Living a van-tastic life on the open road

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From left Molly Flack, Clayton Schaefer and their canine companion "Ophie" enjoy traveling across the United States in their transit van. Clayton spent ten months researching and transforming the van into a secure home on wheels. (Press photo submitted)

By Caroline Rosacker 

Molly Falck was born and raised in Arlington. She grew up a few miles away from her boyfriend and traveling companion, Clayton Schaefer, when he and his parents were living in the area when Clayton was a young boy. The 23-year-old studied massage therapy in Anamosa, at Carlson College of Massage Therapy, and then worked at Hands in Harmony before traveling. She was a seasonal massage therapist in California and Colorado while living in her first van. 

She began, "Clayton and I actually met in kindergarten, when Clayton spent one year at Starmont. We didn't hear of each other much until after high school, when I was working for the summer at a spa near where he lived in Castle Rock, Colo. We pretty much decided right away we wanted to build a van together and start traveling" 

"Right now I'm studying Ayurvedic medicine and yoga while traveling in our van," she explained. "I was forced out of working as a massage therapist when COVID-19 hit last year.  I wanted to offer self-care at home for my clients and friends, so I started 'Come Alive Herbals' which turned into an Ayurvedic product line of teas, muscle and skin salves, beauty oils, and hope to soon be launching medicinal tinctures." 

Molly told The Press, "I've always been interested in holistic health and healing. I realized quickly, through massage therapy, people just aren't educated that there are so many ways to heal themselves without relying on pills. Most people also don't realize the power of herbs, movement and yoga, bodywork, and living in tune with nature. I've healed my mental health and physical health firsthand from these things, and I am so passionate about helping others do the same."

Clayton, who is also 23, works as a health and life insurance salesman and also picks up construction/HVAC jobs on the road. He described the process of turning a van into a secure home on wheels. He said, "It started with six months of constant research trying to locate a tall roof transit van. They are pretty hard to come by. I found one in New York, and flew out there to take a look, and ended up buying it and driving it back to Guttenberg to start the build." 

Transforming a transit van into a mobile home requires patience and resilience. "I researched the rest of the build and started to construct our home. I installed the sub-floor, and then framed in the walls to the inside of the cargo area." He went on to say, "The nightmare of installing the electrical came next. I started to run wires for 12-volt appliances, lights, phone chargers, fans, fridge and water pump."

Clayton and Molly's van utilizes solar energy to provide power. He explained, "I started working on solar as well, which consists of two 300-watt 24-volt panels, 2 100Ah lithium batteries, 60-amp charge controller and 3,000-watt converter." 

The couples' sleeping quarters were next on the list. "I started framing the bed – followed by framing the two bench seats, and lastly I framed both of the cabinets," he said.

The traveling pair designed a unique interior for their home away from home. Clayton told The Press, "The countertop was a process. I cut the sink out of slabs of wood and pieced it together with pennies glued down the middle. Then we taped off the entire van and poured epoxy down to seal the counter top. Our bedroom ceiling is a map from 1974 that Molly and I Mod-Podged to the interior roof of the van. We trimmed out parts of the van with old barn wood from 1904. Molly handled all the packing and organizing of our stuff in the van before we left for full-time travel on the road." 

Clayton estimated the time it took to complete the project. He said, "It took about 10 months, not including all the time spent researching everything that went into the entire build and van itself." 

The adventuresome couple encountered a few problems on the road. Clayton reported, "Our heater broke right when we got to Colorado in January – in the coldest part of winter. Thankfully my brother lives near Denver so we had the part sent there. We haven't had any major issues so far." 

In preparation for the journey the couple watched YouTube like it was their full-time job. "Between videos and blogs, we were set. I've even started my own YouYube channel, "DanTheVanMan," and filmed how I did the entire build," said Clayton. 

"We've been to mountain towns around Colorado, and New York City where we purchased the van, in addition to New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Utah, and we just spent most of the winter in Sedona, Ariz., where we met the most amazing group of people who also live the same lifestyle," they said. "We both love the outdoors and everything adventure, and realized how simple of a life we could create while actually saving money and building the lifestyle we both envisioned for our 20's."

The couple has a third traveling companion. "Life with our Blue Heeler dog "Ophelia" makes days so much better. We can't go hiking in national parks, which is the biggest bummer, but when we decide to do something that dogs aren't allowed, we have fans that run off solar and a heater in the winter. She also is the best protector of all time. She barks at anything that moves!" Molly said with a laugh. 

The couple has met a variety of travelers with similar interests on their journey. "We have met older retired travelers and some homeless folks with no other options, but for the most part, and through social media, we've met people in their 20's and 30's." 

They developed a special connection with people while traveling in Arizona. “We met an amazing group of people in Sedona. We were all strangers in vans at first, but quickly grew into a friendship. We usually all hung out at the skate park, with fitness area, mountain bike trails, and hiking nearby. We all parked overnight near each other and had campfires almost every night. We’re thankful for the connection we made, making it very hard to leave Sedona,” Molly said with gratitude.

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