The past weeks I have been insinuating a new development in our lives. It is time to reveal what we have been up to! Let me introduce our newest “family member”, Zesty. He is a 2005 Sprinter Airstream Westfalia camper, endearingly called a Westy. Ingeniously built in Germany and known as a Westfalia James Cook in Europe, only 250 of these campers were imported into the US. Airstream did those honors and “Americanized” them by adding an air conditioner and a generator, and swapping the cassette toilet for one with a holding tank. The Mercedes engine was re-branded as a Dodge for the American market. Confusing? The main thing is that Mark and I now own one of these unique, compact and decked-out camper vans! Indirectly, this plan has been brewing for a couple of years.
“I think our next adventure should be in a camper again.” I share with Mark something that has been on my mind for a while. It is March 2015 and we are anchored in beautiful Huahine, French Polynesia. These eight years of sailing on Irie have been exciting and interesting, but very challenging as well. In my opinion, and contrary to the general consensus (of people who have never sailed long-term), traveling by camper offers more freedom than by sailboat. You drive in the direction you prefer and if a storm approaches, you just close the windows and huddle inside, without worries.
“Let’s just get off this boat first and see what happens,” Mark mutters. He is done with our cruising journey and no paradisiacal view or spouse request to continue on to Fiji is going to change that. He needs some creature comforts and amenities on land somewhere.
“Would you like a truck camper again, or something different?” I press on. We liked our camper set-up from our year in Mexico and Central America, but it did have some flaws.
“I think I prefer a van,” he offers up. His curiosity is sparked now. On the first internet-compatible occasion, we both lay in bed and scour the web on his iPad. We come across the site of Sportsmobile, a company that builds custom camper vans. For the next few hours, we have fun creating our perfect van. Then, we realize it would cost over US$100,000 and move on.
Fast forward to the fall of 2016, when we are house and pet sitting in an uninspiring area of California and go on an uninspiring hour-long walk with Herk each day. The perfect subject to talk about is campers. We have been on land for exactly one year. We love this new lifestyle, but our feet are already starting to itch. Plus, dreaming about life in a camper van and researching options is an enjoyable pastime. The problem is that we don’t find anything suitable. We know we want a Mercedes Sprinter van conversion, but… the existing ones in the US are either too big, too wasteful with space, or require a conversion from dinette area to bed, which means you either have a table to eat at or a bed to sleep in. We play with the idea to convert one ourselves (really – despite all our past frustrations with never-ending boat projects and not having any spare time), but that intention is short-lived… the older model vans are not tall enough for Mark to stand up in, and the newer ones only take ultra-low-sulfur diesel, which means we can’t take it to Mexico or further south, where only regular diesel is available. We move on.
Then, one day in winter, during all his research and reading, Mark stumbles across the Westy. He is sold, but there are none for sale. “This is what we need!” he proclaims. He shows me photos and overwhelms me with all the advantages of this funny-looking, compact camper. It has everything we require in a small package on wheels. Westy owners rave about their vehicles and have a hard time parting with them. They are well-sought after, keep their value and therefore are quite pricey. Mark keeps an eye out for Westy listings every day and has email alerts in place. He is dedicated. Luckily, we have time. Some commitments in the US prevent us from full-time RV living for another year or two.
This past spring, while in Sebastopol, California, we made a couple of offers on available camper vans and Mark flew to Washington state to check one out. We passed twice. During those months, he also communicated with a Westy owner in Arkansas. His persistence and patience paid off. While we were super-busy in Massachusetts visiting friends, family and doctors for three weeks in May, we bought Zesty “sight unseen” after a Skype video call. Other obligations had us wrapped up until July 14th, when we took alternative transportation to reach Harrison, Arkansas and pick up our new camper. I still had never been in one.
There were more issues than expected (some of them due to the previous owner’s ignorance), Mark and I were utterly exhausted from our arduous journey there, and it was 100+ degrees Fahrenheit (40°C). Within half an hour of seeing our new vehicle in person for the first time, we hit the road. First stop: Walmart #2. We rarely set foot in these stores, but we needed to equip our new home with sheets, towels and cookware. Walmart originates in this state, so buying the basics here was quite appropriate. We did, however, not spend our first night here!
From the moment we took possession of our camper, we were on the clock. We only had four days to cover 2000 miles, in order to drop Zesty off at a mechanic, specialized in Mercedes Sprinter vans. Our destination for Saturday: Sunnyvale, California, after picking up our other car en route. Our next house sit would start the day after. It was Tuesday. Not wanting to exceed 60 miles an hour in this new-to-us van resulted in 8+ hours on the road, every day. We needed to find food, water, fuel, dump stations, RV parts and free camping spots along the way. We dealt with fridge, water pump, fan and AC issues, and with using everything for the first time. The temperature kept exceeding 100 degrees, day and sometimes night! We had a business to run, which required decent internet and 4-6 hours of Mark’s undivided attention every day. It was madness.
As always, we made it and are now comfortably settled with Lola in Sebastopol again for three weeks. Our camper is back and we have two weeks left to meticulously clean the van and its contents, fix a few more things (generator, AC knob in the cab, water heater…), move all our stuff aboard, sell our Prius and prepare for a three-day trip back the way we came, on I-5 and I-40, to house sit in Santa Fe, New Mexico for one month. We like to stay busy…
While we don’t plan any extended travels yet, it is nice to have a guaranteed roof above our heads in between house sits. At 19ft long and 11ft tall, our new home is small, but it provides creature comforts and offers basic amenities. And, no worries when the wind shifts! We have a bathroom with shower, sink and toilet, a kitchen with sink, dish rack, two-burner stove, microwave (= extra storage for us) and fridge, a spacious dinette area, an easy to assemble bed above the cab and dinette, and enough room for all our belongings. We think. The van fits in a normal parking spot and drives effortlessly. I continue to be impressed with the nifty use of space and the quality of non-American materials in this camper. We can’t wait to get on the road full-time again, with Zesty, the Westy!
Do you own an RV? Which kind? Have you ever traveled in a camper? Rented one? Lived in it full-time? What is your preferred mode of transportation when traveling?