The things we carry (and where)

  • Our rolling house IS a very, very, very fine house (a gift from Janie). And the owl, crafted from an A&W Root Beer can, is a gift from our son, Nate, to remind me of my first job, the beginning of it all!

People we meet are amazed that we’re actually living in our fancy camper van. One of the first things they ask us is, “What do you do with all of your stuff?” Then, “What did you do with all your other stuff?”

Stuff seems to be the big issue for people. It was for us when we lived in a big house. We filled it with stuff. When we decided to sell the house and live on the road, we got rid of about 60 percent of our stuff. The rest, antiques, family photos, boxes of vintage Christmas decorations that can’t be replaced, that beautiful glass-front bookcase we waited years to buy, that stuff is in storage for the day we decide to stop rolling, whenever that may be. In fact, Tom and I figure that, if we had it to do again, we would get rid of half of what’s in storage. We haven’t missed any of it in the more than a year since we left. Our bed and dresser now sit in my mother’s guest room, where we stay when we go home for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

But what did we take? What’s in The Epic Van? What makes it a home? What was a mistake and what was sent packing?

First, the dimensions. The Epic Van, a 2015 Roadtrek RS Adventurous, is 22 feet, 9 inches long. Inside, it’s a little more than 5½ feet wide and 6¼ feet tall. Our “bedroom/dining room/living room” is the rear third of that. The kitchen uses about two-thirds of the five-foot center section, with the other third reserved for the bathroom/shower and half-closet. Up front is additional seating for a third or fourth passenger and some space we use for storage. So we’re really living out of about 130 square feet. But our yard is about 3.1 million square miles of the lower 48 states.

Our things are mostly winnowed down to life’s necessities, but there are a couple of extravagances, and even a few pieces that simply remind us of home and loved ones.

Let me invite you into The Epic Van for a tour of all the stuff that fits.

First, the completely non-functional, purely decorative, joy-inducing items that make it feel like home. Beside the sliding door, on two hooks, hang two dolls my sister, Nancy, re-created, depicting Tom and I as our former, employed journalist selves, complete with miniature work badges copied from our days at The Arizona Republic. The dolls remind us of the years of rewarding work, and the fact that we no longer have meetings, deadlines, or bosses. Every day is a vacation.

On the rear-view mirror is a ceramic piece from my friend and longtime co-worker, Janie, with the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young lyric, “Our house is a very, very, very fine house,” and an owl made out of an A&W Root Beer can, a gift from our son, Nate, to remind me of my very first paid job making floats at A&W in Hawaii.

On the dorm-sized refrigerator are two magnets: one from Nate, that shows the back of a vintage camper van with a spare-tire cover that says, “Just be cool,” and another, from Janie, that shows stairs leading into the moonlit sky that says, “Wander where there is no path.” On the bathroom door hangs a vintage dishtowel from Tom’s sister, Ronda, embroidered with two cats, carrying suitcases, heading out on an adventure.

In the back in the game bin, is a handmade, wooden tri-domino game that my friend Tami gave us, and that we pull out by the campfire. I nearly always win, although, must admit that Tom snuck by me on the last go round. Tami also gave me a boatload of postcard stamps that I have barely cracked. I’m a bad, bad friend.

And in the half-closet is a true extravagance, my ukulele. My dad played ukulele in college and when we lived in Hawaii, and it brings back wonderful memories for me. I can’t play it very well, but I have vowed to get better.

The rest is nearly all functional, with very little room for the frivolous.

Up front, near the driver and passenger seats, we keep our Bible, a book called 1,000 Places to See Before You Die. I love this book, used it on our pre-Epic Van vacations, and frequently gave it as a gift to people who were retiring. It’s never let us down. The sites it highlights are always worth visiting. We skip the expensive resorts and restaurants, which are no longer in our budget, but we hit everything else anywhere near our route. Up here, we also have our bird and tree identification books, gifts from our son, Nate, and our binoculars. We’re really terrible birders, but we have fun when we go with guides. Tom is obsessed with trees, and was talking to a fellow camper at Holland, Michigan, a botanist who excitedly told him about, an extensive guide to identifying trees of the region. On the side of the driver’s chair is the Rand McNally. We recently bought a new one because our old one was so frayed, but first we transferred all the spots we’d circled from other traveler’s recommendations. I also usually have my camera bag next to my seat, because I often shoot from the passenger window, capturing the countryside flying by. My camera is a Cannon EOS 5D Mark III, and I have two lenses, a 50 mm 1.2, and a 70-200 mm, 4.0.

