Why we decided to live in a vehicle and what we picked: featuring palm readers, lots of research, box wine, and In-N-Out burgers.
Photos from this episode: visit our blog, Driving Inertia
This is Road Tripping in America, Series One: before the truck starts. This is Lisa and this is Paul. Follow along as we get ready to start our next chapter of full-time road life.
This is episode one: Ten years later, we begin again.
Today, I reflect back on how we got here and we get our new camper home.
We first sampled road life in 2011-2012, when we spent a year on the road in a minivan named Rocky. We had been living in Chicago for eight years and were feeling stuck. This first trip, our goals were clear: to learn how and where we wanted to live. And we figured it out – I loved the road life, but if and when we settled, we wanted to be in a smaller town that was close to lots of outdoor activities but large enough so it still had a decent restaurant and cultural scene. It also needed to be somewhat close to a good sized airport, so we could easily travel to see our friends and family. Luckily, lots of places fit into this sweet spot.
But back in 2012, we were in a bind – we had been so impatient to get out of our condo and on the road that we hadn’t saved enough money to last longer than two years without income. So after that first taste of freedom, we returned to the corporate world, vowing to build up our savings and return to the road again full time, before standard retirement age.
We spent the next eight years chasing income from upstate New York to Wisconsin and back to Chicago. Remote jobs eventually allowed us to move to Fort Collins, CO, which hit many of our ideal location goals. But it felt like we would keep delaying our early retirement until closer to standard retirement, because even though we were achieving our savings goals, we couldn’t shake the feeling that we needed to save just a little bit more money. Our goal was always to gain back control of our time, to retire as early as possible. This time, we didn’t want to be hasty about it.
In late 2019, Paul pitched me on starting our early retirement in June 2020, but I convinced him to stay in Fort Collins for one more year and start in June 2021 instead. I loved living in Fort Collins and wanted one more year to enjoy local hikes, breweries, restaurants, outdoor music festivals, things like Tour de Fat, and the sunny, sunny weather. Then 2020 happened and the world stopped. And then in 2021 it tried to start back up.
I was in Milwaukee for work on January 6th, 2021. Throughout covid, I was still required to travel for work. While it was a lot less travel than before covid, when I was bouncing across the country most weeks, it still deeply disturbed me that I was required to travel like everything was normal.
I was already worn thin by business travel by March 2020. Then – y’all know what happened because we all experienced the “then” together. I hadn’t seen most friends and family in over a year, I was not flying for personal reasons, but I was traveling for work. One of my aunts had gotten sick and passed away and I wasn’t able to see her or go to her funeral. What was I prioritizing in life? Then on January 6th in Milwaukee, which also happened to be my Dad’s birthday, I checked my phone between onsite meetings.
I had been planning to quit in June 2021, once my current projects were complete, but the deadlines were being delayed and when my amazing boss left in December 2020, work got even more stressful. Now there I was, a thousand miles from home with a potential government coup in progress. The disorienting feeling of being far so from home and not knowing if I’d get home before or if things fell apart was a real wake up call. The whole world was falling apart and I was too and I needed to get my priorities straight. Me quitting in March vs. June would have no impact at this point – we could make it without three months of my income. So I put in my (very long two month) notice and left.
And that brings us to today, ten years after our first extended road trip, about to start again. But this time, we don’t have goals. We already know how and where we want to live (we love you, Colorado!). We don’t have a clear end date. The whole insistence that there must be a goal or a purpose to every single thing we do is part of the problem, anyway.
Last time we had just started our 3rd decade, this time we’re just starting our 4th. Ten years and 33% older, likely halfway through this life, if we’re lucky (and yeah I know that’s morbid but welcome to my brain). Things are so much easier this time. We have Obamacare with great health, dental, and vision insurance. #vanlife is a THING and there are reliable and cheap mail/domicile services, free campsite finding apps, incredible trail and offroad maps, and other tools and services to support it. We didn’t have any of this ten years ago. I’m sure there will be new challenges, but right now, it feels like it’s going to be so much easier this time around.
One night after we moved back to Chicago in 2015, three years after the end of road life part one, we were at an art open studio with friends. One of the artists in residence was a palm reader and she was offering free 5 minute readings during the event. I was determined to give the sincere and sweet woman nothing to work with, no tells. She looked at my palm for a minute or so with furrowed eyebrows. Finally she looked up and said, “I can only tell you that you have already done what you want to do, and now you just need to find your way back to it.” I was stunned but brushed it off as likely a generic statement. Except it was deeply, painfully true, as were the uncomfortably specific things that she told my two friends during their turns. I’ve spent the past eight years finding my way back to what I never stopped wanting to do. And now, we’re finally ready to go again.
But first, we need to get our new camper home.
It’s really easy to overdo the camper research and selection phase, to get analysis paralysis. Paul spent a lot of time researching various vehicles and camper options before coming to a major realization:
I think the big thing was realizing that there would always be some sort of compromise and that there was no compromise-free option.
