Words and photos by Montana Miller
Gah, quit squishing me!” yells my wife. I’m trying to climb over to my side of the bed; there’s barely space for me to squeeze past against the roof of the cab-over.
“Sorry, but it’s not my fault you need to sleep on the side with all the air,” I say. I can see my breath when I talk. She claims the inside of the bed is like a coffin, but I don’t mind it. I settle into my side and brush our fuzzy cat off my pillow. He does a few laps of the bed and then lies down at our feet. I poke my head out of the covers and drift off, cozy and warm. We’re parked at 11,000 feet, just below a high pass on public land, but we’re home.
A few years back, I was working a ski-rental job in Aspen. I’d raced the 2,745-mile Tour Divide that year, but instead of satisfying me like I’d hoped it would, that ride just made me want to go out and do longer tours to farther-flung places. But when I looked at the amount of money we were saving, it was obvious that we wouldn’t be able to do anything like that unless something changed.
We lived pretty simply—one car, no cable bill, two cats and all secondhand furniture—but with our high rent and my student loans, our living costs were still the same as our wages. I love the rhythm of seasonal bike and ski work, so I wasn’t interested in trying to make more money. I figured there had to be a way to do more with what we had.
I started digging through Craigslist in between setting ski bindings. At first I looked at Volkswagen vans—nothing’s hipper. But the more I read, the more I realized that maintaining one of those things is its own hobby, not something that would give me more time for bike riding.
Then I checked out some Toyota-based campers, because they’re almost as cool. But same deal: A used Japanese truck camper was way out of our narrow price range. Maybe a trailer? No, then we’d need a truck, and then we’d have two vehicles to maintain and keep tires on. Too complicated.
Finally, I got around to old Class C RVs, mostly American vans with big motors, sturdy one-ton frames, a box on the back and a sleeping area over the cab. Most are brown, charmless and completely undesirable—which means they’re dirt cheap.
In the very back of the Denver listings, I found it: a 1975 GMC, painted bright blue, with maintenance records from the ’80s. And listed for $3,500, or two months’ rent. We took all our savings out of the bank and headed over the mountains to the Front Range.
The inside of the van was a disaster: nasty glue over the bed area; gross, dark fake wood paneling on the inside; and a stained orangish carpet. But it didn’t have any rust, and that small-block V-8 ran real good. I haggled the price down a couple of hundred bucks. In my head, I immediately named the van The Shark because it’s so fierce and sleek. We headed back to the mountains, pulling over the pass in second gear at a relaxed 45 miles an hour.
We spent weekends that winter making the van livable. I ripped out the carpet and the extra bed over the kitchen, installed a cork floor, spent a few days tracking down water leaks and fixing the plumbing, insulated the cab-over bed and built it out to about a queen size. My wife painted and did the really nasty job of sanding all the 40-year-old glue off the fiberglass roof of the bed area.
By summer our lease was up, and we were ready to move in. We took all our furniture and extra kitchen implements back to the thrift store, heaved our futon mattress onto the van’s bed frame, loaded up the cats, and set sail for free living in Colorado’s national forests. On the drive down to town, both cats climbed onto my shoulders and yowled. Then they dug their claws in deep, and I yowled, which made them claw and yowl even harder. The Shark just purred.
The Shark has been our home base for two years. We’re really free now— when the work season is over, we don’t have to worry about getting out of a lease. We just put the Shark in storage, pack up our bikes and touring gear, drop the cats off for a visit with my parents (they love those little dudes as much as we do), buy some plane tickets and go someplace warm. Living in a van has cut our costs so much that on my bike mechanic’s salary and my wife’s white water rafting photographer’s pay (neither of those jobs are particularly profitable), we saved enough money over the summer to fly to New Zealand with bikes and tour for five months.
The next morning, the insides of the Shark’s big windows are iced over. The cats huddle together on their favorite purple blanket. My wife climbs down the ladder, goes outside to turn the propane on, then fires up the little yellow stove to make some coffee. I crawl down the ladder—damn, it’s freezing in here. I light our little Mr. Buddy heater, and the van starts to warm up.
Sometimes it’s hard to live in such a small space, and sometimes it’s stressful to find a good place to park overnight. But it beats the hell out of writing a rent check, and worse, feeling locked down and trapped in one place.
I try to slide past our little folding table and bump into it.
“Geez, what are you doing—you’re spilling coffee everywhere!” my wife yells at me. I plop down on the couch. I watch the gold sheet of morning slide down the front of the mountains; frost starts to melt off our bikes on the rack outside. It’s not perfect, but it’s as close as it gets.
- 1975 GMC Vandura, painted blue, mystery RV manufacturer
- Chevy 350-cubic-inch V-8, three-speed automatic (does 65 miles per hour downhill with a tail wind)
- Worn-out tires
- Four-wheel drive (out of six wheels)
- Ugly seats covered by less ugly Mexican blankets
- A cooler for beer and vegetables
- Six coffee mugs, most are porcelain
- Future plans include changing the oil and putting in more gas.
Check out more #VANLIFE stories 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.