The Roads Less TraveledAug 01, 2021 12:15PM ● By Gayle Morrow
“I need to get some sealant on here,” says Stephanie DiCamillo, peering at the plumbing for what she calls the “baby hot water heater.” It’s tucked under a tiny sink/island combo, which is installed a few feet behind the passenger seat of her Ram 1500 FWD Promaster. Behind the driver seat is a very short couch with a swiveling tabletop that’s big enough for a laptop or a table setting for one. Adjacent to that is a repurposed wooden filing cabinet, painted white, that holds a small refrigerator. There are storage drawers underneath—Stephanie hasn’t quite decided what to fill them with yet, but she’s got ideas and plenty of stuff to choose from. The back one-third of the van is a platform bed, with space underneath for tools, totes, maybe a bicycle, and probably an inflatable kayak. She calls that area “the garage.”
When it’s time to move on, some people don’t mess around. They read the handwriting on the wall, get their proverbial affairs in order, and they’re outta’ here.
Stephanie seems to be that kind of person. As her twenty-eight year marriage was ending, as her children were mostly grown up and out of the house, and as her job as an English teacher at New Covenant Academy in Mansfield was eliminated and she was laid off, Stephanie’s wheels were turning, almost literally. She’d done her share of camping and traveling over the years and enjoyed it. Before she was laid off, she’d rented a camper and did some cruising around.
“I just loved it,” she says, and that “gave me the idea to do summers.” But why just summers? With life changes looming, Stephanie was talking with a friend about what she might do post-divorce and recalls that “immediately, without thought, the words ‘travel in a van and teach on an Indian reservation’” came out. John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley was the seed, she muses, and the film Nomadland was one more nudge.
So, she began van shopping. It was January of this year, and she admits it was “really hard” to find what she was looking for close to home. Not that she was completely sure what she was looking for, but she knew she couldn’t go to California or Texas to test-drive vans, and she didn’t want to buy sight unseen. Then fortune, or perhaps it was one of the travel gods, smiled on her, and she found a “fully built-out” van, with all the basics covered, just a two-hour drive from her Mansfield home (interesting trivia—the guy she bought it from had been a finalist on The Voice). It typically takes a year, she says, to “build out from scratch,” and that kind of time commitment was not what she had planned for herself. The fact that this vehicle already had some of what she needed—like a solar power system (“I don’t really understand how the solar works, but it does,” Stephanie says with a grin.), a foot-operated water pump, some cabinetry, the bed platform, and that “everything is pretty new”—made the purchase one of those no-brainers you hear people talk about.
“There were changes I knew I wanted to make,” she says, including having a lower carbon footprint. To kind of test things out, she’s taken a few local-ish trips, what she calls “shake-down cruises.”
Those “few trips to Lancaster, Pittsburgh, and Coudersport helped me realize the renovations I needed to undertake to suit my particular purposes.” For instance, she thought a working sink would be important, so she tweaked the water delivery system.
“A lot of van lifers have the refrigerator on the floor, but I didn’t want that” she continues, thus the repurposed filing cabinet to make the height of the refrigerator more Stephanie-friendly. The overhead cupboards with doors that opened out looked like a recipe for constantly whacking her head, so she learned about something called a concealed hinge jig and redid the doors to suit her. An electrician friend helped with the complicated wiring. Stephanie repositioned the heavy-duty brackets that hold the bed platform, which meant she had to tear out some of the interior siding to see into what and exactly where she’d be screwing fasteners. It wouldn’t do to put holes in the side of the vehicle.
“I can put stuff together,” she says. “I like working with my hands. Just being in my head and [working with] technology—I’m over it.”
She’s got a few more weeks before her self-imposed deadline to hit the road for a year. During that time, she plans to dispose of what she can’t take with her, finish packing what she’s going to keep, and take care of “some projects around here.” There is “home decorating stuff” the van still needs, and then she must “figure out the plumbing.” She says she’ll camp in the van, or “stay in friends’ driveways” until it’s time to go. She thinks her official starting point will be Maine, and says she wants to “touch every state, spend one night in every state.”
“My plan is to get in the van and drive,” Stephanie says. She wants to stay off the big highways, instead traveling on those back roads, seeing the places the interstates have bypassed. She wants to spend time studying Native American culture and writers before she tries to find work teaching.
Oh, and she has to pick a name for her ride. Stephanie refers to the van as “she” but hasn’t made the final decision...Rocinante, in honor of Don Quixote’s horse, is one possibility.
“The last day is coming and there is a lot to do,” she muses. “So many people have helped me. It takes some out-of-the-box thinking. I wasn’t alone doing this.” And even though she’ll be alone, on the road, in the van, she says that “every day, I look out the window and see it, and I don’t doubt my decision at all.”