Even something as expensive as like an Earth Roamer always had compromises – you’re very tall, you’re very heavy, you have tires that can only go 65 miles an hour (you have a huge payment on it) and it’s super expensive, right. And so even if you make that, even if you said money’s not a thing, or money’s not an issue, you’re making other compromises. So listening to people on YouTube, listening to other people that are doing similar things, hearing that there’s advantages to small, being light, being nimble, being a mid-sized truck instead of a full-sized truck or even an F550, which is what the Earth Roamer is built on, has positives. That, and then hearing about the compromises with the Sprinter platform, where you can hear your dishes shake and your pots and pans clang and your stuff shift around and everything move because you’re connected in one big space that is one big echo-y box, hearing that we just knew it would be tough (you knew it would be tough) for me (Paul would be gritting his teeth all the way down the road, just gritting his teeth).
So that led us away from a self-contained unit, even though losing the ability to go from driver’s seat to rear living area without having to go outside was something we hated to let go. We didn’t want to have a huge bus or tow a trailer – we wanted to go places our minivan couldn’t go last time, and those aren’t places you can easily tow a fifth wheel or pilot a bus, either. And we didn’t need that much space. We found that a pickup with a truck bed camper insert was the best compromise for what we wanted to do.
Yeah, so knowing that we wanted more 4wd capabilities, we wanted a truck platform but we still wanted decent gas mileage, and we needed to be able to carry a camper then so we needed a mid-sized truck with a good payload rating, so the Colorado’s got like 1,500 pounds vs. 1,100 pounds for a Tacoma, so that was more attractive. Also recognizing that like, we’re driving our house down these off-roads, like we’re not going to rock crawl or do anything crazy, intentionally. We want to get down the dirt roads that have ruts, that have rocks, that require 4wd because the traction’s not very good. But we’re not going to do anything much crazier than that, so a truck made sense.
After looking at all the options, the Chevy Colorado with crew cab and long bed seemed to be the best combination of space, capabilities, and cost. But what to do for the camper? There are more truck bed camper options than there are trucks. Since we went with a mid-sized pickup, we needed a camper that would work with the truck bed dimensions and payload. After a lot of research, we thought we had it narrowed down to either a Fleet from Four Wheel Campers or a Bobcat from All Terrain Campers.
And then it’s how light can you make your thing? There are these things called Go Fast Campers that is basically just a wedge made out of tent stuff, so then you’re listening to the tent flap in the wind because that is just not very rigid or strong or stiff (and it’s cold) and it’s cold and there’s no space. So knowing that we wanted to stand up, we wanted to be able to sit down, we wanted to be able to go off-road, all these things that we didn’t have with the minivan, we were able to have in the truck setup with the Bobcat on the back, because the Bobcat is light. It’s lighter than a Four Wheel camper. We were able to spec it down lower than a Four Wheel camper to have less stuff in it.
And there’s still compromises, right? Like we’re not going to be able to go off road like a Wrangler, right, but a Wrangler’s very small, we wanted more space. We’re not going to have as much space as an Earth Roamer, but we don’t have to worry about 13’ bridge overpasses chopping the top off.
Also recognizing that, we had to make a decision, and we had to make a decision that was going to be a compromise. So knowing that there is nothing perfect, there’s only going to be good enough, what can be good enough for us, because the most important thing was leaving in June and being able to get out there and getting something in time. So Four Wheel campers had like an 8 to 10 month lead time, All Terrain Campers were able to do it in 5 to 6 months, now that’s 16 months, everything is popular right now, everything is selling, and we had to get what we could get.
So The Bobcat it was! The decision was made, the deposit was sent in, and we just needed to wait for the magic to happen. Oh yeah, and plan to pick it up in Reno, NV when it was done. Just a short 14 hour drive from our home in Fort Collins.
Well, so the weekend we were going to pick it up was the weekend that winter came to Texas and all the western states and shut a lot of stuff down, including Highway 80, which was the highway we were going to take. So we woke up that day and we could see that sections of the road were closed, sections had ice warnings on them, we knew it was going to be bad that day but we thought maybe we could get through it, but then we looked at the forecast for Nevada and it was going to be four days of snow, so we were going to have crappy winter weather for the foreseeable future, every single day, with no reprieve. And you know, oh by the way, you’re driving your brand new truck to pick up this other expensive thing, that you could just like, throw into a ditch…2,000 miles of white knuckle was not that appealing.
We rescheduled for April, thinking the risk of snow would be lower – or if it did snow, there was a better chance that it would be a warmer snow that wouldn’t shut things down. Naturally, it did snow all the way through Wyoming, but it did end up being lighter.
And then we were in Reno, the night before we were scheduled to pick up the camper, in our hotel room, feasting on In-n-Out burgers and pounding a box of wine, and we were just thinking – what are we going to get tomorrow?
