Travel: The Great Dismal Swamp

I’ve only had this van for a few months now and yet I find myself traveling ALL the time. As I sit here sorting and backing up hundreds of pictures from quick trips, I face the reality that I wouldn’t have visited a quarter of these places without that van. It’s a friggin magic carpet. An excuse to take a long weekend or drive out three hours after work and start a campfire, instead of driving back home. I’m getting to the point that my time is split 50/50 at home vs the van. The freedom of saying, “Eh, screw it. Let’s drive to Philly,” or “Hey, feel like South Kakalaki,” AND MEANING IT, is amazing. Not having to worry about a hotel or driving too late or waiting for a flight or any other stupid little thing associated with travel is legit refreshing.

One place that I’d long wanted to visit was the Great Dismal Swamp. Of the places

20171221_111748 Dismal Swamp Welcome Station
Entrance to the Dismal Swamp Refuge

managed by the NPS/FWA, this one doesn’t have so many reviews. The ones that are available say the same things:


  1. It really is dismal
  2. The bugs will kill your soul
  3. It’s creepier than a cemetery on a moonless night. Or something.

#3 is true. The videos from this trip mostly involve me waxing poetic about my definite demise. The place is LONESOME. It is no surprise many used it as an escape route on the underground railroad. More than that, whole communities of runaway slaves lived fulltime in the countless acres of the swamp. Researchers admit to never having found all of the towns and settlements.

20171221_124820 Lake Drummond
Lake Drummond, a massive body of water in the Dismal Swamp

Making it to the Dismal Swamp promised the (relative) freedom of the North, without being so separated from family in the south. Swamps in Florida and Louisiana offered similar protections. Slave hunting dogs came in and didn’t get out.


20171221_131233 Green again
Bears and Stories Are Waiting…


The other threats of the Dismal Swamp are just as real today. Bears live among the trees, ticks and mosquitoes would love a taste of you, and there’s the odd bobcat, who will see you long before you see him.

Even with the marked paths, you feel lost and wholly overwhelmed by the place. It is a beautiful experience, but please plan your visit. Humidity would be intolerable most

20171221_123521 Swamp
At points, the forest opens into wide spaces, before swallowing you whole again.

times of the year. Ditto for the blood draining mosquitoes and, generally speaking, anti-bug/low-humidity time is also bears-sleeping-and-not-walking-around time. My advice is to shoot for November – early March.


For those fellow nerds who have the National Park Service Passport, there are THREE stamps available at the Headquarters.

There really is so much more to say about the Dismal Swamp, but as a historian, I know I can be too wordy. If you have any questions about the swamp or its role as a refuge for displaced persons, drop them below!



But…but…your walls! Ye gods, the walls! What about the insulation?

I’m forgoing insulation.

Chill. Just, calm down. Truth is, I cannot overcome the laws of thermodynamics. Also, I live in a place that is mostly hot and damp. Without benefit of electronic sources, the heat (or cold) inside my metal box will inevitability equalize with the temperature outside my metal box. I don’t like it any more than you do, but it is what it is. (Scroll to the bottom for the science behind this). Insulation would hold heat in longer, but for my environment, it’s not worth it. If I lived in a colder place, we’d be having a different conversation.

“But you’ll die!”

Will I, tho? I feel like I’ll get a hotel before that happens. In all seriousness, I took the van to Williamsburg and Yorktown at the start of the year. Each night, temps were in the mid-teens. I did just fine and didn’t use a propane heater.


I slept under two regular blankets, a winter sleeping bag and a down-alternative comforter. In addition to that, I had a 12-volt electric blanket to heat me up as I went to sleep. It then took the chill off in the morning. And once the sun came up, I hopped over to the butane stove and made a cup of coffee. That little stove was enough to heat the van until I turned it on. Btw, I ran the electric blanket with the Schumacher Portable Power Pack (they are $100 at Walmart or Lowe’s). The general idea being that it’s easier to heat a person than a whole room/van.


But did you die?


Did you want to?

No. Also, I was a historian in Williamsburg and as such, happier than a pig in top notch, caviar laced guano. That’s not to say there weren’t some issues. Namely condensation. I woke up just before droplets fell to my head. I briefly played with the idea of cork insulation (see above pic), but in the end, I went with this…

Basically nothing other than curtains.


I spend most of my time in a place that fights humidity ten months out of the year. Often, that humidity is over 70% and the temperature is 80+. I’m not afraid of mold, but I don’t want to worry about it growing behind any walls or paneling. Hence the idea with cork – mold and mildew don’t do well with it. Having said that, I like the flowing curtains you see in the pictures. They will slow down condensation (so no drops on the head), but they are loose and thin enough to dry within an hour or so. It’s a good trade off for my worries. If it backfires, I’m out thirty bucks and I’ll go buy some more cork.

Anything else you’d change?

