Buying an RV: A New Chapter in our Nomadic Lives

Around the World TravelsEver since we rented a campervan in New Zealand in 2013, we knew that someday…we would have one of our own. The freedom to explore in any direction, find a beautiful place, and call it home…to have the comforts of our own bed, closet, and kitchen and still get to travel every day…this was a concept that sounded more and more appealing as the years went on. But we weren’t quite ready. We had grown to love the nomadic life, where possessions are whittled down to the contents of a backpack and you’re ready to jet across the globe at a moment’s notice. So the concept of owning a home (albeit on wheels) still sounded a little too confining. We needed to sail to Antarctica, hone our skiing in Vermont, island hop the Caribbean, and house-sit across Europe. Though now, with seven continents under our belt, the time has come to explore our home continent, in a home of our own.
 

Wooed by a Toyota Camper

Toyota dolphin for saleWhenever we’d see a camper with a “For Sale” sign, we’d slow down for a better look. We loved scoping different models, possible configurations, and their quirky qualities. Once we ruled out the $120,000 Mercedes Sprinter we drove around New Zealand, we started getting into the old-school campers. Sure, used models from the 2000s might be more reliable, but they lacked soul. We needed to go back to the 80s, when RVing wasn’t about bringing your flat-screen and microwave into the woods. We needed panoramic windows to be our television and a small chassis to fit between the trees. Then while in Maine visiting our good friends Lisa & Alex (who happen to have road-tripped around the world in a 1980s RoadTrek), we saw an old Toyota camper with a “For Sale” sign. It looked like someone welded a breadbox to the back of gardener’s truck…we pulled over without hesitation. It was a hot mess–no toilet, uneven wood floors, and cabinets painted by a toddler–but somehow it felt inviting, like a tiny home. That wasn’t the rig for us, but a similar Toyota model was in our future.
 

The Craigslist Hunt Begins

Toyota vintage RVSAfter doing a little research on Toyota campers we realized they were a thing. At under 21-feet in length (small enough to fit in a standard parking space), 15-18 miles to the gallon, and a simple 22RE engine (often dubbed as “bulletproof”), these funny looking RVs have a cult following. Toyota shipped these pickups to the States from the 1970s to early 90s and RV manufacturers like Winnebago, Coachman, and Gardener Pacific were tricking them out with tiny homes on the back. We were open to buying almost any of the models (Dolphin, Warrior, Seabreeze, etc.) and had to be because they were so far and few between. We searched every online car re-seller across the US for months, until we saw a 1985 Sunrader with 94,000 miles, bamboo floors, new cabinetry, and our dream panoramic windows come on Craigslist in Jacksonville, Florida.
 

The Test Drive

Test driving RVsAfter having a camper snaked out from under us in California, we knew we had to act fast. We called the owner, Alex, asked a million questions on a Skype call, got a good vibe, and booked our flight for two days later. Standing at the curb of baggage claim, we saw the quirky little white Sunrader approaching and smiles crept across both our faces. Alex got out to shake our hands and opened the door. It was beautiful inside. Now for the first test: Making the 50-mile journey to his house in Georgia. Unlike a car where you can get a sense for it after a drive around the block, a camper needs its bed, cabinetry, appliances, electricity, plumbing, and engine taken for a test drive. After a little tutorial in his driveway, Alex kindly let us take the rig to Jekyll Island campground for the night. One problem, the car wouldn’t start. That was just about the worst first impression a vehicle could give, but we kept hope and called the mobile mechanic. Like a beast, a 250-pound man named “Cheetah” (yes that was the name on his business card) shimmied under the car, connected two loose wires, then in ten seconds flat…vroooom…we were on our way.
 

