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The Big Mountain Jalopy

March 23, 2017

Mikhaila and I looking out over Lake Tahoe after buying the BMJ only hours prior from a rock climber in Reno. I swear we aren't that fat, the back end just sags like that on its own!

 

Back in July of last year during a backpacking trip to Rae Lakes in the Eastern Sierras, Mikhaila and I began to realize that we weren't doing as much travelling or spending as much time outdoors as we needed. Looking back I had no excuse to feel this way because I had just gotten back a month prior from a long trip to the German Alps and then on to Denmark. The feeling was probably induced by the solace of hiking through pristine valleys and over majestic mountain passes, swimming in clear sapphire lakes (albeit only for a minute or so at a time because the water was about as warm as a polar bear's balls), and camping surrounded by pine trees and soaring grey and golden granite peaks.

 

Sleeping on the shore of that lake, I remember thinking how odd it was that I was here in a place that is so inaccessible, but not for the right reasons. Not because getting there requires hauling everything you need to live over two 11,000+ ft mountain passes, but because I had willfully created a lifestyle to keep myself away from places like this. Mikhaila and I both work full time, and we were out here taking advantage of a long weekend for the holiday. Along with the rest of the working population of the nation, all on identical schedules, all heading back to their traffic jams and meetings and swivel chairs after Monday where they can catch glimpses of a pixelated sunrise over some grandiose mountain range they've never visited in between minimizing spreadsheets and answering emails. Here I felt grounded and completely content. Like if I had enough food I could stay here forever and the only reason that I couldn't is because I had an obligation to go back to that other lifestyle. This wasn't like some sort of Earth-shattering revelation either. I had been on backpacking trips in remote, beautiful wilderness many times before. I don't know why that place mystified me like this, but when we got home we started shopping.

 

For a van.

 

Concurrently with our search we began reading more and more about campers, then about DIY campervans, and eventually about an entire sub-culture of people who actually live in their vehicles and travel full-time. I'm not talking about train-hopping hitchhiking hobos. I mean people who have figured out how to live a "normal" life inside a 60 square foot space on wheels with no permanent mailing address. Many of these people also run blogs and some even have huge followings on Instagram. Incidentally many of them happen to live out of Volkswagen Vanagons (aka the "hippy bus"). At first Mikhaila and I really wanted to buy one of these. Who wouldn't, right? Those things practically emanate pure coolness. But reality set in when we realized we'd be paying five figures for a 30+ year old vehicle that would need constant maintenance. For some people the novelty and head-turning power of owning one of the most iconic classic cars ever is worth the premium. As for us, we determined we would rather have the extra cash in our pockets to use for actually travelling with our van.

 

That's why we eventually settled on a 1995 GMC Vandura G2500 conversion van. This thing emanates the opposite of coolness, which I guess would score points with the hipsters for what it's worth. Imagine everything that comes to mind when you think of a conversion van from the 90's. The dark wood paneling, the pinstriping, the lovely tan and beige interior, the thick velvet curtains and ash trays that fold out of the walls. And best of all, this: 

We were told by the seller that these are the initials of the original owner, from whom he bought the van. We think they stand for Big Mountain Jalopy. We are currently working on making it less of a jalopy, but I think the name will stick. My goal is to gut the interior completely and build a bed platform with drawers underneath, a counter area for cooking, and a small closet. I'd like to install enough solar to charge a laptop, cell phone, and camera batteries. It is in good running condition, we drove it from Reno NV where it was purchased 17 hours back to Phoenix with no issues. The same couldn't be said if we had bought a Vanagon at the same price. Still, it's over 20 years old and I am doing a lot of routine maintenance on it for peace of mind, plus there's the issue of the rear suspension (see above photo). There isn't too much about this car that's incredibly unique, and we hope to rectify that during our build-out. 

 

I would say at this point Mikhaila and I have chugged enough of the #vanlife Kool Aid to quench a small wildfire. Speaking from zero experience, I think we approach it from a unique position. We have been living together for the past year and half in a converted Airstream trailer that is on blocks in our landlord's backyard, so we went through the tedious and painful process of downsizing long ago. Moving into the van will just be stage two of the downsizing, right...? The only difference is that the trailer has running hot water, a toilet, air conditioning, a refrigerator, about four times as much space, and is tall enough to stand up in... 

 

So here's to hoping that after all this effort, investment, and dreaming, when the time comes to make the move we (mostly me) don't chicken out. 

 

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