Live small, ride free: adventures in sustainability

ON THE ROAD AGAIN: The Toaster on its way to Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado.
ON THE ROAD AGAIN: The Toaster on its way to Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado. Photo by Ching Fu at Live Small | Ride Free

BY CHING FU

It was two years ago that I wrote a column for Mountain Xpress about moving from a 1,200-square-foot house in Asheville into a 200-square-foot, self-rebuilt RV nicknamed “the Toaster.” As my partner, Jerud Crandall, and our two dogs, Tybee and Tyki, rolled out of Asheville and began our new lifestyle on the road, everything was simultaneously new, exciting and nerve-wracking. Our goal was to live sustainably, so we set up the Toaster to be powered solely by solar panels and towed by a truck that ran on waste vegetable oil.

We had spent a year rebuilding the Toaster, working on it every day after work and on weekends. Those days ended with us driving back to West Asheville late in the evenings from the jumbo storage in Arden, where all the work happened. It was a tiring and overwhelming period of our lives.

Ching Fu and Jerud Crandall
Ching Fu and Jerud Crandall in Carcross, Yukon. Photo by Ching Fu at Live Small | Ride Free

We were such newbies the first month on the road, but we were set on boondocking (staying on undeveloped land without any electrical, water or sewer hookups) right from the get-go. Unsure of what spring would look like in Colorado, we refused to fill our freshwater tank in fear of it freezing, and we lived out of the Toaster as though we were camping. When we woke up to a foot of unexpected snow, we hunkered down in sleeping bags with the dogs instead of turning our heat on, worried that our solar panels wouldn’t get enough sun to recharge our batteries. Then we learned firsthand about mud season. Walking Tybee and Tyki left their paws caked in greasy mud that required footbaths before entering the rig. We even got stranded at our campsite because we couldn’t tow the Toaster through the slippery muck.

With each day that passed, however, we gained confidence and learned more about our solar equipment. Once we knew how much capacity our solar panels and batteries had, we removed the only propane appliance left in the Toaster — the stove/oven combo — and our home became 100 percent fossil-fuel-free! That first year on the road, we spent only 12 days plugged into an RV park. The rest of the time we stayed out on Bureau of Land Management or national forest land, in parking lots and on friends’ property. We were beyond thrilled to have achieved our desire to live closer to nature using only power generated from the sun.

Our first New Year’s was spent in the California desert with 40-plus other RVers who had also chosen to live full time on the road. It was an overwhelming and surreal experience. Even though most of us didn’t know each other, as a result of our similar life decisions, we received invitations to a holiday gathering. It was there that we celebrated Christmas with a community potluck and the new year with a huge bonfire and a live DJ.

That winter, we traveled throughout the desert. We parked among seemingly endless Joshua trees in the Mojave Desert; paddled Lake Mead, where coyotes made their evening rounds on the rocky banks; and weaved in and out of towering saguaros on our mountain bikes. We experienced Tucson’s famous jewelry show, and we made good friends in the least expected place — a sketchy boondocking site.

When summer came, we decided to head into Canada. We figured we might as well go big and spend the entire summer in Yukon. There we experienced the sun setting well after midnight, ate mossberries and deliciously named cloudberries, and swam in frigid, crystal-clear water. We drove farther north, beyond the 60-degree line of latitude, to spend time in Tombstone Territorial Park, surrounded by Arctic tundra landscapes. The land was untouched for hundreds of miles in all directions.

At the same time, it hasn’t been easy cruising for the past two years. Our truck brakes failed while we were in a national forest, and the Toaster and truck had to be towed out. Our bike and our dog trailer were stolen. We’ve driven down sketchy roads, unsure of how to turn the Toaster around if necessary. We’ve stressed over long periods of continuous rainy weather, spent lots of hours working on our rig and had to accept that one of our sustainability dreams wasn’t going to succeed: powering our truck on waste vegetable oil. Jerud and I have had to learn how to be around one another in such a small space and how to make enough money to continue what we’re doing. It has also taken time to comprehend that this isn’t an extended vacation but a new life we’ve made.

Now, we’re back in Asheville for part of the summer before we head back on the road. On Saturday, June 17, from 3-7:30 p.m., we’re having an open house of the Toaster at Highland Brewing Co., 12 Old Charlotte Highway, Suite 200, Asheville. Join us to see what we call home, learn how a 100 percent solar-powered RV works and ask us any questions about life on the road.

Ching Fu lived in Asheville for 6 1/2 years before moving into the Toaster, and she doesn’t foresee an end date to her new lifestyle. You can follow Ching and Jerud’s adventures via their website (www.LiveSmallRideFree.com), Instagram (@LiveSmallRideFree) and Facebook (www.facebook.com/livesmallridefree).

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