Buddy’s Namesake

Buddy's Auto Clinic FloridaWe spent the night in the camper, trying every possible switch, hinge, and lever to make sure the “house” worked. We even used the oven while running the air conditioner. Before we let our daydreams of driving off into the Alaskan midnight sunset get the best of us, it needed to see a mechanic. My uncle’s strong recommendation: “Find a mechanic who’s over the age of fifty and can remember the days before computers.” Well, we one upped him and found a 75-year old guy with 50+ years under the hood, plus he was a proud owner of both Toyotas and motorhomes. We pulled into Buddy’s Auto Clinic of Yulee, Florida and a guy with silver slicked-back hair and sunglasses only rivaled by Elvis, walked our way. Mike turned on the engine and Buddy leaned his ear toward to the 22RE. He peered deep into the metal crevices, put his hands on the engine, took a deep breath through his nose like a yogi…and said. “It’s good.” We let out a sigh of relief and laugh all at once, then Mike said, “Don’t you want to put it up on the rack, and take a look underneath?” He replied. “Nope, I’ve seen all that matters…go west and go far.” We shook his grease-stained hand and he told us about his bucket list dreams of RVing to Alaska and his regrets about never taking that trip. That day we decided to name our camper “Buddy.”
 

Sold

Toyota RVs With the keys and car title in hand, we felt like a major chapter of our lives was just beginning. It was as if all the little stresses of traveling every day—not knowing where we were going to sleep, what we were going to eat, and how we were getting from A to B—melted away in an instant. (Not to say that we don’t love the excitement of the unknown and this new “consistency” didn’t scare us a bit, but the novelty of not packing up everyday was quelling most of those fears). We found the perfect way to satisfy our cravings for a home, while still having new adventures. Watch this video to catch some of the raw emotion of getting the keys to our first front door in over five years.
 

Due North

road trip through the south
After spending a few days sleeping at the Tire Kingdom of Yulee (yes, we slept in their parking lot until our custom carrier bearing arrived), we were ready to make the 1,000-mile drive to our storage unit. But we didn’t want to miss the chance to see friends, family, and cool towns in the South along the way. So we zigzagged from Savannah to Hilton Head Island to Atlanta to Charlotte to Harrisburg over the course of two weeks (despite only starting the journey with two day’s worth of clothes). Highlights: playing pit crew at a vintage car race, meeting our friend’s new baby bump, repairing our black water tank in front of a Pawn shop on Easter Sunday, watching a Braves game at their brand new stadium with our cousins, boondocking at the visitor center in old town Savannah, and realizing our our average speed uphill would be around 25mph. More pics here.
 

Fixing Up the Camper

Toyota Sunrader renovationBuddy made it to Pennsylvania just fine, but if we were planning on making it to the far reaches of Canada and drive him for years on end, we needed to make Buddy a road warrior. Over four trips to the mechanic, the auto repairs (some necessary, some “just in case”) were: a new manifold, sway bar, spark plugs, ball joints, muffler welding, and diagnosing some white exhaust (everyone was scaring us that this was the death of the car but it turned out to just be a little humidity. Phew!). As for the house of the camper, holy moly, Mike became a master plumber, electrician, and general contractor and I was apprenticing as fast as I could. We re-caulked the windows, doors and taillights, resealed the ABS pipe into the black tank, cleaned and reset the toilet, replaced the gray water valve, installed two Maxx Air fans, hack-sawed and rebuilt the battery compartment (to accommodate our 200-amp hour behemoth), installed and wired three 100-watt flexible monocrystalline solar panels (no easy feat!), stabilized the propane tank, and added three roof racks for our future kayak. (Aren’t you exhausted just reading that list? If not, see the full renovation photos here.)
 

Decorating Our Tiny Home


Aesthetically, between the new floors and cabinets, the place was in pretty good shape…now it was time to make it our own. To break up the 115-square feet and give it more distinct living areas, I painstakingly laid a “tile” backsplash to define the kitchen and separate it from the living room and bedroom. One of the previous owners (just after the New England Oyster farmer called it home) had made a lovely hand-painted cherry blossom screen to give privacy to the bedroom and hide the car cab. Playing off the tree theme, we bought a ginkgo leaf bedspread and hung our favorite bird photograph of a Lilac Breasted Roller. While the cushions and curtains in the living area aren’t exactly perfect, we’ve spiced it up with some vintage-y geometric pillows, working with the teal and gray theme and adding some sunny yellow. For art, we’ve strung up our favorite postcards from our world travels, hung a painting of the mighty Fitz Roy mountain (painted by my uncle and inspired by a photo Mike took) and a cartoon drawn by our family friend Al, which gently mocks old Buddy with his “Flintstone Breaking System” and “squirrel-powered motor.” Lastly, we laminated a National Geographic map of North America, which doubles as art for the front door and a log of this ambitious journey. We’re still tweaking the décor, but it’s starting to feel like home!
 

