There are pros and cons to life on the road. Ben Gavelda cuts through all the bullshit to tell us about them. Ben Gavelda photo.
We’re fed a ribbon of open asphalt disappearing into a horizon of mountains served up nonstop on our smartphones. A basecamp in the woods idling under a starry night as campfire flames flicker into the sky. The snow report measured in snowflakes on the hood. A van’s back hatch propped open, inhaling seacoast mist under a sun-drenched haze. Fairy string lights and steaming cups of coffee, crossed nude legs, hammocks and a whole lot of pictures of people starring at stuff. Living in a vehicle has become less dirtbag and more chic.
But what is the reality behind the images we see, what’s life like through this hashtagged smokescreen? Does living out of a rig get you any closer to the outside? Are the challenges of plumbing, hygiene and cooking worth it? Is there anywhere to park anymore? As a rambling journalist, I’d spent countless nights on couches and hotel beds, inside tents and vehicles. I’d toured and written stories on numerous tiny houses and adventure rigs. I rebuilt a four-wheel camper, and over the years I found myself consumed by wheeled refuges. But everything I looked into fell short in some way. So I gave into the trend, built a mobile mini-home from scratch to aid in chasing my stoke, and got to it. Here’s what I learned.
With a little love, your tiny home can look like a well-designed apartment. Ben Gavelda photo.
There’s no perfect vehicle for everything. A 4x4 camper is like a unicorn. Trailers suck to drive in snow and to park. You can’t stand up in vans. An Earthroamer or $120,000 van equates to a whole lot of hotel rooms and heli laps. The list of pros and cons goes on. Once you hit the road for more than a weekend your vehicle turns from a tool to get you from point A to point B into your kitchen, bedroom, office, dining room, bathroom and garage in one—and there are few wheeled platforms to suit such demands.
I settled with a trailer for the ample space it offered and the option of dropping it off. I figured I could post up at an RV park, friend’s driveway, trailhead or parking lot and be more mobile, plus be able to haul a snowmobile around. I drew inspiration from numerous friend’s creations, hours of time researching different appliances and conversations with the likes of Mike Basich, Austin Smith, Tim Eddy and Jason Robinson. I had a loose blueprint and priorities like warmth, gear drying and storage, covertness, off-grid power and a decent kitchen. I wanted a comfortable place to recharge after a long day spent in the mountains.
This sure as hell beats LED lights. Ben Gavelda photo.
I began with a deckover trailer and modified it, replacing many of the suspension components and wiring. Then I bought a box off a box truck and plopped it on top. After that came fabricating doors from scratch, running electrical wires, installing windows and doors, spray foam insulation and flooring. As a journalist-turned-builder, I poured all I knew about building and travel into it with a good dose of anxiety as the project drained my bank account.
It became a game of real life Tetris and experimental construction. The intricacies of custom building along with moving parts and ergonomics in a small space is one of the toughest bits in crafting a pint-sized house, and each custom detail can take more engineering and thought than you’d expect. But by the end of December I was ready to roam in a cozy home packed with a 20” gas range, on-demand hot water heater, wood stove, propane heater, large solar array and battery bank, marine-grade fridge and sleeping room for four in tow.
This isn't the worst backyard to wake up to. Ben Gavelda photo.
And then, what happens when the wheels stop? Parking is the most crucial part of a life on the road and snow buries many a road and parking spot. Many mountain towns have cracked down on overnight lurking, too. Navigating a trailer in the snow, let alone docking one is a difficult task. Those dreams of parking out in the wild generally morph into sleeping at the gas station, rest stop or a friend’s driveway. But hey, if you find that elusive trailhead/accommodating resort/wintertime RV park, you’re golden, and you get to wake up to a playground in your backyard.
As the honeymoon phase fades there are some serious considerations. For example: How many days is too many days without a shower? Indoor plumbing is actually a pretty luxurious amenity, so uh, where do I pee? Laundry tends to be less of a worry on the road until you realize you have nothing to wear outside your outerwear layers.
This might shock you, but when your living room is your kitchen/bedroom/bathroom, life can feel a bit cramped. Ben Gavelda photo.
All those oversaturated life snippets on the road don’t reveal the difficulties of doing dishes, the bucket full of sour urine sitting on the floor, lack of power, wet gear or sprawling clutter. Condensation and mold can become haunting ghosts you can’t seem to kill. Images don’t show the heroism of a toothless man named Guy towing off everything you own when your truck breaks down in Kendall, Washington. There’s no replication of a snowplow’s diesel roar at 5 a.m. for your alarm. Acknowledgment of the parent, friend or roommate who handles your mail and jury duty summons during your months of wandering is gone. Then there’s a new protocol of friendship to navigate; how can you maintain said friendship while parked in one’s driveway? You scrutinize that spicy Thai food order when you have to question how many bathroom breaks you can take in a friend’s house.
No need to shovel out the driveway when you walk to the lifts. Ben Gavelda photo.
What you endure in repaid in times closer to the mountains, the freedom of mobility, right? You find peace in the muffling calm of a snowstorm that bears down and halts your travel. The dawn light and sinking sun are yours to indulge. You get to forgo the long commute and gas station buffet. The isolation of life in 128 square feet feels like home no matter where you’re parked.
So when you catch yourself smelling like shit and pulling into the truck stop parking lot for the fourth time you start questioning if this life is for you. The answer depends on your disposition.
From The Column: Base Camp
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