Driving Bob Wells’ Van

And you may ask yourself, “Well, how did I get here?”

Talking Heads

If you’ve seen Nomadland or ever done a Google search on van life, you’ve heard of Bob Wells. His CheapRVLiving website and YouTube channel have inspired countless people to give up traditional ways of living and embrace a nomadic life instead. I’m one of them. So it’s strangely fitting that my life has now come full circle, and yesterday I found myself behind the wheel of probably the most famous camper van in the world.

How Did This Happen?

The obvious question is exactly how I got this opportunity without committing grand theft auto. The truth is that I simply spoke up at the right place at the right time. The Homes On Wheels Alliance is looking for volunteers for a wide variety of tasks. One of them was helping to transport Bob’s van from where it’s being stored until the giveaway in February to the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous here in Quartzsite. In one of my past regenerations, I was a professional driver, used to long days on the road. I’ve also had a wide variety of advanced driver training. Basically, I’m super overqualified for the job and the opportunity to drive a piece of internet history appealed to me, so I dropped HOWA an email to say I was interested. As it turned out, I was one of two people who volunteered, so we were the two who had the opportunity to do it.

The task was simple: Take a HOWA vehicle to an undisclosed location near Pahrump, Nevada where the van is being stored, and drive it back to Quartzsite where it will be on display at the RTR. Google said it would be a 4.5-hour drive, one way, so 9 hours total, and more than that with stops. It would be an all-day journey.

The Drive Up

The day before our journey, Bobbi from HOWA dropped off their Scion xA for us to use for the trip to Pahrump. If it looks familiar, that’s because it’s been featured on CheapRVLiving before.

Since then the seat behind the driver has been reinstalled, so it can seat two. First thing in the morning, I hopped in the Scion and drove to Plomosa Road to pick up Linda, the other volunteer I’d be driving with. Then I set a course to Pahrump, and we chatted the drive away, getting to know each other and telling our van life stories.

We switched off the driving about halfway through the trip, shortly after crossing from California into Nevada (marking the first time I’ve ever driven in that state), so I had a chance to relax and sightsee. Not long afterward we thought we saw Lake Mead in the distance. We were wrong — it was the largest solar farm either of us had ever seen. What we thought was water was square miles of solar panels. It’s a brilliant idea. The land can’t be used for much else, and the power it generates can help run air conditioners during the hottest part of the day.

Though it wasn’t Lake Mead, the thought got us thinking about how close our route would take us to it. I looked it up, and Hoover Dam was a mere 15 minutes off our direct route. We decided to go for it.

Hoover Dam

While this was Linda’s first visit to Hoover Dam, it wasn’t mine. I came here in 2000. I even got the grand tour, before 9/11, so I got to see critical areas that are probably off-limits now due to security concerns. Lake Mead was already lower than it should’ve been when I was last there 22 years ago, and it’s dropped significantly since.

Since we were on a mission, and this was merely a side quest, we didn’t spend much time here, but we did check it out, take pictures, and each of us got to drive across the top of the dam.

Back on the highway, we blasted across Las Vegas. Once again, we were on a mission, so while there’s a lot to explore there, we didn’t stop.

I’m not much for big cities, and I’m glad Linda drove this leg. Still, traffic was nothing compared to what I used to fight on a daily basis back east. There was just the occasional idiot driver to contend with.

The final leg to Pahrump was pleasant and took us past Mount Charleston. We’d been seeing this snow-covered mountaintop in the distance for literally the past couple of hours. Its altitude of 11,916 feet explains why. This is the only snow I’ve seen so far this winter. I’ll be most happy if it stays there, up at higher altitudes where it belongs.

Pahrump is not the “blink and you miss it” small town that some people led me to believe it was. It’s well-equipped. While it doesn’t have one of everything like Lake Havasu, it certainly has everything you need. We followed the last few steps of the directions, pulled through the gate that had been left open for us, and there it was.

We knew we were in the right place when we saw the high roof and the solar panel hanging off the back. I don’t know how many YouTube videos I’ve watched with this van in it. I had the key (!!!) so I opened it up and we checked it out. I’m not going to do a van tour here. That’s already been covered.

Driving an Internet Celebrity

Since Linda was already comfortably set up in the Scion, I took the first shift in the van. We’d already agreed that since it’s not every day you get to drive a literal internet celebrity, we’d switch vehicles halfway back to Quartzsite so we both got to experience it. We filled up with the cheapest gas we’ve seen in months ($3.18/gallon!) then started back the way we came.

So what’s it like to drive? Honestly, it’s just a van. Nothing special. But that’s the beauty of it. GMC Savanas are everywhere, which means they’re cheap to run, maintain, and fix. My inner automotive journalist couldn’t help assessing how it drives. It has adequate power, a firm but not uncomfortable suspension to handle the weight, and good brakes. It does exactly what it’s supposed to do. This does not include power slides like Jeremy Clarkson.

Bob’s van is also the definition of “internet famous” as compared to “actually famous.” If I was driving KITT from Knight Rider, the A-Team van, or even an unmodified DeLorean, people would be pointing and staring at me all day. Instead, I was completely incognito, just another camper van cruising down the road. Even those who might recognize “ooo, a camper van” had no idea exactly whose van I was driving. And that’s okay. I don’t need that kind of attention.

We stopped in Searchlight, Nevada for a bite to eat, a “splash ‘n’ dash” before entering California where gas prices are insane, and to swap vehicles. We took advantage of an empty highway and “golden hour” lighting to do a little photoshoot, using my FRS radios to coordinate movements. (Don’t worry, I watched the road, not the camera. For each of these photos I have about 10 where I completely missed the shot!)

Night Rider

It wasn’t all play and no work, though. After sunset, I asked Linda if she’d like to keep leading or to have me go on ahead. She said that since my night vision is better than hers, I should leapfrog her in the Scion and lead the way. This proved advantageous when her phone battery ran low, and she was no longer able to use it to navigate since she had no charger. The final good reason to have me in the lead, which I didn’t mention at the time, was that if there was any wildlife in the road I’d rather sacrifice the Scion to save Bob’s van if it came down to it. Think of me as the fighter escort for the VIP transport.

Fortunately, the trip after dark proved uneventful. The only issue we had was that the van’s check engine light turned on after a few hours of driving. When I told Bobbi about this, I told her I work for FIXD and would be happy to pull the codes and diagnose the problem. We met her and Walt at Plomosa Road, then Linda drove the van to her campsite to show off. The people she was camping with were thrilled. They crawled all over it, checked it out, and took pictures with it. It was fun, though I certainly wouldn’t want to get that kind of attention everywhere I went.

Next, I hopped back in the van while Bobbi took the Scion, then led our little convoy to my camp so I could troubleshoot the check engine light. I messaged Misty (who had been taking care of Lister while I was away) to let her know we were coming. She must’ve told everyone else in our camp because our arrival went similarly to Linda’s! I still managed to get my stuff out of both vehicles and pull the codes, a P0171 and P0174. Both indicate a lean running condition. My guess is that the van’s been sitting a while, and there might just be a little gunk clogging a sensor somewhere. The engine ran beautifully for the entire drive, with no indication there was anything wrong except for the check engine light. Naturally, the problem will get properly diagnosed and fixed before whoever wins the van in the giveaway receives it.

Just Doing My Part

So that’s how an ordinary guy like me got the chance to drive the most famous camper van in the world. It was just a unique set of circumstances that all came together just right. One lesson I’ve learned in recent months is to not be afraid to reach for the stars. Sometimes, if you play your cards right, you might actually catch one.

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