Pete Cottell quit his job in Ohio and moved to Portland to live in a van. Read why here and follow his adventures all summer here.
I’ve found some truly wonderful things on the wild, chaotic frontier of American internet commerce, including (but not limited to):

  • A hot pink Yamaha keytar missing the low C key, which was eventually sold on ebay at a 700% markup to the singer of a Winnipeg-based “synth metal” group.
  • A milk crate full of half-melted VHS tapes that were used in an attempt to make decaying dreampop landscapes a la Boards of Canada, which turned out sounding more like an extra-terrifying PCP-addled version of the score to The Never Ending Story.
  • An air conditioner that cranked out ice-cold chicken-flavored smoke when used for more than 15 minutes.
  • An ill-fated date with a spastic Whole Foods salad bar employee who divulged details of her “serious as fuck” bout with anal fissures within ten minutes of our meetup at a sketchy pho joint in a repurposed Taco Bell.


Which is to say, I believe strongly in the power of anonymous members of the proletariat banding together to unload their unwanted crap on unsuspecting strangers. So Craigslist was the first and only place I looked for the van that I now live inside. Who, I wondered, would sell something as patently unsexy as a clunky conversion van from the early 1990’s for even half its Blue Book value? I set Portland as my point of origin, adjusted the max price to $1,300, and let Craig work his magic.


To my surprise and disappointment, the pickins were incredibly slim. I found a windowless 1986 Chevy with monster truck tires and a blotchy lime-green paint job that can be best described as “G.I. Joe on peyote” but it was a good three hours away in some small town outside of Bend, which would have made the process of getting a third party mechanic to give it a once over incredibly arduous. I gave the number on the listing a call to inquire about the mileage—vital info missing from most of these listings—only to be greeted with a grating blast of static and the sound of dogs barking. I hung up and went back to square one.


It only got worse. Of the ads that had phone numbers listed, less than half of them went to something that resembled voicemail obviously under the control of a human. The owner of one such voicemail called me back and immediately began screaming at me for making the mistake of thinking he would sell his van to a “hippy [expletive deleted]” like myself. I looked out the window of the café in Northwest Portland I was calling home for the day to watch the torrent of rain that hadn’t stopped since I got in to Portland and wondered if this was the dumbest thing I had ever done in my life.


I idly clicked around Facebook for an hour in search of the comfort of seeing what my friends were up to, and remembered the mantra I had repeated to myself on the lonely 39-hour drive west: I have to do this. There are no do-overs. I cannot close my eyes and wake up in my shitty collegiate apartment with dirty carpet, drop panel ceilings, and a Juggalo roommate who ate gravy as an entrée. Even if I could, that is only slightly less terrible than being homeless in a city I’m absolutely in love with. Find a van ASAP or make nice with the transients under the neon deer sign, I thought to myself. Onward and upward.


I raised the price threshold from $1,300 to $1,500, and there it was: a Ford Econoline with oversized wheels and a paint job manly enough to give Mr. T a weeklong boner. And it was only 12 miles away in an eastern suburb called Gresham! I ran outside and gave the two numbers listed a ring, but ended up getting a machine on both attempts. Fearing a similar fate of getting a callback from a mutant with nothing better to do than scream at strangers, I packed up my computer and made haste east.


Amongst an endless expanse of strip clubs, Russian bakeries, and chain burger joints, I found myself at a nondescript used car lot next to a Walgreens. “Lot” is almost too strong a word—it was a hastily assembled double-wide with a garden variety selection of pre-owned Hyundais and Kias. The van was hidden in the back, sandwiched between a Cavalier that looked like it had fallen victim to a drag-racing experiment gone terribly wrong and an American SUV from the 90’s that may have been owned by a struggling drug dealer before finding its way to pre-owned purgatory by way of court seizure.


The dealership’s interior reminded me of Beck’s classic video for “Where It’s At” with a little Northwestern flare. I counted eight different animal heads in the main room alone, which created an uneasy contrast with the cheap drywall and balsa wood doors.


After poking around for a minute or two, I was greeted by a short guy in a Hard Rock Café hat that looked like a slightly less pissy version of Hank Hill’s dad Cotton. His name was Jerry, and I wish I could remember even a third of the priceless colloquial ramblings that came out of his mouth before I even told him which vehicle I was interested in.

Upon my mentioning “the shitty old van out back,” a youngish guy with frizzy curls under a pink Patagonia cap leapt from the next room over. “That van is cool as fuck man!” he exclaimed. His name turned out to be Fuzzy, and his disposition was of the “perpetually stoked!” variety. He could have told me was 25, 35, or 30 years old and I would’ve been none the wiser. He might have been missing a tooth, but I had trouble looking closely while I made sure to not to lose an eye to one of the antlers protruding from the walls. “It’s got a brand new battery, and the back seat folds into a bed!”


My test drive went smoothly—other than the fact that the van reeked of oil. Besides that, though, it met all of my requirements for basic mode of transportation and place to call home for a several months. The doors locked, the back seat did indeed fold into a bed, and the radio worked unless I was turning left. So I took it to the DEQ station about two miles away and encountered a rather substantial hurdle: according to to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, this van was no longer fit to be on the road.


Luckily, the gas station across the street from the dealership had a small repair facility with three bays and a mechanic who was bouncing between a black BMW 3-series and a rusted old Toyota. I pulled up to the bay on the left and told the owner, Sonny, about the situation. I told him I was planning on living in the van if it could eventually pass DEQ. He told this to his head mechanic, a serious-looking guy in his 50’s named Robert who was never without the chewed up remains of a cigar in his mouth.

Did I get the car from Jerry across the street?


“I’ve known Jerry since I was 16,” Robert said. “He don’t sell no junk, but it looks like we might have some work to do here.”

I waited nervously for what felt like two hours, but was probably only about 20 minutes. The estimate was $950 of work, most of which would be spent repairing an oil gasket that’s been broken and leaking oil on the engine, exhaust, and chassis for what Robert guessed to be at least a decade. I asked for a print-out and ran across the street to the dealership.


I explained to Jerry that the vehicle he was trying to sell me was essentially unsellable without almost a grand in repairs. He gave me a look of annoyance and a long story that began with his 40 years in the business and ended with an anecdote about a prostitute trying to give him $1,300 for the van. I offered him $1,000 cash, and we eventually settled on $1,100, including a 90-day tag to give me plenty of time to pass the DEQ test.

Jerry sells Pete Cottell a house.

I ran back across the street and told Sonny that Jerry was not playing ball with the price. He took $150 off the repair bill, but told me it might take two days to finish the work. Fine, except that would be two days without a place to stay. Then I remembered a popular vandweller trick: the chances of getting hassled while parked overnight in the lot of a repair shop are incredibly slim, especially in a quasi-suburban environment. I looked around at the adjacent businesses, which consisted of a laundromat, a “garden supply” store for marijuana farmers, a poorly lit Korean karaoke bar and a plasma clinic that took up half the strip mall. It was agreed that the van would be left outside for the evening, and that was that. With a van officially in my possession, things were finally looking up.

I gathered my belongings, stashed them under the back seat/bed, and braced myself for the first night of the rest of my life.

It was a long one.