Vanlife

The day an oncoming driver illegally turned left across our traffic lane, was the day we almost lost everything. Being involved in any kind of car crash is traumatizing and stressful. We were lucky no one was hurt in the collision, however, we were incredibly unlucky with the timing of the incident. We had just spent a lot of money and time working on our recently purchased Wander Wagon. She had good bones, but needed a lot of work and our goal was to completely remodel the inside. Project demolition was currently very much in progress, and the inside was basically gutted leaving an empty shell for us to build from scratch.

 

The insurance company agreed the other driver was completely at fault for the collision. The issue was with the current state of our van. It was gutted remember? The insurance company valued the van at it’s scrap metal worth of about $100 – even though she was still running and the mechanic had determined all damage done was purely cosmetic. Naturally, we were furious.

 

There was no way we were going to give up our dream and all the work we had put into it, especially when we were not even at fault for the collision. So began a long battle between us and the insurance company (the other driver had the same insurance company, so only one representative from the company was involved on the case – not sure how that’s ethical). For two weeks we searched the internet for a van like ours to prove her value, and we tried to explain we were in the process of remodeling the interior. But, we couldn’t find a van like ours anywhere, and we were informed it did not matter what our plans were for the van, the value is established by the van’s current state.

 

Corbin, my husband, was constantly on the phone arguing our case and refusing to accept their offer. If we accepted their offer, either way we lost. We either kept the van, now with a salvaged title and paid the mechanic out of our own pocket to fix the damage, or we accepted the $100 our insurance would have gotten for our van’s scrap metal, and lost everything. No way.

 

The battle was coming to an end, and it appeared we had lost. But, Corbin used his words a bit aggressively, and eventually refused to talk with anyone else except for a supervisor. His request was granted, and what happened next felt like witnessing a miracle. Corbin explained the situation as he had numerous times before. He shared our story and our plans and how much we had worked on this van, and he also explained we had documented everything on video. That last part is important.

 

As soon as Corbin mentioned our YouTube channel, the supervisor told him to hang on and he would call him back. Within a couple minutes, the supervisor called him back with the offer we were hoping for. Because, we had documented our entire experience searching for and working on our Wander Wagon, our van was more than just a vehicle, it was a brand. Branding our van made it significant to our lifestyle and online business of sharing our story. Realizing this, the insurance company agreed to cover the cost of the van’s repairs and the title to our van would remain intact. We would soon be able to put this whole experience behind us and we would have our Wander Wagon back!

 

The overall lessons I took away from this experience are ones I’ve continued to learn throughout this vanlife adventure and life in general. I’ve realized even the times when it feels like there is no way out and all is lost, eventually it will all work out and everything happens for a reason. I’ve realized control is an illusion, and life will always put roadblocks in front of you when you least expect it. I’ve realize it’s all part of the journey and you just need to trust in yourself and in life.

 

We made it through this obstacle, and after holding our breath for two weeks we could finally breathe again. With the Wander Wagon home again, safe and sound, we were ready to get back on track. We had lost valuable time, though, and it wasn’t long until we would be packing up our belongings, saying our goodbyes to Portland, OR, and heading to Idaho.

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We had just finished up a long, hard month trying to waterproof our van during the rainiest season of the Pacific Northwest. Time was up, however, as the lease to our sheltered rental space had come to an end. Since we were living in an apartment building, from now on, it would be us working on our van on the sidewalks of our neighborhood- we were prepared for some strange looks and lots of questions.

 

We got right to work, rain or shine, we started gutting the inside of the Wander Wagon. Our plan was to redo the entire interior- top to bottom. It was a slow and painful process, and like usual, we had no idea what we were doing. We couldn’t help but grimace as the Wander Wagon began to look worse and worse as we tore her apart. We kept telling each other that it would all be worth it in the end, that it would look so much better when she was completely finished.

 

During this destruction period, we had to learn some hard lessons. A lot of the work we had done waterproofing our van just wasn’t adequate. She was still leaking everywhere. Almost all of the skylights we had replaced were still leaking, the big seam connecting the cab to the coach was pouring in water, and one of the side windows needed to be resealed as well. The worst part was, we no longer had any cover to keep our van under. Everytime it rained, neither of us could sleep as we knew that meant more water was pouring into our van creating even more water damage. There were many desperate nights where we ran down to check on the van to see just how bad it was, bringing bowls to catch the worst leaks, and using duct tape to try our best to limit the amount of water coming in.

 

Throughout it all, we just had to believe that it would all work out eventually. It was a test in patience and perseverance, redoing the work we had struggled so hard to get done in the first place. But, we tried different tactics, and eventually we really did get the Wander Wagon fully waterproof. Although, we still suffer from insomnia whenever it rains really hard, I think we’re still a bit traumatized.

 

Van destruction continued for a good three months. We ripped out the dinette, the sofa, the carpet, the wall paneling, the headliner, and basically everything besides the bathroom, closet, and kitchen. Everytime we ripped something out we would discover just how bad it really was. From the apparent years of water damage, our van was a container of trapped moisture brewing mold and filth. On our free days, we would work all day removing as much material as we could, ending the day just covered in sweat and dirt. We filled trash bag after trash bag with the rotting, damp materials, and slowly, the van’s interior turned into a basically empty fiberglass shell.

 

It just so happened that during these three months our commuter car broke down. It was an old car, and had served us well for a long time, but now our van was our commuter vehicle. This is not exactly the ideal vehicle to commute around Portland, OR in. Luckily, there is great public transportation that got us both to and from work, but we always ended up needing the van to run errands somewhere.

