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Meet the Dream Catcher
Van life, here I come!
“Turn around!” I shouted at Seth in the middle of our two-hour drive home from the fertility clinic in Vermont. “Did you see that?”
“Of course, dear,” he said, giving me the side-eye as he put his blinker on and pulled into a dirt driveway to reverse direction.
We backtracked on the two-lane highway and turned into the parking lot of a carpet store, where a shiny white-and-blue van was parked with a FOR SALE sign in the window. Seth and I have an unspoken rule to investigate all roadside vehicles for sale that might be big enough to live in, so we hopped out to check out the specs, which were scrawled in the margins of the sign.
My heart sank: although this van was more than 20 years old, the owner was asking $35,000. That was more than triple the price I expected for a rig of that vintage.
“Why is it so expensive?” I asked Seth, since he knows a lot more about vehicles than I do.
“It’s a Roadtrek,” he explained. “They’re proud of those things.”
Moments later, the proud Roadtrek owner emerged from the carpet store to greet us. She introduced herself as Leslie and launched into a sales pitch for her rig.
“It was my Covid capsule,” she explained. “I drove cross-country to spend time with my grandkids. I had everything I needed!” Leslie told us all the work she’d done in preparation to sell the van, including the carpet she just ordered. She invited us to take a peek inside, explaining how the hallway converted into a shower with a drain under the rug.
I only glanced inside, and I didn’t take any pictures, because I knew the price was out of reach and I didn’t want to get excited. We listened and nodded, introduced Leslie to our two dogs who were squeaking in the back of our Honda Element, pretended we would call her after some careful consideration, and then we went on our way.
For the next hour, I couldn’t stop thinking about the Roadtrek. It was the perfect size: small enough to fit in a city parking space, but big enough to sleep 2-3 people (and/or dogs), with a kitchen, microwave, toilet, shower, and a dinette that converted into a king-sized bed in the back. It was exactly the kind of rig I’ve dreamed of for the past two years: something I could travel in solo with the dogs, with decent gas mileage, small enough to stealth camp in a city but self-sufficient enough to boondock for a week on public land, with enough storage to carry all my adventure gear.
I HAD to have it!
But financially, there was no way I could scrape together $35,000 in cash, nor did it seem wise to pay so much money for a 2002 van. “What if we rent it out?” I asked Seth, stretching for a way to make it work. We both agreed that the price was too high in general, and definitely too high for us.
My heart broke.
I had just returned from my first camping trip in the 2004 Honda Element I bought last fall—the one I’d dreamed of driving to Baja last winter until the dog got cancer and my period returned, prompting another round of fertility treatments. On my trip to Cape Cod, I realized how challenging it was to sleep, cook, eat, bathe, and go to the bathroom in the confines of a small SUV. For one thing, I had to get the dogs out of the car and push the front seats all the way forward in order to extend the sleeping platform in the back. With the platform extended, I couldn’t get to any of my gear underneath. Finding a pair of socks involved yanking several duffel bags through a small opening, then reaching under the platform and digging blindly through the bag that might have the socks until I felt something sock-like, pulling out whatever was in my hand, then Tetris-ing the bags back in (because they only fit one specific way). I had to anticipate everything I might want to use during the day so I’d only have to do this once, but inevitably I’d forget to grab clean underwear and I’d have to shuffle everything all over again. I couldn’t drive when the platform was in bed-mode, so every morning I had to repeat the process in reverse and put the bed away before I could go anywhere. This dance involved opening and closing the Element’s heavy suicide doors a dozen times to move all the seats and pull the sheets and blanket back in place. It got old fast. And I was lucky enough to have good weather. Doing any of this in the rain would have left the dogs and me soaked by the process, and in turn soaking the bed and the seats as soon as we jumped in the car to go somewhere.
It wasn’t going to work for the kind of trip I wanted to take: a trip where I’d be fully autonomous and financially frugal, boondocking on public lands and stealth-camping in cities to avoid nightly campground fees, cooking my own food from the grocery store, and enjoying a shower every day. I wanted a rig I could drive all the way to Alaska for the honeymoon Seth and I had been dreaming of since our wedding in 2020. I needed a camper van, but how was I going to afford one?
