Photographer Jess Bonde converted a bust-up builders van into a rustic self-contained home. Headed South through Canada and through the US in search of wheeled Escapism. Currently still roaming wherever the wind takes them.
We stood on the side of the road in the Vancouver sunlight with the hood up, checking the engine oil. The van was rough around the edges, an old workhorse used by a concreter called Joe. It was fine for what we needed. We shook hands and swapped cash for keys. We decided to call the van Frankie, then pointed the wheels inland and followed the road to Kootenays to look for winter work.
Frankie made it to Kootenays in one piece, and we planned to hole up there for the season and wait out the snow. This would give us time to turn this bare van into a rustic self-contained home on wheels. With a complete lack of building knowledge and skills, fitting out the van was a daunting task. Months of dreaming about the ideal layout were wasted after realising that I was too tall to lay widthways. Taking it all in our stride and inspired by warmer weather ahead and the idea of the upcoming roadie, we sketched the final layout and started seeking out some materials. Being tight on budget, we needed to use as many recycled materials and call in as many favours as we could.
Over the coming weeks and several small excursions, we gathered pallets to clad the walls and sourced coffee sacks to line the doors – all of which were free. I spent the best part of a day sorting out tools and pulling apart those pallets with a hammer, being careful not to crack or split the planks. As frustration set in more force was used, which was counterproductive, but we soon got the hang of it, and the walls and roof quickly took shape. One thing we hadn’t thought about was fitting the van out for the winter months. We suffered through -15°C a few times, where my hands and feet would only survive an hour or so at a time before retreating inside to thaw out. After that we stuffed as much fibreglass insulation as we could into the space behind the cladding, managing to get a surprising amount behind there. It slowed us down but also gave us time to make sure we were happy with every step of the build.
As spring rolled around, the van still had plenty of work to be done. But with the warmer temperatures and the roadie knocking at the door, our productivity skyrocketed. The bed frame was assembled, we finished laying the floor, built some storage boxes, and mounted some 1970’s pivoting captain’s chairs that were fresh out the box. As Lova put together the final interior touches it was time to move in – ohhhhh lordy, a full house squished into a van. We ditched everything bar the essentials: books, guitar, summer clothes, and hiking, camping and camera gear. We donated everything else – anything we couldn’t shove away in a tight space. Then, with a little persuasion, we gently closed the doors and cracked ourselves a beer. We had somehow managed to create a functional rolling home for the next six months.
“ The desert sun warmed our bones, the feeling of freedom and spontaneity that came from having the van, and the lack of plan or schedule or work, was overwhelming.”
Before we knew it, we were crossing the border into the USA, making the distance on our way to Portland to pick up some supplies, then on to Utah to get some warmth and sunlight on our pasty winter skin. The good vibes of freedom and being on the road were flowing. It must have been contagious as our first two days we were greeted with small town American kindness. The first morning we had our breakfast paid for by a complete stranger. Apparently, someone in the place thought we looked like a happy cute couple, and we never found out who kindly bought it for us. The second morning we woke up to a knock on our van door at 7am. We thought it was the cops or someone wanting us to pay for using the area, but instead there was another complete stranger, this time inviting us into her home for hot coffee and waffles to start our day. What a welcome to the States.
A while later we arrived in Portland and geared up with a roof rack and picked up a canoe from a guy who voluntarily halved his price because he was stoked about our upcoming trip. We ventured off to explore some of Oregon’s beautiful gorges and waterfalls before we hit the road again. As we approached the border to Utah, all that luck and kindness ran out. We started having alternator troubles and limped into town along the Bonneville Salt Flats, camping there for the night and waiting for the auto parts store to open at sunrise. As it happened, they had the part we needed right there on the shelf, so I managed to whip out the old alternator, threw in the new one, and we were right back on it.
Our first National Park after that was Arches. Immense black walls rose up from the sand, and arches hung precariously and thin like stone rainbows littered across the landscape. The colour changed from the five months of white, black and brown, through to Oregon’s sweet green tones, to the warping colour spectrum of the region’s painted hills, and now the intense red and orange hue from the rock formations of Utah – our jaws were continually glued to the floor. As the desert sun warmed our bones, the feeling of freedom and spontaneity that came from having the van, and the lack of plan or schedule or work, was overwhelming. Our heads were spinning and our eyes were on fire. We then understood why the van life movement is taking off. We turned to each other and asked the question that is now asked every day: “Where shall we go next?”
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