10 minutes of your kindness could unite me with a life-changing treasure

For the past few months I've been researching and scheming and thinking about how to create a safe haven mini-home on wheels that will finally enable me to travel again, despite my limiting chemical sensitivities and other health struggles. Bizarre challenges call for bizarre solutions. Before 1997 I loved traveling, from Egypt to Ecuador to the Jersey shore, never having to worry about where I slept. Since 1997, when my health plummeted and I first became ill with this mysterious syndrome and a slew of others, I've traveled rarely and only to places that I know are environmentally tolerable for me. It's maddening. But, as you might have read here, I'm determined to take back my travel life. 

I've decided to forgo my initial idea of a sexy, little vintage travel trailer in lieu of...a minivan. A minivan camper conversion.

I love the idea of a quirky, vintage travel trailer, but I discovered some deal-breaking downsides for my particular situation. At the end of my research, I got clear about the priorities for my travel solution: a stress-free self-contained unit that can be driven, no special storage requirements, better than abysmal gas mileage, inexpensive repair requirements, and something that can function as my one and only vehicle. 

Thus the minivan. She fits all those requirements. Aesthetically, I'd much rather a cool Vanagon or Eurovan, but apparently they're finicky and require frequent, expensive upkeep and repairs. And they get pretty shitty gas mileage. 

I've found very few examples of mini-van conversions online but here's one by a guy in Florida. It's simple and sweet. The couch reclines into a bed. 

So I'm aspiring to do what few have done: a minivan camper conversion. My vision includes a daybed, mini-kitchen, curtains, rug, throw pillows, room for lounging, electric and deep cell battery power, and a roof vent. If you're ever been to my apartment, imagine something like that but miniature and without standing room. I've already found my guy, Dennis, in Manchester, New Hampshire who can do some of the technical retrofitting. I love this guy. He spent two and half hours with me in his shop, patiently answering my litany of questions about how conceivable it is to actualize my fantasy of turning a minivan into a mini-RV. 

Not my style but here's another example of how much you can fit into the back of a mini-van. This company is in Europe I think, but I can't find the original website. The bed folds up into a couch during the day.

I thought I'd already found my van. So much so that I bought it two weeks ago. I've learned an expensive and miserable lesson: someone with serious chemical sensitivities should never buy a vehicle that's been detailed, no matter how long ago. I knew it smelled when I first and second looked at it. Apparently car detailers use hard-core cleaners (like Armor-All) that creep into every crevice of the car's surface from upholstery to dashboard, and once in, those chemicals are next to impossible to get out. Fuck, that sucks.

I loved this van so damn much (only 31,000 miles for a 2007 van - practically unheard of) and wanted so badly to get this project under way in time for a winter 2012 inaugural journey. Loving and wishing and a dose of impatience got in the way of my otherwise good instincts and judgement. It looks like I'm going to have to turn around and sell this van, and keep searching for my forever one.

This is my friend Jay removing the rear seats from the van that I thought would be my forever one. 

One of the things that sucks about living with severe chemical sensitivity is that this strange disability drastically limits your access to places and experiences and things. In this case, unlike most people, I can't just go buy any old used car. And as soon as a car dealership receives a used car, they detail it. And I definitely can't buy a new car since the new-car chemicals would make me sick, and I'll be sleeping in this van night after night. 

This setback of not being able to keep this otherwise ideal van tempts me to surrender, resigning myself once and for all to a life without free-spirited travel. But no dream has ever felt more true to my bones than this one. 

I'm in search of a rare bird of a van, as you'll read below. Which is exactly why I'm broadcasting this wish to as many people as I can. I'm bringing it to you In hopes that you can help me find this one-in-a-million minivan. 

Here's what I'm looking for: 

2007, 2006, or 2005 Toyota Sienna LE with less than 40,000 miles! (There are reasons why the Toyota is the only van that will work for my camper conversion.)

Here's where it gets trickier. I also need a van that's:
  • never been detailed 
  • has only been driven by non-smokers 
  • has only been driven by people who don't wear perfumes, heavily scented detergents or other strong personal products
  • never had car fresheners
Other requirements:
  • light colored exterior (white, tan, silver, light green, light blue, you get the idea.) Dark vans get significantly hotter inside. Have to think about my dog.
  • cloth seats (no leather)
  • tinted rear windows for additional privacy

Would you mind taking a few minutes to forward this post to anyone you know who currently owns a mini-van even if you've never heard them talk about selling it. Plus, mini-van owners probably know other mini-van owners. And before we know it, I've found my forever van. And you're forever my hero.

With love and front-loaded gratitude,

Kyle & Arlo


  1. may i post this to my FB wall where only friends can see it? will wait for your response. much love, rick e

  2. Yes, please feel free to post wherever you like! THANK YOU!! Love, Kyle

  3. Just posted to fb! Wish I could help!

  4. i will keep my ear to the ground and post it somewhere that may be a good place as well.

    have you called the Car Talk guys? then you could get your desire heard across the country.

    or at least posted what you are looking for on their website.

    jenny p. (aka beetgirl)

    i LOVE the idea. i am sure somehow you are going to make this work for yourself.