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Right before I left for Cape Cod, Seth resurrected my 2003 Chevy Astro van, which had been incapacitated by a mystery electrical issue for the past two years. He replaced a part that looked like a giant metal spider, and suddenly the van was running again. We started bingeing YouTube videos about DIY Astro camper van conversions, puzzling over which way to orient the bed (which takes up most of the back), how to incorporate a gas cook stove, and where to store the water jugs and poop bucket. It would be a step up from Element camping because I wouldn’t have to make up the bed every day, and there was enough space for me to go to the bathroom and cook in the privacy of the vehicle. But it still had no self-contained shower, no proper waste disposal, limited water and food storage, and no way to stand up. It would be tight with just me and the two dogs and my gear; adding Seth would make it impossibly cramped. And I didn’t trust the Astro to make it 10,000 miles to Alaska and back, since it hadn’t left my driveway in two years.
The Astro was the most affordable solution to my camper problem, but I wanted a rig that Seth and I could travel in comfortably together without risking a roadside divorce, and preferably one that could grow with our family if we managed to have a baby and/or adopt a child. I started scouring Craig’s List and Facebook Marketplace for Class B camper vans. I was drawn to the manufactured models that were built out, versus the DIY builds that lacked key amenities. The price of used vans and RVs skyrocketed thanks to the pandemic (when no one wanted to stay in hotels) and the growing influencer culture of “Van Life” that turned living on the road into an Instagram-worthy fad. Prices were twice as high as when we started daydreaming about vans a few years earlier. Twenty-year-old vans were selling for over $20K, and based on our experience with our first RV—a 1991 Winnebago Warrior whose brakes caught fire rolling into a campground in Pennsylvania—we knew we didn’t want to go much more than two decades old.
I thought I hit the jackpot when I found a nice-looking 1999 Coachmen van listed for $10,500 on Facebook Marketplace, and I recognized the sellers as relatives of a hiking friend of mine. I reached out, but I never heard back. I got in touch with my friend, who told me it was his mom’s van and they had raised the asking price because so many offers came in. By the time I inquired, it had already sold to an RV dealer with cash in hand, who relisted the van a week later for $19,000. I kicked myself for missing out, and even contacted the dealer about it, but he had sold it immediately at the higher price.
I hadn’t realized that the camper van market was as cutthroat as the pandemic housing market. Several more inquiries ended this way, with the van selling before I could see it. I needed a new strategy if I wanted to play this game. I started checking for new listings daily, so I’d be the first to inquire. I came up with a way to get enough cash for the purchase: I would drain my retirement account from my two years of teaching, and take out a 5-year, 8.99% loan on my credit card. I hadn’t had a car payment in a decade, and I’d rather have an adventure van than a new car. I decided I was just taking my retirement a few decades early, while I could still enjoy it.
The retirement disbursement and credit card loan could get me $17,000, which was within striking range of the rigs I was interested in. It didn’t leave me much to spare, and I had to factor in whatever mechanical and aesthetic upgrades might be needed. But now that I had a feasible (although foolhardy) financial plan, I could get serious about van-shopping.
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My first successful inquiry was with a woman who asked to be called Beez for the purposes of this story. Beez was selling her 2002 Roadtrek 190 Popular, a vehicle she’d traveled in for decades with her late husband, who passed away earlier this year. It was the exact same van Leslie showed us, except this one had purple trim instead of blue, and it had a much lower price tag. Over the phone, she told me they had been to Alaska and Baja, and I said those were on my bucket list. “It’s so damn much fun, Liz!” she told me, and in that moment I knew Beez must be damn fun. I wanted to meet her as much as I wanted to see her Roadtrek, so I made plans to drive to Massachusetts that weekend on my way to my camping trip in Acadia.
Not that Massachusetts was on the way to Acadia; it was a three-hour detour south before turning around for the five-hour trip north into Maine. I was committed, though. Seth had to drive separately and return home for the work week, but it was important for him to evaluate the mechanical condition of the rig. We met up with Beez in the parking lot of the Masonic Temple, where she stored the van for the winter. She sat on the tailgate of her Subaru, legs dangling, working on a crossword puzzle. A gray baseball cap contained her white hair, and she wore a pink button-up shirt, faded blue jeans, and running sneakers. “Welcome to my office!” she joked.
