Mr. Spaghetti licks my face and purrs. Nuzzles his wet nose into my cheek, then sniffs around the inside of my ear. He chomps down.
“Damn it Spaghetti!” I yell, sit upright and smack my head on the low fiberglass roof. The cat runs away. It’s still dark out, the creek is loud, only a few feet behind the Shark. I try to fall back asleep. Colleen slides out of bed, walks outside to turn on the propane tank, and starts to boil water for coffee.
Living in the Shark is mostly like living in a normal house. Except it’s free, and we have better views.
When I started looking at vans last winter, I was checking out old VW busses. Most of the ads read something like “1979 Westy, some rust. No motor. Great Project! $10,000.”
Pretty quick, I realized that those things would be better for someone with a VW hobby, or a dirtbag with a trust fund. Since moving into the van was primarily a money saving scheme, that wasn’t going to work.
Then I found Class C RVs- built on real truck frames, good American engines, ready to live in with big water tanks and stoves already installed. And there were bunches of the things left over from the ’70s, all different and built by little cottage industry type shops.
Nobody gives a shit about ugly, old RVs, so they’re dirt cheap (not that I think our Shark is ugly- I find it very sleek and handsome).
Colleen was reading next to the woodstove when I asked if she wanted to move into a van. Snow was piled up almost past the windows of our cabin.
“A van? I don’t know,” she said she didn’t know, but she didn’t say no.
I spent the next few weeks sending her link after link of RV renovations, by people with almost-respectable jobs as graphic designers and photographers. They may have been barely afloat creative types, but at least they weren’t trolls living in a van under a bridge.
Even though I couldn’t even keep a bathroom sink looking decent, somehow I convinced her that I could turn a thing with ratty shag carpet and fake wood into a nice place to live.
The Craigslist ad for the Shark said, “1975 Vandura Camper. New Motor. $3000, runs real good.” I’ve never been able to resist a cruddy old vehicle that runs real good, so we both emptied our savings accounts by withdrawing $1,500, and headed for the front range.
The Shark is a 40 year old van, and I drive it like one. The three-speed slushbox is geared to be pretty happy at 55, and I don’t try to push it any faster. But with that sweet small block V8 it has enough power to get over big passes, and with the one-ton axle conversion, it’s sturdy enough to bounce down a rough dirt road.
Mechanically the thing has been solid- except for a cracked fuel line that started spraying gas all over the engine the day after our wedding.
But that was a quick fix. And it would have been quicker if a nice guy up in Marble hadn’t tried to help me. The poor dude crawled under the Shark, tightened down the wrong hose clamp, then sprayed himself in the eye with a stream of gasoline.
“Yow!” he said, and jumped up. “That burns. Feels like when you get a cigarette in your eye, know what I mean?”
“Nope, no idea.”
The living space has taken some time, and we’re still working out some kinks. I started with the bed- took out the old fold-out thing, rebuilt and overbuilt it with a bunch of 2x4s and quarter inch plywood, made it bigger, and insulated the top and bottom.
We pulled the refrigerator out and bought a nice cooler. When we get groceries, we grab a bag of ice too. I ripped out the shag rug and put down an engineered cork floor. Colleen painted over all the gross fake wood, and made some curtains.
Since we don’t use much electricity, the 12 volt house battery lasts about three weeks between charges. I thought about installing a solar panel, but with such low usage it didn’t really make sense. Instead we have a $20 rechargeable solar lantern and a candle. So the RV battery basically just has to run the water pump. When it finally dies I just take it into work and trickle charge it for a day.
We cook everything on cast iron pans on the stove top, and after five months we finally ran through our first tank of propane.
Colleen takes some showers at the rec center. I mostly don’t take showers. Since nobody trusts a mechanic with clean hands, I must look extra trustworthy.
But really, it’s pretty easy to get clean with a soapy washcloth. People haven’t always had water shooting out of a wall at 60 psi.
The mountains in Colorado are almost entirely public land, so we have plenty of places to park. We move someplace new every few days, so we’re never in violation of Forest Service or BLM camping limits.
As best I can tell, both the cats are fine with the arrangement.
We don’t use the composting toilet I built very much, so their litter box just lives in the bathroom. Kind of like a normal house.
It’s getting cold, and people have started asking how we’re going to do a long Colorado winter in the van.
We’re not- that’s the whole point of this thing. Instead, we’re going to use the money we saved by not paying rent, and go on a bike tour where it’s warm. My parents have kindly agreed to scoop cats their kibbles for the winter.
When we come back in the spring, we’ll get the van out of storage and go back to work. We won’t have to sign a new lease, or try to scrape together the money for first month’s rent, last, and security all at once- about $3600 out here, or more than we paid to buy the Shark.
Kale and yams sizzle in the cast iron pan. Mr. Spaghetti steps out of the bathroom, his fuzzy orange feet full of cat litter. The stuff sprinkles onto the cork floor as he walks.
“Spaghetti!” Colleen yells, then steps from in front of the stove to the bathroom to scoop up the cat and drop him on a mat to knock the dirty off his feet. She picks him up by the arm pits, and drops him three more times. The solar lantern glows yellowish white overhead. The cat walks away, climbs up the screen door, and jumps onto the bed. He purrs and drools on my face.
11 thoughts on “Five Months in the Shark”
Many of my free hours in 2015 were spent re-building our family pop-up camper and although it’s been over a decade since I lived in a van for a season those two aspects of my life had me anticipating a further story about your Shark. So far it sounds like a great success for you all. Not too much extra driving, and your lifestyle doesn’t sound too cramped by it – a problem I’m sure some people would encounter in such close quarters.
One thing I couldn’t help but question though. Although you’re getting three weeks life out of your battery, keep in mind that by running it down low and then re-charging it you’re reducing the life of the battery (they last longest when the cycle count is high). $150 – $200 of parts and you could build a simple solar setup which is less than the cost of a new battery so might be worthwhile to re-consider. I’d be happy to share my wiring diagrams and parts lists if you’re so inclinded.
Yeah, our lifestyle is pretty compatible with the van- if we aren’t riding or working, we’re sleeping or reading.
A couple hundred would be worth it, I was thinking a solar system would be closer to eight. I know it’s not good for the battery, but to be honest I’ve mostly just been lazy since it’s easy to ignore when the charge lasts that long. I’d be real interested to see that parts list- that’d be a good project to get done next spring
I meant to ask if you’d be willing to share the details of your composting toilet as well. I’m intrigued.
Sure thing, it’s super simple- plastic bucket, screw on lid, coconut fiber (like animal bedding). Line the bottom with fiber, then cover the poo with fiber. Starts to turn into dirt in a day, and the bucket is air tight so it never smells. I built a wooden box with a seat on it so we wouldn’t have to look at the bucket. Way less gross than emptying an RV toilet
Thanks for the run-down. A very simple solution.
I Love it and I can totally relate. I dubbed my pop up truck camper “Alexander Supertramp” from the Krakauer book “Into the Wild”. We don’t live in it but I often wish we did.
Fantastic. That’s exactly the kind of vehicle I’m on the lookout for myself at this very moment.
Beautifully written story too!
Thanks man. And they’re out there- happy van hunting. It’s been a fun project too
HA! You have a cat named Mr. Spaghetti!? I had a cat named Spaghetti aka Sketti Bear. Love the write up. Found you off of reading your Krampus Tour Divide. Looks like you are living the dream! Congrats!
A Spaghetti cat is a good friend to have
Great readinng your blog