A Fascinating Man and His Unusual Van

I met Tyll when I first arrived at the Imperial Dam LTVA.  I was wandering around on my bike and heard someone playing jazz on a ukulele, so I stopped to listen. Seriously. 

I’m so glad I said hi: Tyll is one of the most interesting people I’ve met in a good long while, and he and I have had several conversations about nomadic life that you might enjoy reading about.  In future posts, we could cover heavier topics such as how much work goes into this seemingly carefree lifestyle, the how-tos and pros and cons of social life on the road, or the misperception and stigma of homelessness among nomads.

But first, a tour of his rig.  

You know I dig this dude if I’m doing a #vanlife tour.  I’ve made fun of these YouTube tours relentlessly, because the fancy ones are obscenely expensive, and their Instagram photos—all featuring the rear ends of pretty young women as they look out at the beach from their pristine vans—give a ridiculously unrealistic impression of van life.  

Here is the real thing.  

This video’s just 18 seconds—Tyll’s introducing himself, his dog (Dart), and his rig (Putt), which used to be a Chicago Tribune delivery truck.

And this one (all of 26 seconds) is Tyll showing off how the cockpit of the rig looks like a utility van, but open the curtain and voila: it’s really his cosy, purple home.

The Hows and Whys

Before I give you a quick tour of the inside, you gotta know that Tyll built the inside himself. This isn’t wildly unusual according to my social media feeds, but it’s my first time hearing details from someone I can ask questions of. So I did!

Me: Why did you hit the road?

Tyll: Purely for economic reasons. I didn’t want to work forever, and if I stayed in the house I’d have to. So I designed and built a rig on the side while working, then I sold my house and retired at 62. I think that’s pretty good.

Tell me about buying and designing it.

I bought it off a lot for $16,000 (it’s a 2005). I had it designed before I bought it because it’s just a box inside, but my design was for 2 feet longer than this one. In the end, this is probably better because I can fit into a single parking space if I can hang my bumper over the sidewalk and back into it.

What are you most proud of in your build?

It’s the sense that I never feel confined. Inside is just big enough for one, but I can stand with my arms outstretched and turn in a complete circle without touching anything. There’s no sense of being claustrophobic. I’m very happy in my rig, and I love going to bed in my little compartment.

Deets on the Inside

Just like us, he’s got a queen bed in the back, but with all kinds of handy doodads he’s built in around it, like grab handles and hooks all over the place, plus fans and a stereo surround-sound system for audio and video. (And Tyll knows his audio; he was a pioneer in headphone engineering, but more on that in another post, maybe.)

That rope you see in front of the bed is part of a block and tackle pulley system that lets him lift the mattress so he can access storage underneath (this is less likely to break than our gas-assist struts).

Really, everything he’s designed and built is to make his stuff secure and accessible.

The refrigerator opens like a cooler. He’s got a 60-gallon water tank (ours is 39 gallons) and a composting toilet (no one needs the details on that).

He’s got comfy chairs and a table under a window he built in the wall (more on that, below).

It’s the details I think are cool. His spices are held in place with a cord cleverly strung through each hole only once, canned goods are bound in his cabinet by a chord that tightens, and the storage under his bed resembles a farmhouse cellar. (Thanks for showing that to me, Dart.)

It’s wild to see that he seems to have more storage than we do, all in a rig that looks like a delivery truck and can be parked in a regular car parking space. Which means he can camp in stealth as needed (i.e. pretend he’s a parked car in a lot and sleep overnight, something we could never in a billion years do).

The electronic details I’ll try to quote verbatim since I’m still learning this stuff. He’s got 600 W of solar panels, with DC distribution hidden behind a panel above his table, with the inverter charger and all the charge controllers in there. Plus four golf cart batteries underneath, for a total of about 400 amp hours of juice.

What’s extra cool is hidden in the panel above his head: an exhaust fan. Get this. He built the interior walls with a four-inch gap between them and the exterior walls, so there’s this layer of air between the walls that he can circulate and exhaust with this attic-type fan plus another fan over the bed. There’s no thermal gain inside, which I very much envy (in the direct sun, our rig turns into a very large Easy Bake Oven).

The last big renovation we talked about is that window that I assumed is where you hand out ice cream or sell newspapers or whatever. But Tyll built it in and says it was extra tricky—there was a wall stud in there that he had to take out and flip over so that the flanges went in a different direction (I don’t know what this means, but I’m thinking, “Wow,” anyway).

What I’m most impressed with is how the interior is designed so that everything stays in place during travel and when parked, like in a boat in constant motion that also has to be lived in. So, while I’m always unpacking when we park then re-packing to travel (again and again and again), his stuff stays in place the whole time.

Except for Dart (short for D’artagnan). Dart runs around Tyll’s campsite on a long leash, then hops up in his box in the cab when it’s time to hit the road. He’s a rambunctious cutie patootie.

What’s in the Trailer?

So yeah, I think Tyll’s rig is cool. What he tows behind it, though, is the Pandora’s Box of nomadic social life: a trailer stocked with all the ingredients you need to turn a dark desert night into one seriously funky party. It’s like Tyll’s cauldron o’ fun.

This picture I found on Facebook gives a hint of what that cauldron can brew, plus the dragon doing the stirring and muttering the incantations.

However, I didn’t call his trailer “Pandora’s Box” out of ignorance of the whole point of the myth. Social life on the road is complex.

It’s a topic that Tyll or I might cover in another post; I’m fascinated by it, but he’s grappling with it and may not feel like blabbing his thoughts to you guys whom he doesn’t know. So, I may just summarize the easy parts he’s told me.

If he’s up for it though, I’d be so stoked for a guest post on this. Or, really, on any topic from our conversations, as I mentioned up top. If you heed the warning on his t-shirt, he spontaneously talks about physics, plus other stuff close to my heart (if not my brain, exactly). Stay tuned.

11 thoughts to “A Fascinating Man and His Unusual Van”

    1. The rig is just a small trailer, like the smallest UHaul rents, painted white. Could be just more gear for the working man behind the wheel. That working man stopping for a quick sleep is less likely to have the cops pound on his door in the middle of the night in a parking lot than a homeless man sleeping in his van.

  1. The reason I like tiny houses is that they satisfy my appreciation for clever uses of space. Tyll’s van has that, and I also enjoyed reading about him. I look forward to reading about discussions relating to socializing on the road. BTW, I finally convinced Steve to try out a tiny house. We stayed in 2 over the holidays in Orlando on a lake where we keep our sailboat. They were part of a tiny house village, each a different design. I got to inspect a number of them, a few with some clever features. Happy New Year!

    1. Hey Betsy! Did you see the subsequent post about Tyll’s trailer? That’s actually about social life on the road. Oh I love the idea of the tiny house village you visited! There are some cool ones in Stanardsville, VA that I’ve stayed in and really loved.