I ordered a low wattage (250) electric heater to help with both cold and condensation. Dry heat is good heat. The next time I travel in below freezing weather, I’m getting a spot at a RV campsite and plugging that bad boy in.

Here are some links for those having to make this decision. Remember, nothing is permanent and it’s your van.

Two Quick Van RV Storage Solutions and Flooring

I can’t stand papers making that wissssshing sound as they go across the dashboard. It plucks my last nerve. Here’s how I solved that problem – for free – in about seventy seconds.

I grabbed an old magazine rack from the garage and a bungee cord (because we all have


87 of them, amirite). I simply looped the cord through the backside of the magazine rack and around the side base of the passenger’s seat. This keeps everything I immediately need for a trip within reach. I R SMART!

The second thing is this ridiculously sturdy ottoman from Five Below.



One, it perfectly matches the large TJ Maxx carpet. Two, it is stupid sturdy. I am no lithe sprite, so for this thing to hold me AND a bunch of junk makes it a keeper. In addition to being extra seating for random people, it works perfectly as a desk chair for the white table next to the sink. I’m like, THIS close to going back and buying a whole bunch of those ottomans to make long bench along the slide door.

Since the flooring is in the picture, I might as well talk about it. So, yeah, I didn’t do much. I grabbed those interlocking gym pads from Lowe’s (the Walmart ones are way too thin) and ran them for most of the length of the van. I put the TJMaxx carpet from the bed (wall to wall lengthwise) to just short of the step-down from the cockpit. The gray you see beneath the ottoman is a Five Below rug to cover the distance between the TJ Maxx carpet and the cockpit. [I have no idea if there is a better word than cockpit]. The two fabrics look good together – I’m digging it. Mostly. I’m having to vacuum those carpets every 8 seconds. I’ll let it ride throughout winter, but may slap some snap-in wood laminate over the Lowe’s pads come the summer. We’ll see.

Final Costs

  • Magazine Rack – $0, Already Owned
  • Bungee – $0, Already Owned
  • Ottoman – $5
  • Small Runner Rug – $5
  • Large White Eyelash Rug $30

So, I went to the Tidewater RV Show

I searched long and hard for info on the Tidewater RV Show. No luck. A few sixty-second commercials on YouTube, but little else. Nothing else, actually. What choice did I have? I forked over my $9 and walked in. So here’s the thing – if you want to see some RVs, go. Rocket surgery, right?

In all seriousness, most of the major Hampton Roads dealers were there:

  • American Family RV
  • Chesapeake RV Solutions
  • Coastal RV
  • Dodd RV
  • Scenic View RV

This was, for sure, a small show for the local audience. By and large, they were heavy on 2018 trailers and fifth wheels, lighter on Class Bs and Cs (but the ones they had there were amazing). As for the Class As, about what you’d expect – three or four to show, but sad trombone territory otherwise.

A slew of local campgrounds were there. Seems a bit sideways, if you ask me. I didn’t invest time and money into this project just so I can park down the street. I wasn’t the only one to think so – the campgrounds from far afield had way larger crowds than the local guys. Duh. I did stop at every booth though and each person was a joy to speak with. Some people REALLY are people people.

There was, however, a serious lack of RV accessory vendors. This crushed me. I went there ready to throw down cash on some serious widgets, but instead, I see people selling tights (you know which ones) and received offers to fix the gutters around the house. All noble causes, but at an RV show? C’mon, man.

Should you go? If you want an RV or beef jerky, absolutely. If you want to window shop some beautiful rigs, go for it. I found no less than three Class B’s I fell head over heels in love with.

Do you need service or add-ons for a current vehicle? No, it isn’t the place for that, but I found the Chesapeake RV Solution and Dodd RV people especially helpful with every little question that I flung at them. I know which companies will get my business when I need work on the Promaster.

Who shouldn’t go? If you already have a rig that you love, don’t go. If you want things for that rig, don’t go. RV shows should be places to buy cool things for an RV, but I didn’t find that here.

Would I go back? Well, yeah. I love this stuff. Might even buy some tights…

DIY Vanlife Kitchen

The plan: Make a kitchen counter myself.

The grim reality: I can’t. Like, I just can’t. I could hardly lift the plywood for the bed and now I’m meant to build a kitchen? Naw.

What happened: I went to the Habitat for Humanity store in search of inspiration. Instead, I found this old, handmade worker’s bench for $10

Van Kitchen 1


I snatched it up and spray-painted it with the same anti-mold paint I used for the bed frame. Again, I’m not necessarily looking for smooth coverage here. I like that old timey look. Go figure.

New plan: Go to Home Depot (because screw Lowe’s) and buy a sink. Then it hits me – no way am I about to drop $100 on a sink for a $10 kitchen. Instead, I went to Wal-Mart and grabbed a stainless steel bowl and butane stove, then went back to Home Depot for a sink drain and stopper. Using the bowl as a guide, we sawed a hole into the worktable, dropped the sink in, filled the spaces with putty and glazed the top. For gray water collection, I’m using this old bucket. My faucet is an easy to manage lemonade holder with a manual on/off dial.