After some introductions, Beez returned to her crossword puzzle while we pored over her Roadtrek inside and out. The interior upholstery was a muted lavender color, similar to our old Winnebago. “That’s the one thing I would change about it,” she told us. “I never cared for the purple.” Beez and her husband had also lived on sailboats during their 30-year retirement, and she pointed out how the Roadtrek was designed like a sailboat cabin, making use of every available nook and cranny for storage. While Seth poked around under the hood and shimmied under the van, I figured out how to convert the couch-and-dinette setup in the back to a king-sized bed. I also got a closer look at the hallway-shower that Leslie had pointed out, and I practiced pulling the shower curtain out of the toilet-closet along a track in the ceiling to create a square stall that hovered above a recessed plastic floor with a drain in it.
Once I was done playing and Seth was done poking, we asked Beez if we could take a test drive. The three of us donned our masks (because of my ongoing covid anxiety) and piled into the van, me in the driver’s seat, Seth as copilot, and Beez riding in the back seat for the first time in her life. We took a spin around the upscale coastal town where she lived, gunning it across a causeway and then slowing down for some turns in a residential neighborhood. On one tight turn, the van shuddered as I steered. It didn’t sound good. Seth and I switched places and found another corner to replicate the problem with him in the cockpit. Then he hopped out to watch what was happening as I steered. “It’s probably a ball joint,” he reasoned. Whatever it was needed to be fixed before the rig would make it to Alaska.
While we drove, I peppered Beez with questions about her adventures. She said that she and her husband had been carpenters into their early 40s, when they decided to transition to corporate careers so they could retire someday. Beez went back to school for an MBA and became a banker. “We both put on our suit and tie every day and retired 11 years later,” she told us. She was 55 when they retired, and the two of them traveled for 30 years until her husband passed away at age 89. Beez is now 85, and was selling the Roadtrek because she didn’t want to travel alone.
It felt safe to open up to Beez about my motivation to travel—my struggle with infertility, reaching the end of the road with our treatments, and needing a break before deciding how to move forward. It turns out that Beez’s three children are all adopted. She told me about the Christmas Eve in 1965 when she rushed to the hospital in pain and learned that she had an ectopic pregnancy, where the embryo attaches in a non-viable location inside the fallopian tube instead of making its way to the uterus. The doctor on call arrived from a Christmas Eve gathering wearing a pink collared shirt. He removed her fallopian tube, informed her that the other tube was blocked, and told her that she would never have children. Then he returned to his cocktail party.
There is a certain knowing between women who have endured the grief of infertility, and yet—Beez was so young when it happened, her trauma was so sudden, her options so limited. In-vitro fertilization and other fertility treatments were decades away from being developed, so Beez knew that if she wanted children, she would adopt. A part of me envied the certainty of her situation even as I mourned her loss and her trauma. I knew I’d met a kindred spirit, and our shared grief sealed the bond.
After we rolled back into the parking lot, Seth and I talked privately about whether we would proceed with the purchase. I wanted this Roadtrek with all my heart, but Beez’s asking price was beyond my budget, especially if it needed work. Seth had concerns about the condition of the body, undercarriage, brakes, steering, and other mechanical components. He didn’t think the van would be roadworthy for a long trip without a significant investment in parts and many weeks of his own labor. I asked him if we should make an offer, and how much. He wasn’t comfortable going much higher than $10K, in case some worst-case-scenario issues needed to be addressed, like a new transmission.
When we returned to Beez’s “office,” she invited me to join her on the Subaru tailgate. I let Seth do the negotiating, since he knew better than I did (and probably better than Beez did) what kind of work was needed to put Roadtrek back on the road. I winced as he mumbled his low-ball offer, knowing it might offend our new friend. In the back of our minds, we hoped she would meet us in the middle, but it turns out she didn’t have to: a guy who said he was a lawyer was scheduled to see the van right after us. I knew it made sense for her to wait and see if some deep-pocketed big-city professional would bite at her asking price.
