It started out as a joke. “Hey, Airstream wants to lend us a fancy touring van for a week. What should we do with it?,” said Matt DeBord, Business Insider’s transportation editor.
“I don’t know, man,” I said. “Maybe I’ll live in it. It’s probably nicer than my apartment.”
And with that it was done. I had spoken without thinking, my mother’s cardinal sin. As much as I tried to backpedal, I was going to live in a van down by the river — a joke I now never want to hear again — for a week.
I found myself on the following Monday morning sitting on a bench outside my tiny Greenpoint, Brooklyn, apartment, waiting for the van.
My first impression of the 2015 Airstream Interstate Grand Tour EXT Touring Coach was, Damn, this thing is huge. The Grand Tour, which is basically a tricked-out 24-foot-long Mercedes Sprinter Van, is also a huge challenge to park, as I learned watching the nice folks who dropped it off try to do in a small space in front of my building.
Then I climbed inside. This beast of a van had everything.
Two TVs! Two sinks! A normal-size bed! Granite countertops! No way — a microwave! These thoughts ran through my mind so fast that I almost missed the retractable awning, which can be extended from the van to provide shade for barbecues and the like.
At$US153,000, theInterstate Grand Tour is the product of a 10-yearpartnership with Mercedes Benz and Airstream, in an effort to modernize and refine the Airstream brand. Airstream builds their luxury vans on MB chassis, and MB sells them at their dealerships.
The van has a gas-powered generator, propane, and water tank, all of which allow for pretty much self-sustained living, even when the van’s engine isn’t on. There was an onboard heater and air-conditioner, a refrigerator and a freezer, a two-burner stovetop, several tables, and as much storage as you could ever want.
While it’s meant for travelling and road-tripping in luxury, the van felt like a tiny apartment on wheels.
This might be fun, I thought.
I drove around for 20 minutes trying to find a parking space that wasn’t in front of a fire hydrant, and then activated the bed and tested out my sleeping arrangements. The bed, which mechanically folded down from a bench seat, was roughly king-size, if a bit shorter. I’m a tall guy, so I had to position myself diagonally. Seatbelt clips poked me in my back. I looked up and saw my breath hang in the air of the cold van. Outside, the loud sounds of industrial Greenpoint buzzed away. I started having second thoughts.
I headed into the office and passed around my phone to show photos to all my coworkers, who were impressed by “Helen,” my grandmother’s name and the name I’d given the van. And I began to dread the evening ahead of me.
“Excited for your first big night in the van?” one person asked.
“Oh, yeah — can’t wait!” I said, lying.
After work, I got dinner with friends. We finished off a round of after-dinner drinks, and my companions looked like they were thinking about heading home. But I begged them to stay. Anything to put off the inevitable tossing and turning and poking from metal objects.
Several rounds later, I shuffled off to my new van-away-from-home. I turned on the heater, which was much louder than I’d expected, grabbed the thin blanket left for me, folded down my bed, and drifted off to a light, dreamless sleep.
Confession time: After tossing and turning for five hours, I snuck home to sleep an extra two hours in my warm, soft bed. So sue me.
After I arrived at work and once again faced myriad questions from coworkers, it became increasingly clear to me that the curiosity wouldn’t stop until I returned the van, and that I was in for the long haul.
I decided to man up and commit to van life.
After work I swung by the grocery store, then went home to pack a bag and grab some DVDs for the onboard TVs. I unloaded my gear and settled in, stretching my legs and getting a real lay of the land. I could almost stand up straight in the van, but found that being six-two had me constantly hunched over for fear of smashing my head on some object on the ceiling. I tested out all the seats, turned on the radio loud, and opened all the drawers and storage spaces.
This thing was starting to feel more homey.
I cooked Italian sausages in one of the pans that came with the van. It’s harder than you would imagine to cook on a stovetop that’s pitched slightly downward because of the parking space you’ve chosen. Also, I worried about the smoke coming from the pan. Luckily, there was a small air vent in the ceiling.
After microwaving a paper bowl full of canned chilli (bachelor life at its finest), I settled down at one of the foldout tables and attempted to pop in a DVD. It was then that I realised what I thought was a DVD player was Blu-ray. Seriously, who has Blu-ray discs laying around?
Since I had no form of entertainment, I ate my food, made my bed, and turned in early. (It’s amazing how much more a place can feel like a home when you make the bed.)
