If you want to renovate a 35-year old RV, it’s best to
let it sit behind the house for five or six months to make sure you really want
Originally we wanted to buy a late model work van, specifically a Dodge
Promaster, as is the trend. It would be a blank
slate of sheet metal with few windows for one to apply megawatts of solar, a bathroom and his and
her’s iMacs and live out the #vanlife fantasy. Just kidding.
“Van Life” fits so easily into the wide genre of aspirational media to arrive
online in the last decade. It combines our institutional dissatisfaction with our current
situation with the American love of gear, and if this bro with dreads and
a chestpiece can do it, so can we.
But our plan is more humble—to build a practical base for camping, canoe trips
and possibly a temporary home for us when we move out for some
planned renovations. We don’t plan on living in it full time. So when our vintage
Chevy showed up on Kijiji we did some math. We figured it would save us a lot
of money up front, probably cost a bit more in maintenance in the long run, but
for the amount we’d use it, it would be worth it.
What we bought is a 1984 Chevy G20 ‘Horizon’. It started its life as a
standard G20 van with a 305 V8, had its roof cut off and outfitted as an
RV by Intervec, earning the Horizon badge. Ours supposedly spent much of its life
stored indoors south of the border, so it has low miles and little rust
When first converted to an RV, it was equipped with the following:
shower, with propane water heater
auxiliary propane heater
air conditioning (factory, in the dash)
sink and water pump
3 water tanks: black, grey and fresh
Over the years systems fail and most people disconnect and remove them. When we
got it, the following remained:
sink and water pump
3 water tanks
100W of solar feeding 2 6V golf cart batteries, installed by the previous
We will be removing everything—down to the steel—and eventually reinstalling
only the fresh water tank, water pump, solar and batteries. Everything about how
they’re installed and connected is going to change. I’ll talk more about these
systems in later posts.
The first step is to remove most of the interior of the van. The furniture
inside is cheaply made, musty, heavy and its layout isn’t ideal. There is a
loft bed above the front seats on a platform that extends at night, a bench
seat lengthwise behind the driver seat that converts to a bed, neither of which
are ideal for two people sleeping in the van for extended periods. The rear of
the van is occupied by the remains of the shower, some storage and a closet. A
clean slate will allow us to insulate the walls, install conduit for wiring and
build furnishings and storage exactly to our needs.
We did most of the work in a couple afternoons. The star of the show was the
DeWalt DCS367B reciprocating saw, a tool I bought last year that was more of
a want than a need, but made quick work of a few cutting jobs that otherwise
would have required the tedious removal of stubborn screws.
The next big job was to get the dashboard off, install a new stereo receiver,
speakers and make sense of some of the wiring. There were decades of disconnected
and disused circuits to clean up.
The radio I went with is the Pioneer DMH-C2550NEX. We have a
Carplay-capable unit in our other vehicle and I’m spoiled for it, but the G20
predates the DIN standard so fitting a double DIN deck inside the dash
would be tricky, requiring a lot of cutting and likely fabricating some kind of
bracket. This Pioneer unit has a separate screen connected by cable to
a single DIN box housing its circuitry. This allows you to mount the screen on
a non-standard dash and hide the guts somewhere inside.
I made a cardboard template from the dash and fabricated a mount for the screen
from a piece of oak I had. I also drilled a hole for a USB/3.5mm audio
jack panel and another for the hands-free mic.
Getting the dash back in took most of an afternoon. Lots of screws to match to
holes and vents to position perfectly so it could slide in.
In the next post we’ll cover some body repair, painting and insulation.
While I don’t mind the TTC, I have always preferred my bike, maybe most in the
winter. Bundled in a parka on a packed, stuffy streetcar is no fun and on
stormy days delays can make my commute almost 90 minutes. By bike it’s about 30
minutes all year round.
But without the proper equipment it can be miserable. I’ve tried a lot of
different bikes, clothing and accessories over the years for usually what
amounts to ~10 months of riding a year. This year I’ve refined it to a setup
that works for me 365 days a year.
First, the bike. There are two things that make a huge difference: tire diameter
and disc brakes. After hardheadedly riding road bikes and fixed gears in the
fall and giving in when the snow starts to fall, I decided I should treat
myself to some real traction.
