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Tricked out mobile home offers new twist on off-the-grid living in Alaska

Tim Johnson, Cage Free and their dog Tobias live year-round in a camper that Tim has outfitted with a wood stove, refrigerator, shower and other amenities. He is a student at Alaska Pacific University and she is a performer. April 9, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Tim Johnson, Cage Free and their dog Tobias live year-round in a camper that Tim has outfitted with a wood stove, refrigerator, shower and other amenities. He is a student at Alaska Pacific University and she is a performer. April 9, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Tim Johnson lives year-round in a converted camper that he has outfitted with a wood stove, refrigerator, shower and other amenities. He has experience in construction and is finishing a masters degree in hydrology. April 9, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Cage Free and her dog Tobias are living with Tim Johnson in a camper that Tim has outfitted with a wood stove, refrigerator, shower and other amenities. He is a student at Alaska Pacific University and she is a performer. April 9, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
A bumper sticker on Tim Johnson's camper states the obvious. April 9, 2013
Loren Holmes photo

On a sunny day in Anchorage, a compact and time-battered RV rests at a pullout alongside Chester Creek in midtown. Perhaps it’s a harbinger of summertime, when swarms of motorhomes will descend upon the state, crowding parking lots and clogging highways, a fact of life as inevitable as summertime highway construction in Alaska.

But look again, because there’s something a little different about this rig.

Maybe you notice the stark blue “bull bars” crisscrossing the front bumper. Perhaps then your eyes travel to the license plate: YRENT. Or maybe you spot smoke billowing from a chimney jutting from the roof – don’t worry, the RV is not on fire. It’s just smoke from the wood stove crackling inside.

Welcome to Tim Johnson’s home. For the past year, Johnson has been living in his 1989 Toyota Odyssey motorhome decked out with solar panels, a wood stove, propane oven and make-shift bathroom. This is his version of living off the grid, his way of building a home without being tied down to a plot of land.

On the frigid spring day that I visited Johnson, I was greeted outside by his husky Tobias, a hefty dog with orange creamcicle coloring. Inside, the air was dense and cozy from the radiant heat of the woodstove. His girlfriend, a performer who goes by the name Cage Free, reclined in a cushy seat by the door, and Johnson pulled up a chair next to the miniature fridge, offering me the bench seat facing the stove.

Johnson, a graduate student studying environmental science at Alaska Pacific University, has just completed his first year of living in the RV. “I’m here to say it works,” he smiled.

He came up with the idea after several years of considering where to buy land.“I just couldn’t decide where I wanted to build,” he said. And then it hit him: Why not go mobile?

Although his plans were met with less-than-enthusiastic responses from friends, Johnson soon began searching for his new home. He knew he wanted a four-wheel drive Toyota RV and, as luck would have it, one popped up “almost immediately” in Los Angeles.

“It was kind of a gamble, and I just decided to go for it,” he said. He flew to L.A., and drove the rig back before settling in to refurbish it, a journey he chronicled on his blog.

Having grown up building log cabins in Georgia with his father, “I had an idea of what I was getting into,” he said. He started by ripping up the floors and installing wood paneled flooring. But when time came to rip off the wallpaper, Johnson found what had been billed as a refurbished interior was actually just wallpaper slapped over water-damaged, rotting walls. “She got me pretty good,” he said of the woman who sold him the RV. He has already restored one side of the RV, but the rest of the walls, which balloon slightly inward and have begun to warp the interior cabin, will need to be completely redone in the next few years.

But Johnson kept renovating; he installed solar panels to generate electricity, and a small, cylindrical wood stove that he swore saved his life during the winter. It’s a Kimberly brand stove, one he loves so much that he has begun selling them part-time. He also mounted a small flat-screen TV on the wall and added the blue “bull bar” to the front bumper, for added protection in case of a car accident.

During winter months, a bathroom the size of a small closet houses a compact, portable toilet, and Johnson showers at the university or friends’ houses. A blue 5-gallon jug provides water in the winter. Come summer, he’ll replace the portable toilet with the RV’s regular toilet, and a 30-gallon reservoir will provide water for the toilet, shower and kitchen. The reservoir is inoperable during the winter because, just like living in a house, freezing pipes would cause a huge mess both inside the cabin and financially.

To purchase and refurbish the RV, Johnson pulled from his savings and took out a loan. “This is my rent,” he said of the loan – rent that will disappear once it is paid off in two years. The rig gets about 15 miles per gallon of gas, and propane costs are his only other utility costs.

Johnson plans on living in the RV at least until the loan is paid off, but as time wears on, the prospect of building a housing and paying property taxes is “becoming less and less appealing,” he said.

Every night, Johnson and Cage Free choose where they’ll settle for the evening. Sometimes it’s a friend’s house, other times it’s a park or near the coastal trail. So far, nobody has bothered them about setting up camp, but smoke from the wood stove garners the attention of curious passersby. “We get a lot of questions about that, like ‘What do you got in there?’” he laughed.

As one can imagine, living in a revamped RV has its share of difficulties. Johnson said his biggest concern this winter was running out of firewood while on the road. Being too heavy to carry on the rig, his firewood is housed in a storage unit along with his kayaks and other summertime toys. To run out of firewood would mean one very cold night in the RV.

Johnson takes the challenges in stride, though. On his blog, he writes that living in the RV through the winter had been “most excellent!”

He continues: “Sure, it’s cold as hell when I wake up in the morning …. Yes, I have to thaw out the ice on the INSIDE of the windows every morning. No, I no longer have running water because I have no reasonable means of keeping my pipes thawed out. And sometimes I get scared in bed and hit my head on the roof at 3:30 a.m. when a shotgun randomly goes off inside my camper … except it’s not a shotgun, it’s an exploding can of soda because it’s SO cold that pressurized cans explode.”

But these challenges don’t detract from what Johnson considers the best part of his lifestyle, to “own your own perception of freedom,” he said. “It’s just nice feeling free, honestly, but still having a place at the same time.”

The experience has also been a lesson in resource management. He writes on his blog: “I only use 4 gallons of water a week. Embarrassing? No way … I feel good about it. People don’t realize the resources they waste when they take those resources for granted every day.”

Living in the small, off-the-grid home has also come with lessons in simple living. “You’ve got to stay organized,” Johnson said. Clothes, dishes and food are kept tidy and packed away in the RV’s storage compartments, so they don’t get jostled around while on the road.

Johnson has also minimized his belongings. “You’d be shocked at how much you don’t need,” he said. But having less doesn’t translate to boredom.

“We tried to get bored the other day,” he began.

“It didn’t work,” Cage Free chimed in.

Between work and university studies, setting up camp, making dinner, chopping wood, cleaning, playing music and seeing friends, there’s little time to worry about acquiring possessions, she said.

“You realize what you do need and what you don’t need, which is fun.” Cage Free said. “It’s kind of hard for costumes, but we’re doing alright,” she added. They revealed that atop the camper, in rocket boxes attached to the roof, a chicken suit and banana suit are among the scant possessions that they have chosen to keep.

Johnson has “everything you need to go out to a fancy dinner or sleep under a bush,” and that’s enough for him.

This summer, Johnson and Cage Free will take the rig down to the Burning Man festival in Nevada, and drive back up through California, to Alaska. “Just a big loop,” Johnson said. At least, that’s the plan. “Or maybe keep going, I don’t know.”

Contact Laurel Andrews at laurel(at)alaskadispatch.com