Heading out on our first camper van cross-country road trip adventure.

Will traveling and living inside our small Ford Transit Van be everything we hoped for?

Watch the video on our YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nzxIoFDJC_s

Part One: Our first day and night on the road.

We bought. We built. We packed.

All of us, JK, Kim, and our fur babies Willow and Tia, climbed into our 2019 Ford Transit, turned the key in the ignition and pulled out of the driveway hopeful that all the pre-planning, interior remodel, and power systems would work fine. We always say a prayer before we go for safe travels, and to arrive back home afterwards unscathed from the trip.

We were all in for a steep #vanlife learning curve, the girls included. We didn’t know just how steep it might be. The trip was sure to test our nerves, our patience, and our relationship.

It’s probably not the greatest idea to pile into a tiny new to us van and head off on a multi-week journey without putting the living arrangements, camping, and power equipment to the test beforehand.

Both of us mostly held our apprehensions and fears to ourselves so as not to be the buzzkill in the group or jinx the trip.

Honestly, were we nuts to zoom off down the highway without ever spending a night sleeping inside the van?

Yes. But, what the heck?

Sometimes you just can’t give things a real-life test until you are right in the middle of the experience.

Except for flying an airplane.

When flying an airplane you might want to have some experience in knowing how to fly and how to operate all the flaps and engine and switches before takeoff!

Westbound and down. Loaded up and truckin’!

The coastline of Washington State was our target.

Where we would stay in between home base in Southern Minnesota and the Pacific Ocean was anyone’s guess. We did have a night’s stay planned at a membership campground in Rapid City, South Dakota as we passed through on I-90, but that was pretty much it as far as having an official travel plan.

One of the reasons we jumped into the #vanlife way of camping is the flexibility. Without plumbing, sewer tanks or massive RV power needs, our little van doesn’t need to find itself at a campground very often, or so we thought. More on that later in a future blog post.

A late start

It was late afternoon by the time Kim had finished work and JK had packed the last of the road trip snacks. From past driving experience, we knew we weren’t going to travel the driveway to Rapid City leg in one fell swoop.

As we chased the setting sun toward the west, the sunset skies above South Dakota were breathtaking. Darkness had finally settled in way after 10 p.m., and we pulled off the interstate for the night.

We were just west of Mitchell, SD at exit/mile marker 301. The I-90 westbound White Lake Rest Stop to be exact.

Our official first dose of #vanlife reality – nighttime rest stop camping!

South Dakota, if you are not aware, does a great job with their Interstate pull-offs. Most of the rest stops we visited were clean and well maintained.

(Stay tuned in an up-coming blog post of our list of top highway rest stops between Minnesota and the West coast! You won’t want to miss it!)

We pulled the van straight into a parking stall near the pet exercise area and the restroom building and shut off the motor. The evening temperatures were cool, so van windows were opened.  

The rest area was well-lit and our parking space almost level. There were a ton of empty parking spots in front the restrooms and the truck parking area was barely half-full of big rigs, RVs and travel trailers when we arrived.

Needless to say, our first time trying to ready ourselves for bed in the van was not a graceful, choreographed dance.

Some weary travelers heading to the restrooms may have wondered “just what exactly was going on in that white van over there.” (As us old-time vanner’s used to say, “If this van’s a rockin’ don’t bother knocking!”) Our tiny house on wheels undoubtedly rocked back and forth while we jockeyed to get the dogs on their beds, find our clothes in the overhead cargo bags, open windows and adjust the bed covers!

Remember we said the rest area is “well lit?” What we didn’t realize when we pulled in was that one of the bright streetlights was directly over our van. The light poured in through the rooftop MaxxAir fan’s translucent cover right onto our bed! No need for a nightlight. “Should have brought some sleep masks!”

The white noise of the running fan helped drown out most of the outside noise, sort of. Every semi that raced past on the interstate or nearby car door shutting disturbed our attempts to doze off. But we eventually got used to the new bed and the outside noises and drifted off – at least for a little while.

Sometime in the middle of the night we were awakened by the piercing, high-pitched sound of a backup warning beeper. Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep!

Somebody was backing into the parking space right next to our van.

Our new next door neighbor stopped their vehicle. The beeping ceased and we settled back into our pillows. We then heard them pull forward. A second back up attempt. Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep!

“Ope! They pulled forward yet again!”

Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep!

“For the love of God! Park the damn thing,” we said out loud to ourselves! Finally the beeping ceased and the night returned to the dull roar of passing big rigs.

It was only when the new day dawned, and we got up and stumbled out of the van side door to take the girls for a potty walk did we discover the perpetrator of the late-night backup beeping. It was a white Penske rental Ford Transit van.

Heading into the July 4th holiday weekend, the van was likely being used by a young couple as an impromptu campervan. A red ice chest sat on a wooden dining room chair next to the rental van. A pair of clean white Crocs and an unidentifiable piece of folded camping gear were on the pavement behind the rig.

Although the casual observer may not have noticed, but after several beeping attempts to back into the parking space next to us the night before, the van’s inexperienced driver still hadn’t mastered the art of parking straight between the white stripes!

Time for rest stop church

One of the cool features of this westbound rest stop (and the identical eastbound I-90 rest stop) is a tiny white chapel near a field, behind the main buildings. It was just what JK needed to cleanse his soul of all the things he muttered about the rental van driver while in a rudely awakened and sleep deprived state of annoyance.

Seriously, it is amazing that, in this day and age of vandalism and tagging, the unlocked little church is, thankfully, free of that type of senseless destruction.

Early morning light filtered through the chapel’s windows, adding a most holy glow on the modest wood pews and altar.

Because we feel the need to have one of us stay with the van with the girls, we each made separate pilgrimages to the chapel.

Kim said she was brought to tears that Friday morning while she prayed.

She said she felt God’s presence in the little chapel and was humbled and thankful for the all the blessings of the past year. We both said a heart-felt thanks and asked God for traveling mercies during our trip.

Thank you to those that built and maintain that unassuming place of worship along a busy stretch of South Dakota highway.

Brewing a cup of Joe

Making coffee on the road while traveling in the van has become one of our most cherished routines. Anyone who has watched a YouTube #vanlife video has likely seen that coffee making is a quintessential van life ritual. Now we know why firsthand.

We store all of our coffee making gear in a single overhead bin, ready at a moment’s notice to brew a cuppa.

There are dozens of single burner propane stoves used by backpackers, campers, and van lifers to heat water for their coffee. We use a Coleman knock-off from Walmart and a compact 4-cup kettle to heat the water.

Neat collapsible silicon pour-over coffee cones get placed on top of our coffee cups. A small Melitta paper filter holds the fresh-ground coffee in each cone as we pour the steaming water over the grounds.

The result is a fresh-brewed, fragrant, piping-hot cup of coffee that we can make and enjoy anywhere, anytime. Even in a rest stop parking lot!

Somewhat refreshed from the night’s interrupted sleep, sunshine, and the strong morning cup of coffee, it was time to hit the road again.

Thanks for traveling with us!

Next stop: The Badlands National Park!


  1. Love that you are taking us all along on your maiden cross-country voyage! I agree, there is something very spiritual in that simple little chapel on the plains. Safe travels and cannot wait to hear about the next leg of your journey!

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