We Bought a Van!

As Chris and I rang in the anniversary of our first year in Alaska, we finally addressed the question that had been burning in the back of our minds for months: What was next for us?  Our move to Alaska had been an experiment more than anything.  It was chasing after a pipe dream of mine without any expectations about what the future would hold.  Maybe we’d love it and live there forever or maybe we’d regret the move.  As life is rarely black and white, neither seemed to be true.  We fell somewhere in between the cracks of infatuations and fatigue, yet unsure about our future in the Land of the Midnight Sun.

Alaska had been full of contradictions so far.  Parts we love: the scenery, the blissfully cool weather, the compact nature of Anchorage, the lack of state income and sales tax, the vast variety in terrain, the mutual love of the outdoors by almost everyone.  Most importantly, I loved my jobs and my bosses. 

On the con list were infamously horrible quality of rock in the Chugach, the short and weather dependent outdoor climbing season, the drivers and their collective lack of understanding of basic driving procedures (like turn signals and checking blind spots before changing lanes).  There was the skyrocketing crime rate in Anchorage and the fact that one always had to be at least a little concerned about one’s things, even in safe neighborhoods. 

The community, too, left a lot to be desired. We had heard it was hard to make friends in Alaska and the rumors were nothing if not true.  It had its cliques and its judgment.  In fact, Alaska reminded me a bit of high school; you had your born and raised Alaskans that made up the popular kids and then you had all the transplants that desperately wanted to fit in but just couldn’t quite butt in to the inner circles.  Making friends felt more like a game of stroking egos and pretending you were better and more experienced than you were.

I couldn’t quite place my finger on it, but there was a certain close-mindedness and everyone seemed stuck in Ezra Pound philosophy of “first thought, best thought”.  The prevailing attitude was, “This has been working for us, so there is no need to listen to new ideas or try to improve upon it.”  The climbing community, too, was strangely elitist and closed off, and that left a sour taste in my mouth because it was so antithetical to what I felt like I had experienced from any other climbing community.

More than anything, we missed the road, the constant thrill of not knowing what the next day would bring.  Backpacking had left us hungry for a place to call our own and unpack our things, but we found that apartment living was too sedentary and still provided too little freedom with the house and land.  We struck in something that wasn’t even ours.

Then the idea struck us: a mobile home.  We played with a lot of ideas: building a tiny house, converting out a box truck, a unimog, even!  Finally, we drifted back to something we had talked about, never seriously, for a long time: vanlife.

We had gotten a taste of vanlife on our two-week climbing trip to Bishop California in the early spring where we lived out of a converted minivan named Rachel we rented from the LA company, Lost Campers.  Despite the admittedly cramped conditions on a minivan, Chris and I loved, and if we could love, an actual camper van would be downright luxurious.  We were no strangers, after all, to sleeping in cars and living bare-bones minimally. 

Still, we didn’t really have a plan or a timeline.  Sure, we had decided we wouldn’t stay long term, but Alaska as a natural place had captivated us enough that we weren’t in a hurry to leave.  Things would happen when they needed to… which ended up not being far in the future.

Like many things in life, we were moved to action by misfortune in the form of an unexpected oil leak in my trusted steed, Morty (don’t worry, he’s okay guys- just a loose filter and an old car).

Before we knew the problem was minor, we had decided to used his shop appointment as an excuse to walk around the nearby car dealerships to actually shop for some vans.  We were already leaning toward a Dodge Ram Promaster for a variety of reasons (front-wheel drive, Sprinter build at an American price, high roof options), and after looking at both Ford Transits (also high roof vans) and the Promasters, it solidified the Promaster for us.  We briefly spoke to a sales rep name Gabriel, while sitting inside the van, mentally envisioning our future home in the space, and told him we’d be in touch.

A week later, we sent Gabriel a message with the exact van specs we wanted and some possible modifications we would love if he could set up for us at a shop, figuring it would still take a couple weeks to get the details hammered out.  He called us up and discussed financing options, asking a series of bank related questions to determine what kind of loan we could get approved for, and told us he’d contact us when he heard back from the bank in a few days.

Well, a few days turned into ten minutes, when he called and asked, “You’re approved for a loan!  Want to come pick it up tonight?”

Being impulsive, fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants sort of people (who were also tired of the one car juggle struggle), we said, “Sure.”  Though we had saved up plenty of money for the down payment, we hadn’t sorted out the details.  We didn’t really have a place to park it.  We definitively didn’t have a solid build plan, outside a few rough floor plans we had sketched, a list of features we wanted inside, and a Pinterest board filled with ideas.  All in all, we were totally unprepared for the physical act of buying and building a van.  Emotionally, however, we were beyond ready.


So we went home, quickly looked at the detailed monthly budget documents we had been keeping in anticipation of our big life change and scrawled out some figures.  We broke down our approved down payment into four different chunks, three to be split among various cards and one to be paid in cash.  Then we went to dealer, signed the paperwork and brought our 159’ long brand new so-far nameless future home, well, home.

Ours.  The world felt infinite and heavy. The sheer unbridled freedom of a house on wheels was, after all, the biggest thing that drew me to vanlife.

I have never owned anything significant before.  All my cars have been hand-me-downs (which I loved and have never complained about).  In fact, I never really saw myself as the new car type of person.  It struck me as a terrible waste of both money and resources when there were so many good, reliable used cars out in the world.  But when you have to consider your car is also going to be your house, quality assurance starts to matter.  Before the van was a place and more of just a pipe dream, I spent some time shopping online at used cargo vans and box trucks, some converted, some not.  The first thing I noticed was how many miles every decent used van had on it.  I’m talking upwards of 200,000, and at that point, I just felt it wasn’t worth taking the risk and investing in building something out that might break down halfway down the Alcan.

