The Transformation of Vanny McVanface
(If you can't watch the NBC video embedded above, watch the clip on Hulu)
Do you know the above clip? The one of Chris Farley from Saturday Night Live which birthed the legendary line: "I live in a van down by the river."
Growing up, I idolized Chris Farley. Yes, though he would say he was too fat and clumsy to be anyone's hero, I was set on becoming the next "Tommy Boy." His timing, his commitment, and yes, even his grace (did you ever see him high-kick in "Lunch Lady Land"?) were comedic perfection that I aspired to one day become.
Funny how life works out. Despite my membership in improv troupes like Door #3, the only Farley-esque status I've been able to reach is that of his famous character Matt Foley:
I live in a van down by the river.
That is not my actual van, but my van does meet that other most heartwarming of urban legends:
It's a white, windowless van.
Now, before you click away from this blog and tell your kids to never visit my site, I should explain two things:
While I do live by rivers, I also live by grasslands, and mountains, and seashores. During my three-year world record road trip to all 400+ U.S. national parks I'll be camping by most every natural wonder. So while I will be "living in a van down by the river," I'm doing so by choice (even if that decision was designed to save $$$ in a Matt Foley-esque way).
Though it is true the purpose of white windowless vans is to hide the interior, mine was picked to provide my home some privacy, rather than attempt anything you'd read about in a horror novel.
But why did I decide to make my home in a two-ton hunk of metal?
When I started planning this national parks trip in June 2014, I honestly envisioned I'd be driving the 2001 Hyundai Elantra I'd owned for nearly 150,000 miles; setting up a tent behind its trunk each night.
However, after one horrible solo-camping experience in 2012 where I thought a cougar was attacking my tent at 3 AM, then an encounter with a bear two months later, I was terrified at the thought of 3-years sleeping in a tent.
As I brooded on this, I learned the 2016 launch of my trip would coincide with the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. Because of this, I thought a vehicle company might want to sponsor my journey, thus sparing me from the rage of a cougar.
So over the next two years, I pursued sponsorship from, and imagined my trip in a:
- Winnebago Travato - Ford Explorer pulling an Airstream - Chevy Suburban pulling an Evergreen trailer (or any one of the 30 companies I pitched at "America's Largest RV Show" in Hershey, PA, September 2015).
Though some of those sponsorship possibilities ended almost immediately, some lingered as long as six months and found me having phone conferences with people I never imagined myself worthy/capable of pitching.
By the time March 1, 2016, rolled around, however, my amateur marketing pitches hadn't landed a sponsor, and the music jobs I'd been pursuing for the past decade also didn't pan out.
That meant there was no longer any option other than following through with my national parks trip. It also meant I needed to figure out my trip's transportation/housing quick; especially if I wanted to reach my April 29 launch date.
Having weighed the options I could afford, I ultimately decided to join the #VanLife movement and convert a 15-passenger van in a mobile home. I didn't have the budget for a pre-made RV, and a van seemed like the best option for a number of reasons:
- It'd be easier to park than a car or SUV towing a trailer.
- As a single unit, it'd get better gas mileage.
- And lastly, as a vehicle seen regularly in any parking lot, it'd draw less suspicion if I needed to "camp" overnight by a McDonalds or on a side street.
So having no clue where to start this hunt, I did what any millennial would do and turned to Facebook:
If you got to the fifth comment, you'll notice one of my friends made a suggestion that ended up being a game changer:
I had heard of Sprinter vans before, and knew them by their iconic high roofs, but realistically never saw them on the road enough to consider one.
As I delved deeper in the Sprinter rabbit hole, however, I not only started seeing them everywhere (is there a scientific theory about noticing things that are on your mind?) but learned that while the Dodge/Mercedes Sprinter had the corner on the high-roof market over the past decade, in just the past few years Ford, Nissan, and Ram had all released their own high-roof models.
I'm omitting the details on how I got from this point to the van I own now, because it's already in one of the best blogs I've ever written. If you want to read the story, I highly reccomend visiting this link before going on: #VanLife Hunting: My Amazing 30th Birthday Present from My Deceased Father
So after a number of technicalities related to transferring the ownership of a vehicle, on April 15th--1.5 months after I began my search--I drove this baby 50 miles from Randallstown, Maryland, to the parking lot at Georgetown Prep: unsure how I could ever turn it into a home by June 13 (my new proposed completion date--my "leave DC date"--after finishing in 14 days by April 29th clearly wasn't going to happen).