We sat in uncomfortable silence for a long moment. “I can’t go that low,” she said.
I paused and took a breath, then had a spark of inspiration.
“I have an idea,” I told her. “Let me take you with me! You can show me around Alaska and Baja!” I pictured the two of us cruising the continent like Thelma and Louise, wind in our hair, laughing and crying at the absurdity of life.
Her eyes filled with tears as she reflected on my offer. “Thank you, but it’s too soon,” she said. I realized that all those places held memories of her husband, her life-long love. His loss was too raw. She couldn’t live in this van and revisit those places without him. She apologized for crying, but my eyes filled up too. I recognized her pain.
“You know, this trip to Alaska is my consolation prize for not being able to have babies,” I confided, choking on the words. It was the first time I’d acknowledged this out loud. Beez reached over and put her arm around me as the tears came. I wanted her to join me on my 10,000-mile grief tour of North America. If anyone could understand and empathize, it was this woman.
As we said goodbye, I urged her to reconsider my offer. “Even if I don’t buy your van, you can still come with me!” I called out as we waved goodbye across the parking lot. “Let us know if you get another offer, and we’ll see what we can do!” I climbed in my Honda Element and headed to Maine with the dogs, while Seth turned around and drove home in his Subaru.
I felt sad leaving Beez and her Roadtrek, but the price was too much of a stretch for my budget, especially with the amount of work the van needed. If we had to drain our savings for the repairs, we wouldn’t have any money for our trip. Walking away from the Roadtrek was hard, but it was the right decision. I trusted that something was going to work out—either Beez would reconsider her price, or I’d find something else.
My new obsession with Roadtreks made me notice them everywhere. It’s called the recency bias, like when you buy a red car and suddenly there are red cars all over the place. On my trip to Maine, there was a white-and-blue Roadtrek parked in someone’s yard that I drove past every day on the way to the campground, and another one outside a house along the main highway. I couldn’t stop rubbernecking these vans and wishing they were mine.
I was anxious about cashing out my retirement and maxing out my credit card to buy a rig, though. I contemplated whether I could take my trip to Alaska with the Element and a tent, rather than trying to sleep in the back of the car. The problem with tent camping is that it requires a campsite, and a month of campground fees costs more than my mortgage. It’s a pain to get everything set up and taken down (especially in the rain), and isn’t ideal when you’re traveling to new places every day. When I was camping in Acadia, I struggled to prepare meals with my car-camping setup, and I had to pay $50 at the local YMCA for a week of showers. The Element works best for local camping trips in good weather, not months on the road. I knew I needed a better solution if I was going to drive across the continent.
I felt the urgency to find a van soon so I could make it to Alaska before the end of summer, but there was a lot going on when I returned from Maine. I drove six hours home on a Monday, then got up early Tuesday for a two-hour drive to the veterinary oncologist. Laney was getting electrochemotherapy to treat the cancerous lumps that were removed in January. I dropped her off at chemo and made my way to the fertility clinic, where I had a follicular ultrasound in preparation for my final IUI procedure (at least the vet and the fertility doctor were in the same city). The next day, the nurse informed me that our IUI was canceled once again because I’d ovulated early. I wanted to rage and cry, but two hours later I had to have my house spotless and put on a smiling face for our final home-study visit to get certified to adopt through foster care. I spent the next day in bed despondent because we had missed our last chance at fertility treatments.
In the wake of this emotional rollercoaster, I did what I always do to distract from my pain: I planned my next adventure. By Friday, I had arranged to see two vans on Saturday. Both were hundreds of miles away from our home, but in the same general direction (south), which also happened to be the direction of Seth’s parents’ lake house. My in-laws had just arrived in New Hampshire for the summer from their home in Ohio, so we would stop and visit them after scoping out some campers.