In the pocket of my door, the passenger door, is the sunscreen, bug spray, water purifyer and a flashlight.

Behind the driver’s seat, we have our two folding Brompton bikes, our helmets, and the carryall that fits on the bike. These bikes are amazing, folding up small enough that they would fit in the overhead compartment of an airplane. I didn’t want to lengthen the van with a bike rack in the back, or carry bikes back there getting covered in road dirt. We pull out the bikes whenever we get a chance. We’ve used them to cruise coastline boardwalks, on self-guided city architectural tours, to pop out to the store, and anywhere we find a bike path. When we need something sturdier for trails, we rent bikes.

Next to the bikes, we have a five-gallon water jug that we use for drinking and cooking. There is a fresh-water tank onboard, but I prefer to drink from the jug. Our small trash can sits next to it.

On the seat behind the driver’s seat, I keep my knitting. I confess, I’m a fiber freak. I love to knit and tend to bring more than I can possibly use. This year, I’ve really pared down, but I’ve already knitted several hats for my dear friend, Janie, recovering from a bone marrow transplant, an intricate scarf for myself, and some other gifts. There is a lauhala tote I bought in Hawaii that has our files, including my writing projects. On top of the knitting bag is where our hats live. Having them here makes it easy to grab them as we head out for a walk or hike. Tom has one with a Lawrence-of-Arabia flap, and, until recently, I had a straw hat from Target that I had decorated with a bark-cloth flower lei I bought at a Hawaiian festival. It is the only hat I have ever loved, and I am sad to report that, after a year and a half of travels, I left it somewhere. I can’t even place where. At the Laundromat? A visitor’s center? A historic home we toured? Its weird, but maybe because of having less stuff, I was in a real funk for days after I lost that piece of stuff. I found the exact hat again at Target, but will have to find another lei. In the cabinet above that seat is the solar panel monitor and all the manuals for the vehicle. We also stash the toilet paper here.

In the center aisle, we have a rug we bought at an art fair made of multi-colored Pendelton wool scraps.

Moving into the kitchen, we usually stuff veggies in the microwave, as we rarely use it. You need to be plugged in or use the generator to have enough power, and we rarely do either. In the spice rack over the sink, there are salt and pepper, hand sanitizer and the most-used spices. The cabinet above serves as the pantry, where we store cereal, rice, pasta and a few cans. The next cabinet over has paper plates and bowls, a measuring cup, and one small mixing bowl, in which are nested the two ceramic bowls in which we usually serve dinner. We cushion them with two hot pads. The third cabinet in the kitchen area has two plastic bins, one for my Aeropress coffee maker, coffee and tea, and the other for Tom’s spices that won’t fit in the spice rack. We have one pot and one frying pan, both heavy and non-stick, that fit in the cabinet directly over the driver and passenger seats. We also keep our plastic baggies up there, and our bag of non-daily toiletries, like bandages, vitamin resupply, etc.

The drawers in the kitchen hold two spatulas, two large serving spoons, our two sets of silverware, a can opener, wine/beer opener, a set of cooking knives, and hot pads and dishtowels Nancy sewed for us in material to complement our bedspreads and rug. At the end of the kitchen unit, where it meets Tom’s side of the bed, we slide a large cutting board that we use to chop, either inside or outside on our camp table.

The cabinet over Tom’s side of the bed holds his clothes, a couple of pairs of jeans, a couple of pairs of shorts, a handful of T-shirts, underwear and socks. We keep our clothes in a series of ebags, small zippered bags that keep things together. The back cabinet over the bed hold both of our toiletry bins, shampoo, toothpaste, toothbrushes, etc., and our swimming gear, suits, sun shirts, in another ebag. On my side of the bed, my cabinet holds my clothes and my C-Pap machine that I wear at night because of my sleep apnea. It plugs in where the TV screen and DVD player plug in.

We only use the screen to occasionally watch Redbox movies. We never watch TV. We didn’t purchase a plan, and found out recently that our antenna is rusted, finally proving it wasn’t just because we were too stupid to get over-the-air channels.