As I've mentioned in earlier blogs, I did not inherit my father's inherent skills as a mechanic, and that also translated to his mastery of carpentry (next to my childhood home he'd built a shed large enough for a second garage and a carpentry shop so he'd have the space to rehabilitate all the cars he found which "had potential" for my family to eventually drive, and for gifts, home repairs, and creative projects he'd build out of wood. He also built an entire house once from ground to finish).
So, confused as all get out and without the one person I would call for help in this situation, I did the other millennial solution: I Googled it!
Upon getting lost in a slew of YouTube how-to's and #VanLife blogs, all by people who seemed highly proficient but also did things completely different from each other, I was so desperate and clueless I decided I needed to dip into my "never touch if possible" trip savings and pay someone for help.
Lo and behold, I actually found that person in Baltimore (about an hour away).
Ron Tanner was not only a YouTube-instructing #VanLife builder who was turning his home into an artist's retreat, but was also the leader of a jazz band, a writer on the topic of the national parks (supported by a NPS grant), a road trip lover who'd traveled extensively post-college, had legit Midwestern ties, currently worked at a Jesuit school (Loyola University to my Georgetown Prep), and lost his father at a young age (21 to my 19).
If you've been following along my journey thus far, you know I'm big into following signs (the spiritual kind), and the amount of similarities between Ron and I felt like nothing more than an extension of the miracle I was riding from discovering my van. As I said to Ron in my introductory email, "PS - After reading your bio, I think we'll have a lot to chat about as we work!"
Ron's schedule was such that he didn't have time to work on my van, but he offered to help as a consultant for free.
I was telling a friend about Ron when I realized the entire process I was about to undergo was now the topic of numerous TV shows! Having spent the previous year pitching over 50 TV channels and production companies, to various degrees of success/embarrassing failure, about turning my journey into a TV or web series, I took that mountain of rejections and remembered there was one subject everyone loved: Tiny Houses!
So I opened up my "Contacted Sponsors" spreadsheet, now with over 700 cells filled by two years worth of hounding, and added to it another forty construction, design, and architecture companies in the DC/MD/VA area.
Almost everyone was interested in the publicity, but as the vast majority of custom camper van companies are in the American West, none had any experience building out a van, and even just explaining the concept further made half of them back out. Those who weren't turned away by the challenge eventually bailed when I couldn't guarantee their brand would make the final network selection to be aired on television.
Well, all except one:
Natalia Megas--a freelance writer I'd met at a recent work reunion who was pitching my story to Washingtonian Magazine--shared my hunt for a builder on her Fairfax, Virginia, neighborhood Facebook group.
From that Facebook post, I talked on the phone with their neighborhood architect Kevin Wyllie and his enthusiastic reaction was enough for me to meet him for lunch the next day. Kevin was interested in the TV opportunity, but not for himself; for me and my project. He sensed the way I was scraping together any support I could to make this trip happen--including a potential TV episode to reach donors or sponsors--and wanted to help make my van something worthy of cable coverage.
But setting all publicity opportunities aside, middle-aged Kevin connected with my story.
"I miss the spirit that my generation had when they were your age. That idea of living in a Westfalia van and traveling around, of exploring the world and yourself. I want my three young kids to follow along your journey, and know that their dad helped make it possible, but also to show them that they can do something different with their lives. They can design their life before someone else designs it for them."
Though Kevin had taught architecture at a local university and led students on Habitat for Humanity houses, he too had never built a studio apartment within the frame of a moving, metal van.
Thus begins the part of this story where the phrase "grace abounds" should be sprinkled over every upcoming scenario. As there's no definitive guide to turning cargo vans into mobile homes, everyone in this story--myself, Kevin, Andy, my random Georgetown Prep coworkers--learned by doing. And when I say my literal blood, sweat, and tears are in this van, I hope this photo series will show the love--and a little frustration, but mostly love--that went into turning my Unwined Candles van into Vanny McVanface:
After writing the biggest check I'd ever seen to buy the van from Unwined Candles--whose candles you can buy with the Discount Code: TBCMIKAH and 40% of your purchase will go toward what I still owe them on the van.
Bringing the van home and confusing every Georgetown Prep teacher who came by its parking spot and asked, "So where's the wine!"
My new chariot next to my older and (hopefully sold before the trip!) former road trip car of 11 years.
