It started back in 2013, my thirst for adventure and vans. Mind you, I didn’t own a van or know anyone who did. For awhile I tried to convince friends to travel in a van with me but when it came down to it, I was the only idiot. I ended up renting a cargo van in 2014 from Enterprise and traveling in it for 41 days across the US. I learned a lot back then and it made me realize, traveling in a van that I own will be much cheaper and it will be bullet proof. Man was I wrong.
Meet Jerry, a 1976 Dodge Street Van. I bought this van from the original owner in Idaho back in 2016. He ended up buying this bad boy off the lot back in '76 and used it to haul the motorcycles he raced. In ’86 he garaged it and Jerry sat until 2016 of November when I purchased the Tradesman. Knowing how gnarly Canada and Alaska can get, I decided it needed a stronger motor and a better drivetrain. Over the past two and a half years, the van has gone through some frankensteining. I purchased a 1984 Dodge Ramcharger and stole the 4x4 drivetrain and 318 5.2L V8 to put in the Street Van. The motor has been 30 over which puts this carbureted motor to 323 cubic inches. Just enough power to haul all my shit up mountains.
Since getting the van in working order took so long, it only left me with 2 months to get the interior done. Luckily I had some experience with that when I helped convert a school bus into an RV back in 2016 for work. Ironically, that same company downsized me, which meant I had loads of time to focus solely on the van. I started by stripping the interior down to bare metal to see what I was working with. I did my best to remove all the rust by grinding it away or cutting it out. Throwing a rust reformer on there afterwards helped put my mind at ease and gave less odds that I will be Flintstoning it down the road.
I had been thinking about how to design the interior of the van for over a year. So, when it came time to do everything, I was ready to rip. The answer was obvious and time-tested. I went with the basic bed up top, storage underneath concept. Im 70” tall and my van is 69” inches wide so if I lay sideways, it can work. 100% not ideal but neither is making the bed go long ways and taking up all the room.
In order to get the interior how I wanted, I needed to install a subfloor, walls and ceiling. After days of research, I went with wool for insulation. Once I was barley able to see any metal, it was time to cover it with a finishing wood. Originally I was just going to round up a bunch of pine from all the pallets laying around town since it was free but then the City of Columbus (Ohio) started tearing down a privacy wall next to my apartment. It was 35 year old Brazilian Mahogany that was aged to a silver grey. It was the last wooden sound barrier in the City. I guess living in the hood has its perks. I ended up kiln drying it in my basement with 2 dehumidifiers running around the clock. The wood was then ran through a planer for 16 hours. Big shout out to Soulcraft Woodshop for letting me do this for free.
Once I saw the beauty of this wood, I couldn’t stop admiring it. I couldn’t believe the city was just tearing it down and giving it away for FREE! One slat was worth $5 - $7 and I had over 300. Working with this wood was a huge pain though because it was so hard. I broke 7 drill bits, stripped a lot of star bits and ran my table saw out of commission. After all the wood was installed and time was running out, everything needed sanded. Every piece was hit with 40 grit and then 210 grit. As much as I wanted to cut corners, it wasn't in my blood.
Next up, the original comfort amenities of the van needed a little love like the radio and old seats that didn’t recline. I bought leather 2016 Mustang GT seats that had the heating and cooling option. Some welding and electrical happened to get these functional with the captain chair swivels I had bought. For the radio, it didn’t even have one, just a clock that wasn’t wired. I wanted something authentic so I purchased a headunit with a tape deck. Shallow mid range speakers were installed with a 12” subwoofer. The van had all the classic vibes with a luxury upgrade. Well, minus the windshield wipers because they kept breaking. I learned if you go fast enough, the rain just flows right by.
In the end, I wound up working 8-14 hour days, every single day for 68 days straight. Somehow I still ran out of time and plan on a phase 2 and maybe even a phase 3 to cover up some metal. Shout out to all the peeps that helped me work on the van; Josh, Collin, Joe, Ira, Danielle, Karen, shit even my mom came out a bunch to help. Without them I would of been days behind and for sure broke down kneeling in the rain on my front lawn in my underwear crying, “when will it end”. Luckily that didn’t happen and I was only a day behind to leave on my trip.
I had been traveling for a little over 2 months by now and in that time the frame cracked, engine mount cracked off the cracked frame, I almost flipped the van, the steering gearbox dislocated, headers separated from the engine, all 6 exhaust nuts fell off, neutral safety switch came off, windshield wipers stopped working (again), passenger mirror broke off, the front shocks were punctured and caving in on themselves. On top of fixing all that, I also ended up replacing the tie rods, gas tank float, fuel filter (twice), fuel pump, fuel sock, valve cover gaskets and the oil had been changed 3 times. All of those are stories are for another time, unless you have beer.
For now, the story I want to tell you about is one of the hikes I did with my girlfriend, Danielle. We slept just on the other side of the boarder atop a cliff near Tagish Lake in the Yukon. From there, it was down hill until we reached Skagway, Alaska. Our goal was to hit Laughton Glacier, but that morning we realized we had to take a train to get there. We talked about hiking the tracks to get to the trail, but after we added up the distance we were looking at 14 miles round trip so we changed our plans and settled on Upper Dewey Lake/Devils Punch Bowl. Once we got up to the lakes, we would hike the basin towards the ridge line in order to gain views of an entire ice field of glaciers. Our starting elevation would be 20 feet and we would end at 5,740 feet. With a solid plan in mind, we got ready for the hike by eating breakfast and skating at the local skatepark like we were still teenagers. We packed our bags with food, water, rain gear, bear spray, cameras, satellite phone, whistle, ID & credit card, just incase something really major happened. Now that the authorities could properly identify our dead bodies for our families, it was time to start hiking.