 

It was a normal afternoon, and we had just finished running our errands and were on our way home. We were driving on a main busy road and about to drive through an intersection, when out of nowhere an oncoming car illegally turned left, completely cutting us off with no time for us to stop. WHAM! We rammed right into her.

 

Everyone involved in the crash was okay, thank goodness. However, the van was a different story. Her front bumper was smashed on the passenger side, to the point that the door would no longer open, there was fluid leaking from under the cab, and she made an awful noise when we tried to drive her. “Well, shit! There goes the van trip!” my husband said. I snapped at him that he was wrong, but I couldn’t help but cry realizing that he could be right. All of that work we had put into this dream, and it may have just literally crashed and burned.

 

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It was the beginning of January 2016, and we had just purchased our van with no idea what we had gotten ourselves into. Project Wander Wagon had begun! The day after we drove her home to Portland, OR from Astoria she wouldn’t start. The panic set in. We just spent about half of our budget on a van that may or may not start again. She was towed to a mechanic, and we wrung our hands as we waited anxiously to hear the list of things that needed to be fixed.

 

“Do you want the good news or the bad news first?” the lady asked us when she called with the mechanic’s update. Good news was, our gut was right, the van was in great shape mechanically. The mechanic couldn’t believe the condition the engine was in considering the van’s age. The bad news was, we still needed to fork out about a grand to replace one of the fuel pumps, the rear brake pads, and a couple minor things.

 

A few days later the van was all fixed up and ready to be driven back home. First step of the renovation was done, and we were pumped to get to work on the outside. But, it was probably only a couple days later when the rain began.

 

Living in the Pacific Northwest, we are no strangers to rain, and we usually enjoy the wet weather. However, it soon became clear that this van was by no means waterproof. Leaks were everywhere! So, with the forecast of rain everyday for the next month or two, we had to rent a covered storage area to get back to work and to prevent further water damage. We got lucky and found a place that allowed us to rent out a space for only a month.

 

With only a month to waterproof this van, every hour of our available free time had to be spent working on it. We had no idea what we were doing, so every project required hours of previous research to learn how to deal with the leaks we encountered. We learned about butyl tape, and quickly became best friends with it. We also learned about silicon, because it was EVERYWHERE on the van from a previous owner, and we quickly became worst enemies with it.

We began with the windows. It was terrifying removing that first big side window, there was suddenly a huge hole in our van and who knew if we would be able to put the window back in. But, two hours later, after scraping away the old gunk we finally replaced the window with new butyl tape and we felt pretty dang proud of ourselves. Only eight more windows to go.

 

It was a long month. Most days we were freezing, with the cold wind constantly biting at our faces and fingers. We had a couple emotional breakdowns where we were exhausted, but we had to continue or it would never get done in time. But, we had our good days too. Days when the weather broke and the sun came out. Days when everything actually worked out as planned and we got a lot done. These were the days that kept up motivated as we stumbled our way through everything that needed to be done on the outside.

 

By the end of the month we had resealed both side windows, all seven skylight windows, the seam between the cab and the coach, and all necessary vents. We had removed the old generator box cover (you don’t even want to know what it used to look like), installed a vent fan, and washed away the dirt and mold from the roof. We still had work to do on the outside, but we thought we had done well and we were sure it was pretty close to being waterproof. Unfortunately, this would turn out to be not quite true.

 

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Vanlife. It started as an impossible idea. But, the idea began to spread through my husband and I, as we realized this is the one life we have, so we damn well better make it what we want it to be. Many people are perfectly content with a more traditional lifestyle, and that’s great, but we knew we wanted to live our lives a little differently. We needed, and continue to need, to travel and explore this incredible world we live in. We need to meet new people, experience different cultures, try different foods, heal our souls in the mountains, bathe in glacier lakes, and gaze at the stars to remember how small we really are.

Leaving our apartment in Portland, OR and moving into our van to travel around North America seemed to offer us the solution to fulfill these needs and allow us to live the life we wanted to live. A life where we make the most of each day and are present in every moment. A life where we are wherever our feet are. So, over the next year we slowly worked out a way we could make this idea, this dream, become reality.

We began saving as much as we could, Corbin transitioned out of his career into more flexible work and we began researching what type of van would work best for us. I remember going to look at the first van we were interested in. All three of were there, including our little Maltese, Sir Paris, who is basically our baby. Corbin hopped up into the driver’s seat while I climbed into the passenger seat with Paris on my lap. That first start of the ignition sent a bolt of excitement down my spine, and as we drove around town the biggest smiles were plastered to our faces. I kept thinking to myself, “I can’t believe this going to be our life soon!”

We didn’t end up getting that van, and in fact, the whole process of finding the right van took us months. It was financially and emotionally draining. We would search every day until we found one close to what we were looking for, then sometimes drive over 100 miles to go check it out, pay the fee to have a mechanic look it over, and then drive home bummed when it didn’t work out for us. Every time this happened it dampened our spirits just a little bit more. It felt like maybe we would never find the right van for us at a price we could afford, maybe this lifestyle was still just out of reach.

But, then in January 2016, we found her. Nestled along the Oregon coast, she sat waiting for us to take her home. We went to check her out and it just felt right. We knew the seller had another person interested, so we took a big risk. We bypassed our normal safety check of having a mechanic look her over, and instead we bought her outright and drove her home that day. That was the day we bought our van , our Wander Wagon, and oh boy we had no idea what we had just gotten ourselves into. The adventure had just begun.

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