Yeah we were kind of going in blind, we knew that people that had these seemed to like them. We had never seen one but we were confident enough that if it all went to hell, whatever.
So it seemed like a worthwhile risk to get in line and get potentially as close as we can to our dream state. But yeah, it was weird because, if you’re buying a car, you test drive the car, you’ve seen the car on the road, you’ve maybe even bought a previous model of the car, but we had none of that.
I was going in completely blind, I outsourced this whole decision to Paul because he has the patience for exhaustive research and he cared a lot more than I did about what we ended up in. I didn’t even know what the inside was going to look like, what colors it was going to be. Turned out, Paul really didn’t either:
We didn’t get to pick any of that stuff, it was – the inside was the inside, which is kind of appealing to me. Like Four Wheel campers are like, what fabric do you want, like, I don’t really care, just do the fabric. (I mean, I would have picked the fabric, but I’m also cool with what they picked).
I assumed at least one thing would be wrong that we would just have to deal with. I was prepping myself to think that there will be a problem, but it won’t be that big of a deal and we’ll get through it.
But would we get through it?
We pulled in to the Home Depot parking lot outside Reno, NV, at 10am and there they were. TWO All Terrain Bobcats on stilts, waiting for their chariots. At first we thought there might have been a terrible mistake and we had accidentally bought two campers, but no, another guy was picking his up at the same time. Our Bobcat twin was from Durango (our true Colorado dream town) and he and his wife were also working towards retiring for longer term travel. He was giddy with the possibilities for future trips.
While we compared camper features and travel plans with Durango guy, the two All Terrain Campers installers, Marty and Chad (at least I think it was Chad. Sorry Chad if it was actually Jerry or Steve), went to work.
The first step was to prepare the truck to receive the camper. Four holes were drilled in the truck’s bed and fitted with eye bolts. A wire was connected to the alternator and run back to a location in the truck bed where it would charge the camper’s battery while the truck was running. Marty was full of quips and reminded me of so many of the guys I’ve worked with in my previous life managing construction projects.
Marty told us, “even though this looks like aluminum wiring, this is NOT aluminum wiring. This is marine-grade, coated copper wire. We would never give you aluminum wire.” Another wire was connected to the license plate lights to power the camper’s running lights. Marty said they do it this way, “because the license plate lights are always on when the truck is running, so we don’t have to mess with the computer. Whenever possible, I prefer not to mess with computers.”
Once the truck was prepared, we backed it up under the stilted camper with expert guidance from Marty. When the camper was most of the way above the bed, we paused for the two wires to be connected. Then Paul got the truck perfectly lined up under the camper and Marty lowered the camper into the bed by carefully and incrementally adjusting each stilt. Marty said, “you really don’t need four stilts, one stilt could hold the entire weight of the camper. We just haven’t figured out how to balance it on one stilt yet.” The truck dipped and sighed contentedly when the weight was fully transferred from the stilts onto the truck bed.
Next Marty and Chad secured the camper to the truck. Four turnbuckles, one in each corner, connect from the eye bolts in the truck bed to eye bolts on the bottom of the camper.
Once the turnbuckles were tightened and the camper was secured, Marty and Chad walked us through the maintenance details and consequences of sloppiness. Quickly. We were given a hands on demonstration of what loose turnbuckles feel like. According to Marty, “they’re going to stay tight for a good long while after we install them.” But we have to babysit them because these are the only things holding the camper to the truck. We must check the turnbuckles every 500 miles, otherwise your camper is flying off the truck. They continued: make sure the vent is completely closed, otherwise you’re going to lose the lid. Make sure the windows are closed, otherwise they’re going to go flying too. We’re going to want to put the rain fly on the windows when it rains. Here’s how you open the top. Here’s how you use the stove. Here’s how the keys work and how to order more. Fire extinguisher is here, smoke detector here, propane and CO monitor here. Etc., etc.
Marty and Chad both took tremendous pride in their work. And it is great work. They spent two to three months building the camper. The night before pickup, we had been worried that there would be some problem or something missing. Pickup day, we were overwhelmed by how great everything looked, how well made it was, and by the extra features we didn’t even realize we were getting. We had waited eight months for this camper, but we’re lucky we ordered when we did. They have a sixteen month wait time now.
While Chad finished the walkthrough with us, Marty removed the stilts from the camper – we didn’t order stilts but they were required for the installation, so he wrapped a pair from the shop with blue tape so that he would remember to bring them home. We handed over the check for the remaining balance, signed some papers, and got a copy of the warranty. And then suddenly, it was all done. There was nothing else to do but to leave, waving byes and thank yous out the open windows.
We drove fifty feet to a gas station and checked the turnbuckles. They were still good.
Next time, we’ll take you on a tour of the camper, decide what to name it, work on a few customizations, and go on a dry run to find out what else we’re missing.
Thanks for listening! Until next time, check out our website, roadtrippinginamerica.com, for more.