Skinny tires are fine eight months of the year in the city but the minute there
is snow on the ground it’s time to look at tires 30c and larger with tread
designed for those conditions. You may even want to consider studs, as
the City of Toronto’s intepretation of snow removal isn’t so much a “removal”
as a “push to the gutter where the cyclists are and hope for the best” I like
the Schwalbe Winter K-Guards.
Disc brakes are worth it in the snow, as the temperature in
Toronto usually means “slush” which can build up between your fork and
seat-stays, bogging down rim brakes.
Beyond these two things the bike doesn’t really matter. Gravel bike, mountain
bike, whatever. My approach was to buy a used [Norco Indie 3][indie] from
Kijiji and switch it to drop bars for an imitation gravel bike.
full coverage fenders
I don’t have specific product recommendations here because the best fender seems to
vary a lot from bike-to-bike but fenders that reach over the rear wheel closer
to the ground are essential. Snow sticks to your tires more easily than rain
and can spray your back if your fenders aren’t long enough.
These things are the most effective way to keep your hands warm. I’ve tried
many types of gloves, but once the temperature drops below about -10°C they all
stop keeping my hands warm. Bar mitts give you a wind break that creates a
pocket of warm air in front of your hands. Pair them with a thinner inner glove
and you also have the benefit of better articulation for braking and shifing
compared to big lobster gloves or mittens.
I’ve worn regular non-cycling boots with flat pedals and straps or cages (I
like my feet connected to the pedals) but I’ve found this combo can effect the
circulation in my feet and make my toes cold quicker. These Fizik X5
SPD-compatible boots are the best option I’ve seen in terms of
On days where good fenders don’t protect you (like it’s actively snowing or
raining) you need pants. I’ve bought every rain pant at MEC and they are all
terrible, with nonsensical fit and excessive material in the wrong places.
These Endura pants are bulky enough to wear over street clothes but not too
bulky that they get caught in your drivetrain. They also have pockets and
ventilation, which are not always a given with cycling pants.
With shortened days, good lighting is a requirement. The Cygolite
Metro headlight strikes the right balance between price and
brightness. It’s lowest setting is enough to ensure you’re seen in clear
conditions and it’s bright settings are plenty for flooding an unlit bike path.
Above the waist the best approach is to have options. I ride at a pace
that a good rain jacket over a t-shirt keeps me warm down to near freezing as
long as my extremities are protected. Below that I will add fleece and thermal
base layers as necessary. Uniqlo Heattech is great and cheap.
A cricket in the McDonald’s parking lot told me to listen to American
for the rest of the drive. I’ve been listening to it almost weekly this year
for some reason.
My parents live in the country and there’s an impossibly long, straight and
featureless road on the route where time stretches out and becomes liquid. It’s
as long or as short as your wits, forcing you through the same motions every
time. “Are we there yet?” With a conversation it speeds by, but in the dark,
with Jen and the dog asleep, it was just me and DB.
Last night it was as long as American Water. A half moon to the south the
colour of yogurt darts behind clouds pushed jarringly fast by what’s left of
the days August winds. Reflectors on the taillights of sleeping pickup trucks
whip by, the outline of a barn, a fluorescent chicken farm during the last
feed of the day.
Malkmus doesn’t get enough credit as a guitar player. He dove into a
trove of unseen pickin’ licks, contorted by his years of scrawny, velcro
playing in Pavement. Sometimes its a staccato yellow center line, sometimes it’s
a smooth white, keeping you from the gravel shoulder and the ditch beyond.
In the night you can’t trust your vision on this road. Your brights seem to make
it worse. You just grip and stay between the guitar lines.
DB combined a set of tools like nobody else: he was a keen observer and
empath, maybe better than anyone. Even when sneering—attacking the
mundane evil of America—he was never smug. He never wrote a “Southern Man”. He
always seemed to have lived it, or at very least absorbed his observations
enough so he could project them through a lens of empathy.
Headlights from miles behind you still shine into the rear view. Sometimes they
seem closer, tailgating you in the mist, bouncing around the road. And then
they recede to a single point but never turn or fade.
Water is the one I know the best. It was the first one I heard and I’ve listened
to it more times than all the others combined. That’s okay, because there’s a
lifetime of lessons in its songs. It’s the funniest and most fun, a document of
some levity that obviously left his life.
Eventually you cross a county line, the speed limit becomes 90 clicks and
you can open it up.