Ever 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, and buy a vintage RV.
Wooed by a Toyota Camper
Whenever 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.
Buying a Vintage RV: The Craigslist Hunt Begins
After 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
After 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.
We 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.”
Buying a Vintage RV: Sold
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.
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
Buddy 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! 2021 Update: See our camper’s latest look!
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.