Let me interrupt this story for a minute by telling you about the day before when we startled a grizzly bear hiking Mount Decoli, a 7,600 foot mountain. It was 30 feet in front of us on our trail and as it heard us around the bend, it darted off into the woods like it had explosive diarrhea. The birds took flight as their tree roots were nearly ripped out of the ground from Sunflower (yes, we named the bear). The grizzly never moved from the trees, sitting and waiting as we decided what to do, advance or turn back? We knew there was a curious/testing bear in the area from the parks department and assumed it was not this one, but we did not want to find out so we turned back. Now you know where our minds were at, thirsty for adventure, but very aware of the potential dangers that could be around each bend of a trail.
The trail starts near the port and you twist and turn, navigating the web of paths that all start here in Skagway. Quickly you are ascending up a steep incline that you soon realize is going to be your fate for the majority of the hike, you are climbing a mountain after all. If you have ever hiked in the Alaskan coast, then you understand how 1 mile can feel like 3. We had gone maybe .2 miles when I stopped and started taking photos. The hike was already so photogenic leading us through the Tongass National Forest, a temperate rainforest. The path was rocky, hard packed dirt with plenty of roots and moss for our feet to dodge. The air had a warm Fall like feel with yellow leaves and copper colored pine needles falling to the forest floor. The trail in general felt open but tucked away. The sound of a raging creek would come and go as if a little kid was playing with the stereo knobs as we walked back and forth up the mountain. I ended up shirtless pretty quickly because there is no need to dirty another shirt with a gallon of sweat when you are living out of a van. We found bark-less branches to use as hiking staffs so the constant hill climb was slightly less punishing on our muscles. As the hours went by, we kept telling ourselves we had to be close to Dewey Lake. Eventually it came true and we were greeted with 1 minute of sunshine and then the clouds started coming in.
We sat and ate linner at the lake and talked about the route up to the ridge. Looking at a topo map will only get you so far and seeing it in person always ends up adjusting the route a little. We figured the river was our best bet to make it into the higher basin where the remnants of a receding glacier had detached from the ice field on the other side of the mountain. As we got closer to reaching our goal, the clouds started blanketing the mountain top and taking away our visibility of the route. There was a section that I was still unsure about because it looked like loose scree with a super exposed drop. I was hoping as we got closer a solution would present itself, but as the clouds kept rolling in we realized that wasn’t a valid option. Danielle said she couldn’t promise much more life out of her legs since she had been stuck studying for the last 2 months and hadn’t spent anytime outside of Ohio’s flat-ish trails in that time. Her exact words were, “I want to get as high as possible as soon as possible as safe as possible.” With all that in mind, I saw a sag in the ridge line that had a decent amount of green covering the rocks which looked like Creeping Juniper. Climbing up this section felt spongey and safe to me, but it did not to Danielle. Quickly the 30 degree inclines turned into a steady 60-80 degrees. I found this convenient because you barley had to look down to see where your next step was. The rocks were hardly moving below us and every time we took a quick break, we had a new perspective on the area we had just climbed. Danielle’s “oh shit, we are gonna to die” alarm goes off a little before mine and she ended up freezing at a small patch of Juniper surrounded by scree. If she went right, the 70 degree incline of loose dirt and rocks would send her down the mountain until she grabbed on to something or the boulders at the bottom broke her fall. Going towards the left was a better option, but she needed an anchor so I traversed back down to lend a hand. About 20 feet higher is when my “oh shit, we are gonna to die” alarm went off. Danielle was in front of me and there was a big boulder to our right that I knew I would be safe on, but in order to get there I was forced to take a big step up to the right and try my hardest to not disturb the loose rocks that were below both of Danielle’s feet. If I moved these rocks I would most likely come up short to the boulder and Danielle would fall on top of me starting a slide and potentially covering us with some rocks and maybe boulders. Luckily I got through the move and both of us were a lot safer in less than 10 seconds of that section.
From there it was all smiles as we crossed the boulder field and took in the views. Well, until the mosquitoes came out and a white sock bit my leg. We were no longer protected by the wind so we were forced to move forward until we caught up with the Devils Punch Bowl trail. Epic views of the neighboring mountain ranges were surrounding us which surely made up for our plans not working out. I will always wonder what Mount Decoli looks like and how epic those ice fields may be on the other side of the mountain range, but at least I am alive to wonder about those things.
Before heading down, we took a swig of some moonshine I had brought up and gathered our last views/photos. It was 8 p.m. and we knew it was going to be darker in the woods, but we didn’t know it was going to be as dark as it was. With fear of relying on one headlamp and not seeing our surroundings, we headed down quickly dodging the roots and rocks. During our descent, we were constantly yelling absurd things, making loud whale calls and blowing the whistle in hopes of scaring off any bears that may of been in the area. The last thing we wanted but the first thing that was on our mind was startling a bear in the dark. Can they even see in the dark? We can’t see in the dark. Let’s not find out. Just 45 minutes shy of reaching the car, we had to bust out the headlamp and iPhone flash light to make a safer decent. There were a couple of falls that had happened and we could hardly see. The rest of the hike felt like a tumbling sprint towards the finish line that was fueled with hopes of beer, pizza and maybe a shower. Just after 10 p.m. we reached the van, dropped off some gear, grabbed our toiletries bags and found a Mexican street vendor that was next to a bar. We took a bird bath in the bathroom and shoved food and beer down our esophagus. It wasn’t a dream come true, but it was a happy ending that left us satisfied till our next adventure.