#VANLIFE: El Tigre Del Norte

Words and photos by Devon Balet

It’s 4:20 a.m., a seemingly perfect time to depart Sedona, Arizona. Aiming northeast, I sleepily rub my eyes as I steer my home on wheels, aptly named El Tigre Del Norte—a Chevy Astro van converted into a small pop-up RV in 1990 that I bought in 2012—up state Route 89A as fast as possible.

For three years I lived out of this van, traveling full time from a winter nesting home in Tucson, Arizona, to appease my addiction of having two-wheeled, human-powered machines between my legs. Now after a yearlong stint living in a house in Grand Junction, Colorado, I’m back to my van home. The road is my living room, and any amazing place could be my backyard for a day, week or month. Today I’m blasting through the inky black early morning, quickly leaving Arizona in the rearview.

Small Navajo Nation towns flew by as I kept the accelerator hammered, taking advantage of the empty highways. I only stopped for fuel and nature calls. Days before, while in Sedona, my good friend Bama helped me tinker away a few small issues. A radiator no longer leaked, and both headlights were blasting at full strength again. I did report a high-pitched squealing sound that would come suddenly in a terrible, violent nature and leave as quickly as it arrived, but with the need to be in Vail, Colorado, for a visit to my hand surgeon for the second of what would be three total surgeries, it was decided this problem would accompany me to Colorado.

Soon the orange sun emerged from behind the rock towers of Monument Valley as I continued driving north toward Interstate 70. The warm golden light softly painted the desert grass, creating a glow as it melted away the night’s frost with just a lone cow’s shadow emerging across the flat horizon.

As I put Moab behind me, the squealing returned for a short, chaotic visit. The uproar snapped me out of a long, wandering daydream of adventures past: filling the van five deep for a weekend of riding in Sedona and then steering the overstuffed wagon through the middle of the night back to Tucson to ensure a friend made a 6 a.m. flight, or the time boondocking in the Sea Otter Classic media parking lot, hidden in plain sight and pilfering an outlet for electricity. The memories stacked up as quickly as the miles on the odometer.

Just after purchasing this van, I sold the truck I owned at the time. That allowed me to pay off all my debts and start living “free.” Just before, in the summer of ’12, I was on a road trip for Bike magazine called the Heavy Pedal Tour, a two-month jaunt around western U.S. bike parks. Constantly traveling, I began to wonder, why would I want to pay for things like rent if I’m never around?

Now I live out of a van. The key word here being “out.” I don’t live “in” my van but rather use it as a motive to give me unlimited freedom and space. In a single year I’m able to save over $5,000 by not paying rent. That translates into a lot of plane tickets for more travel.

It isn’t all glorious sunsets and perfect postcard camp spots. There are long nights driving aimlessly trying to find a suitable place to park and sleep—more times than I can keep track of I’ve been kicked out of my chosen place of slumber. I’m familiar with Wal-Mart parking lots and which ones don’t allow RVs. There are bitter cold nights waking up to everything frozen solid: water, contacts, food, everything. Gas runs out; tires go flat; you’ll get lost, and you will likely end up talking to the police at some point.

As I make the turn east onto Interstate 70, I’m happy to see I am ahead of schedule. With less than 200 miles to Vail, I should arrive in plenty of time for my first appointment at the Steadman Clinic. Getting an appointment with this prestigious surgical group can be nearly as difficult as healing a scaphoid bone. I was thankful to have been approved for private insurance, even with a failed first surgery.

As the sun rises to high noon, I click off the heat and roll down the driver’s window. Barren desert landscapes fl y by the windows of El Tigre as we work to get above 70 miles per hour. And then it happens shortly after rolling the window back up. The screaming sound returns, this time far louder and more violent than ever before. I see an exit ahead.

“We can make it, El Tigre!”

The scream increases in volume until I hear nothing else. I let off the accelerator, hoping the sound will go away. Not only does the sound continue, the cab begins to fill with smoke. Soon the front interior of El Tigre resembles a scene from a Cheech and Chong movie, and I have to pull over.

Swerving off the highway, the tires of El Tigre skid to a stop, throwing gravel and dead weeds just below the exit sign for Cisco, Utah. Quickly turning off the engine, I frantically roll down the driver’s window and pop the hood. Scrambling out the door, I nearly slip trying to hit the ground in a sprint, and then with the hood now fully erect, smoke pours out of the engine compartment.