Kitchen 2

Final Costs:

  • Wooden table for sink unit and counter: $10
  • Butane Stove: $18
  • Sink fittings: $15
  • Stainless steel bowl: $8
  • Smaller table off to the side that was too cute to pass up: Free from a family member
  • Anti-Mold Spray Paint: $6
  • Water resistant gloss: $5
  • Total Project Cost: $62

DIY Campervan / Caravan Bed Frame

Easily, getting the bed in was the most important thing on my list. I figured I could handle any outdoor situation, so long as I had a comfortable place to crash at night. Million dollar question: could a carpentry novice build a bed that wouldn’t fall apart beneath her? Turns out, yes. And no.

Dismal swamp with a view

The Details:

East to west, my van measures 75.6 wide. That’s way longer than I am tall, so I designed my bed to run sideways (fits a standard full size bed), giving me way more north/south space. I also had to contend with the ridiculously high wheel wells. For anyone wondering, the wheel well in a 2017 1500 Promaster is about 19 inches.

Van bed build

Feeling pretty good about this, I head to Lowe’s where they laugh at my idea and shoo me away. After writing to corporate, I instead went to a local lumberyard, where I got 1 ¾ plywood cut to 74” (to hold the mattress) and a 8 foot 4×4 cut into 4 separate pieces for the legs. Now, that’s a little shorter than a full sized mattress, but only by a few inches on either side.

Just as I was all set to smack four legs onto a piece of plywood, my uncle stopped by (thank God) to save me from my general foolishness. After a solid good southern yell about weight distribution, he hauled me into his pickup truck and spent the next twenty minutes on a drive to his house for 2x4s. He’s the one who demanded I put in two more beams at the head and the foot, as well as a cross beam to stabilize it. As you can see from the pictures, instead of bolting the bed to metal, we used motorcycle ratchet tie-downs attached to eye-hooks on the four main legs and locked those through the bolt-y things that came with the van.

I should note that I was feeling pretty good about not having to cut the plywood again, on account of all my figurin’ and a-measurin’ at the lumber yard. However, I forgot to include the van’s interior rib in my measurement, thus resulting in a painful last second hack job. That, my friends, is what years of grad school education will get ya.

Final costs:

  • Eyehooks: $4
  • Ratchet holders: $11
  • ¾ Plywood: $30
  • 4×4: $11
  • Anti-Mold Spray Paint: $10
  • 6” Memory Foam Mattress: $95 Walmart Brand
  • Additional “I can’t believe you didn’t think of this lumber”: Free
  • Total Frame: $66
  • Total Frame and Mattress: $161

What’s next with the bed? I’m quite nervous about mold with that mattress. I’m looking at two options: plastic lattice fencing beneath shoved beneath the frame or Cobra Air Vent. Both will run me about $50. It is simply a matter of which one I can find first. I’m pretty sure anything that allows air movement under the mattress will work just fine, but I’m happy to hear any thoughts!

Edit: I went with the Cobra Air Vent. Works like a charm!

A Little Vanlife Privacy

Fine. I get the irony. I’m pretty public with this blog, let alone my posts on Twitter, but I actually do cherish my privacy. Especially if it’s two in the morning. Since this issue’s so high on the list, I used it to decide which Promaster to purchase. The 1500/2500/3500 rigs come in a few configurations. The three most popular are:

  • tons of windows along the side (almost like a school bus)
  • only two windows at the back
  • no windows, save the windshield itself

I picked the second option with tinted windows. It almost solved the issue, but I still needed curtains. Here’s the problem. Custom Promaster shades – custom Promaster anything – are impossible to find.

Here’s what I did instead.pam-s-dodge-promaster-diy-window-coverings

I took a sedan sunshade and cut it in half. It’s the perfect size for each rear window. I sewed standard black fabric on the outward facing side. On the other, a mishmash of fat quarter fabric. Basically, I created a massive envelope for each half of the sunshade, thus providing myself with heat reflection and privacy.

These ain’t Reflectix, mate.

If you’re into the RV/Van thing, you know about Reflectix. This ain’t that. Not at all. These sunshades can’t be “pushed” into service. They must be attached to the van by other means. I first tried magnets, but Ram windows have these absolutely annoying and really weird humps, requiring a million micro magnets. I tabled the idea before reaching the house, turned around and exchanged the things for industrial strength Velcro. Easy on, easy off. I’ll take it.

Total time:
4 hours – I backstitched them hand. Have a sewing machine? You can cut that time to about 2 minutes.

Total cost:
$0.00 – Old sunshade from my previous car
$4.97 – Wal-Mart Fat Quarter Pack
$2.00 – Heavy Duty Velcro (15 lbs rating)