It was the summer of 2009 and we were living in Denver, my wife and I, that is. We were bored with the silent grind and toil of the same ole same ole, and having the feeling of never getting out alive. We decided the only one true way to live was just that, to live. We had made many quick decision, life-changing choices before - quitting jobs, moving to crime-ridden neighborhoods - completely switching our lives as we saw fit has never been a problem. Hell, take the way we got together, an accidental drunken kiss set the whole thing in motion, sneaking around behind coworkers and friends backs. Then we got married on a whim when we found out the owner of a bed and breakfast we were staying at could marry people...her mom was our witness.
We moved in together not long after, moved, and moved, and moved again. Now, we found ourselves in Denver, living in a high rise apartment building with great paying jobs, great nightlife, and great friends. There was always something to do. But that kind of life can make a person soft.
So, what do you do? What could you do? You know what you do? Wanna know what we did? And this is a true story, the names are the same and the places are still there: Buy a campervan. Yup, it’s basically a get a van and hit the road story.
First, you gotta sell everything you own, the couch, bed, TV, everything anyone would pay money for and then donate the rest to Goodwill. Give up the lease on one of the coolest places you ever lived and put in your two weeks notice.
One of the most thrilling things you can do is to let go. Stop holding onto the lifeline, no more safety net or knowing where to turn to if you need help. Having someone always there is comforting. Comfort feels safe. We all want to feel safe. We stayed in such comfort while waiting for our van to be ready, yup, Comfort, Texas. Yes, there is actually a place called Comfort, their tagline just so happens to be “I found Comfort in Texas.” But once we got our van that comfort was gone.
Now if you have ever lived in an RV, or if you have ever thought about living in an RV, there might be a few things you would never think you would have to do. We live in a first world, land of opportunity. I can do anything and everything I want to do, well almost. I’m never going to be a professional athlete or win a beauty pageant. But, within reason I can do it. I only say this because one of the biggest things you have to deal with when you travel the country in an RV is the blackwater tank. Blackwater...it just sounds gross huh? Blackwater is poop and pee water. Having to deal with blackwater was the one thing I didn't think about when buying a van and hitting the road. I felt the wind in my hair, the freedom of living in the desert one day, the mountains the next day, and the sea the next. Clicking up the miles of that sweet, sweet asphalt. No one ever thinks about the hardships of running the ship.
So, blackwater… Lucky for me the first time we pulled into an RV park it was in Cloudcroft, New Mexico. We had planned on jumping from RV park to RV park much like the retired folks we would hear about. Also lucky for me the owner of the place helped me hook up the pipe, and believe me you want someone helping you the first few times. If you don't do it correctly it can get everywhere, and I mean everywhere. Don't worry, after about a year it becomes second nature. However, and I don't know what it is but for some reason when you are dealing with emptying your tanks, people want to come up and talk to you.
I was emptying our tanks in a small mountain town in Colorado. The hole in the ground you use to dump into was located behind the tourist center in the middle of town. There was a parking lot next door with a handful of people milling around and the dad of the bunch comes over. “How do you like that Mercedes Sprinter?” - Oh, let me tell you about the van first. Mercedes has a big ole van, the Sprinter, which is pretty common in Europe, but in the states the van used to be sold as a Dodge or Freightliner. Same engine, but different package, and when we ordered our van we ordered a Dodge, which was the first year they stopped offering them through Dodge, so we were pretty surprised to get a Mercedes! Now they are so common that you can’t drive down a road and not see one. But when we got ours we were some of the few out there.
So, “How do you like that Mercedes Sprinter?” As I'm fumbling around with the sewer hose, making sure I have all the fittings and connectors, “Oh yeah, it’s great,” I say. “What kind of gas mileage does it get?” I am trying to figure out how to open the septic tank lid without having to actually touch it. “Yeah, great gas mileage, like 23 miles a gallon.” I’m trying so hard to make sure the hoses are connected just right. “How much does one of these run?” Are you kidding me guy? Are you really asking me how much I paid? Splash. Blackwater starts spilling out of the coupler part that attaches to the van. Splash, Splash. Just a little more before I manage to close it. I have to redo the connection which means I have to undo it and more splashes out. “Good God…” the man walks off just in time to tell his family to turn away as they have started walking over.
