'Hoover' and friends

Zack Johnson and Carly Donahue, both of Meadville, have converted a 1976 Chevy van into a living compartment with running water, storage and a bed. 

MEADVILLE, Pa. – On a recent sunny afternoon, Zack Johnson and Carly Donahue found themselves exactly where they hope to spend the next couple of years: in a van down by the river.

The river is optional, come to think of it, but the van – the van is something else.

They call it “Hoover” after the tiny borough of Hooversville, just north of Somerset, where they found it early last year in the previous owner’s backyard, waiting for a purchaser who wouldn’t sell it for parts.

Fourteen months, about $6,000 and many, many hours of restoration and renovation work later, the 1976 Chevrolet G20 van not only runs like a dream, it can house two adults in relative comfort, provided they are eager to traverse America in search of new experiences and work well together.

Johnson and Donahue check both boxes.

“We’re ready to get on the road,” Donahue said last week as she and Johnson showed off Hoover at Meadville's Bicentennial Park.

The side and rear doors were open and an awning extending from the rear covered two camp chairs. Inside, just below where Johnson had installed a fan, a futon extended across the entire rear section of the van.

“We’re lucky we’re short,” Donahue joked as the couple offered a tour of their future four-wheeled home.

A closer look at the interior revealed two 12-volt, 100-amp-hour rechargeable batteries stored underneath the bedding and connected to two roof-mounted 100-watt solar panels. In the front, the custom-installed driver and passenger seats were swiveled around to face the living area in the middle of the vehicle.

Flooring recycled from a house-restoration project Johnson had worked on helped tie together a console with a tiny sink connected to two 7-gallon water tanks on one side of the van and a cabinet with a single-burner cooktop and a dorm room-sized fridge on the other.

Hoover, in short, looked ready to host the first of what will likely be many killer cookouts that play out to a soundtrack provided by the Grateful Dead.

In fact, the couple said, not only are they and Hoover ready to get on the road, they’re ready to stay there. But for two years?

The two 25-year-olds responded almost simultaneously.

“Probably,” Johnson said, his mop of red curls nodding above a mustache that, like the van he has spent months refitting, appeared to be a classic 1970s model.

“Definitely,” Donahue said, upping the ante a bit.

As the couple awaits a standard license plate to replace Hoover’s current antique plate, one element of the trek is set in stone: Johnson and Donahue leave July 11.

They head first for Traverse City, Michigan, then plan to visit Mount Rushmore and Yellowstone National Park before spending about a month touring parks in Montana with an eventual goal of making it to Olympic National Park in Washington.

After that, the couple’s plans are fluid, but there is a clear deadline — a point at which the clock metaphorically strikes midnight.

“I said I want to be back here by 30, so we have five years,” Donahue said.

Johnson agreed.

“That was my thing, too,” he said. “We want to move home and have a family at 30.”

The point of the odyssey, they explained, is not to get away from northwestern Pennsylvania but to have a chance to see the rest of the country before the commitments that attend adulthood anchor them down. And it’s not a vacation, either, they were quick to point out. They’ve spent the past year saving a stake to provide security during the trip, but they plan to find work as their journey takes them from the Great Lakes to the West Coast with stops at a number of National Parks along the way.

“We really don’t have a lot of things that are tying us down,” Donahue said. “We’re kind of at this stage where (we wondered) do we go rent, do we buy a house, what do we do? None of that sounded very good to us.”

The dramatic increase in remote working opportunities during the COVID-19 pandemic added to the appeal of a more mobile lifestyle.

Johnson’s extensive experience as a mechanic is likely to be in demand wherever they travel, and his tools are already stored under the futon at the rear of the van. For Donahue, who quit her human resources job last month, the ability to stay connected through hotspots that provide online access makes it more likely that she can pick up work along the way as well. They’ll also remain open to opportunities that present themselves along the way and plan to keep an eye out for business plans they might be able to bring back to Meadville.

While they’re optimistic, they’re not naive. They’ve installed a video-equipped security system that connects to all of the doors and windows, and they’ve made preparations to deal with hygiene challenges presented by life in a van.

They plan to use a Planet Fitness membership to access locker room facilities; for more remote camping locations they have a portable solar shower device for rinsing off. They’re also hopeful that anti-microbial clothing will cut down on the need to do laundry, among other things.

The couple’s openness to opportunity has already taken them far. Perhaps the biggest step was mental, taking the leap from implausible dream to concrete plans — and then actually relating those plans out loud to family members.

Instead of the skepticism they expected, they received a great deal of support and even donations of furnishings, equipment and labor that have made the dream of van life a reality.

Mike Crowley can be reached at (814) 724-6370 or by email at mcrowley@meadvilletribune.com.

Trending Video

Recommended for you