Bertha and Her Vanlife Power Couple

Julie Ellison and Alton Richardson are something of a vanlife power couple: She’s the senior editor for Climbing magazine and does freelance writing and photography and he’s a full-time freelance photographer, videographer, and designer, in addition to being the founder and art director of California Climber magazine. Their home base is in Boulder, but when they’re not there (and they’re not there a lot), they’re in their van, a converted Chevy Express. We asked them to take us inside their home away from home.

Year, Make, Model?
1999 Chevy Express 2500 Cargo Van

Name of vehicle?
Bertha!

Years owned?
Almost two.

bertha8

How did you get it?
Kind of a funny story. I decided to start looking for vans and came across one that looked really rad on the first day I looked, completely done on the interior, everything seemed to be in good shape, and it even had a TV that folds down from the ceiling! Later that night I was chatting with a close friend who said a friend of his was selling a van. His friend and I connected the next day on Facebook, and he sent me the Craigslist posting-it turned out to be the exact same van!

It was definitely kismet, so we test drove it a few days later. The engine started smoking on us when we were about a mile from where we left our car. We called the owner, who apologized profusely and gave us a ride back, but it didn’t matter-we were already in love, and love is blind even though there was literally a smoking gun/engine! I told him to reach back out when he got it fixed, he did, and I ended up getting it a bit cheaper than what he was asking with all the new engine work that had been done. The former owner is in climbing media, too, so we work with him regularly and he’s a friend of ours.

bertha13

How have you modified it?
When we bought Bertha, she was completely decked out for one person to live in, with an extra-long twin size bed, a small kitchen area with backsplash, two-way fan/vent, and mucho storage with some professionally done cabinetry work. We needed to fit two people and a 60-pound lap dog, so we had to rip it all out and start over.

Luckily we were able to reuse a lot of the wood to build some more storage, counter space, and a spot for the fridge and Goal Zero Yeti 1250. We added a bed that’s kinda short-I’m 5’4″ and can fully stretch out, Alton is just under 6 feet and he can’t-but it’s really wide so Alton can lay sort of diagonally. And, of course, Lizzie (our dog) can lay up there without being on top of us, even though she still tries.

We left the area underneath the bed open for now so we can easily slide crashpads in and out, but we might engineer a drawer or two eventually. It was also fully insulated and carpeted, and the floor would get disgusting super-quick, so we ripped out the carpet and installed an inexpensive but really durable laminate that looks like hardwood. It’s so easy now to just sweep all the crud out. We also added a swivel seat to the passenger seat, which is awesome. It not only adds another super-comfy seat, but it opens up the 57 square feet of space tremendously. And my absolute favorite part-the Goal Zero solar panels on the roof! It’s so rad to be a fully contained power unit that stays running as long as there’s a little bit of sun. We charge camera batteries, laptops, and the fridge all the time, as well as running a blender for smoothies, so this reliable source of power is pretty crucial for us.

bertha15

How many states has the vehicle visited?
Uh…a lot! Quick count, I’d say about 20. Pretty much all the western states and most of the Southeast, but nothing in the Northeast and only a few in the Midwest. We’re coming, though!

Sports?
This is one of our biggest issues because we do everything-sport climbing, bouldering, trad climbing, ice climbing, skiing, biking, photography, shoot video, write…the list goes on. We’re climbers first and foremost so we customize the gear packing list based on where we’re headed and what climbing is in the area (or on the way), but camera gear, personal climbing gear, a sport rack, and at least a crashpad or two come with us pretty much everywhere.

bertha6

Pros?
Everything, just everything! Most of all I love the feeling I get whenever we’re in it because I know I’m on an adventure, waking up in the most beautiful places with the person and beast that I love more than anything in this world, going to do my favorite activities and live the life that I’ve always dreamt about. I feel at peace, excited, motivated, and psyched on life-all at the same time.

Cons?
The ONLY thing I would change is the fact that we can’t stand up in it. Having a little more headroom would be fantastic, but I like to think that it just encourages us to actually be outside more.

Overlandia is the art, science, and romance of driving in the dirt. To see more, visit the Overlandia channel page.

Find Julie at julieellison.com and on Instagram/Twitter at @joolyhart / @joolyhart Find Alton at altonrichardson.com and on Instagram/Twitter at @agrphoto / @agrphoto

GIVE YOURSELF THE GIFT OF ANALOG

ADVENTURE JOURNAL SUBSCRIPTION


Four issues, free shipping, evergreen content…