  5. Saw ths on my friend janna's FB and figured that i would add my .02. I would recommend that you get a proper aircooled vw camper, not a modern eurovan or vanagon. They have very little modern platics etc, and lot of the campers have few miles. Any car that old will be a partner in your trips, and will take some time and care, but it wont cost much to maintain due to its simplicity, and the seriously low cost of old vw parts, and if you care for it, it will go up in value. Check out www.thesamba.com for old buses.

  6. Love the idea. As a cyclist I know precious few people who own cars, much less mini vans, but I'll pass it on the university network. Good luck!

  7. will see what I can do!!!

  8. Kyle, I will remember this and ask around. I admire how you've done all this research already and I bet it was great to meet the conversion guy in NH. I'll be on the lookout!

  9. thank you so much for all the support and help! i've been so touched by the notes of support i've received about this project. these kinds of experiences remind me just how kind people can be.


  10. The only suggestion I have is to use searchtempest.com - it allows you to search all Craigslist sites from one page. I'm sure if you expand the search to 3000 miles and put in enough keywords, you can probably see what exists in the US that matches your criteria. Keep me posted!

  11. We have hired Gary Jorgensen to buy cars for us over the past @10+ years. He comes over and finds out what you want in a car, makes some recommendations and then does the search through auctions and private sellars etc. My parents have bought 3 cars and I have bought 2 (inluding a toyota minivan). His prices seem very reasonable to me. He used to be a mechanic so in addition to finding the car, he can do a basic check it out mechanically, plus he takes care of all the paperwork, registration, insurance, etc. I have no affiliation with him and only know him through his business. His website is not that great (and I think he should have his prices on his website because they seem fair and reasonable to me):

  12. Good suggestions here! I have a tiny one, knowing full well that you may have already done this: but set up a google alert for the keywords Toyota Sienna Craigslist and you will be alerted any time one comes up. Obviously you would want it to be Boston or New Hampshire or Rhode Island, but it may lead you to just what you are looking for.

    Also, the first photo with Arlo makes me squeeeee!!!!!

  13. Noooo! Wah! So close!

    I will keep my ears out, Kyle! This ship's gonna come in eventually. xo

  14. u have had good experiences with gary
    and i think car talk would like your story, Kyle...

    but they are heavy-duty teasers, so you may not be up for that...

    Love and Hope and this is a great story,

  15. Have you found your forever van yet? I myself loved (love) to travel, but my chronic illness has severely dampened those dreams. We had bounced around the idea of a camper or van conversion but thought it would be out of the price range for gas mileage alone. I had not considered a minivan conversion and reading your post gives me hope that this could be a possibility! A couple of questions - I didn't see it mentioned but can you get a toilet put in one of these? My illnesses make this a must. And 2 - where are you looking to acquire your van from if you haven't gotten it yet (state-wise)? I'll post it to my personal facebook page and the Bottled Time facebook page, but want to let people know where you're looking. Thanks! And thanks again for the hope! I am so excited about this. I want to wake up my husband right now and make him read this post! We also have a little dog (Eleanor Roosevelt-our Schweenie), so your puppy also pulls at my heart-strings!

    1. Hi Bottledtime!

      Thanks for your note and I'm so glad this idea inspired you. That made me happy. I never did find a van, and in the interim my thinking and plans have shifted all over the place, so I'm not certain I'm still in the search. Still thinking about how I could carve out my life in such a way that I could possibly LIVE someplace warmer for part of the year, and do day trips from there!

      I don't know about hard fixture toilets in a minivan conversion but I did discover lots of small port-a-potty type things online.

      I LOVE that you named your dog Eleanor Roosevelt.

      Good good luck and glad to be connected!

      Kyle (Boston, MA)

  16. Hi Kyle-
    I don't know all your circumstances/details, but I think if your schedule allows.it-living somewhere else and daytripping it could be a very viable option for you. I live in a "vacation" area and there are so many places that look look to rent out their homes for part or all of the year. If you get on rental listings-then you can contact owners directly and explain your very specific needs-especially about the cleaning products. With that one-on-one relationship you are more likely to find someone committed to your needs-and you as an individual will have a sense if they are going to follow-through with things (have Arlo listen in-dogs are a great judge of character!). If you found one place you liked you could build a long term relationship or you would have the option to try a different place in that area or travel essentially all over the world through the years (my dream! I really need to find a way for my husband and I to get our travel back! Especially as he's military and living near our families is impossible. Plus, we were both travel bunnies before my chronic illness and giving it up has been so hard on both of us). You might also find a rental agent that you can build a relationship with to do the ground work for you with their own listings from place to place. For the 2nd year in a row-my mom and I are spending a week in the summer at a lake in New York. Most of the owners we contacted are so accomodating and helpful regarding their personal property and my special needs. Plus they're excited to meet Eleanor Roosevelt-a must!

    I would still like to share this to give people an idea of what we are looking for and to introduce people to your amazing blog. Would you like me to say that you are no longer looking or that you are still open to possibilities.

