Need an escape? Enjoy this story from duPont REGISTRY Tampa Bay’s Spring 2020 issue, “The Great Outdoors.” Find more great escapes in the digital edition or check out a hard copy, coming soon to select mailboxes and distribution points around Tampa Bay.
Van Life. It’s a hashtag. It’s a bumper sticker. It’s a way of life. A search of #vanlife on Instagram reveals 6.5 million posts, most featuring people in their twenties and thirties in customized vans, camping in the shadows of red mesas and tall cacti. When I hit the road with my family for a summer-long road trip, I was 44 — a medically retired Gen X-er. I didn’t own a startup. I just wanted a van that would start up.
My family and I have spent the last two summers crisscrossing the country in old vans. First was a throwback “conversion van” with carpet everywhere and rear seats that folded down into a bed. Then we found a Volkswagen van with a pop-up tent — a 1995 Eurovan Camper with the iconic “Westfalia” emblazoned along the top. Camping in the Westy was far more convenient than sleeping in a tent, but not much more comfortable. With two young children in tow our vibe was more “Clark Griswold” than “free-spirited vagabonds.” We fell into a pattern. Camp for a few days, and then live it up in a nice hotel. It all got me thinking, what is the ideal way to get outdoors in comfort and luxury? To answer that question, I drove out to the Florida State Fairgrounds in January and perused the shiny new campers at the Florida RV SuperShow.
Walking into the RV Show can be intimidating. You can spend as much money as you would on a house for a rig that’ll accommodate a touring rock band. It’ll have more square feet than a Manhattan apartment, flat screen TVs that emerge from the outside of the bus, queen-size beds, washers and dryers, and leather recliners. With the push of a button, walls slide out to make your home even more spacious. But is this luxury?
Luxury implies ease. Luxury isn’t stressful. But the bigger the vehicle the bigger the tradeoffs. Where will you store it when you’re not using it? What will you drive once you’ve plugged in at your destination? Driving a 35-foot bus while towing a car is no picnic, and the list of places you can’t go is long. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have their place. The big coaches are best if you plan to drop anchor in one place for a season, and the “just like home” features are important. Some people even go as far as to own property in RV parks that offer the sort of amenities you’d expect at a hotel or country club. (See David Warner’s story, “Pull Up to My Oasis.”)
But, when it comes to roaming like my family does, smaller is better. You can have the comforts of home, and still be able to fit it into a spacious parking spot, or at the end of a secluded dirt road. The first thing to greet me at the RV show was the latest offerings from Airstream. I’m not talking about the iconic Zeppelin-style stainless steel trailers Airstream is known for (they still make those, too). They’ve turned the workhorse Mercedes Sprinter into a “touring coach” that is beautiful from bumper to bumper.
And they’ve learned from the Van-Lifers who go off-grid, offering options for solar power and off-road capabilities. The biggest luxury these enjoy over other small campers is that most of them have a bathroom and shower onboard. These Airstreams start in the $150,000s and can run into the mid $200,000s. They are gorgeous, and I would forsake my well-loved Westy for one in a heartbeat.
If you’ve been in the Tampa Bay area more than a couple of years, you’ll remember the “Airstream Ranch,” where eight of the silver trailers were planted upright in a field adjacent to I-4 near Dover. It was there for a decade before the land was sold and it was removed — appropriately enough — to make way for an Airstream dealer.
I visited the gleaming new facility where store manager Jessica Herrmann explained that the “Interstate” line of Mercedes-based Airstreams has brought in all kinds of buyers, from grandparents trying to find a good way to visit grandkids spread across the country, to young couples who live life on the road, to avid football tailgaters. The new models have all the bells and whistles of any Mercedes, including collision avoidance, navigation, backup assist, side-view cameras, and a three year warranty. By contrast, my VW’s horn doesn’t work and it still has lap belts in the back.
And my own biases against towing were put in check as Jessica reminded me of what put Airstream on the map. On the day I was there, the Basecamp trailer, which is small enough to be pulled by an average minivan, was sold out. “And people love the Bambi,” she said, referring to another smaller model. “Some people get one to pull behind their Interstate.”
An Airstream pulling an Airstream — that might be peak luxury.
Alas, even the luxurious Airstreams only sleep two people. What is a family to do? Cesar Morales and Danni Letendre know a few things about life on the road. They lived in a 1995 Toyota Forerunner while driving from Washington, D.C. to Ushuaia, Argentina, at the southern tip of South America. And back!
When they started their family, they found a used diesel-powered Sprinter and installed a rooftop tent. Theirs is the size of a small bedroom, while our Eurovan’s top bunk is a roomy canvas coffin. Cesar offers the following advice to those hitting the road. “If you are going to drive internationally, it is important to have a vehicle where parts are readily available. Things break, and trying to get a new transmission through customs is not fun. ”
If you’re traveling with more than two people, finding something with a rooftop tent is the way to stay small and avoid pulling a large trailer (which requires a truck that can pull it, and a love for hitching and unhitching). Several manufacturers are putting rooftop tents on the Sprinter-inspired vans from Dodge and Ford. The interior layouts borrow heavily from the 1990s Eurovan Camper — just a bit larger — and they have the all-important lavatory/shower. And these things will get up to highway speed, and to the top of the mountain, much faster than my Volkswagen. Models that I saw ran around $75,000-$100,000.
One of the realities of owning any recreational vehicle is maintenance. Gremlins love engines that don’t run regularly. If you run your vehicle frequently, you’re more likely to discover an issue between trips. Our Westy has 205,000 miles on the odometer and a long service history. I drive it every day, so I’ve been able to address most of its problems with my local mechanic.
The decision to hit the road enabled my family to travel longer and spend more time in places we might never see if we’d relied on airports and hotels. Many of our favorite stops were places we’d never heard of until we were passing by, like Ghost Ranch in New Mexico, Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota, and Chippokes Plantation State Park in Virginia. A four-star hotel and a hot shower is even sweeter after spending a few days cooking by the campfire. I don’t think our kids will be asking to visit Death Valley again, but they have fond memories of the week we spent in the remote elevations of Yosemite. We’ve hit 39 states and 11 National Parks in two summers.
For us, it’s the freedom that makes the trip luxurious. We’ve never been in a hurry, and many days we wake up not sure of where we’ll go next. Our kids spend the summer without electronics and video games, and they don’t even miss it. Our travels expose them to a mix of history, art, and nature. And we bond as a family. Whether you’re in a $400,000 mega-coach or a trailer hitched to a pickup, a brand new Mercedes Sprinter or an old-school Westy, that’s an outcome no one can regret.
Jonathan Kile is a writer, blogger and novelist in St. Petersburg, Florida. Follow him at dontmakemeturnthisvanaround.com.