We found this 1969 Dodge Travco Motorhome on Craigslist in June of 2015. We drove up to Asheville North Carolina, gave it a quick, in hindsight rather ignorant, once over, handed the owner some money, and promptly drove it 200 miles back to our then home in Athens GA. Two years later we hit the road and never looked back.
What’s it like to live in a 1969 Dodge Travco Motorhome?
Lots of people ask some variation of this question — they want to know what it’s like for two adults and three kids to squeeze into 90 square feet for years on end. Some people seem predisposed to think it’s all an endless epic adventure. Other people clearly have images of us living in the proverbial van down by the river.
Neither of those are entirely accurate. If you really want to know what our life is like, read the site. Sign up for the email list or subscribe to the RSS feed to get notified when I post something. What I try to record here is what our life is like.
We love the way we live and wouldn’t want to live any other way. But we’re not you and this isn’t for everyone. It just works for us.
To answer a few random questions that pop up regularly in conversations with curious people: Yes it’s crowded. No we don’t mind that. Yes, we are close. No, our kids aren’t perfect. Yes, there are days when I wish I lived some other way. Being sick in the bus is awful.
Most of the time though, we’re not in the bus.
When you live in a small space you invert your spacial relationship with the world. You spend your time outside rather than in, and that was one of the main reasons we did this, to be outside more. To be part of the larger world. I wrote about this at some length for a travel magazine, in piece about why we live in a vintage RV.
The best part of the way we live is waking up in the morning and stepping outside. I’m outside from the minute I wake up until I go to bed. We cook outside, we work outside, we eat outside, we learn outside, we play outside. Only the weather drives us inside.
I think it’s worth pointing out that everything is not always sunsets and adventures. We struggle the same as anyone living in a house. Our challenges and struggles are just different. For example, when we owned a house I had to mow the lawn and clean the gutters. Now I have to change the oil and maintain an engine, not nearly as much work as it is to maintain a house, but still something I have to regularly attend to.
For me, maintaining the Travco is more challenging, and therefore more fun and rewarding, than mowing the lawn. I’m not an engine expert. I can’t listen to a knock or ping and figure out what’s going on right away. I have to spend more time thinking it through, asking people more knowledgeable than me. But I’m learning, and that’s what I enjoy in life, being challenged, learning, solving problems, getting outside my comfort zone so I can expand it.
Still, the bus is our home and when it breaks down, well, sometimes we camp on a mechanic’s driveway.
Or I spend hours at the side of the road listening to the radiator boil over or getting covered in power steering fluid, transmission fluid, brake fluid. To live this way you have to be able to let go of the idea that there is anywhere else you need to be, anywhere else you can be. More than anything else, a vintage vehicle will teach you patience. Or you will lose your mind and sell it.
You don’t have to be rich.
The other question everyone asks is how can you travel all the time? What am I some kind of rich asshole? Trust fund kid? Thankfully I’m neither. Most of the trust fund kids I’ve known have been pretty screwed up people. We’re not rich, we’re comfortably lower-middle class I guess. But as noted rock climber Eric Beck once quipped, “there’s a leisure class at both ends of the economic spectrum.”
Which is to say that if you discard the value system of upper middle class America, you can find an amazing amount of time and money that you can use to do more interesting things than buying stuff. Yes, you need some money to live the way we do, but not much really. We live on about $36k a year. That’s not much within the spectrum of US earning possibilities.
I do recognize that the ability to make that kind of money while traveling is not available to everyone. There are more opportunities to do it today than at any point in human history, but that doesn’t mean it’s possible for everyone. I happen to be a writer and computer programmer, both which can be done from just about anywhere, so that’s how I do it. And no, we don’t have much in the way of insurance. We have some money set aside to cover the basics, but if something catastrophic happened, we, like many of you I’m sure, would be in trouble. These days I’m not sure that would be any different even if I had an office job. Either way, like I said earlier, living this way is not for everyone.
For most people the difficult part of living this way is letting go of that value system that says you need to own a house, have amazing health insurance, a nice car, a bunch of stuff, and a huge savings for some perfect future when you can stop working. For me that ideology never really took hold for whatever reason, so I never had to escape it, but I watched others escape it and it did not look easy or fun.
