Wilda

After departing southern Colorado we headed back to New Mexico; as mentioned in our previous post we stopped in New Mexico in late September. Our plan had always been to head to the Pacific Northwest and drive down the coast of California, but the wildfires forced us to reconsider. We figured we would wait to hit the west coast until the smoke subsided some, so we could see that part of our country in all of it’s glory.

We started thinking about our next move while taking a rest day in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. We’d been casually thinking about buying a cargo van and converting it into a camper for the past few months, but we hadn’t gone past just looking at photos online of other converted vans. Before we started our trip we decided that we would make the RAV work as long as it continued to run. It had a few minor problems but overall was working great. After a month of road tripping in a small SUV and further inflamed by the west coast wildfires and some really cold nights, we finally committed and started looking for a van to buy.

Our main priorities for a van were: at least a 150” wheel base (WB) dimension, 76” interior vertical clearance (so I could stand up freely), and relatively low mileage (as cargo vans go). Our internet research revealed three main options: Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, Ford Transit, and Dodge Ram Promaster. Our research also revealed that we were not the only people looking for a high-top cargo van. While many cargo vans are available for sale, it’s quite difficult to find an extended high-top van at a reasonable price, with low-ish miles, that isn’t 10+ years old. Fortunately for us, we had nothing but time on our hands, the ability to drive pretty much anywhere in the country, and found a couple of options and immediately headed to check them out.

Our first stop was in Orem, Utah to investigate a 159” WB extended (extra 14” length), high top 2014 Dodge Promaster van. After a couple days of driving we met up with the dealer to see the van and test drive it. The van was a passenger van with continuous windows on both sides and the rear. It drove great and was a fantastic option for us. We were interested and almost ready to pull the trigger then and there, but we had already arranged to see a second option in New Mexico and wanted to at least have two vans to compare before making such a big purchase. So, difficult as it was to do so, we left UT and headed south towards New Mexico.

We arrived in Farmington on a Saturday and saw the van that day. It was a 2016 Ram Promaster, 159” WB, high-top with no back windows, and looked like another great option for us. A test drive around the small town confirmed this and we were sold. We’d need some time to get the paperwork organized so we spent the next week camping around the area. We spent a lot of time on the phone working out how to trade in a car in New Mexico when you live in DC, your current car title is in PA, the bank you’re working with is in NY, and there’s a global pandemic so everything is just a little bit slower and/or closed. Our first night camping we met some awesome, welcoming van-lifers (TnT; TJ and Terri) who were generous enough to give us a tour of their own custom-conversion van. They walked us through their process, the build, do’s and don’ts, and much more invaluable information for our upcoming build. Thanks again TnT!

After a week sorting out the paperwork, we returned to New Mexico to seal the deal on our new van. That Friday included a tense wait for the FedEx delivery man, demolishing the RAV sleeping platform we had built (and re-construction of the same in the back of the van), taking the car-top clam shell off of the RAV and stuffing it in the van, and ensuring we removed every item from every nook and cranny in the RAV, and, finally, us driving away in our new van!

Emily in our new van, which we named Wilda.

We took the license plates off the RAV (which was included as part of the deal for the van, thanks for the memories!), strapped our belongings down inside the back of the van as best we could and immediately hit the road. Our target of Binghamton, NY is where Emily’s parents live, who both generously agreed to host us while we converted the cargo van into a camper. Seeing as it was about 6 PM when we left Farmington, we didn’t have much daylight left but decided to get as much driving in as possible and headed to Albuquerque, New Mexico where we would sleep in a Walmart parking lot for the first time. Most Walmart stores allow free overnight parking, and the fact that you can find a Walmart almost anywhere makes it pretty convenient. There were 3 or 4 other vans parked there when we got there. In all honesty, it was great. We didn’t have to go outside, and were able to use the bathroom in Walmart that night and in the morning after. Thanks Walmart!

The next day, we headed to Oklahoma City in hopes of getting a manufacturer recall repair completed. Long story short: the recall requires a part that many places in the country do not have and/or cannot get, but we found a dealer in OKC who was able to get us scheduled. We had booked a hotel stay for two nights (Sunday and Monday) with the repair scheduled for Monday. Unfortunately for us, as we parked after picking up some Thai food for dinner that night our radiator blew and began dumping coolant out of the bottom of the engine. Longer story shorter: the dealer in OKC was able to get the radiator repaired on Monday, but was in fact unable to get the recall part, so while we were able to keep driving but we still have to deal with the recall down the line. Such is life I suppose.

With the stress of a broken down van behind us, we continued east. Another big question mark in the van buying process was how to register it in DC. We had temporary tags from the dealer but they were only good for 30 days. Due to Covid-19 the DC DMV is operating solely by appointment, all of which are booked through March 2021. Our current appointment was scheduled for April 2021, so our plan was to at least get the van inspected in DC so we would have that paperwork in hand. The only way to get an earlier appointment is to regularly check online for cancellations and, frankly, get lucky. Fortunately for us after a few days of trying, that’s what happened: we were able to book a Friday appointment at 9 AM (which was the only available appointment across all five DC DMV locations for the foreseeable future). With our appointment scheduled, we booked it across the country to get there in time. This meant a few very, very long days of driving.

While in DC to take care of inspection and registration we were able to stay with our good friends Ben and Chelsea, and see some other friends as well. To top off a solid week, the van passed inspection and was registered using the same plates as the RAV. A great success considering the whirlwind of a week we’d had.

From DC we headed north to see our families. A stop in Downingtown, PA was a must as my grandfather, Hairig (pronounced high-dig), turned 92 years old. We ate some fantastic steaks on the grill and enjoyed some much missed family hospitality after more than a month on the road. It was also great to see our nephew and niece (Ori and Wren) any time we can. Emily also took a trip to the fabric store with my mom to pick out some materials to be used in the van. Patti knows a thing or two about sewing and fabric, so we happily took her up on her offer to help us with that.

After one more long drive for a while, we finally made it to Emily’s parents. The van build starts next…

Empty van pre-renovation.
Empty van pre-renovation.
  • Mike

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