We moved into a van a week before the pandemic shut everything down. Now we go back to our condo
Who are they: Myriam Hugues Dit Ciles, 31, project manager, and Tanguy Coignion, 30, software developer
The van: a 2015 Ram ProMaster bought for $ 30,000, with an additional $ 20,000 for a bed, fan, cabinets, plumbing, flooring, solar panels, water heater, refrigerator, insulation, radiator , toilet and shower.
Monthly expenses: $ 600 for gasoline, $ 260 for insurance, $ 300 for phones and internet
Income: About $ 70,000 per year
–As said to Jessica Lee
Myriam : We are from France and have always dreamed of exploring North America in a van. We took inspiration from YouTube videos and Pinterest boards on tiny houses. We considered immigrating to the United States, but the Canadian system was easier to navigate. In 2016, we got approval for permanent residence and moved into a condo near Yonge and Bloor. We started planning our trip in 2018, bought our van in April 2019 and started building it the following month.
At first we only worked on weekends, but soon we also built on weeknights. We learned on the job. We love everything done to perfection, and nothing can be perfect in the van when you are building without prior experience. If you make a mistake with the wood, you can just cut a new part, but the plumbing and electricity are more expensive and take longer. If there is a plumbing leak that you are not aware of, it could flood the van and mess everything up within minutes.
We arranged sub-letters to move into our condo on March 15th, so we were working on a deadline. The plan was to have them stay in the condo with our cats, Coco and Chanel, until March 2021, while we traveled with our dog, Philibert. Tanguy made an agreement with his company to work remotely and part-time for a year so that we have an income. My employment contract was over, but I was planning to work on setting up a YouTube account for additional income. We currently have around 600 subscribers. On the first leg of our trip, we planned to pass through Detroit, Chicago, Yellowstone, Colorado, New Mexico, and San Diego, then later travel to Alaska and across Canada to the Maritimes.
We wanted to be in Chicago for St. Patrick’s Day and watch a basketball game there. Tanguy is a huge NBA fan, so we planned to visit an arena in each city. We left Toronto on March 8 and crossed the border to Detroit. At the time, the fear of the Covid had hit France. Our family and friends were surprised we were still traveling, but we didn’t think it would be the same in North America. And then by the time we got to Chicago, the parade and the NBA game were canceled.
In Chicago, we rented a parking space from an Airbnb-style app. We stopped at truck stops where we could shower for $ 10 to $ 13. If there was no shower around, we used baby wipes or a quick rinse in our built-in shower. We had an electric induction cooktop and an Instant Pot, where we made pasta, bulgur, quinoa, couscous, and soups. When we were in a hurry, we ate sandwiches. Sometimes I missed having an oven, but we made do with it.
When Trudeau announced that they were closing the border, we thought, Mmaybe we can overcome the pandemic in the United States as tourists. But then we thought, Wwhat if they closed the borders to permanent residents? We panicked at the thought of finding ourselves stranded in a country where we had no support. If the border situation changed, we would have to leave the van in America and fly to France. It would have been complicated. We also realized that if we got sick in the United States, it would be more difficult for us to access health care. In Canada, we had OHIP.
On March 18, we cut our trip to Wisconsin short and started heading home. We drove seven straight hours until we reached the nearest border crossing near Sault Ste. Marie at 1 or 2 in the morning Once we crossed the border, we were so relieved. But we were crushed to abandon our big trip after two years of preparation. Also, we had rented our condo for the next 12 months, so we had nowhere to live.
After our return, we stayed in Sault Ste. Marie for a week. We parked at a truck stop as it was the safest option. We had our heating and insulation, but our plumbing was not designed for the harsh winter as we planned to head south. At night, it was -15 degrees. Our gray water tank froze and we had to learn how to thaw it. We tried pouring hot water and piercing the ice through the pipes. Eventually we heard about antifreeze.