I’ve spent a good bit of time trying to figure out why I never cared about that stuff. Maybe I read Thoreau too young. Maybe I listed to too much punk rock. Maybe it was that I took those people at their word, that I accepted their values at face value: that complaining does no good, you do what you need to do, and you do it yourself. You do it yourself so you can do it exactly the way you want, the way that works best for you, not the way someone else thinks you should do it, and in the end it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks so long as you’re able to look yourself in the eye at three AM and know that all is well.
It’s hard to write about these things without coming off like a jerk to some people, but I suppose that’s okay. You can’t please everyone. I’ll assume since you’ve made it this far that you’re good with it.
The problem is a lot of people see other values as a comment on their own. Like I am somehow sneering down at people from the top of the #vanlife heights here. Again maybe this doesn’t come off right, but really: I don’t care how you live. If you love living in a house, that’s awesome. I am glad you have found what makes you happy. If you hate living in a house and want to escape it, well, I guess to some extent I’m here to say it can be done. Maybe.
Why live this way? Because the worst part is going home.
The why part two: I wanted to give my kids something close to the childhood I wish I’d had.
Which is not to imply I didn’t have a good childhood. I’ve had an incredible life. I have to pinch myself sometimes to make sure this isn’t a dream (which now maybe you’re thinking oh god, what an asshole. And I know, I know it sounds cliche, but really I have nothing to complain about. My life has been grand. If I die tomorrow, I will miss my family, but I would at least feel like I had lived deliciously well).
I grew up traveling a lot, something I’m very grateful to have experienced because those were always my favorite moments. Mostly I remember camping and hiking. The mountains, the beaches, the deserts. I remember being outside, the smell of pine needles, the dust in your nose as you step out of the tent to see what was for breakfast. I remember living outside for a week, sometimes two, and then going home. It was always such a drag to go home.
I wanted my own kids to have that life. I wanted them to live outside, but I didn’t want them to have to go home. I wanted to spare them the pain of watching the real world fade in the rear windows as they headed back to suburbia. I wanted to go out into the wilds and never come home. I wanted that to be home.
The Travco was a way to give my kids that.
The 1969 Dodge Travco Motorhome
Really, do you care that much about me? Probably not.
Let’s talk about the bus. It’s way cooler than I am. Let’s face it, we live this way because of the bus.
They do not make vehicles like this anymore. I never even liked motorhomes until I saw a Dodge Travco. The sweeping curves, the 1960s electric blue, no other vehicle ever made was quite like this. Even the Travco is really only the Travco from 1966 to 1970. I’m not sure how it happened, but somehow this thing got made and a few survived.
I spend just about two years gutting and refinishing ours. You can can checkout an older post on how it looked when we got it (complete with Velvet Elvis). In the end we had something vintage on the outside and livable on the inside. All the wood paneling inside and vinyl seats coverings are new, but the layout, shape, design and cabinets are original.
To say the Big Blue Bus, as our children named it, stands out is an understatement. There is nothing else on the road that even remotely compares.
Ours is not pristine. I hit a tree stump in northern California and did some damage to the fiberglass on one side. Fortunately it’s low enough that you don’t notice it unless you’re really looking. The paint is faded in places, but it has that nice, vintage patina that things get after 50 years in the sun. We’ve talked about repainting it, but so far that’s not made it to the top of our list.
As cool as the outside is, the inside is my favorite part. The way the sunlight streams in the windows in the mornings, there’s a warmth to the wood and the curve of the window and the pine trees on the other side of the window, it gives you a kind of joy I’ve never had from any other home I’ve lived in. We live in a magical blue and white tube basically. I mean, who doesn’t want that?
The 318 LA Engine
I would call the Chrysler 318 the best engine ever made. But then, I’m biased. Still, almost every person who asks, the conversation goes like this:
What’s that got in it? 440?
318?! Damn. That’s a great engine. Bet it’s slow up hills though…
And it is, but it’s a nearly bullet proof engine. I’ve dragged its 50-year-old self over 16,000 miles across the United States and all the way to 10,000 feet. We did blow a head gasket once, which destroyed a cylinder and required quite a bit of work. Otherwise though we’ve replaced the things you’d expect to replace driving an older engine around for years.
One of my favorite parts about the 318 is that you can walk into just about any auto parts shop in the western hemisphere and find nearly every part you’re going to need. The only thing I’ve ever had the hunt down in a wrecking yard was an exhaust manifold.
I’d be lying if I said I loved every day in the bus. I love almost every day though, and as long as the view from the front door looks like this:
And as long as my kids continue to love calling it home, home it will be.