The bed can electronically move into a couch, and in the beginning we did that every day. But then we had to use space to store the bedding, and we decided sitting on the beds to read or rest was more comfortable than using the couch, so now we leave it down all the time. I took two beautiful, pale-green, queen-sized quilts from Restoration Hardware, folded them in half and sewed a seam down the fold, then did the same with two nice queen-sized flat sheets and Velcroed the sheets to the quilts along the seam. We put the seam side toward the “wall” and they open toward the center, where we can get in and out at the aisle. We have two regular pillows and two oversized Hawaiian print pillows.

In the tiny cubbies on each side of the bed, we each keep a case for our glasses at night, a small flashlight and medications. In the openings under the bed, we put our computers and shoes. We each have a pair of running shoes, a pair of Keens, and a pair of flip-flops.

My extravagance this year was an ice maker. I love ice and was often stopping at gas stations or convenience stores to buy drinks with ice. With my own machine, we now sail past them. This wonder sits under my side of the bed and I put it on the counter when we’re stopped. It works off the house battery, and starts making little bullet ice cubes in seconds. I adore it.

In the half-closet next to the bathroom is I also have a couple of writing books stashed in there along with my other Bible, Blue Highways, an iconic exploration of back-roads America through the travels of William Least-Heat Moon and the people he meets. On the hangers we have a dozen shirts, our fleece jackets and our rain jackets.

In the bathroom we have two camp towels, a soap dispenser and a teak floor mat. The floor mat was another addition this year that allows us to let the shower drain without having to immediately wipe off the floor. Our clothes hamper sits in here, and I store distilled water for my C-Pap and, now, a couple of gallon jugs of water for the ice maker.

For cleaning, I have a bottle of Windex, a can of Pledge and a can of Ajax. The Windex and Pledge live in a pocket on the back of the fourth passenger seat, the Ajax up in the pantry. I have a small hand broom and dustpan that sits in a small space behind the third seat.

In the storage space under the beds accessible from the back doors, we keep our two zero-gravity camp chairs and a folding REI camp table, our two yoga mats, a large plastic bin with our plastic tablecloth, folding stepstool for washing the van, screen that zips into the opening when the double back doors are opened, a collapsible orange cone and “Campsite Occupied” sign that we set in our spot when we leave for the day to hike or sightsee (When The Epic Van is gone, you might not realize someone plans to return.), a small tool set for easy repairs, laundry detergent, Happy Camper powder for the gray and black water tanks, DEF for the diesel engine emissions system, and our hiking gear, which includes two pairs of hiking boots, two Camelbaks, and my walking stick.

What didn’t make the cut? When we first rolled out, we literally were juggling stuff, with plastic tubs stacked three deep in the passenger seat and double stacked in the cabinets. Each night I’d shuffle books, papers, bolsters and bags from the sleeping area to the sitting area, then back again in the morning. We quickly wised up and started mailing stuff to my mother. And when we went home for the holidays, we left more. Less, less, less is more.

The things left behind include the two Roadtrek tables and poles (never used them, preferring to eat outside and use camp or picnic tables, and storing them back home freed up van space.); the Roadtrek bolsters for the back seats that also fill in the aisle space to make the bed a full king size (also never used these, preferring to keep the aisle open for easy access.); video equipment (thought I’d be filming, but can’t even keep up with the photography and writing I want to do for the blog, so bye-bye lights, stands and microphones); my flute (had to admit I rarely got it out, so it’s out for now.); our “Volcano” grill (turned out to be a pain to get it out, wait for it to cool off, clean it, then store it again just to grill a couple of chicken breasts, and there was always the faint scent of bar-b-cue sauce under the head of the bed.); books, books, books (use our library app instead to check out digital books and purchase an occasional regional title not available online. Right now we’re reading The Living Great Lakes: Searching for the Heart of the Inland Seas, by Jerry Dennis, as we explore the Upper Peninsula.); a LOT of yarn (already fessed up to that fiber freak thing, but, really, I’ve reformed.)

That’s it. Everything we need, a little more than we should have, but it works well, if we keep putting things away. Everyone will have their own version of what’s truly indispensable. That’s ours.


  1. Reply
    Nate Nichols July 11, 2016

    Less is truly more. I’m glad to see that the ice-maker got a shout out!


    • Reply
      Judy Nichols July 13, 2016

      Thanks, Nate.

  2. Reply
    J.S. Allen August 15, 2016

    A life lived according to nature requires only the bare necessities.

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