VAN Series: First Shakedown & Road Trip in the Van

When tradition and a testing opportunity meet, you get a fantastic first van trip that took us to Las Vegas and the California Coast. After spending the previous 6 months hard at work to build out our Ford Transit, named Hoagie, to be able to chase sun over the upcoming winter, we wanted to test it out first on the road. And this timed up perfectly with our annual tradition of heading to the California beaches over the thanksgiving weekend. To add to some perfect timing, the inaugural Las Vegas Grand Prix F1 race was the weekend before Thanksgiving. So we had our trip set, head down to Las Vegas for the race, then make our way to the beach towns of Cambria and Morro Bay, followed by a stay at two wineries, via Harvest Host, in California and Nevada, before heading home.

Hitting the Road

Our first stop, Las Vegas, but not before a ton of last minute work that needed to be done on a cold Thursday night in November. Our plan was to head down to the desert in southern Utah to camp for the night, to then make a quick drive to Vegas in the morning. So that meant a bunch of last minute fixes to the plumbing, propane system, adjusting the heater, and a few electrical tweaks. Any-who, we pushed all the way to Hurricane, UT, arriving after midnight, but worth it to wake up to the incredible view of the red rock desert that’s the entryway to Zion National Park. This was also the first time we got to use the propane cooktop, where Courtney whipped up a fantastic spam & egg breakfast, with an amazing view. We worked from our campsite, in the warm desert sun until about noon before Court took the wheel and got us to Vegas while I worked in the back underway. And because this was a shakedown run, we chose to stay at the RV Spots at the Circus Circus Casino Resort. A bargain of a price at $62/night during the overpriced F1 Weekend. The RV Park wasn’t anything to write home about, big open parking lot, a couple of bathrooms (with cold showers), dog run, but perfectly positioned between the Strip and Old Vegas and we were going to take advantage of that!

Las Vegas Grand Prix F1

Not that the race really had any affect or benefit to the test run of the van, but it really was an incredible weekend and 100% not what was written about online. The Qualifying runs took place on Friday night, after midnight and too late for us, but we stuck around long enough to figure out that we could watch the race from one of the many trackside bars, for free, without having to pay the $1500 tickets in the grandstands. So on Saturday, raceday, we wandered around the brewery district with Gregor, followed by a stop in Old Vegas, before hitching an Uber to the strip to watch the race from the  ReMatch Bar, in the LINQ Casino, just across from the massive Caesars, but most importantly right along the race track. Though it was hard to see the cars, as they raced 200mph down the strip, due to the black netting on the fence to keep us freeloaders from watching, we still could hear and feel them as they zoomed by and we could watch the rest of the race in the crowded bar of F1 fans, drinking Heineken Beer all night. And what a race it was, with Max, Checo, and Leclerc making an epic fight for the podium. And all the while, we could walk back to our van and camp in a surprisingly comfy bed each night with our dog. 

Cambria & San Simeon State Park

Sunday morning came around, and it was time to head West to the coast of California, a short 7 hour drive with a daunting headwind of 40+mph gusts. But we reached the stunning Central coast, highlighted by its rocky coastline that sits at the bottom of rolling hills. For the next three days, we were going to be staying at the Hearst San Simeon State Park, right along the beach. There, we would fully test out our van build and hope it held up to our needs! Now that we were out of the cold, we could fill up our water tank, do the dishes, cook all our meals, but most importantly, use our WiFi with the WeBoost to work. And over the next few days, we got into a rhythm of waking up, working, taking a lunch break where we could go for a walk or run, and afterwards, head down to the beach to enjoy a sunset. Our work setup would involve us pushing our bed back into the couch mode, pull out our sliding table, and plug in our laptops for the day. A couple of the days, we headed down to Highway 1 (PCH), to work in the town of Cambria or in the pullout parking areas along the highway, overlooking the ocean with the soothing sounds of crashing waves in the background. Sadly, though, dogs weren’t allowed at these beaches, so we had to drive North up to William Randolph Hearst Memorial Beach, and Gregor got to live it up, chasing rocks that were thrown into the rolling waves.

