same data connection, rendering it useless. Between the crowds (not a good idea during COVID) and the unusable data, I decided to get out of there and find a place to camp for the night.

I followed a suggestion one of the other radio people had given me and ended up driving down another rally stage in Grafton Township. Eventually I found a nice little hideaway tucked off the road to call home for the night. It soon rained, so I didn’t set up any camp outside of the van. Instead I watched the clouds roll in, then left the lights off after dark to enjoy a spectacular lightning show all around me. This spot was so remote I opened all of my shades to enjoy the panoramic view of the lightning.

There was no cell signal here, so I went to sleep early, then woke up early to get back to civilization and get my writing done in time for my morning article to publish. I drove 20 miles down a dirt road to get to Berlin, New Hampshire. This shook things up in the van a bit, so much that I’m going to have to rearrange my setup slightly and get things like my Jackery battery and my five-gallon water bottle tied down more securely. Any van build is a constant evolution of finding out what works, what doesn’t work, and what needs fixing. I’d planned to take a leisurely route home, but circumstances caused me to hop on the highway and take the fast way home. It’s okay — I got the getaway and mind reset I needed after dealing with a motorcycle crash, losing my day job, and a family funeral the week before.

Speaking of which, I’m wide open to additional freelance writing opportunities at this point. If you know of anything, please let me know.

We’re Not So Different

I just got a comment on the post about my Vermont van trip that really touched me. It’s not so much the comment itself as the story behind it. It’s a story rather common among van lifers. It’s a young couple, Milad and Maryam, who don’t have much money and are trying to raise some to buy a van, travel, and do the general #vanlife thing. In fact, it’s all the #vanlife pictures and stories on the internet that have inspired them to do this. Those of us who follow camper van stuff have heard this story many times before.

The difference with Milad and Maryam, though, is they live in Iran. The US and Iran have not been on particularly good terms for many years. Some Americans hate Iran, and some Iranians hate America. There are solid historical and political reasons for these beliefs. But this isn’t about politics. It’s not about our respective governments. It’s about a young couple trying to do the same thing the rest of us do, and with greatly reduced means due to the low value of Iranian currency and high cost of vehicles there.

We’re not so different, them and me. In fact, we both want the same thing — to travel, explore, and see the world. They’re not terrorists trying to kill me, no more than I’m launching a drone strike on them. They’re people, and our interests are the same. Personally I’d love to see pictures and video of their future Iranian #vanlife journey, because that’s something that I, as an America, will likely never get to experience.

This isn’t really any different than what Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman encountered during their Long Way Round travels. No matter where they went, locals would welcome them with open arms, and share their food, drink, and housing with them even when they had almost nothing for themselves. It’s the same thing here. We are united by a common interest, a desire to travel and see the world as it truly is, not as our media presents it to us (and I say this as a member of the media myself).

The old ad says “You meet the nicest people on a Honda.” I’ve found that to be true, but I’m also meeting the nicest people through the van life community.