In the beginning - Part 2


In the middle there was YouTube.

I found the brilliant minivan engineering of Bruce Parks on YouTube. Type “Minivan Camper Conversion” into the video site’s search bar and you will get thousands of choices. If you allow yourself to wallow in the Google-powered algorithm, you will find some duds and a lot of gems. You will also find where they diverge: Many people (young, poor, women, elderly) are living out of their minivans because they can’t afford anything else; the other conversions are done by suburban dads with disposable income and plenty of free weekends to labor upon their creations. I learned a ton from both populations and grew my gratitude exponentially.

I think that I am constitutionally a tinkerer and problem-solver, coming by it honestly through my family tree. When I was quite young, I always hung out in my paternal Grandfather’s “office” in their basement during family get-togethers. I had no idea what he did for a living, but I marveled at his small workshop, imagining him fixing spaceships. He taught me how to solder at (I think) age 7. He explained how it worked, why it worked and what you could make with it. Not that I had anything to solder into existence at age 7, but knowing I had the skill to do it if I wanted to felt magical.

Watching video after video filled with tiny bits of small-space engineering genius felt like that tingle of magic again. “Look! That guy just shared the secret of how he built that really cool thing! Now I know it, too!” The tours of their vehicles are cool - it’s like skipping to the “After” reveal at the end of a make-over show. The process videos of how they made them cool is the must-see-tv of campervan conversions for me. I especially love trial & error, when someone sketches out something promising on paper and tries to build it in real life… and… it’s a flop. I do that, too! While it can be frustrating, there is something so exciting in the challenge of reinventing what you thought you had previously invented - only different and better this time.

The king of sketch -> try -> flop -> re-sketch -> re-try -> etc… is George Mauro over at Humble Road. He builds out high-end custom vans, but not like anyone else in the campervan ecosystem. I got algorithmically lucky to have landed on Humble Road’s homepage, not because I intended to build-out a van (I didn’t initially), but because I became addicted to George’s ethos, process and humor. I feel like I take a mini-master class in van building when I watch a Humble Road video. Even his flops (and there really aren’t any flops) are brilliant; he just wants to improve upon each solution, to refine it.

When I began to seriously consider a campervan, I sat down and wrote my must-haves, my like-to-haves and my I-won-the-lottery-haves. I measured the dent in my mattress to see how much space I really take up when I sleep. I wrote down what I eat & drink and how I prepare it. I measured cans, packets of rice and fresh veggies. I measured my most-used pots and pans, plates and cutlery. I wrote down what I wear daily (including shoes and jammies) in LA and what I wear daily when I’m on the East Coast. I made a pile of those clothes and measured its volume. I wrote down how much my dog sleeps, eats, drinks, pees, poops and plays. I weighed her packs of frozen food and freaked out a little. Having driven cross-country many times in both directions and on different routes, I wrote down where I want to go again and where I’d like to go for the first time. Likewise, I wrote down where I never want to go again or visit, ever. I calculated how long I could sit and drive without pain or exhaustion, then translated that into miles and routes. I plotted out where friends and family lived in between Los Angeles and Baltimore.

Then I measured my parking space and the highest clearance point in my building’s parking garage. Nothing bigger than those dimensions could become my camper. That’s when I realized that I didn’t have to squish into a station wagon or minivan; I could get one of the small “city” sized cargo vans for the conversion. Suddenly, Humble Road’s cargo-to-camper vans seemed possible, but on a smaller scale. I began to type in “cargo van camper conversion” into the search bar and fell into a YouTube hole for another week.

To be continued…