Monday, January 9, 2012

The Adventure Begins . . . Part Two.

I wrote the first post about acquiring the Ford high-top van I was going to convert into a “micro” motor home  on September 20, 2011. Here's the photo of the van again, as a reminder.

It was originally built as a luxury travel van with seating for seven adults. It included a couch in the rear that electrically folded down into a nearly queen-sized bed. It had a regular automotive stereo system with an aftermarket CD changer installed plus a secondary stereo system installed in the rear passenger area with a cassette player. Additionally, it had a 13” TV installed in the front part of the raised roof for the rear passengers (presumably children) to watch while traveling. At one time it had a VHS video cassette player, not in evidence when I bought it. There may possibly have been an aftermarket DVD player at some time, also not in evidence, either. It was nicely finished in the interior with nice carpeting, still in reasonably nice condition for a 17 year old van, nice wall and ceiling treatments, very nice real wood accents and trim and some generally useless accent lighting. As you can note in the photos, it also had nice large, tinted windows with transparent blinds.

So, here it is now January 10, 2012. This was when I had planned to be on the road seeing the country. How much progress have I made? Well, as I said in my post about “My Three Universal Laws + One” a few weeks back, it always costs more, it always takes longer, there is always someone cheaper AND, of course the + One – “Life Happens.” 

I have made the move out of Falls Church, VA, the Fairfax office I was using and the room I had in Winchester, VA. I also emptied and closed one of the two (the smaller of the two) storage units in Winchester. I moved the permanent “keeper” stuff out to Keyser, WV near my friend’s place where it is less expensive to store. I’m still working on selling off and clearing out the larger unit in Winchester, but continual progress is being made. I miss my old Air Force buddy, Dave, in Falls Church. We were mutually supportive of each other’s dreams and goals – and it was nice catching a Subway sandwich together and such. I miss seeing my friends at the office in Fairfax. My friend and client (for some 30 years), another Dave, is a great guy and I enjoyed the projects and interplay with the folks there. And, it was both nice and very generous that he allowed me to use an office in his complex. I miss my friend, Judy, in Winchester. She and I met through a singles group we both belonged to and were quite active in for a number of years. We’ve also been supportive of each other, as well as our other friends. But, you never get to second base if you never leave first base. So, I had to break out of the comfort zone . . . again. I did.

So, now, I’m here in Keyser, WV about a 90-minute drive from Winchester and close to a three hour drive from Falls Church (a little less to Fairfax). This little town is, unfortunately, like so many small towns around the U.S. struggling to stay alive. It’s old, there are few amenities here (there is a small Super WalMart – that puts Keyser on the map), but generally it’s a fairly depressing place. The population appears to be mostly older (not that I’m any spring chicken, but I may be one of the youngsters around here). There is a small, two-year college attached to West Virginia University, though I don’t see a lot of interaction between the students and the town. There’s just not much to do here. And, most of the surrounding area and towns are in similar shape. The industries and jobs have left the area. There also seems to be a bit of a crime spree going on in the region and the illegal drug business seems to be thriving around here. But, I have my friend  - when she’s not helping our nation’s war veterans at the VA hospital in Martinsburg, WV (about two hours from here) where she is a psychiatric nurse - and her 89 year old mother to hang out with. The rest of the time, I’m in this little room working on my own stuff or planning or working on the van.

And the van, that’s the real key to everything for me at this point. While it’s actually quite sound and runs very well, the used car dealer I bought it from (and I don’t usually like dealing with used car dealers) had it checked out after I test drove it and was pleased and found it needed some front end work. He had the work done, for which I was appreciative. However, it didn’t drive anywhere near as well as it did before the work was done. Here’s one of those “life happens” things again. It ultimately took nearly two months to figure out exactly what adjustments had been screwed up by his mechanic when he did the front end work to get this unit driving safely again. I was on the verge of throwing up my hands and selling it at a loss just to get rid of it. But, fortunately, my regular mechanic, Marty, in Winchester worked with me and we ultimately got it back to handling the way it should. I hate “white knuckle” driving and that’s what I was doing, especially on the back, rural, two lane roads where I plan to spend most of my time driving to see this country. Interstates are fast, but they’re boring and you don’t see Americana at 70 miles per hour.

Finally, I feel comfortable again with this van. I have been doing designing for the build-in of the interior, locating the materials and researching the various basic appliances I will install. I have designed two floor plans one of which I must make a final decision on. I’ve joined some “van groups” on Yahoo including one that is all about converting vans like mine to live in. Probably the most challenging issue I am working on is the electrical system. Currently, I’m not considering having a gasoline-powered generator on board. So, that means I have to wire it up for both 12 volts DC with 110 volt AC provided by an inverter and regular 110 volt AC from shore power (110 volt AC provided at a campground or from someone’s home). Other factors include switching between power sources and keeping the separate bank of deep-cycle “house” batteries charged.