Coworker Kevin shows off the ability to stand up in the van (an option I've read countless VanLifers say is essential if opting for a high-roof van). At its lowest point the roof left 6' 4" of space and I'm 6' 1" tall.
The interior cargo (living) area from the driver's seat.
The first layer of insulation: a radiant heat barrier. I used this roll of NASA TECH Roof Foil and it was enough for my two 12x6 feet walls, 12x6 feet floor and ceiling, and the 6x6 back door...with a bit to spare.
Both this and the upcoming sound barrier were held in place by Duck Brand HVAC Metal Repair Aluminum Foil Tape. I used 10 of the 50-yard rolls and cut my finger at least once at hour when it got crumbled, forcing its corners to become sharp; but still the right product for the job!
2nd layer of insulation: a sound barrier just like you'd use on your floor! I used 4 x 100 sq. ft. rolls of Floor Muffler Acoustical and Moisture Barrier.
While putting up the ceiling insulation, Andy and I joked about the British vessel naming competition which rejected the people's choice of "Boaty McBoatface." Andy suggested we call my Ram Promaster "Vanny McVanface" and thus Vanny (for short) was born!
Installing my roof fan with the help of Georgetown Prep maintenance staff (after hours!). I chose the MaxxAir MaxxFan 0004500K because of the remote and rain sensor. The remote has helped turn the fan on/off from the driver's seat and the rain sensor has proven very helpful by automatically closing when it starts raining!
6' 2" Andy continuing to help insulate, even though at this point he had not decided if he was coming on the trip or not.
Designing my solar panel layout. I have 5 x 100 watt polycrystalline panels from Grape Solar. Here you can even get a complete kit and see Dennis (who answered many of my questions over the phone) in an explanatory video.
Up on the roof cleaning. The design of my roof (ribbed for my safety) left the roof completely disgusting with water, pollen and leaves. If you want to sleep on your van's roof, don't get a ribbed roof, and don't expect to fit more than 1 solar panel and still fit, unless you're under 6' tall.
Having prepped the van with insulation (a process that took way more time and included way more finger cuts than I ever expected), I shop for the floor plywood with architect Kevin before handing off my baby (Vanny) for him to do the woodwork.
About to lay the 3/4 inch plywood floors.
Three pieces cut and bolted into the metal floor of the van. The 3/4 inch plywood thickness allows for other fixtures to be nailed into the wood instead of the van's metal floor.
Going from sweating on the floor to Andy's grad school prom, I changed clothes in Vanny for the first time.
Kevin gets to work on the interior wooden ribbing so we can add walls (with space for normal, household R13 insulation) and the ceiling.
Sort of like a spider web.
These checkered panels allow the wood to have a little give as the van moves driving on the road.
Kevin continues with the ceiling while playing around with options to insert lighting.
Starting work on the bed platform, with lanes for storage underneath.
One of Kevin's unique designs compared with any van build I've seen: a pullout table for cooking/meals at campsites.
An interior desk and fridge/battery platform.
Vanny starting to look like part cargo van, part home!
Kevin's table completed.
Andy testing the bed platform, with a shelf and curtain rod added.
Having brought the van back to Georgetown Prep from Kevin's, I was to install the solar panels before Kevin finished some final woodworking details.
Getting help from my coworker Natalie, who was fearless with the drill!
Though as I soon learned, it was easier to be fearless when drilling into someone else's metal roof.
In the process of attaching the solar panels, we realized we needed to remove most of Kevin's artistic ceiling to access any of the metal roof.
Big lesson learned: Install solar panels before installing a ceiling!
On the upside, it allowed us to regain nearly 4 inches in head space by switching to a simple, flat ceiling drilled directly into manufacturer standard 1-inch metal troughs, meaning I could once again stand up inside the van!
Working into the wee hours of the night with the help of my BioLite Lantern, caulking the solar panels to prevent water leakage.
Once we finished the solar panels, however, something unexpected happened, and to quote The Book of Mormon (the musical):
After returning the van to Kevin, he had an accident and injured himself, rendering him unable to continue work on the van per doctor's orders.
To exacerbate the problem, it was now the afternoon of Sunday June 19:
- 6 days after I'd originally hoped to depart DC with my finished van
- 18 days after I'd originally told The Washingtonian Magazine I could do a photoshoot with the finished product
- And minutes after having Vanny blessed by Pastor Karen at Luther Place Memorial Church for what was supposed to be me and Andy's--who'd decided to join the trip by this point--triumphant departure from the DC area.
