CYRUS SUTTON'S VAN LIFE - PART 1
I first moved into a van 10 years ago. It was a practical decision. I’d been commissioned to make a 16mm surf documentary and failed to negotiate a living wage for myself during the three years it took to make it. This oversight had me surviving on cans of kidney beans and needing a rent-free place to sleep while I traveled between Australia and Los Angeles shooting and editing.
The year before all this, I’d spent camping in Baja: surfing, fishing and reading a lot. During that time, I camped next to Glen and Roberta Horn who took me under their wing. Glen was a veteran surfboard shaper and journeyman carpenter. We shared waves every morning. Glen showed me how to spearfish and Roberta cooked dinner for us every night inside their 1950 something milk truck that they had customized in the early nineties.
They called it “Big Red.” It featured a 4WD train, a real set of hood mounted bull horns and rear mounted bull testicles. A domed aluminum roof that housed an upstairs sleeping loft and a nautical inspired floor plan with wooden cabinets and a kitchen nook.
It was a work of art that gave Mexican fishermen and traveling surfers a smile every time they passed by. It also served as a functional home for Glen and Roberta. It provided a place to cook and eat, a shelter from the wind and sun, a place to exercise (they had a canvas covered weight room against the side), a place to sleep and a place to secure and organize their belongings.
The months I spent with them inspired me to buy a van and live in it. I bought a Ford Econoline in 2006, it was an old electrician’s rig with a metal cage and metal shelving in the back. I went to the hardware store with my dad and put in two L bars to support a large one inch thick sheet of plywood which would become my bed. My dad used a similar setup for his roll top VW bus which he bought in 1981.
My dad and I went on many trips together growing up. I’d hop in the back in the early morning darkness and slept until the sunlight and crisp desert air woke me. It was a simple space. A raised bed with an empty floor plan for storage of our clothes, gear and a large Igloo cooler beneath. The only custom feature was a milk crate which housed a 5 gallon water jug with a pump action water dispenser. This same VW has been my dad’s little home on wheels for fly fishing and surfing trips for thirty-five years now.
2006-2013 were good years for me. There were many Baja trips and even more 24 Hour Fitness and Walmart parking lot sleepovers. My electrician shelves served as clothing and equipment storage next to my bed. Underneath I stored my wetsuits, clothing and other camping and surfing gear in Rubbermaid boxes secured by bungee cords along the floor. My surfboards inhabited a niche on the floor as well. I’d have to watch my step when jumping from my bed at night so I didn’t put my heel through one of them. My van had no insulation, it was a sweat box during the day and a freezer at night. There was no kitchen and I didn’t cook except when I was away from the city and could tailgate. It kept all my essentials safe and provided a place to sleep. It served me well for almost seven years.
In 2013 Reef asked me to make a surf film on whatever I wanted. So I came up with a plan to make myself a new home and took it on the surf trip I’d always wanted to take. I called the project Compassing and started by ripping the roof off of my van and building a cabin on wheels. The whole process took three months, working between surf trips abroad. Glen helped me build out the inside and Brad Begent, a San Diego contractor and artist, taught me how to weld and we fabricated a new roof and upper story sleeping loft. His workshop was a 4000 square foot builder’s dreamland stocked with every kind of tool and machine imaginable. Brad used a cold saw to cut the one inch tube steel and I used a mig welder to join the frame. We used sheet steel that we drilled into the frame for the roof. In early May I crossed the San Diego border into Baja and would take the next three months making my way down to Puerto Escondido, hoping on the ferry from Baja to Mainland Mexico. It was a good year for swell, offering plenty of opportunity to surf quality waves along the thousands of miles of coastline.
Navigating corrupt Mexican Police, Drug Cartels, thieves and dead end dirt roads I found my share of perfect waves. My 2WD van was outfitted with a case that held shortboards and mid-lengths, kitchen counter space, sub-floor storage, a retractable sleeping loft, a secret compartment for money and passports, and a rocket box with solar panels which fed a battery/inverter made by Goal Zero which I was able to charge camera batteries and my laptop with.
The van was everything I needed in rural areas but in the cities and suburbs it stuck out like a sore thumb. More importantly it only got 8-10 miles per gallon with the extra weight and the turning radius had always been a joke. Parking spaces always required 3-6 point turns and I can count on one hand the number of u-turns I made successfully without having to reverse into oncoming traffic.
Early in 2015, after nearly two years of driving my modified wood and camo Ford van, I met two brothers who had the largest Sprinter van I’d ever seen. It was an ex-pet mobile grooming mobile they’d found in Portland a few months earlier. It was a dually with four wheels in the back, it was 6 feet tall inside for a full fourteen feet and most importantly it got twenty miles per gallon. The brothers expressed interest in selling the Spinter so they could buy a small school bus in Arizona. So after getting it checked out by a mechanic I bought my second home.
The brothers had haphazardly built out on the inside with two oddly shaped beds and a huge storage rack in the back. Despite this, the spaciousness was a dream. For the first time I could actually walk around the inside of my van. While driving, the turning radius and suspension was smooth as silk which made maneuvering through crowded cities a lot less stressful. Parking in parking lots was now usually accomplished in one try and, despite its length, there wasn’t a u-turn I couldn’t handle. The best part was that with diesel gas being so cheap I was little spending than $40 per week on gas, less than a quarter of what I spent weekly on my Ford. Over the summer of 2015 I cleaned up and sold my Ford wood/camo van to the owner of 2 mile and Petaluma surf shop north of San Francisco where it still cruises around today.
Recouping my investment on the Sprinter, I drove it to Washington and back surfing, interviewing scientists and professors for my new film Island Earth, and looking for some land live on half the year.
The new Sprinter did have some downsides. The design of the interior made organizing my stuff a constant battle. It seemed like every couple days a 30 minute clean up was necessary to keep the space from turning into a pigsty. I knew it needed a redesign at some point so I started taking notes and looking around the internet for examples of what other people had done with the uniquely tall and long space inside these vans.