Morro Bay

After camping for the previous 6 days in the van, we booked a hotel room in the town of Morro Bay to take a break, a shower, and also be able to spread out as we celebrated Thanksgiving. We booked this hotel, prior to our trip, assuming we were going to need a break, but in reality, besides an amazing shower, life in the van was going fantastic. Albeit, I was struggling due to lack of sleep and getting up at 5am for work, it was catching up to me. But it was all worth it, because Morro Bay is our new favorite California beach town. A surfing town, transplanted from the Oregon coast, where dogs roam the beach, a massive rock stands as a pinnacle separating the ocean from the bay, and a tourist town that we absolutely loved. Plus, I was able to get out for a few surf sessions with some of the biggest waves I’ve ridden in years. Needless to say, I got my ass handed to me, but snuck out two great waves that I’m still beaming over. After hauling the surfboards on the roof’s solar panels with some soft straps this whole time, it was nice to know it was worth it. And even better, was being out in the water while a pod of dolphins were playing in the waves all around me, riding the waves, jumping around, it was surreal. To add to it, in the bay, you can regularly find Sea Otters hanging out and some huge seals laying out on the floating docks in the bay. All in all, we had a blast, and really can’t wait to get back there. 

Paso Robles & Pahrump Wineries

Our trip rounded out with our first experience using Harvest Host, which I cannot recommend enough. For $99, you have the opportunity to camp, FOR FREE, at wineries, farms, attractions, and breweries all over the country. All you have to do is contact them, via the website, to book your date (1 Night Max), and if approved, you’re all set. So over the next few days, we booked a spot at the Locatelli Vineyards & Winery in Paso Robles, the central valley wine country and then at Artesian Cellars Winery in Pahrump, NV just outside of Las Vegas. In lieu of payment, they just expect you to try and buy some of their wine, which we were planning to do anyway. So it perfectly worked out. The first place, we spent the night drinking our bottles of wine on one of the winery’s dirt roads along with a few other campers. And the second spot was simply in the parking lot of the winery. Both nights were fantastic, even better having a full kitchen to cook up all the goodies we picked up from a Trader Joes we stopped at earlier in the trip. Our menu bounced around from pasta to fajitas, to thai food and everything in between. Of course that’s a complete hats-off to my wife, as I am not the cook in this marriage.

Death Valley National Park

I almost forgot to mention one of the best sections of the drive on this trip. While it wasn’t the most direct route, having to take a short detour, we were able to drive through Death Valley National Park for the first time. Coming in from the west, we approached the park via the incredibly steep Towne Pass which gave an amazing view of the Panamint Valley below and then into the arid desert of Death Valley, surrounded by towering sandy peaks in the Mojave Desert. We stopped into the Ranger station to pay our fee, and then headed down Rt 190, through the Badwater Basin, passing by the massive stand dunes, the Devils Cornfield, and eventually by the Furnace Creek and the salt flats near the lowest point in the US. Overall, not the most stunning national park I’ve been to, but that’s only because Utah has so much desert and similar terrain. Still, an amazing piece of landscape that is fantastic to drive or hike through.

Looking Forward

Throughout the trip, we had a running list of all the things that we missed, wanted, wished, or hated. The list totaled to 56 items. Some were the unfinished projects that I knew we needed to finish, others, like adding a step into the slide door, were things I wouldn’t have thought about beforehand. But overall, the van did surprisingly well. Especially, the electrical components that I was really worried about since that’s how we make our living. Our internet worked great, the battery capacity and solar panels did fantastic, and surprisingly, our water setup worked very well to wash dishes in the sink using the foot pump. Plus, the working setup was pretty effective. The two of us, sitting on opposite sides of the dinet, had plenty of space to work from our laptops for full days of work. And as we checked off the remaining items on that to-do list, it was exciting to see the van come together the way we planned (and dreamed) over the past 5 months of work!

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