Stepping back from the van, I watch as a thick white cloud rolls out from the front end of my home. Cars and semis blast by as it becomes strikingly clear that I’m not going to make my appointment.

When you opt to leave the standard American lifestyle, which typically involves a large home that goes mostly unused, it comes with some negative side effects. Like when your van breaks down. Not only is your vehicle broken down but also so is your home.

Over the previous year, I had spent endless hours putting work into my home. A new transmission, fuel filter, water pump, fan clutch, power-steering lines, brakes, shocks, radiator, and the list continues. My 1990 van was practically brand-new under the hood. Even when you are continually updating worn-out parts, things will fail, and now I was on the side of Interstate 70 as I waited for my father to save me. While waiting for him to make the journey from Montrose, across the Utah-Colorado border, I began picking up trash around where I broke down, seemingly the best and only thing for me to do.

After a three-hour drive, my father arrived. As the day’s last light began to fade, the two of us taught ourselves how to replace an alternator on a Chevy Astro van. Anyone who has worked on this type of vehicle knows that it practically takes Go-Go-Gadget arms to reach some parts of the engine. We wrapped up the job just as the sun set. I felt extremely thankful that not only was he able to come help me, but also he had all the necessary tools on hand for the job. Not to mention that we were successful, avoiding a costly tow.

This breakdown story is only one of several I’ve experienced with El Tigre Del Norte. Some may wonder why I would choose to continue living out of this van with so many difficulties. To me, a hurdle in life is nothing more than a test. Testing your knowledge, your commitment, your drive and ambitions. When choosing between the smooth, easy road through life and one with unknowns, I will always choose the hard route.


El Tigre Del Norte

1990 Chevy Astro van, converted by Pro Tiger, it is more commonly known as Astro Tiger van, while mine is known as El Tigre Del Norte. Pro Tiger began in the suburbs of Denver converting Astro vans into Class C RVs. Each model was slightly different, but all included a water tank, pump, sink, water heater, stove and fridge. Other models, like mine, came with a toilet and shower in the back corner. Yes, my Astro van used to have a toilet inside it.

While this was a production RV, the current Tiger models are built upon Chevy trucks and boast a price tag over $80,000. There has been a recent resurgence of the Astro Tiger as owners are selling and the demand for older, funky RVs is on the rise. They came as pop-ups or solid tops, literally built off a production Astro van. You can actually see where they cut the back portion of the body off to build out the RV.

After I acquired it in 2012, my ride needed little work. A new muffler and brake pads, and this puppy was ready for life on the road. Over the next four years I did a ton of work to it. A large portion of the engine work I did by myself while injured, forcing me to do it with one hand. It was a slow process, but empowering. Below is a list of major repairs and preventive work I have done to my home on wheels.

Under-the-Hood Replacements

  • Plugs, wires, cap
  • Rebuilt transmission
  • Fuel filter, gas line, fill neck (gas line was relocated to accommodate the outdoor shower)
  • New shocks, tires
  • Power-steering hydro lines
  • Radiator fan clutch
  • Radiator coolant lines
  • Serpentine belt
  • Water pump

Inside

  • New stereo and speakers—a must for road trips!
  • New pop-up canvas
  • Rebuilt pop-up lifters out of metal (used to be thin plywood)
  • Removed toilet and blackwater tank
  • Reposition shower to be outside, including all new water lines

Under Construction

  • In the midst of rebuilding the cabinets
  • Propane lines need to be replaced
  • Installing wood floor
  • Rewiring lights to run off solar
  • Tune up fridge

Home Sweet Home

After my wrist injury, living on the road full-time became more difficult. In March 2016 I took on a position as camp host for a local piece of property in Grand Junction, Colorado. Since we are not a four-season campground, my duties more resemble security and property manager. Taking advantage of a safe, full-time place to park, I purchased a Toyota Tacoma, and El Tigre became a full-time home. As the winter months approached, I bought a carport large enough for El Tigre to fit inside, fully popped up. This has been awesome for added warmth and keeping the weather off the van. My ride and my home on wheels, all within 48 square feet. Your 1,500-square foot home doesn’t sound so small anymore, does it?


This article originally appeared in Dirt Rag #197. Subscribe to the mag so that you never miss an issue, and sign up for our email newsletter to get content like this delivered to your inbox every Tuesday.

2 Comments

  1. Good read Devon! I remember the tales as you’ve written and was on the other end of the conversation for some of those memories. Not to mention this thing 4 wheels up desert roads without batting an eye…

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