You know, I could just pull the seats out, throw my clothes in stuffed in duffel bags, have a small, inflatable air mattress, an ice chest cooler (which I already own) and be on the road. I used to do that many years ago when I was younger and it was great. Heck! I used to camp in the back of my old ’67 Mustang fastback. But, that’s not my desire nor my plan if I’m going to truly enjoy being a “professional” nomad. Additionally, along with the power challenges, this vehicle has to be able to support my “techy” requirements. That means a comfortable workspace for my computers, doing audio, photography and probably some video editing and production. And, of course, it has to support my writing and blogging. I’ll carry a scanner and a laser printer, too. And, I’ll need storage space for my recording gear and peripherals. So, just throwing an air mattress in and taking off is not going to fulfill my dreams and my objectives.

But, we are making progress. Here are some photos of the van in its current state.

The seats and couch have been removed giving me approximate 50 sq ft of usual floor space to turn into a livable and working environment. I still have to remove the seat belt anchors and the seat mounting plates, a job that is going to require more effort then I anticipated and will likely require two people and a serious jack. You can see part of the seat belt challenge in the photo as well as the seat mounting plate.

The wood trim is nice, but not very utilitarian and the accent lighting is basically useless, especially the panel in the center of the ceiling. So, I’m contemplating what I can take out and what I should leave in. Storage is a major issue in creating a vehicle one will live in and carry not only clothes, but recording, photography and computer equipment and supplies, plus food, water and certain paper goods for both the small galley and the porta-potty toilet I’ll have. So, some of the trim work supports some storage and may remain or be modified for better utilization.

I will never use the TV installed over the cockpit. I have a 24” computer monitor I’ll be installing in the workstation and I’ll use that for entertainment purposes. The space where the current 13” TV is installed will become additional storage space. Since that area is wired for 12 volts DC, I may find some other use for it, also.  The secondary stereo in the passenger area has to go, totally useless for my needs.

There is also a dropped ceiling in the rear of the van with a storage cupboard in it and two speakers, I guess, attached to the passenger stereo I’ll be removing. I’m going to explore how to either remove it for additional headroom in the rear or modify it for more storage (eliminating the speakers for sure). If I remove it, it opens the possibility of installing a roof top RV type air conditioner in that area, should I ever decide that I want A/C when I’m at a location with 110 volt AC shore power. That remains to be seen. Just as carrying an AC generator remains to be seen. I’ll have a place to carry a small generator if I ever choose to. 

Here is the floor plan I’m leaning toward. It is definitely compact, however, it utilizes every bit of space in the 50 sq ft to the maximum. Several areas become multi-functional like the couch that will also serve as my bunk and the workstation that will handle computer work, audio/video/photo editing, production and even voice-overs and it will also be my entertainment center.

Finally, All of the luxury conversion travel vans are tricked out with a lot of “junk” just to give them pizazz and sucker the original buyers into paying exorbitant amounts of money for these things. This gem probably ran about $45,000 to $50,000 in 1994 – Ouch! One of these add-ons is the running boards and flared trim around the wheels. I checked with Billy, the automotive body guy in the adjoining building with my mechanic, Marty. I asked him to look at them and see if there was any economical way and if there was any reason to fix and keep these things. It’s nice to know honest people. He said they are plastic and last a few years and then start looking like the ones on my van. You can see from the photos that there are cracks all over them and chunks are actually broken off leaving gaping holes. He said (what I was thinking, too) just take them off and get rid of a headache. If I want running boards for ease in getting into the van, I can buy stainless steel units made for this van and install them. They’ll look way better, be totally functional and last for the life of the van. These buggers are in such bad shape they squeak and rattle when I’m driving down the road. The noise is very annoying. It’s sort of like when someone scratches his fingernails on an old blackboard. So, they are going, period.

And this is where things stand at this time. While progress has been made (and I’ve actually been using the van to haul stuff from the storage units in Winchester out here to Keyser and from my room in Winchester and Falls Church), it is taking longer – arrgh – then I expected and wanted it to.

So far, it really hasn’t cost me more. I’ve found many ways in my designing and locating resources to purchase from to save money. I have decided to upgrade the 12-volt cooler to a better unit (a little more cost). The 12-volt DC/110 volt AC electrical system will cost a fair amount more then I originally anticipated, but will be well worth it. I may or may not put new stainless steel running boards on the unit at this time, but that will add some cost I hadn’t originally planned on if I do. I was planning on having a custom made mattress made for the bunk/couch, however, with some careful research I’ve found I can have a wonderfully comfortable memory foam mattress at about half the cost of the custom mattress.

I’ve also decided that I want to do a really nice build-in job, after all, it’s going to be my home on the road and I want to be able to show it off to those I meet along the way. And, who knows, perhaps, it will increase its resale value for another adventurer when I’m ready to upgrade to my next step. All in all, I’m sure, in the end analysis, it will end up costing something more then I originally anticipated, but I’m sure it’s going to pay off in comfort and livability. 

That's all for this update. More as “life continues to happen” and progress is being made.


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