Editor’s note, August 20: Since the publication of this story, Tacoma police have recovered the Ford pickup truck belonging to Jerud Crandall and Ching Fu that was stolen from an REI parking lot on August 9. “There’s some damage and all personal stuff stolen, but overall, it’s not in too bad of condition,” Fu said on Thursday morning.
Work during the week, save money, squirrel away vacation days, then, for those lucky enough to be able to afford travel, take a couple of weeks of vacation every year to explore the world.
In the pre-coronavirus era, that routine would have sounded fairly familiar to most people. But long before the pandemic brought travel to a grinding halt, one former Seattle resident and her partner had already decided to turn this narrative on its head — with an RV, a pickup truck and their dog.
Ching Fu and Jerud Crandall quit their jobs five years ago to pursue a lifestyle few would choose: selling their house to live out of an RV with a composting toilet, and where they occasionally do laundry with a plunger and a bucket. They’ve spent the last few years living in deserts, forests, mountain ranges and lakes — biking, hiking and swimming across the United States.
And while many people choose to embark on the RV life — especially this year, as the pandemic sparks renewed interest in road trips and RV travel — few do it as sustainably as Fu and Crandall. Their RV, “the Toaster,” is a 100% solar-powered, fully renovated home on wheels that does not rely on electricity or propane.
“We don’t represent conventional RV-ers in pretty much any sense of the word,” said Fu, 38. “We’re capable of staying out in the woods for two, three, sometimes four weeks without even moving.”
With a wide array of outdoor hobbies, the couple decided to pursue their unconventional RV journey because they were tired of saving up for plane tickets and hotel rooms. Instead, they opted for a “relatively uncomplicated life” in the outdoors.
“We try not to put things on hold,” said Fu. “We try to do things while we’re there. You never know what’s going to happen with life. We want to make sure that we see all the places we can because one day, those places might be gone”
But the couple knew it would take some work to make the nomadic lifestyle align with their conservationist beliefs, and it took about a year for their vision to come to life. Crandall is the mechanic — he is a mechanical engineer, while Fu was a community outreach coordinator at REI in their pre-RV life — but Fu has been learning along the way.
After much research, Crandall pitched the idea of a solar-powered RV to Fu.
“I’ve since learned not to give her ideas,” said Crandall, 41. “Because then I had to make it happen.”
To his knowledge, it had never been done before — but they found a way to make it work. They outfitted their RV to run on solar power, without grid electricity or propane. They also figured out how to make their pickup truck run on waste vegetable oil that — in the early days of their travels — they acquired from restaurants they passed on the road.
This lasted one and a half years until they noticed more restaurants were recycling waste vegetable oil en masse, a switch that was good for the environment but bad for their fuel reserve.
Looking back, “We thought it was just going to be like a three-month-long project. You know, slap some paint on it, put on some solar panels, rip out the carpet, we’re good to go,” said Crandall. “But when we started working on it, we realized that things were rusting and literally falling apart. So it ended up being the year of tearing it down to studs, putting on new walls, new skin on the outside, building the bedroom and the kitchen. Literally everything.”
Andrew Jones, their best friend and former neighbor who helped build the Toaster, was not at all surprised by the couple’s decision to adopt the RV life. They loved to travel and had floated around the idea for a few years.
“It was very interesting to know what they had in mind and see it come to fruition,” Jones said. “And it took a while to do what they wanted.”
From snowmobiling at Yellowstone National Park to rock climbing the cobblestones of Maple Canyon, Utah, this couple has tried to do it all. Unlike other nomads, they don’t have an itinerary. They just “love the outdoors and want to see all the outdoor places,” said Fu.
The couple rarely visit tourist attractions — instead, at each stop, they usually stay for a couple of weeks and explore the road less traveled. Sometimes, the nontraditional option is actually “more interesting,” said Crandall.
Like when they drove on Stewart-Hyder Access Road in British Columbia, near Alaska. It was supposed to be just another highway on the way to their next adventure, but instead they found themselves surrounded by endless waterfalls and mountains and glaciers. That’s the beauty of not always having a plan — you stumble across the most beautiful places on accident, said Fu.
But their lifestyle does come with some sacrifices: The couple used to see their friends, Jones included, multiple times a week; now they see him once or twice a year.
Fu and Crandall were prepared to go long stretches without seeing friends or family, but they weren’t fully prepared for what that would mean for their own relationship.
“You’re constantly with your significant other in a small space,” said Fu. “And it seems very romantic in the beginning. But then you realize that you get sick of each other’s faces.”
Crandall laughs, but Fu’s honesty is one of the key ingredients of their relationship, he said.
“You can’t mess around with being anything but transparent and clear and direct when you’re in very close proximity,” said Crandall. “Because we tend to go to more remote places, we’re not always around other people. So a lot of times, our neighbors are just each other and our dog.”
When the coronavirus hit, their lifestyle didn’t change, but the world did.
It seems like everyone is just now catching up to the isolated, socially distanced lifestyle Crandall and Fu have been living for years: Being stuck inside a 200-square-foot space with a significant other, going to the grocery store as infrequently as possible, rarely seeing friends and family.
When counties started locking down and kicking out nonresidents to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, the couple was told to go home. But they’d sold their house, and their families live in Seattle and New York — two of the early coronavirus hot spots.
“What [local officials] weren’t recognizing is that we don’t have a home to go back to,” said Fu. “Our home is our rig.”
They couple said they took all precautions recommended by public health officials after the virus broke out. It also helped that the isolation inherent in their lifestyle kept them away from large populations anyway.
Fu and Crandall had been relatively lucky in their travels until recently, when their 1999 Ford pickup truck was stolen from the REI parking lot in Tacoma on Aug. 8.
While the Toaster gets the most attention with its shiny exterior and catchy nickname, the pickup truck is what keeps the couple moving.
“We’re really screwed right now,” said Fu.
They’ve given up their lives to be able to travel freely, and they don’t have a lot of disposable money. They quit their full-time jobs, invested thousands of dollars in outfitting the Toaster and their truck, and now work from their RV as freelance writers.
“I think there’s a tendency for folks to assume that if you’re living in an RV that you’re loaded,” said Crandall. “But just buying a new truck just because we need one is not something that we can do. We live very frugally and we have very simple lives. And we prefer it that way.”
Now they’re just hoping to get their truck back. It isn’t just a means of transportation — it’s an extension of their home.
The couple is spending the summer at a friend’s house in Puyallup while they try to figure out their next move. They’re facing a weighty decision: either take out a bank loan to buy a new truck or choose a different lifestyle entirely.
It’s a stressful time, but Fu and Crandall are trying not to think too far ahead. They just hope the truck will be returned.
“We do plan to get back on the road,” Crandall said.