So that afternoon, my brother-in-law gave me a crash course in the carpentry skills my dad would have loved for me to already have at my disposal, and myself, Andy, and anyone I could beg to help began work on finishing the ceiling, insulation, interior details, and full electrical hook-ups.
We had until Friday, 5 whole days, before the Washingtonian had to have their photos to meet deadline.
Remember the blood, sweat and tears I mentioned?
Andy will tell you "this was the worst week of my life," and I feared about 10 times a day he was going to leave me for good, but with my brother-in-law's power tools and passing tips from the Georgetown Prep maintenance staff, day by day, moment by moment, Vanny kept transforming.
Putting in the new ceiling insulation.
And new sound barrier.
Cutting the ceiling panels.
Finishing cutting/installing the wall's maple 1/4 inch panels and inserting R13 insulation.
Installing the electric work with a layout from Grape Solar and help from my coworker Travis.
Two VMax Tanks 12V 200AH AGM Sealed Deep Cycle Batteries, which incidentally is more power than an employee at Colorado Camper Vans told me he has for his entire tiny house (with A/C and heating). After 30 days of road living, I haven't ran below 1/2 my battery bank, even while running two fans all night.
An almost finished ceiling. These five 1/4 inch maple panels took 3 days, and about 3 years off my life, because within the 1-inch of space above them I fit all 3 layers of insulation which normally had 5 inches. But it was worth it to be able to still stand up in the van!
Trying to decide how to cover the now extra space between the walls and ceiling.
Brett from Unwined Candles comes by the morning of the Washingtonian shoot to give Vanny some outside flair.
And help us cover up the smell of polyurethane which we covered all the wood in...twice.
Putting together some final staging for Washingtonian Magazine.
By the grace of God it rained on the Friday we were supposed to have the photoshoot, so I had one bonus day (which was desperately needed) to put the final touches on my van and sell my Elantra for which I'd finally found a buyer.
After selling it, my youngest sister, who'd once told me to "not become one of those boys who fall in love with your car," asked how I was feeling about it being gone. This was, after all:
The car inherited from my dad. The car that got me through college at Memphis. The car that took me to every summer job. The car that moved me to Montreal. The car that served as my home for 9 months on my Dream Road Trip from age 25 - 26 which helped inspire this national parks trip. The car that's been to every state in the lower 48...except North Dakota! The car that drove me around my first adult home, Washington DC. The car that's taken me on at least one road trip every year since that first one in 2005 ten days after my father's funeral.
It even helped inspire a song by Country Music Association featured artist Shelly Waters.
Losing the Elantra honestly felt more like losing a family member than a vehicle.
I don't know if I managed to keep back tears that day because I had the single-minded focus of a mother trying to save her child (finish my van), or if it had more to do with the way I'd found Vanny. I think I found peace in moving on from my dad's Elantra because of the way he helped me find my new vehicle. As if it was his way of telling me it was OK to let go.
*And in some poetic beauty, considering my dad's coworker once said, "Mikah, you're the most frugal person I know...right after your father," the sale price of my car just barely covered the taxes on Vanny. In a sense, taking the life of my old car to give life to my new one. (Do pastor's kids get bonus points for finding resurrection analogies?)
This final day reminded me of this infographic I'd seen by a VanLifer featured in the NYTimes and the realization that even he'd taken far longer than he initially planned. This was a steady theme for my build, and for any van build I've read about:
Everything takes longer than you plan.
But truly, every moment for the past 5 days had been filled with stress, going to bed at 2 AM and getting up at 6 AM, multiple trips to Home Depot/Target as soon as they opened or right before they closed, balancing my personal life and other peoples' professional life expectations of my van, and things going wrong when you really wished they'd just go right--like orders Amazon Prime said would arrive by Wednesday not coming till the Saturday after the photoshoot, or having a wiring get crossed the week of the shoot, causing my inverter and roof fan to explode and need replacements.
Aside from one ugly cry on the side of the road in Virginia, I at least appeared like I was keeping it together.
But by 2 PM on Saturday June 25th, even with my apartment still needing to be moved out of, my trip accessories scattered amongst those boxes, and my trip's schedule in freefall, the cameraman came and we had a finished Vanny McVanface to show him and the readers...
Before & After shots