The first rig we visited was a vintage 1989 Chevy Astro Tiger ProVan. This is a rare camper van built on the Astro chassis, with a small kitchen and dinette in the back and a canvas pop-top that opens to standing height and creates a bed over the cab. A young guy named Billy lived in the van for two years and was selling it so he could move to Austin to pursue his music career. The price was right, and the van had a definite “cool” factor, but the brown interior needed a remodel, the canvas was in rough shape, and we couldn’t escape the fact that it was a 1989 van. I wished Billy the best in his travels, but I knew this rig wasn’t right for me.
It started raining as we drove further south into Connecticut. By the time we turned in to the mobile home park where we would see our next rig, it was pouring. We pulled up in front of the home that had a shiny white-and-blue 1999 Roadtrek 190 Popular parked outside. It looked identical to Leslie’s van that had sparked my Roadtrek fever. I pulled out my umbrella and knocked on the door of the house, where I was greeted by a friendly woman named Diane. Undeterred by the deluge, she put on her rain slicker and rubber boots and came outside to show us the van.
Diane was not the owner of the vehicle; she was in charge of selling it for her 82-year-old friend Jean, who had moved into an assisted living facility. Diane and Jean were part of a group of solo women who caravaned together on trips up and down the East Coast. Diane’s 2015 Roadtrek Zion was parked behind the rig that was for sale, and before she bought that van, she had owned a smaller version of Jean’s rig, a Roadtrek 170 Popular. Diane talked about the fun they’d had traveling together, and how sad it was that Jean could no longer accompany them due to her mobility issues (I noticed the van had handicapped plates). Diane was eager to get Jean’s van out of the driveway before leaving for her summer travels.
Seth inspected the outside of the van, popped the hood, and crawled underneath in the pouring rain while I checked the interior. The rig was spotless on the inside and well-cared-for. Seth said the same about the exterior: the rust on the undercarriage wasn’t too bad, the body was in decent shape, and the engine was so clean he wondered if it had been detailed. I loved the blue upholstery; Beez was right that it was better than her purple trim. I felt right at home in this van that Jean had dubbed The Dream Catcher.
We took it for a test drive, and I felt comfortable in the cockpit. The Dream Catcher rode smoothly down the back roads and onto the interstate. The only issue was that the steering pulled to the right, so it needed an alignment. Diane and Seth agreed that the tires should be replaced. They looked brand new and had very little wear, but they had reached the age where the rubber was cracking. Other than that, the Dream Catcher seemed ready to hit the road. Diane said she had tested all the systems and made sure they were in working order. I felt confident that this van could get me to Alaska. And the best part was that it was within my price range: $18,000, with room to negotiate.
We told Diane we were interested, and she gave me Jean’s contact information. I called the next day. My heart raced and my palms sweat as I dialed her number to make an offer on the van. Gone was the anxiety I’d had about buying Beez’s rig; this time I was full of excitement, hoping to make a winning bid on my very own adventuremobile.
Jean texted me that she was traveling and would connect with me the next day. It felt like having a great date with someone and then waiting to see if they would call back. I was in love with this van, and I had to make it mine!
When Jean and I finally spoke, it felt like talking to a friend. She was warm and generous, and she had no problem knocking $1,000 off the price to cover the cost of new tires and an alignment, or she offered to have it done for us if we paid the asking price. She explained that she had already lowered her price because of a rusty spot in the front of the frame under the driver’s side, based on a quote she’d gotten to repair that. I was relieved to be negotiating with someone who was so fair, and compared to the other Roadtreks I’d seen, I thought her price was reasonable for the condition and mileage of the vehicle (it was just under 92,000 miles). I agreed to pay $17,000 and have Seth take care of the tires and alignment. By that afternoon, we had a purchase and sale agreement signed, and I initiated my retirement disbursement and credit card loan so I’d have cash on hand for the purchase.
It was finally happening!
A lot of dominoes had to fall into place before I could bring the Dream Catcher home. I brought our purchase agreement to the DMV to get temporary plates so I could drive it from Connecticut back to New Hampshire. We coordinated a pick-up date with Jean and Diane. I printed a bill of sale. I went to the bank to get a cashier’s check for $17,000. Seth helped me find RV insurance after our regular insurance company denied coverage (we ended up getting a full-timers policy with Roamly, since I planned to be on the road at least 6 months). A week and a half later, we drove back to Connecticut to meet Jean and pick up my Roadtrek.