The Road Trip Begins

We could have easily been tinkering with the camper for another month, but the road was calling…as was Mike’s little brother’s wedding all the way across the country, in less than ten-days! Ready or not, we made it out of the driveway. With dreams of going to every US State and Canadian province, hiking the Rockies, kayaking the Great Lakes, spotting grizzlies in the Great Bear Rain Forest, chasing the Northern Lights, and blazing paths down unnamed roads…a new adventure has begun.

14 thoughts on “Buying an RV: A New Chapter in our Nomadic Lives

  • July 11, 2017 at 3:38 pm
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    This is my kind of post, and you are my people!
    Northern lights are big on my bucket list, actually. Alaska was my #1 travel dream until we went last summer. And you know what? We only saw some of it. So it’s still #1 on my list!
    As for the camper, I have big dreams for all of you! My good friend wants to buy an RV and went to the expo out here with my kids and now they want one too!

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    • July 11, 2017 at 11:10 pm
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      Heck yea, Tamara! So happy to hear Alaska was even more awesome than you imagined. Guess what? We’re in Northern BC right now and heading over the border to Hyder, Alaska later this week! So stoked. Hope you and your kids get that RV someday, it’s been awesome!

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    • July 11, 2017 at 11:12 pm
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      It’s been a wild ride already…with so much more to come!

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  • July 11, 2017 at 5:40 pm
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    Congratulations! That’s quite the purchase! This is an incredibly journey for you both and I wish you all the best. I know plenty of people who would love to RV and just go on those type of adventures!

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    • July 11, 2017 at 11:15 pm
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      Lisa, buying the camper was a HUGE move for us but we’re so glad we took the plunge. It’s been so liberating to explore like this way! Thanks so much for your well wishes.

      Reply
  • July 11, 2017 at 5:54 pm
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    Hubby’s dream is to buy an RV and travel the U.S. I don’t know how well that’ll go over with the four year old, but I’d enjoy seeing all the sites. I really like how you’ve decorated your RV.

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    • July 11, 2017 at 11:18 pm
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      I actually think RVing could be great with a four-year old, it’s like having your house with you so if he needs a nap, snack, Bandaid..whatever it’s all right there. Plus, it would be a great learning experience for any age. Thanks so much for the decorating love, it feels good to make a little home 🙂

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  • July 11, 2017 at 5:58 pm
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    I have always wanted to travel on an RV. I have been glamping because I do not like to camp, so an RV would be ideal for me. I need one with a bathroom though. I have been always a city girl, but I love adventure. Good luck, I cannot wait to hear more about all your adventures.

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    • July 12, 2017 at 12:19 am
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      I feel you on the adventure without the tent. Our camper has a bathroom and solar panels so we can have your privacy and power even in remote wilderness…you’d love it!

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  • July 12, 2017 at 11:29 am
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    As much as I’m not sure I can live a nomadic lifestyle, I love the idea of being to get up at any time and travel somewhere new. Have an RV obviously makes that possible…the kids would love it!

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    • July 12, 2017 at 1:14 pm
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      Full time RVing is definitely not for everyone but hey you don’t have to live in it to try one out! Highly recommend it for a vacation around the US & Canada with kids!

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  • July 12, 2017 at 3:08 pm
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    What’s the winter 2018 plan? Mexico as part of this trip? This winter on the beaches of the Sea of Cortez in Baja sound good?

    you should also check out the full time RV wintering spots like Slab City and Yuma.

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  • July 13, 2017 at 6:47 pm
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    “Go west and go far” … the best thing to put on a billboard (ever). I love what you’ve done to your new digs. It reminds me so much of my aunt and uncle. Their home base is Phoenix, but at least once a year they take off and travel the U.S. in their RV visiting relatives. And they’ve got a lot of them(!) It’s a little bigger than Buddy, and I was surprised how roomy and comfy it is inside. Can’t wait to see where you go next! x

    Reply

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