I woke up slow, poking my nose out of the warm comforter. Our fuzzy orange cat stuck his whiskery nose in my face. I shoved him off and dropped down from our loft bed to make coffee. The floor was cold and hurt my feet. My husband rolled over and grumbled, burrowing deeper into the covers.
While the kettle heated on the stove, I opened the curtain. The woods glowed green in the morning light. Mountains peeked out over the treetops. Today, our home was Crested Butte. After breakfast we’d ride the 401 Trail before starting up the van and rolling back over the mountains to work.
The year before we got married, my husband Montana and I had to make a decision. We were living in a trendy part of Colorado in a cabin 15 miles from town, and dumping most of our paychecks into rent. We were fed up with the housing squeeze and considered our options. We could stay put and make living in Colorado our full-time hobby, we could move back home to Pennsylvania, or we could make an offer on a camper van. The last idea was a new one. I wasn’t so sure.
Montana found the van on the last page of Craigslist. It was a medium-sized camper, 19 feet long and painted bright blue with two deeper blue racing stripes. Born the same year as Drew Barrymore and aging a lot less gracefully. The couple selling it clearly wanted it gone – it was only listed for $3400.
I’m naturally resistant to change, so at first I thought van-living was a bad idea. Montana chipped away at me with articles about living in a van full-time, pictures of vans parked under starry skies in the wilderness, spreadsheets detailing how much money we’d save. I still didn’t know. Could we really live in 120 square feet with two cats? How would we fit all of our stuff inside? Where would we shower? Solutions were obvious. Get rid of things we don’t need. Shower at the gym. Buy food in smaller amounts.
I gave in. After all, the camper would pay for itself in just a few months of rent. Then we’d have money to travel, buy new bike parts or go out for dinner every once in a while. If things went south, we could always go back to renting.
We went to Denver in February to pick up our new house. Montana drove the camper back on I-70 while I followed behind in my car. The Shark crawled up and over the mountains, cabinets flying open and old glue flaking down from the ceiling. I started getting a headache, watching the tail lights bob along in the crisp mountain night.
The next day we called our parents. They were mildly horrified. I figured they’d come around to the idea eventually.
Montana called it the Shark, because (he says) it’s sleek and fast. Or maybe it just feels sleeker and faster to him when he calls it that. It got 10 miles per gallon and had a lot of ugly seventies carpeting in the back. For the next few months we spent our weekends in a home-improvement frenzy. Montana rebuilt the bed and built a composting toilet, I painted the walls and purged our closets. Three carloads of stuff we didn’t realize had went to the Salvation Army.
Finally in June we loaded up bikes and cats and moved out of the cabin for good. We literally drove away from the paycheck-to-paycheck life we’d been leading pre-Shark. No more leases, no more clutter, no more lawn to mow! Summer stretched out golden in front of us.We moved around a lot, camping mostly in the National Forest land near town. We drove the Shark (slowly) to Fruita and Crested Butte for mini mountain bike vacations. Without rent and bills leeching away our paychecks, money stacked up in our bank account. We parked at a van rally and ogled other folks’ setups, dreaming of cedar siding and solar panels.
But living in a camper isn’t all starry skies and mountain adventures. It has its rough spots. When we lived in a house, we’d commute to work on our bikes. But we ended up driving the Shark up and to work and back because we didn’t want to leave all our worldly belongings alone in the woods all day. Our showers-per-week declined drastically, we lint-rolled cat fuzz off the couch cushions every half hour, and I had to keep a close eye on food in our Yeti cooler so it wouldn’t get soggy. On rainy weekends, Montana and I had to find creative ways to give each other space.
Eventually summer faded to fall and the Rocky Mountains got cold at night. The cats’ water bowl kept freezing solid. We decided it was time to leave Colorado, put the Shark in storage at my parent’s house in Pennsylvania and spend the winter bike packing in Baja California. We moved back into the van after that, saved up over another summer, and spent last winter biking in New Zealand.
Now we’re back in Pennsylvania, Shark-living in a state park and working for an adventure outfitter next to the Youghiogheny River. We can go mountain biking every day on our local trails, and we’re in the middle of a few more Shark-improvement projects. Right now, our savings are going to a long tour through North and South America – all the way to Patagonia before we turn 30.
And that’s the beauty of the Shark. It can be cramped, and the floor gets dirty fast. But we’re not locked into a lease or a mortgage. We can choose where we want to live, and redecorating is easy and cheap. When we’re ready to travel, there’s nothing to move out of. All we need to do is pack up our bikes, store the Shark somewhere snug and pedal away.
You can follow the adventures of Colleen, Montana, their two cats Mr. Spaghetti and Gonzo, and the bright blue van Shark on Instagram at @colleencolleen_