02 May Cleo is the Co-Pilot in My Boat on Wheels

Most people call a camper van a “home on wheels,” and this is true but not wholly accurate: a camper van is more like a boat on wheels. Driving off in a camper van is like launching a boat — because, unlike a house, you are untethered in a camper van and as adrift as you can be on dry land.

Cleo and I are once again adrift on the American highways as I tour the nation to promote the paperback edition of From Animal House to Our House. The difference between this year’s trip and last year’s is that I’ve added a lot of refinements to my little custom camper van. For starters, I’ve strapped more things down. This is what you do in a boat because rough seas, like rough roads, kick around any- and everything that is not secured: pots, pans, plates, canned goods, cereal boxes, water bottles, apples, oranges, bananas, paper cups, shoes, and so on.

Camper van living is like boat life because, once you cast off, you must be wholly self-contained; and so we are: the only thing we don’t have onboard is a shower. I take those at gyms or friends’ houses. Otherwise, everything is onboard, including internet connection (via smart phone). I am writing this now at my tiny van table by the light of a DC-powered lamp. Cleo is curled asleep at my feet. When I’m done with my work, I’ll fold up the table, then fold down the bed (Cleo sleeps underneath — and, thankfully, she doesn’t snore). Since my windows are curtained and shuttered, I could sleep through the sunniest morning. But Cleo will wake me for her morning constitutional by 9:00. If I’m feeling lazy, I’ll just open the door and let her hop out, tethered to the van on an eight-foot leash.

When I get outside of big cities, I get a lot of stares. In fact, today when I pulled into the parking lot of a barbecue restaurant in a very rural part of southern Virginia, one of the cooks stepped out to watch my approach. Once inside, I encountered several, curious stares: the cashier, the counterman, and two cooks were looking at me like I was the Stranger who had just galloped into Dodge City. The cook said, “What kind of work you do?” To keep it simple, I told him I’m a house inspector. And he nodded like that made sense. Then, to be friendly, I added that I was headed south, to Winston-Salem, my hometown. Really, the cook’s question was: What kind of work do you do that you drive a van like that?

Nobody was trying to be rude. It’s just that in a small town, you don’t see many strangers and you don’t see many strange vehicles. What makes my camper van strange is its European design. It’s distinctivly unAmerican. What makes it stranger still is its mint green paint job and its solar panels on the roof. Although I certainly wanted the van to look customized, it was never my intetion to make it look like a sideshow. It didn’t occur to me that in most parts of America, the Mercedes Sprinter van is still an anomaly.

Tonight, Cleo and I had a splendid event at the New Winston Museum in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, my hometown. Cleo, who had a free run of the museum, made many new friends. Historic Forsyth hosted the event and I got a great turnout and sold lots of books and saw many friends I’ve known since high school: Sue, Brad, Steve, Susan, Chuck, and others. Afterwards, we ate barbecue at Little Richard’s — this is authentic pit-cooked pork barbecue, God-awesome food. Then we went to hear the GBs perform, the local oldies rock band whose members are friends we all know from high school. Lots of deep roots here. By the time we were done, I was on the dance floor, doing the twist.

For more on the camper van, link here.

For my complete tour itinerary, link here.