That was why we opted to buy new, scary and adult as that felt.  That whole night, I felt giddy and nervous; it was a strange mix of Hooray! and Oh, shit. Prior to that moment, I had never been in debt.  The only loan I had ever taken out was an interest free one on our couch when we moved to Alaska, which we paid off in a few months.  But here was a loan equivalent to far more than the value of everything I owned combined.  So we financed our future, putting 25% down and signing up for a seven-year payment plan.  Ideally, we would pay it off before then.   And while it was scary getting into a long-term finance, I looked at it from the perspective of post-apartment renting.  Once we lived in the van full-time, our rent would go from $1,500 to $400 per month.  In that light, it became slightly less intimidating.

So there it was, this huge reminder that we couldn’t remain stagnant sticking a little awkwardly out of driveway, too tall to fit under the carport.   It was all ours (and a little bit the bank’s for the next few years): an empty, blank canvas with endless possibilities.

The hard part was pulling the trigger; the really hard part is yet to come, but we are so endlessly stoked for the process and the end game.  

We'll be posting a lot of project updates, tutorials, and informative van build articles here as we bumble our way through this process, learning as we go.  So here goes nothing… Stay tuned.


Adventures in Bureaucracy: Van Buying, Part II

You thought our van buying adventure was over and we were on to the build?  Well, so did we, but the saga of new car ownership continues!

Now we had the van, jointly in both our names, when only one of us had a driver’s license.  That’s right, Chris didn’t have a driver’s license, having let his last one expire some time while out of state.  We had been getting by over the last year with having me drive everywhere, which, for the most, worked just fine.  But here was the kick in the pants we needed since legally, I was required to insure the van, but I legally couldn’t do that until Chris had a driver’s license for me to add him onto the insurance plan, which the car sales rep was hounding us for (when is the last time he had an insurance company do ANYTHING immediately).  We had put it off for over a year and now kicked ourselves for it.

It was just as much of a pain as we imagined, and it painfully turned in to a six-hour endeavor.  Here’s a play-by-play of the action:

DMV Round 1:

We arrived just after 10am in hopes of beating the crowd, successfully, as it turned out.  We took a number, filled out the application, and waited for ten minutes.  Just as Chris’ number was about to be called, I noticed his hands were empty, rather than carrying the little packet of papers we had so carefully prepared so as to prove his address and identity. 
“Where’s the paperwork?”
He looked blankly at me.  “I thought you put it in your bag?”
So the number went in the trash and we went home.

DMV Round 2:

We successfully returned to the DMV with the correct paperwork and Chris once again took a number.  It had gotten busier in our absence so the wait was longer was still better than we had expected.  When Chris’ number was called, he retreated to a back office and I sat in the waiting area doing just that. 
Over the next hour, he filled out paperwork and passed his written exam (by the skin of his teeth), but there was a problem: none of his office documents had matching names.  On some he was Christopher Fornieri, others Christopher Ryan Fornieri, and others just Chris Fornieri.  Apparently the government doesn’t actually require a passport name to be the same as that on one’s social security card.  I couldn’t say I was surprised considering I had had my own government identity debacle six months prior when I went to the social security office to replace my card only to find out that my name had legally been entered in government databases as Ambert for the last 23 years.  Boy, was correcting that ever a process.
Our one shot was that Chris’ birth certificate would bear a name matching either that of his passport or social security, but we didn’t have it with us.  I wasn’t even sure if we had it at all.  On the drive home, I mentally ran through the various items in our “important document/keepsakes” box and couldn’t ever remember seeing it there.  Thankfully, it was, though I missed it on the first go-through and had a mini panic attack.

DMV Round 3:

With matching identification documents on hand, we returned to the DMV once more, but at least didn’t have to take a number this time.  Chris went directly back to the office where they completed the process, took photos, did an eye exam, all to issue his learner’s permit.  That’s right, all that for a permit.  Because he had let his license fully expire, he needed to take the full practical drive test in order to get the actual license. 
A Brief Interruption to the DMV: The only trouble was, the Anchorage DMV only ran drive tests two days a week and as such, they were booked months out.  Instead, they sent us to a privately run driving school to take the test, which also meant we had to pay $70 to do it rather than the state $15.  But we were beyond the point of caring, or even having the option of caring.  I could hope he would pass on the first go and we wouldn’t have wasted the $70.
There was a list of driving schools on the list they gave us and we started calling down each one to either receive no answer or to be told, “Yes, we do same day walk-in appointments… Just not today.”  Finally, the last number on the list gave us the okay to come in.
After 25 minutes of pacing back and forth in the sketchy little strip mall where the school was located, Chris and the proctor returned.  They shook hands outside and ran up to Chris and asked, “Well?”
“Apparently I sometimes drop a single hand off the steering wheel on occasion.”
The world felt small.  “But did you pass?”
“Yeah, I passed.”  The jerk.

DMV Round 4:

Having passed his practical test, we returned to the DMV for what we could only hope would be the final time.  They did another vision test (because government procedure) and took another photo that looked much less weird than the permit one luckily and finally, finally, handed him his driver’s license.  Two years in the making.  The lesson is this: If you’re out of state or country, don’t lose track of when your driver’s license expires, and if you do, amend it before you buy something that requires you to have a driver’s license.