At that time, we didn’t know what was going to happen next. After a week in Sault Ste. Marie, we moved south to Manitoulin Island. It’s quite busy during the summer but empty and low-key during the winter. We parked next to the frozen lake and watched the little otters play everyday. It was the perfect distraction. We did it 10 days without using any facility. At this point, we knew we needed to fill our tank with fresh water soon to drink and take showers, but all public taps were closed and we couldn’t find a water source. We fill our fresh water tank every eight days, so it was urgent.
After three weeks of trying to isolate ourselves in a van, we decided to move into an Airbnb. We spent the month of April in a chalet by a lake near Minden. We felt lucky to be able to walk freely with Philibert as most of our friends in Toronto were stuck in their apartments. We only shopped twice and otherwise isolated the entire time. We were just happy to be safe and to have access to the outdoors.
It was out of our budget to continue renting the Airbnb in May, so I reached out to wildlife centers that typically rely on seasonal work from international students. With the borders closed, they were in desperate need of help, especially since spring is the time when all the baby animals arrive. I told Heavens Wildlife Rescue in Oil Springs, Ontario near Sarnia that we could volunteer as soon as the first animals arrived, and they welcomed us.
We went straight to the wildlife hub with no unnecessary stops and plenty of hand sanitizer. Working at the wildlife center was like working in a hospital; we had to wear masks and disinfect everything. We ended up staying for a month and a half. I was in charge of the nursery, so I watched over all the baby squirrels, raccoons, groundhogs and skunks. During my stay, I took care of about 120 baby raccoons. When they grew up a bit and became more independent, they were released back into the wild. It was an amazing experience that I never could have had under other circumstances. We lived in the van while we were there. There were bunk beds but the owner was hoping more students would arrive.
In June, when the provincial borders opened for travel. we went straight to BC because our original plan called for us in Vancouver for June 1st. We were going to meet two friends who also live in a van. It was already mid June at this point so we rode as fast as we could and did it in five days.
The silver lining of travel during the pandemic is that you have the parks to yourself. We saw photos of Banff crowded with international travelers, but in June there were only a few other people. In some of the towns that we passed through, we saw signs that said, “Old people live here, don’t visit” or “Immune-compromised people live here, don’t come near. We feared shaming some people, but it never happened to us.
Once in British Columbia it was much more pleasant. Covid cases were low. We went to Whistler and hiked and yoga in Squamish. The weather was mild and it was good to be in the van. We found a cute place above the city to park and would wake up to a great view. We also slept in Walmart parking lots or truck stops.
We thought we would stay in BC, but it wouldn’t be easy for Tanguy to be away from his business any longer and we still wanted to explore North America. We hope to postpone six months of part-time work until our next trip and allow him to return to full-time work in November. Currently, he gets up early and works two to three hours in the morning before going exploring. If there is something to be done, he will finish it in the evening.
We tried to make the most of van life, even though we moved in a van during a pandemic. We have been to Vancouver Island, Banff, Jasper, Edmonton, Calgary and Thunder Bay. Now we are in Quebec, whale watching. When we go somewhere, we don’t touch things or interact with people. We avoid visiting small local shops because not everyone follows the rules. Instead, we go to Bulk Barn and Costco because they are so good with their safety precautions. We don’t want to catch the virus. If we are safe for ourselves, we are safe for others.
We are moving back to our condo in November as we will not be able to go south this winter. Our sub-letters are happy to ditch the apartment – they’ve moved to Toronto to be closer to their jobs, and now that they’re working from home, they don’t have to be in town anymore. They are considering working remotely in Vancouver or moving back to live with their parents in Mississauga.
It’s sad to give up our nomadic lifestyle because we thought our time in the van would be longer. As soon as the world is calmer and safer, we will go straight back to the driver’s seat. After November, we will continue to travel in our van, but only on weekends. A few cold, harsh winter months in the van were tough. We survived, but we don’t want to start over.