When you haven’t retired or have any money, like we did, you tend to stay the night in Wal-Mart parking lots often. Everyone knows you can sleep in your car at a Wal-Mart parking lot. You can see dozens of people in their cars, both down on their luck, and on vacation just passing through. You wouldn't believe how many times we were woken up in the middle of the night to something going on outside our window.
One night a prostitute was knocking on the window, “Joe, are you there?” by the time I got up and looked out the window, I saw her getting into another van a few vans down. Another time we were woken up to the sound of a bottle moving at high speed towards our van and breaking a few feet away, turns out a 2 am street sweeper shot it out. Then there was that one time a man was eating donut holes while leaning on our van and in the morning there were donut pieces all over the ground and sticky finger prints on our hood. And then that other time when we woke up to tires screeching only to see a Prius outside doing donuts in the empty parking lot, yeah a Prius.
One rainy night, when we were parked near one of those plywood box donation stations in a church parking lot, we awoke to thumping sounds. We looked out and two women, about mid 30’s, were looking into the box. Then one of them practically jumps in, with her legs poking out the top, the other woman holding on by her feet, using her cell phone flashlight, she began pulling out all the clothes and housewares and tossing them in a pile. Then, by the glow of their headlights, they looked through everything and crammed all the good stuff in their car.
Another time, when we were sleeping on tree lined street in downtown Omaha and we hear, “You’ll never guess where I am!” the guy’s voice sounds like it’s coming from above us. “No, I'm not at home… No, I’m not at the bar,” It must have been about 2:30 or 3 am. “I’m downtown up a tree!!!” Then snap the branch goes and while we looked out the window, staring at an empty sidewalk, suddenly a man comes crashing down. He lands feet first and plops completely down on his butt. A couple comes over and helps him up and as he’s limping off we hear him say “That was a lot worse than I thought it was gonna be.”
Driving around in a big shiny van is another thing altogether. One time while cruising down a highway in Florida a guy in an old truck starts honking at us and getting in front of us and slowing down. We would get around him and speed up and he would do it again and wave to us to pull over. We decided to pull over near some construction workers just in case we need their help. I get out and start looking at the tires and under the van to see if maybe he was actually trying to help us out. He pulled up, old and broken down, smoke stained white beard, missing teeth. I figure I could take him if I needed too. “Your wheel is wobbling, you got a loose bearing!” he says, “I got a buddy with a jack at the next stop.”
Now, I don't know a lot about cars but a loose bearing on a practically new van sounds made up. We do exit the highway at the next stop, but go to a populated gas station. My wife drives around while I stand outside looking at the tires and axles, I check the nuts. My wife is freaking out, but I don't see anything wrong with the wheel. We thought he was long gone, but suddenly the old man pulls up again “Come on - its down this road. The bearings are loose. My buddy has a jack.” I say “I don't see anything wrong with it, I guess we're just gonna drive till the damn things fall off!” He looked disappointed but drives off. I have always wondered if he was planning on just doing something to our tire and charging us an arm and a leg, or was he and his buddy were planning something worse.
Busted belts, blow-outs on the highway, dead batteries, and sometimes not knowing where the gas money is going to come from takes its toll. But after all the excitement dies down, and the sunsets over a beautiful lake with mountains in the background, with a glass of wine in my hand, a toast “to my wonderful wife, ”Clink, I realize I wouldn't go back and change a thing. 2020 marks our 10th year living in this 96 square foot van. We have just about seen everything and nothing really surprises us anymore, but the high we get when we start down another road is still the same as it was the very first time.