The quest for mobile dwelling and a life closer to nature.
Quarter-sized flakes pour from the sky, blotting out the black night. It appears a ceiling of white is crashing down. Halogen lights from the lodge cut into the blizzard and quickly fade into the parking lot island. It’s quiet. I’m one of only a few souls living on its flat confines in the Pacific Northwest near the U.S.-Canadian border. Inside my box of refuge the light is calm and glowing as a fire faintly cracks in the mini woodstove, keeping it at a cozy 76 degrees. Snow swirls past the sliding glass door like a reverse snow globe as I relax on the couch after a long day of riding. I’m comfortable, content, and deep down there’s a little feeling of triumph. After many months of creating this custom craft, living inside 128–square-feet all seems worth it. Yet countless hours on the road make me ponder this choice of a mobile existence.
Rewind to June, when blistering temperatures and single digit humidity are working their beef jerky effect. The coarse gravel bites into my flesh as I squirm around on my back, grinding through rust and cutting off chunks of metal. The grinder howls its teeth-gritting whine as metal, paint and dust pour over my work clothes. Soon I hope to turn this skeleton trailer frame into a mobile home on wheels, built stout for the rigors of thousands of miles and hearty winter storms. That’s the dream, anyway. I keep reminding myself as the days go on like this. Each trip to Home Depot, each parts order, each draw from my meager bank account, the gamble lies on days of powder and a quaint, mobile refuge to call home.
I fit the crafting of this custom rig around days of building fine custom homes for wealthy folk. Building and carpentry is my off-season gig. I squeeze in a couple hours on the camper every day until I’m exhausted or the light fades or I fear the neighbors will file a noise complaint. Inspired by past trips and rigs, friends like Mike Basich and others who build boats, and the craze of mobile living pushes the project forward. It’s small and simple, yet it demands all the necessary components of a normal house. The electrical system, plumbing, nooks and customizations add up and there’s little room, literally, for error. To be warm, quiet and off-grid in winter, the camper cannot be designed like a normal RV. I route my plumbing lines inside. I beef up the electrical system and solar to power gadgets and camera stuff through the storm. I add two heat sources—neither of which requires a battery. Each decision passes through a tight filter of reason, whether it’s weight, flexibility, waterproofing, storage or more. Summer evaporates and autumn fades quickly, too. After a few delays on final components, I’m racing the cold and oncoming winter to seal it up and become road ready.
Countless hours on the road make me ponder this choice.
The maiden voyage is a bit nerve-wracking, hauling something I’ve dumped a significant amount of money and time into and taking it through the gauntlet of America’s highways. But by January I’ve stashed away just enough money to roam for a few months and make my way to the Tetons. I’m fortunate to park in a friend’s driveway in Victor, Idaho. The few, if any, RV sites open in winter charge as much as rent, which is a lot for a parking spot. Here the rig is a driveway chalet. Days and nights are split around the range, and on many occasions I end up in friends’ guest rooms, too. As the storms fade, I’m on to the Northwest where I know of some superb parking.
After all the time and money spent, where did it get me? Is there any way to really beat the costs associated with the expensive hobby of snowboarding? Is it worth all the hassle? Parking, showering, laundry and even cooking can become challenges in a small living space. Is it a richer experience to cram into a hotel room with friends and eat at the diner?
Comfort is different for everyone. Cooking one’s own food in a time of Monsanto spew or sleeping without the TV blaring or friend snoring is a luxury. Pooling time and resources puts us closer, though. It forces relationships rather than walls. It reminds us that we’re all in this together. While the nicest boho chic van or shack on a truck is cozy—it separates us. And why are there suddenly so many photos of people standing on their vans, their backs to the camera? Who took those photos anyway? Never mind.
A mobile dwelling comes with experiences, too. Like sleeping in truck stops. Cruising beautiful byways. Peeing in a bucket. Improving organizational skills and cleanliness. Having great conversation with a toothless guy named Guy from Kentucky while you sit in the cab of his tow truck as your rig is hauled away. Truthfully, a slopeside chalet in this inflated real estate market is a bargain, at least while parking remains.
For more interesting hand-built mobile homes, check out this post from Austin Smith of 4-wheeled dwellings found at the Mt. Baker Ski Area.
Back in the Mt. Baker parking lot, the squalls keep rolling in. There are times when I fear I might get buried and stuck so I move the trailer to a new spot. Various people come and go, some in Mercedes Sprinters worth half a house; others reside in a buffet of vans, trucks and various four-wheel creations. None stay more than a few days. Lot living is calm and simple. If there were not some daylong physical activity I’m sure I would feel caged. Posting up here eliminates the daily three-hour haul over a treacherous highway. Instead it’s sleeping in, lunch breaks and plenty of down time. There’s no race to first chair even though I have an advantage. Powder days are a plenty, but there are gray days of firm and foggy riding, too.
Being up here makes you commit, and that was part of the plan: to ride as much as possible no matter what. It was also part of an urge to be closer to the raw outside. After all, that wilderness lies just beyond a thin skin of aluminum, a few inches of spray foam and a little bit of plywood.
Ben Gavelda doesn’t have a spirit animal. He is a spirit animal.