I woke up better rested and attempted to take a shower in the bathroom, which converts into a shower stall. I fiddled with the many knobs and switches in the van, but couldn’t figure out how to get the water to get hot. I shrugged it off and headed to work, knowing any odours emanating from me could be written off because of my living situation.
But first, I had to find a new parking space as my current one had to be vacated for street cleaning. Driving around my neighbourhood early in the morning was oddly relaxing and a great way to start a day. I sort of wished I could do it every day. Sort of.
During the planning stage of my adventure, when I thought living in a van was a brilliant idea, my editors told me I had to host a party in my new digs. “What a funny picture that will be!” they told me. Since then, I had been floating the idea to my friends, luring them with promises of free Brie and sparkling cider.
But my reminder texts to friends not to forget my van party that evening went unanswered. I began to sweat. The hours at my desk ticked by. Work ended and I headed to the van, where I nervously set up.
The text started to come in.
“Sorry, I have to work late!” one flaky friend replied.
“So, you’re asking me to come hang out in a van? Can’t we just go to a bar?” asked another.
I began to realise that this party might not happen. “C’mon, man, you know I have to do this for work,” I said.
When nine o’clock rolled around, I started thinking of other ways to spend the evening.
Have you ever ordered a pizza on Seamless, but instead of putting an address into the prompt you give directions to the nearest cross streets and type Look for the huge silver van and knock hard?
I can tell you it’s weird. But thanks to the marvels of modern technology and a brave delivery guy, I got my small pepperoni an hour later.
Still Blu-ray-less, I read a book, caught up on some emails, and did some cleaning. Full of pizza, I headed to bed. I knew the drill, and had even found a position to avoid any uncomfortable plastic pieces. The hum of the heater was now more like a white-noise machine. I drifted off to sleep, dreaming of the open road.
Still couldn’t get the shower to work, which was bad news since I had planned a date in the van, another promise to my editors.
I set up my laptop to do some work. Today was the day where I attempted to “work from van.” I can’t remember if I was told there would be Wi-Fi, but after a few minutes fiddling with the front dash computer, I gave up and used my iPhone as a hotspot.
Spotty service aside, working from the van wasn’t so bad. It’s nice to be able to drive your office to the coffee shop when you run out of java.
With the curtains drawn and headphones on to drown out the outside noise, the back of the van became a fortress of solitude. Time passed quickly, and before I knew it, it was time for my date.
Like any respectable gentleman, I picked up my date in my new ride. Once we got over the sheer novelty of the situation, we decided to take advantage of it and drive somewhere new. We decided on City Island, a tiny fishing enclave in the Bronx. We both wanted some crab cakes and clam chowder.
Driving Helen long distances turned out not to be as scary as I’d imagined. The rearview mirror is a video feed from a camera in the back, so the tail is easily viewable. There’s a sensor around the perimeter of the car, so that when any solid object comes within a certain distance of the van, a beeping noise goes off. Once I got over the fact that I was driving a 24-foot-long rolling home on the FDR, I started to enjoy it.
After getting lost on Randalls Island, we made it to our destination. (The looks we got as we drove down the main drag were priceless.) Crab cakes consumed, we then got lost again, this time in Queens for an hour. Again, being a gentleman, I dropped my date off at her place.
Then I drove Helen back to the outskirts of Greenpoint and parked her for the night next to a warehouse. As I settled into my fold-down seat bed for the last time, it felt much more comfortable. The van was growing on me.
The sun shone through the curtains in the window, waking me up early. It was my last day in Helen. I took one last ceremonial lap around my neighbourhood before heading into work, giving her a pat on her door before leaving.
It was fittingly raining when I returned to the van to hand over the keys to the guy from the loaner company. As I watched the silver beast drive off without me on board, I felt a pang of sadness in my heart. I hope we meet again someday, Helen.
The truth is, given the choice of living in the van or living in my apartment, no matter how small and old, I would choose the apartment. Even though the van grew on me rapidly, becoming like a second home, the comforts of my first home, with its real bed, bathroom, shower, and couch win.
But over the course of five days, the van did begin to feel cozy. It became less like camping and more like living as I started to get comfortable. Matt Foley, the “Saturday Night Live” character who lived in a van down by the river could do much worse than this van, with its state-of-the-art amenities and ample living space.
And if I were on a cross-country road trip, I would choose this vehicle in a heartbeat. I’d love to borrow Helen.
Maybe that will be my next story.