Diane and her boyfriend drove the rig to Jean’s place, where we would complete the transaction and collect boxes full of RV accessories that Jean had in storage. A friend of Jean’s was there as well, and it felt like a party as the six of us loaded wheel chocks and miniature kitchen appliances into the Dream Catcher. Everyone looked on and took pictures as Jean and I signed paperwork to make the sale official and she handed me the keys. I was so happy that I gave the van a big hug! Diane presented me with a USB flash drive on which she had loaded detailed instructions about maintenance, winterization, and Roadtrek resources. She gave me a full tour of the RV features and how to use them, from the black and gray water tanks to the generator, 3-way refrigerator, freshwater tank, automatic ceiling fan, water pump, and more. I kicked myself afterward for not recording her tutorial on my phone, because I immediately forgot everything in the excitement of being a van owner.
It was a bittersweet day for Jean and Diane, who had traveled together for years. I started a group text thread the next day to thank them both and share pictures. Diane said, “The Dream Catcher has the perfect new owner. I knew it as soon as you stepped into her and hugged her. May you have many happy years together filled with wonderful adventures.”
Jean replied, “Although it was a little sad parting from my Dream Catcher after so many years, I feel good about her going to you. Your show of love for her warmed my heart. Please stay in touch and let us know where you are.”
I told Jean about my plans to drive to Alaska this summer, and she said, “That was the one trip I had hoped to do but time ran out for me. So I will experience it vicariously through you. Safe travels.” She also suggested that I get to know the rig by camping locally before setting out for a 5,000-mile drive.
I knew Jean was right about getting to know the van; I had never had to fill a water tank or empty a black tank or maintain a generator on my own (during our travels in our 1991 Winnebago, Seth had handled all that). But I was in a time crunch if I was going to make it to Alaska this year, so I would have to figure it out on the road.
On our way home from Connecticut with the Dream Catcher, Seth and I spent the weekend at his parents’ lake house. I proudly pulled the van into the gravel parking spot next to the lake and marveled that she was mine. I spent an entire rainy day camped out in the van, with the front captain’s chair swiveled around to put my feet up on the velvety blue back seat. I pulled my Alaska guidebook and map out of my backpack, along with The Milepost, a guide to the famous Alaska-Canada highway. I schemed my route across the Trans-Canada highway to the Alcan and on to Fairbanks, Anchorage, and the Kenai Peninsula. I planned to leave in July and reach Alaska by August, so Seth could fly up for two weeks for our honeymoon and visit Denali National Park. Once he flew home, I’d make my way to the Inside Passage and explore the islands by ferry before driving south through the Canadian Rockies. If all went well, I planned to make my way down the West Coast all the way to Mexico, and spend the winter in Baja California.
Seth popped his head in the van to bring me lunch, since I refused to leave. “I just overheard these two guys riding by on bikes,” he told me. “And one of them turns to the other one and goes: That is the VAN and that is the SPOT!”
I beamed. After years of rubbernecking every camper van I saw on the road, or in a parking lot, or parked in someone’s yard, I was finally on the receiving end of some van envy! I was a proud Roadtrek owner.
The following day, I loaded the dogs in the van to drive the final leg of the trip home. I felt like a queen on a throne, looking down at all the cars below me as I cruised along the highway. I blasted Indigo Girls songs and sang along, word for word. My heart quickened at the freedom of being on the road with everything I needed. When I pulled into the rest area, I didn’t even get out of the van—I had my own toilet!
I was ready to go. I didn’t want to drive home. I wanted to keep heading north, into Canada, then west across the plains, into the Rockies, and up to the Yukon. I was ready to spread my wings and fly this rig to parts unknown with my two furry sidekicks. I was ready to leave behind the stress and sadness of the failed pregnancies and fertility treatments that had defined our three-year marriage. I couldn’t wait to spend our third wedding anniversary gazing out the windows of the Dream Catcher at the snowy summit of Denali.
Most of all, I was excited to become part of this community of badass women like Leslie, Beez, Diane, and Jean, driving their vans around the country. I hope I’m still adventuring when I’m 80!
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