It looks like an ordinary van but houses four years of travel plans and a trip-of-a-lifetime dream

Couple to tour West in tricked-out vehicle
It looks like an ordinary van but houses four years of travel plans and a trip-of-a-lifetime dream
Posted at 12:00 PM, Dec 24, 2016
and last updated 2016-12-24 13:35:31-05

CINCINNATI -- Whether they're dubious or envious, friends and family of native Cincinnatians Joe Neiheisel and Emilie Johnson have wished them an enthusiastic bon voyage as they head out on the ultimate excellent adventure Christmas night: a four-year tour of western America -- possibly even Australia and New Zealand -- in a $100,000 tricked-out Mercedes Sprinter they call home.

Onboard the nearly-500-square-foot van will be their dog Uschi, two mountain bikes, several pairs of snow skis, camping gear, an heirloom horseshoe on the wall -- the 'U' facing up to catch good luck -- and many comforts of the Craftsman home they sold and left behind last summer, including window screens, dimmer pot lights, custom wall art, a ceiling fan and a hand-held shower head.

Joe Neiheisel and Emilie Johnson gave up their Craftsman-style home in Clifton Heights as part of their new adventure. Photo by Gary Landers | WCPO contributor

The main things missing? A TV and a toilet.

"We've got this portable toilet, but we may or may not take it," Neiheisel said while conducting a tour of the van in the parking lot of Mount Storm Park. Every place they park and stay will have a restroom nearby just in case.

The trip has been five years in the making for Neiheisel, who resigned from his job as vice president of finance at ArtWorks, and Johnson, whose last day as president of the Over-the-Rhine Chamber of Commerce was Dec. 21. Both in their mid-40s with no children, the couple have banked $300,000 to sustain them and their desire to experience as much skiing, mountain biking, concert-going, socializing with friends and generally having fun as they can before they return to their Cincinnati base in 2020.

"People say we’re crazy, that we could have bought a big RV instead," said Neiheisel, who is a graduate of Northwest High and the University of Cincinnati. "But we want to be able to go where we want -- off the grid."

"Now is the time," said Johnson, a graduate of St. Ursula Academy and Emory University in Atlanta. "We like to be active, and we don't plan to retire and go around on cruise ships. We'll still be youngish when we come back. This is where our families are. This is home."

Four 100-watt solar panels and a small supply of propane power the interior of the Sprinter, a custom design pulled off by remodel specialists Scott Martin and Bill Landeck of Scott J. Martin Construction in Mount Lookout. Other interior assists came from Lindsey Estes of Lucca Laser Workshop in Over-the-Rhine, Mercedes-Benz of Fort Mitchell, Creative Mobile Interiors of Grove City, Ohio, and numerous friends.

Neiheisel said he and Johnson have been looking at buying and customizing a service van for five years. They considered other brands but went with the Mercedes-Benz Cargo model because of its diesel engine that's rated up to 500,000 miles and its lack of windows on the side. The latter feature allowed them to have two sliding doors custom built while keeping their sleeping area in the back private.

Their van had been used to transport sound equipment by an owner in South Bend, Indiana. It had 29,000 miles on it, and its empty shell was "pretty beat up," Neiheisel said. The $35,000 purchase price was a bargain in comparison with other vans they researched with advice from other Sprinter owners in Idaho and Florida and from users of the company's online forum.

Their goal was to use interior space as efficiently as possible as well as power the van at no or little cost by installing a solar energy system. A plug at the back of the van provides them the opportunity to hook into a campsite’s electricity if needed.

The sliding doors are "the coolest thing about this van. Nobody has this double slider," Neiheisel said, looking through one open slider to the other. "I can frame the Tetons right through that window, or I can sell tacos from there if we ever go broke."

Going broke is unlikely, the couple said. Since their electricity basically is free from now on, their other bills -- insurance, food, gas and phone service -- should be "less than our property tax was" when living in University Heights. Yearly expenses could be as high as $30,000, but Neiheisel expects them to be closer to $20,000.

They will post updates of their adventure on Instagram and on their website, And they've put out an invite to family and friends who would like to visit.

"We're luring them to meet us wherever we go, and we'll pick them up at the airport. We'll give them our bed and stay in the tent," Neiheisel said.

In addition to their comfortable beds and cars in Cincinnati, the couple said they have made many sacrifices to save the money needed to finance their dream trip. There have been no trips to Europe or the Caribbean and little frivolous spending on weekends.

"So many people say, 'You're so lucky,' but if you think about it, there are so few people who give up so much to live in a van," Neiheisel said. Several times he has been asked if he's paying for the trip with money from an inheritance or a lawsuit instead of "a lot of hard work and  saving all these years."

"Actually," Johnson pointed out, "everybody has been very supportive. People are very excited for us."

Neiheisel’s advice for others considering such a journey is to take their time and plan, plan, plan and expect to be flexible. He also recommended that for security reasons, it's best to keep the van's exterior as plain as possible -- in their case, all black with no personal stickers.

"It looks like a worker van, doesn't it?" he said. "It's as incognito as possible. We don't want anybody to think it's a camper. We want people to think it's a worker van and just walk on by."

Johnson and Neiheisel have purchased $650 M.A.X. Passes that will get them into ski resorts throughout the West. They plan to ski in California, Nevada, Washington, British Columbia, Idaho, Montana, Utah and Colorado, where they will establish somewhat of a home base at an old friend's residence in Steamboat Springs. They also plan to fly home for a wedding next summer.

Their plans for their second and fourth years on the road are their most ambitious ones. The goal, Neihesel said, is to drive the world's longest "motorable road," the Pan American Highway, from Alaska to Chile in 2018. Potentially, they could cover more than 8,000 miles and see 14 countries.

After returning to the mountains in the West in their third year, the couple is considering shipping the van Down Under to see Australia and New Zealand.

"We'd sell it over there so we don't have to ship it back," Neiheisel said.

Johnson and Neiheisel might try to pick up Internet sponsors along the way to supplement their income, or they might sell tacos. Even if neither is necessary, he said, "Ultimately, we want to have some mission beyond recreation and having fun."

Neiheisel said he'd like to reach out to young people and encourage them to scrimp and save early so they can achieve the dream than he and his wife share.