The Baja Van

My first trips to Baja were of the flying variety with some friends and we became known as The Baja Bunch. But after four or five of those trips, I decided that my wife would enjoy escaping from the Black Forest, Colorado winters. Our first foray on wheels was in a Chevy Luv pickup with tent camping planned and an occasional night in a hotel. Due to rain and travel times, we stayed in hotels from Colorado all the way down the west coast of Mexico and across the Sea of Cortez on the ferry, landing in Santa Rosalia after dark. Our first night of camping was on the beach at Conception Bay south of the town of Mulege. We pitched our tent next to a palapa and had a great time until the next morning when my wife went to the country one-holer and came face to face with a rat that she claimed was big as an average dog. Then when we struck the tent, we found a four foot rattler under the floor and that did it--the camping thing wasn't for her.

Our hotel choices were usually somewhat below the El Presidente level with one night at Rancho Santa Ynez just south of Catavina. It's a well-know checkpoint for the Baja 1000 race and has a nice paved runway with the only supply of AvGas on the long haul up the peninsula, which is usually against the wind. Small planes, not like those big ones on commercial flights to Florida for example, with limited fuel supplies couldn't make it without the ranch. It's a working ranch that supplements their income by renting beds in some rather Spartan rooms and serving meals. The beds were, shall we say--adequate, but the food was outstanding. The lady made up two of the six beds in our room and as she left, she handed me a broom, saying, "Por los aranas." My wife asked what she said and I foolishly told her, "For the spiders." She wasn't too thrilled about that but went along with my choice. We spent close to two months on that trip

I knew that if I wanted her company on next winter's Baja trip, it would have to be in something a little better than that, so I began a search for a suitable van for conversion for camping. That's when I came across the makings for our Baja Van. When someone retires from General Motors, they can order any vehicle they wish and equipped the way they want it. He chose a shorty van on a heavy duty chassis with a 292cu/in 6 cylinder truck engine and four speed transmission. Hardly what most people would want but that was his choice. It turned out to be an ideal vehicle for the Baja roads and terrain.

He had done the really expensive part of a conversion; large windows, roof vent, interior finish with insulation, thick carpet, window coverings and two plush Captain's Chairs up front. The passenger chair could be rotated to face the rear. A pair of folding cots rounded out the inside. He'd put less than 10,000 miles on it before he decided to sell the rig but found buyers hard to find for something that unusual. I must have caught him at the peak of his frustration because when I shot him an offer so low I thought he might hit me, he grabbed at it.
I now had a van with the next step of building it out for camping. I'd once owned a company making overhead pickup campers so was familiar with the construction methods and the maximum utilization of minimum space. The first task was a bed but with an interior width of 67 inches and me being, 6 foot 2 inches , something was going to have to give. I finally concluded that it would have to be me by sleeping with my knees bent. The frame for the bed was built wall to wall across the back and 48" wide with about half of it resting on top of the wheel wells on either side. With a 5" foam mattress, that made it just about the right height for seating as well as sleeping.
Bulkheads against each wheel well left about 48" of space under the bed. A slot for a folding card table and under that was slots for a pair of metal folding chairs. That left enough space for a couple 6" deep drawers that went back as far as the end of the slots for the tables and chairs. One drawer held a Coleman two-burner camp stove with space behind it for pots, pans, dishes and the like. The other drawer was the pantry. That left storage space on one side and behind the wheel wells for the multitude of items that one wants to take along, Two doors opened from the front side for space under the bed for shoes, coats and things like that.

I built a 16" x 32" cabinet immediately in front of the bed along the wall opposite the sliding door. It had a pair of 20" x 16" drawers, 12" deep plus space for a five-gallon plastic water tank. I gave my wife one of the drawers and told her that was her space. She asked what she would do it she couldn't get everything in it. I told her that meant she was trying to take something she didn't need. It took her a while but she finally found a place for everything.

Cut into the cabinet top was a 10" round basin and wobble pump to draw water from the tank. It drained out under the rig. A porta-potty fit nicely between the cabinet and the driver's seat. A portable ice chest served our needs for keeping things cool and it could be slid between the two seats or moved back to serve as a table. With cooking and other activities mostly done outside, it made for a rather comfortable rig.

We had spring and summer to shake it down with trips to the mountains, to soaring events and campouts with a camping club before the snows began to fall and it was time to head out. Over the next five months we put some 8,000 miles on the clock as we leisurely traveled from Colorado to Oregon, down the west coast with a stop to see our son in California, on to the tip of Baja, across the Sea of Cortez to Mazatlan, then Mexico City, Tampico and back up to Texas. We finally arrived at home to face two mailbags full of magazines, letters and junk mail.

Soon after we returned, my wife said that seeing me walking around inside the van on my knees really bothered her and we should get something that I could stand up in. That turned out to be a 23' MinnieWinnie Class C, fully self-contained motorhome that we kept for the next 20 years, including three more trips to Baja in it.

Tropic of Cancer, 23 28' North Latitude

Freda could always find a friend

Baja Sunrise

Links to other Baja stories:
When Pigs Fly
The Cow That Ate Baja
Going Tubeless
Speedy Gonzales
The Baja Bunch


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Copyright 2006 by Jim Foreman