    Thanks for responding. And thanks again for sharing your thoughts and story via blog. The "connection" is invaluable.
    P.S. My husband and I have both been enjoying reading your blog. We love your style and candid voice. But I do think his favorite part is Arlo. Don't feel too bad-Eleanor will always rank over me-his wife.

  17. Hi Kyle -

    Thank you for responding! I do not know all of your circumstances/details, but if you can work your schedule out - I definitely think living somewhere else for a few months and day-tripping it wold be a very viable option. I live in a "vacation" area, and like most vacation areas - many people rent out their homes (of all sizes) when they are not using them or have small apartments etc. built on their homes as rental properties. If you got on rental listings, then you could speak to people directly and discuss your specific needs - especially about the cleaning chemicals. Having that one-on-one connection with them, you are more likely to find someone who will commit to and follow-through with the specifics. (Have Arlo listen in - dogs are an excellent judge of character)! If you find a place you like, you could use it again, or you'd have the option for a different property in that same area or to travel to a different place entirely each time. (I'm drooling at my vision of you and Arlo traveling all of the world. This was/is my dream. I definitely need to find a way to get my travel back. Not only was it a big part of my husband's and my lives pre-chronic illness that we are both desperately missing, but since he is military we cannot live near family, and traveling is the only way to see them). My mom and I are actually renting a small apartment for a week at a lake in NY for the 2nd summer in a row. The majority of the owners that we have spoken to have been so kind and accommodating about my special needs. And they're excited to meet Eleanor Roosevelt - a must! You might also find a good rental agent/agency that you can build a relationship with who could also do some of the ground work of speaking with owners for you. Whatever the case, I do think dealing with private owners is going to open up a greater world of possibility to you than chain properties like that have a set regiment.

    I would still like to share this post to show people what we're looking for, and to share your incredible blog. Would you like me to tell them that you are no longer looking or that you are open to possibilities?

    Thank you again for responding and for sharing your thoughts and story via blog. The "connection" is invaluable. Chronic illness can be quite isolating.
    P.S. My husband and I have greatly been enjoying exploring your blog. We love your writing style and your candid voice. But, I do think his favorite part is Arlo. Don't feel too bad - Eleanor will always out rank me and I'm his wife!

    1. Hi again Tosha,

      You are really sweet to have taken the time to share your helpful thoughts and advice - all good ideas! Thank you.

      I'm so glad you and your Mom have found a spot that works for you!

      In terms of sharing my post, you know, I am still open to finding a van in the Boston area that works, so sure you can mention that I'm still open and looking.

      It makes me happy to hear that you AND your husband are enjoying the blog! I haven't written for quite some time, but hoping to get back to writing sometime soon.

      Take good care, and keep me posted on your own journey!


  18. AnonymousMay 12, 2012


    I know about allergies, and I can tell you from past experience that perhaps the idea of a Previa is part of your problem.

    I was planning along your lines also. Searched high and low for a minivan I could live with. I rode in a friends OLD 1987 Dodge Caravan and noticed instantly that I had no reactions to it.

    So my search began again, and I found that pre-1990 Dodge Caravans & Plymouth Voyagers gave me no bad reactions.

    So I bought one, a 1987 Plymouth Grand Voyager (it's the longer one) and converted it. Problem solved. Lots of room for one plus a furry kid, mine is a wolf... I have a full length sofa behind the drivers seat, which will pull out into a full width bed, although that is really rare. Kitchen across the back, same height as bed base, and bed fits over it. Allows cooking from either inside or outside. Porta-Potti under bed behind drivers seat and bed platform above it lifts up for access. Rest of under bed is storage. I just use TV trays for tables inside. I have an instant pop-up shower stall for showering.

    I have lived comfortably in it for nearly 2 years now, and it gets me 25+ miles per gallon. I travel the country as I see fit, warmer in the winter, cooler in the summer. It had 160k miles on it when I bought it, and now has 230k totally trouble free miles on it. It is the 3.0 liter V6 w/ 4 speed automatic.

    BTW, even though I have heat, I have found that I love and prefer the 12 volt electric blankets.

    The only downside of this marvelous van was a sagging headliner, but I got some corkscrew thumbtacks from an upholstery shop and that fixed it instantly and so far permanently.

    May you have the great fortune that I have had! I am now old and crippled, with a LOT of problems, but I am truly having the time of my life in my tiny home on wheels. I can park basically anywhere, totally un-noticed and for FREE. I sometimes even park right beneath no camping signs, and nobody knows the difference.

    Good Luck & Happy Camping!

    1. Thank you so much for your great story and ideas!! I"m so happy you were able to make this work. I would LOVE to see photos of your set-up if you ever felt like emailing to me! (kylefreestyle@gmail.com)

      Your story is inspiring! Thank you for taking the time to let me know about it.

      Take good care!

  19. hi i have a grandvoyager 2003 , i want to convert into a camper and has anyone done one ,

    so far i have fitted curtains . ripped all the rear seats out insulated the floor and have 9mm ply wood bolted to the floor , and now been covered in lyno
    so now i have a flat floor ,