This is Shadow Catcher. It is my home, my vehicle, my constant companion. No, it's not a snappy name, but it's a good one. As someone who drove dozens of different vans over my career as a small-group tour guide, I gave up on naming them long ago. I wasn't in them long enough to form a bond with them, and most of them were leased anyway. We never developed a relationship and they were headed back to the dealership before their quirks became apparent. When I bought the van for this journey though, I knew we would be together for a while, day and night through winter and summer and good times and bad. It would need a name, but not any old name. A lot of people name their vehicle like it's a cow or a dog. I needed something deeper and meaningful to me. I chose the name in tribute to a few different people who inspired this trip and continue to inspire me. In Travels With Charley, John Steinbeck named his vehicle Rocinante after Don Quixote's horse, bucking the trend of boring names like Bessy or Stan. On the journey that inspired William Least Heat Moon to write The Blue Highways, he chose the name Ghost Dancing, perhaps less poetic, but more memorable and meaningful (and far easier to pronounce). I chose "Shadow Catcher" in honor of Edward Curtis who spent a lifetime photographing the American Indians and trying to record their old way of life before it disappeared. Because photography was not something many of them were familiar with, his art was surprising to them. They called him the Shadow Catcher. While I can only hope to one day create something as memorable as any of these three men, the least I could do was pay them tribute with the naming of my van. So this is Shadow Catcher.
Shadow Catcher is a 1998 Coach House 192 KS Wide-Body on a 1997 Dodge Ram 3500 chassis. When I bought her a year ago she only had 120,000 miles and has definitely been well looked after over the years. She's a little bit rusty and a little dinged up and the paint isn't perfect, but that matches me perfectly. For many people living the "van life", building the van from the ground up is part of the adventure. They want to buy a van and rip everything out of it and custom build it the way they want. For me, that task seemed remarkably daunting and somewhat unnecessary. There are some incredibly well designed and engineered vehicles out there which are purpose-built for just such an adventure. And while I respect those who want to build their own, I turned my attention instead to finding the right one for me and for this journey. Of all of the vans I looked at, this model seemed to be one of the best out there. It has everything I was looking for and uses every inch of space remarkably well. Having lived in it for six months now, I honestly can't think of a thing I would improve on.
She is what is classified as a "Class B" Recreational Vehicle, and because relatively few of this type of RV are produced, they can be in high demand. To buy a new one, you are looking at $100,000, something I could never afford. Even ones that are 20 years old often come with a big price tag. I got lucky in finding this particular vehicle, but it was after months and months of diligent searching and I had to fly to Michigan to buy her. As I mentioned earlier, I couldn't be happier with the result. While it would be nice sometimes to have more space afforded by a bigger vehicle, the logistics of my journey make this the right fit for me. It does pretty good on its fuel consumption, and it's far more "stealthy" than a bigger model would be. If you look at it, you would know it's an RV, but who ever really looks at vans? Not many people. This allows me to park and sleep in residential neighborhoods or parking lots without raising any questions. It's not small, but it does fit in a regular parking space. The smaller size affords me more freedom on the road, and freedom is what this whole trip is about.
So come on inside and let me show you around a little bit. Starting in the back, it has a KING sized bed, which really makes a big difference for big fella like me. When other people see it, they say it's not, but it is. I know because the original bed, which is really just the back seat folded down and some other things pushed together, was NOT comfortable for an every night living situation. So I put a 4" memory foam mattress topper on it - and the king size fit just perfectly. With the topper on, it doesn't fold back up into a seat, but it's way more important to me to get a good night's sleep. There are three great overhead cabinets above my bed for storage, four reading lights, speakers for my TV, an overhead air conditioner and a Fantastic Fan. My Fantastic Fan is a lifesaver. It runs on a thermostat so it's only on when it reaches a certain temperature, but when my back window is open it creates a draft which really cools things off back there. Since I can only run my A/C when I'm plugged into "shore power", this fan is essential for nights I'm not in a campground.
Moving forward on my right is my bathroom. It's behind the big door you see on the left in the photo above. I do have a toilet and shower on board. The toilet I use, but the shower is only there if I were to really need it. It's not necessarily designed for someone my size, but I feel like I could make it work if I had to. It's a brilliant design though, with the drain in the center of the floor of the aisle of the van and a curtain that goes all the way around, vented by my Fantastic Fan. I do have a hot water heater, a 30 gallon fresh water tank and a water pump. The bathroom door opens and extends across the aisle creating a wall between the cab of my van and my "bedroom" which is great for privacy and for cooling things down while I'm sleeping.
Moving from back to front, on the left is all storage space. I do keep a 5 gallon water jug in one of the cabinets (the kind that flip over into an office-type water cooler) with a hand pump so I always have good drinking water. Below these cabinets is my heater which runs on propane and is controlled by a thermostat by my bed. Next to it is a combo propane/carbon monoxide detector, an absolute must in such a vehicle. I have a smoke detector further forward as well.
Moving forward on the same side is my kitchen. My kitchen has a small sink which I cover with a cutting board for extra counter space when I'm not using the sink. I have a two-burner propane stove with an overhead light and vent fan. There is a microwave, but I can only really use that when I'm plugged into a proper 30 amp electrical outlet. I also have a fridge which is much the same. Technically my fridge runs on electric or propane, but it's all a bit much to keep switching it back and forth and worrying about it draining my batteries or my propane tank. I just throw a Tupperware container full of ice in there every couple of days and it keeps my food cold enough. The whole living compartment is a little short for me to stand up in the main part of the cabin, but that was one of the trade-offs. I have adjusted well, and have no problem cooking dinner back there.
Across from the kitchen is another small cabinet where I keep my pots and pans, and my side doors. All of the windows in the back part of the van open, and all have screens on them to keep out the bugs. They also all have blinds which have two settings - one you can see through and one you can't. I do want to add a "blackout" option as well for a little extra privacy, but that is something I will work on when I get home.
Overhead, above the driving compartment is a small TV/VCR combo which plays VHS tapes - hey, it was built in the nineties! I do have a cable connection for when I'm in a high-end RV park, though. If I want to watch TV before bed, I usually just download something off of Netflix when I have WiFi and watch it on my phone. This really is a far better option in my circumstances anyway.
My front driving compartment has two captain's chairs which swivel to the back if necessary, and a nice amount of space in between for a tub of my maps and books and papers and things. There is a curtain which wraps all the way around the front windows to provide some extra privacy as well.
Outside the van are some storage compartments and the access to my water tank, electric system and propane system. I do have a tow-hitch setup in case I need to tow a trailer. For power, I have two 100 amp-hour deep-cycle marine batteries. They are separate and isolated from my engine battery so no matter what happens I'm not draining that when I'm powering anything in the back. The "house batteries" charge when I'm driving though, or when I'm plugged in to "shore power". I try and charge my phone and camera and stuff when I'm driving, but I also have a few battery packs which will work if I need them.
Other than that, I have a camping chair and a grill, which is all you really need to have a good time, and a cooler to keep my beers cold when I need to walk with them. I also have my tent and backpack for backcountry excursions, as well as a camp stove and other camping necessities.
I'm pretty set out here on the road. I've been learning little things and figuring out new ways to do things as I go, but I'm pretty happy with my little house on wheels. We've been down highways, byways, back roads and dirt roads and we haven't gotten stuck yet. Neither of us is brand new, and neither is without flaws and dents, but we're making a go of it. It's nice to have the freedom to move so freely around the country and still be able to cook and sleep without spending a fortune. I hope you will follow the adventures of me and Shadow Catcher for years to come as we make this epic journey around the country. As always, thanks for coming along for the ride!